One way to get better focus on your DSLR – Peter Gregg

If you have a hot shoe flash you can trick the camera into getting sharper more focused pictures. Knowing how your focus system works is the first biggest step towards getting sharper pictures.

One of the biggest complaints about cameras is the grips I read about soft focus and out of focus pictures. Some of it has to do with the camera itself, meaning brand specific like how well a Canon camera focuses verses how well a Nikon camera focuses. I don’t want to engage that argument here. What I want to show you is how just ONE aspect of how you can get sharper focus on your DSLR.

Click READ MORE to see lots more!

Actually no matter the brand of camera, including Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Pentax and so on, they pretty much all focus using the same or similar systems. Know how your camera is achieving focus is one huge step forward in getting sharper focus.

I am going to cover one specific aspect here, and there are many ways to get sharper focused or in-focus pictures I know, but one at a time okay? :)

I am going to be so bold as to say that what I am about to talk about is something I personally consider a defect in the way newer DSLR camera systems focus. They mostly start out by looking for a contrast point. I mean by that – the difference between dark and light.

The background here is white, the letters you are reading are black. If they are not – then you have a computer problem going on :)

The camera focus sensor looks for the change of the black and white difference and focuses at that point. And you can help! Most of the time, when people are doing “people” photography they put the focus sensor on the eye of the person they are shooting. I agree, there is great contrast there and your chances are good the camera can pick that up and focus properly – in good light.

And there it is “IN GOOD LIGHT“. The problem and the solution starts right there in my point of this article.

The definition of good light is where the camera companies and little ol me part in our ways. Not the whole camera company mind you – just the engineering choices part of the camera company.

I want to tell you a little story of what happens when you are in your living room taking some shots of the kids in a family setting. or, it could just as easily be at a party with normal room lighting. Or again, it could be at a wedding where the lighting is neither high nor low, but just in the middle.

It’s that middle part where I am going. I will call it “Goldilocks lighting“. Not to bright, not to dark, just in the middle. Remember the Goldilocks story?? Everything was either too big or too small, too hot or too cold, but there was a always that “just right” and in the middle size, right temperature and so on.

You would think that the “just right” part would be the easy place for cameras to focus correctly right?? I did, and for a long long time I was being fooled.

Getting even more specific, and getting down to brass tacks (an American way of saying getting to the point for my non-American readers :) ) I am talking about the lighting where you can’t decided if you need flash or not.

So you can’t decided if you need flash or not, so you put your flash on your hot shoe and say what-the-heck and let the camera do it’s own thing. Here is where I was fooled – BIG time – for a LONG time.

When you put your flash on your camera hot shoe, turn it on, and the lighting is living-room-bright you would assume (remember what that word means right – lol) that the flash is going to come and help you get focused pictures by turning it focus assist light on correct??

It’s kind of like I turn the flash on, and it says in it’s small tiny voice – “hi Peter, let me help you focus accurately, I am going to turn on my focus assist light and help you out buddy“.

I shoot happily away thinking my little friend – the hot shoe flash – is turning on the focus assist light as I am taking lots of pictures of my family, the party – or THE bride at a real paying commissioned job.

But, the truth is my little buddy, the hot shoe flash – is failing me and I am none the wiser that it’s happening. Such a sad sad tale :(

What really happens in the “Goldilocks lighting” environment, where it is neither too dark and not too bright the focus assist light is not coming on, you would think it should come on, I would think it should come on, the whole world would think it should come on – but it’s not coming on. WHAT – why not??? Read on :)

The focus assist light helps the camera focus. It does it by projecting a pattern (usually with a red light) on the subject, and this pattern has a nice blend of contrast points so the flash can grab and lock on focus.

When you have “Goldilocks lighting” where it is neither too dark and too bright, it seems like this would be THE perfect place for the AF assist light to come on and aid the camera in focusing. In fact, believe it or not, most cameras that have the hot shoe flash in place and turned on can focus perfectly in total darkness (within reason considering distance has to be within it’s focus assist light reach ability).

I always find it amazing how the camera can focus in total darkness, and it is all due to the aid of our little buddy – the hot shoe flash. So if the camera can focus accurately in NO light, then in our “Goldilocks lighting” it should be easy as pie and a breeze right?


Many many times, the camera does not thinks it needs help and it does NOT fire the red flash assist light.

You think it is – and I think it is – but it is NOT.

So we are not getting the help from focus assist, the light does not come on, and you get an out of focus picture. You look at your pictures on the computer screen, scratch your head, and think something you will need to go to confession for :)

The camera companies have set the “trigger point” too low. That means it has to get a whole lot darker before our friend – the focus assist light – will come to our aid.

There is good reason for what is going on. When you go to shoot a picture, if the camera “thinks” it can focus and lock on, it will not engage the use of the focus assist light. If the camera finds it CANNOT focus (within a predetermined period of time) then it looks to activate the focus assist light that is built into your hot shoe flash.

The trouble with this operation is you think you are getting the help and you are not – but you are getting mis-focused pictures.

