Especially when we're just starting out, it can be easy to believe we've got to take manual control all the settings on our camera in order to capture great images. I'm here to tell you that just simply isn't true.
Cameras today are wicked smart, and while it is important to become familiar with your camera as the tool you use to create great photographs, it's not essential for you to manually control the things your camera can do better than you. When you're starting out it can be a huge help to take advantage of your camera's automatic modes.
Now, I don't know where the idea got started that you need to manually focus your camera in order to take great photos, but I can tell you that auto-focus on today's cameras is faster and better than you, when it's set up correctly. I think the main reason people believe they need to manual focus is because they've had their auto-focus set incorrectly for the kind of work they're doing and been disappointed with the number of images that just weren't sharp enough to deliver.
So, here's the trick when it comes to livestock photos; Single Point Auto-Focus. (Use your camera manual or google to learn how to switch your camera into Single Point AF.) A focus point is that little box that when you look through your lens you can see it light up when it's in focus. Your camera may allow dozens of focus points. When all your focus points are active, when you depress the shutter button half-way to get focus, the camera could pick any of the focus points. The problem with this is that your camera may decide to focus on the animal, or maybe it will focus on the person holding the animal, or maybe it will focus on the tail head, or the nose - it's really hard to say at any given moment which point, or points, it will chose to lock in on, and when you're shooting, it's really difficult to verify that the camera has chosen the right focus point.
Single Point Auto-Focus cuts the number of possible focus points down to one. It allows you to pick which of the focus points you want it to use to pull focus. Once you select Single Point Auto-Focus, then the only trick is focusing in the right place. The best place to focus is on a point in the animals forerib, just behind their front leg. This is a high contrast area, meaning there is both light and shadows, and contrast is what makes auto-focus work. You'll want to choose the focus point that is nearest that spot on the animal when you've got your animal framed up in the shot how you like it.
On my Nikons, I know that I have to depress the shutter button halfway to activate focus, then I can use the toggle switch to move my focus points. (I also know there is a button that locks the focus point, so I want to make sure that is off when I'm shooting Single Point AF, so I can always move the focus point to the area I want it.) So, when an animal is moving left to right in the picture pen, without looking, I hit the shutter button and click the toggle three spots to the right. When the animal goes the other way I do the same and click the toggle three times to the left. Then, when the animal poses, I pull up my camera and my focus point is already in exactly the right spot, so I'm ready to frame the shot and work the pose.
Today I spend most of my time filming, and almost exclusively use manual focus to maintain control and "rack", or change, the focus of a shot throughout the duration of the shot, but when I step into still photography mode, I'm always going directly to auto-focus, and most of the time Single Point Auto-Focus. I let the camera do the focus work while I concentrate on nailing the lighting, framing, and working with the subject in front of my lens.
B.J. Eick is the Founder of Learn Livestock, the Founder and C.E.O. of Herdmark Media, Inc., a writer, photographer, and filmmaker with a passion for animal agriculture. You can contact B.J. directly here.
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