I propose a solution to the camera companies is to add a setting in the menu that allows me to set the camera to use the focus light the way things are now, and to ADD another setting that allows me to set the camera for the focus assist light to come on MUCH MUCH sooner (or in much more light) than it is set to come on now.

Until that happens is there anything you can do to help yourself in this “Goldilocks” lighting circumstances???

Yes – yes there is!

If we know the focus assist light will NOT come on in Goldilocks lighting environments if the camera thinks it CAN focus, then what we have to do is make it so the camera CANNOT focus and call on the focus assist light to come on to aid it.

Remember – the camera can focus in total darkness if you have your hot shoe flash in place (and turned on - don’t get funny on me :)   )

So, we are going to use that knowledge to our advantage. If you find yourself in Goldilocks lighting, and you pay attention to see if the AF assist light is coming on or not – and you find it is NOT coming on like you think it should – here is an alternative shooting method.

Rather than focusing on a spot where you normally would – like on a contrast point – do the opposite and focus on a spot where the camera cannot focus. I am talking about doing the unthinkable and focusing on a non-contrast point. Focus on a blank spot. The camera will not be able to focus within it’s predetermined timing and kick in the AF focus assist light – and you suddenly get sharp pictures.

It just don’t sound right does it. LOL. I know, it feels and sounds so contrary to what we should be doing :)

Here is some proof:

Just so everyone knows where we are – this is the full frame of my first example:

It is regular kitchen lighting, not too dark, not too light – Goldilocks lighting. I have the flash set to fire the focus assist light because I am thinking I want sharp pictures. To complicate things a little bit, I also have the flash set to not fire, because I think there is enough light to make a nice natural light picture.

I would absolutely assume the focus assist light is coming on to help me make a sharp picture. All these years, in this Goldilocks lighting I assumed the flash assist light was helping me out. It is not.

I did confirm the focus assist light was NOT coming on. I took 2 shots here, meaning 2 different pictures. The first one I took normally. I expected the focus assist light to be working and it was not.

It is the way I have worked for years. I focused on a contrast point, meaning where there was a good difference between dark and light so the camera can focus well. This was done using a camera costing more than $2000 so it’s a pretty good one, but that doesn’t matter as they all work in a similar way.

Look at the 100 percent view of what we would all normally get:

There is just enough light for the camera to become a teenager and think it can do everything all itself without any outside help.

I would look at pictures like these and think – sucky camera, I am going to change brands! I would be thinking the focus assist light was helping when it was not and so I would conclude the camera just can’t focus! The focus point was on the writing to give me some good contrast detection here.

Okay, now I focused the focus point on the spot where NONE of us would focus – in a blank spot or white spot. The purpose wasn’t to be ignorant of how the focus system works, just the opposite, because I know what it’s doing I am tricking it to cause the AF assist light to come on. Here is the resulting picture:

Going in to another room with tungsten lighting. The light here was “comfortable”. The dreaded Goldilocks lighting is here, just in the middle of bright and dark. You would think for sure if you bet a dime the AF assist light was going to come on that it would . It didn’t. And I got an out of focus picture. Dumb dumb camera right? But if the AF assist light HAD come on what a difference it makes.

Here is my shot the way I would have done it normally:

Most of us would have focused on the cross of the dark and light spots. the camera thought it could focus and did not turn on the AF assist light. You see the results?? Man, I am not happy with that. Must be a bad camera, or a bad lens right? I think a lot of internet complaints come from a combination of mistakes like this. And I want to make sure I am placing the blame squarely on the camera maker, not the end user.

Here is the same shot but I put the focus point on the white part where the camera had no chance to be able to focus without the pattern getting projected from the focus assist light:

Significantly better right?  Yes – absolutely right!

The biggest thing I can’t really teach you but you will have to acquire yourself is to know or discern when to switch from the standard method of focusing to the “opposite” method of focusing. A good start is to somehow catch what is happening and see if the AF assist light is actually coming on when you think it should or is it not. If it isn’t, you now have a new technique to use to get things in line again.

Bottom line – the camera companies need to give us a choice as to how low or how high the light is before the AF assist light comes on. Personally, if I am planning on using the AF assist light I want it to come on in just about anything but pretty bright light levels. Keep in mind you cannot just set-it-and-forget-it so the AF assist light to always come on. Battery issues aside, it will plain slow down your camera somewhat. So a sports photographer would want to set it one way and a wedding photographer would want to set it another way and a family environment would pretty much follow the wedding environments and settings. We need some choices here camera companies – can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?? (From the Verizon TV commercial – my attempt at humor).

Happy Shooting and see you online.

Peter Gregg

Here is a PS:

I know I may be adding confusion to the issue, but I think enough folks would be interested to see this. Out of my own curiosity I wanted to see how the camera (I was using a 5D MK2) would focus when using Live View. When using Live View the camera uses a completely different focus system or method of focusing. First off, it is really slow, but the results are head scratching. I am showing this for the sake of some landscape photographers where there is bucketfuls of time on hand to get the focus. Using the focus in LV gave me this result:

Boy, if we can get results like that on a consistent basis there would be a lot of happy folks :)

Peter Gregg

Click on a tab to select how you'd like to leave your comment

Leave A Comment...