In-Depth Photography Guides

Focusing Technique Guide Part 2: The Best Focusing Techniques and Autofocus Settings for Landscape Photographers

Once you know exactly where to focus in order to get sharp photos, you have to know how to focus.

When you understand your camera’s focusing systems and how to use them, you will be able to consistently produce accurately focused, sharp, high quality photographs.

Focusing might seem simple at first, but as digital cameras become more and more advanced, the options and settings to choose when you are focusing can become overwhelming.

Is it better to use autofocus or focus manually?

Should you use live view or your viewfinder?

What autofocus mode should you be using and what buttons should I use to focus?

In this article, you will learn the answers to these questions along with other best practices for how to focus.

The good news is that once you get your autofocus settings and focusing techniques locked in, you will rarely have to change them.

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When to Use Autofocus vs. Focus Manually

Both autofocus and manual focus can give you identically focused photos if you know how to use them, and the choice between focusing automatically or manually is more of a personal preference.

I personally utilize both autofocus and manual focus, and could never choose one over the other.

I do, however, almost always choose to autofocus first before I choose to manually focus.

For most modern digital cameras, autofocus is a fast, reliable, and simple way to focus for landscape photography.

It is also highly accurate in most cases.

This makes autofocus, when used with the right settings (see below), the best option to try first when you are shooting landscapes.

If I notice that autofocus didn’t get the focus exactly right, I will then manually fine tune my focus using the focus ring on my lens.

A you will learn in the next section, the best way to check your focus and fine tune it manually (if necessary) is by magnifying your focus point in live view.

Also, manual focusing may be necessary if you are shooting in low light conditions such as astrophotography.

Autofocusing systems have trouble when there is not enough light, so you may have no choice but to focus manually if you are shooting in this type of situation.

The Best Autofocus Mode for Shooting Landscapes

Landscape photographers should always be able to control the exact point at which they want to focus.

This point is typically called the focus point, or autofocus point if you focus at the focus point using autofocus.

Focus points are the small empty squares or dots that represent the point that will be focused on when you initiate autofocus.

For Nikon DSLRs, the focus point is represent by a small red square, like shown in the image below.

Some cameras have what are called 9-point or even 51-point autofocus (AF) systems. This spec refers to how many focus points, or points you can use to autofocus, the camera has.

The more focus points the camera has, the more you can fine tune your focus.

Typical DSLRs have two main autofocus modes that give you different types of control over the location of your focus point.

These two autofocus modes are:

  1. Single Point Autofocus Mode (called AF-S by Nikon and One-Shot by Canon) - best used for stationary subjects. The photographer manually chooses the focus point and the camera will focus once and only once when you press your focusing button.
  2. Continuous Focus Mode (called AF-C by Nikon and AI servo by Canon) - best used for moving subjects. The camera will lock onto and hold the focus of your subject for as long as you hold down your focusing button.

DSLRs also have a variety of autofocus area modes, which provide photographers a wide range of tracking and autofocusing configurations for virtually any shooting situation.

For example, Nikon has autofocus area modes that include: Single point, Dynamic Area, Auto Area, and 3D tracking. Some of these settings let the camera automatically choose the focus.

As a landscape photographer, choosing the right autofocus settings in the sea of different options is actually quite easy because there is really only one best option: single point autofocus mode set to single point area mode. This is called single point autofocus for short.

This setting allows you to manually choose the focus point by using the wheel or arrow keys on the back of your camera. When you press your focusing button, the camera focuses on the subject in the selected focus point.

Single point autofocus is the best autofocusing option for landscape photographers for two main reasons:

  1. The ideal focus point in a landscape composition (e.g. hyperfocal distance) is almost always stationary.
  2. You never want to have the camera determine the focus point in a composition. When you have total control over the exact focus point, you have more control over the quality of your image.

Now, if you like to shoot wildlife I would recommend exploring continuous focus mode and different autofocus area modes that suit a particular scene that you are trying to shoot.

But for the average landscape photographer, you will want to use single point autofocus 99% of the time.

Use Back Button Focus

The default setting on most cameras initiates autofocus when you press the shutter-release button halfway.

However, you can choose to remove the autofocus function from the shutter button, and re-assign this function to a button on the back of your camera - typically the “AF-ON” button.

The primary reason to use back button focus it is so that you can fine tune and set your focus perfectly (using the AF-On button to autofocus or focusing manually) without worrying about your camera camera refocusing (potentially inaccurately) once you press the shutter button.

This will ensure that your photos will be focused exactly how you intended every time you shoot an image.

There are several other major benefits to using back button focus, which if dive into further in my back button focus guide.

I highly recommend that you learn how to use back button focus if you want to have greater control of your focusing technique and produce accurately focused images on a consistent basis.

When to Focus with the Viewfinder vs. Live View

When you are focusing on an object, you have the option to use the camera’s viewfinder or live view via the camera’s LCD screen.

So does it matter which of these options you choose to focus with?

The short answer is yes, if you are using a DSLR.

It is important to understand that DSLR cameras have two different autofocusing systems.

DSLRs will switch from using one system to the other, depending on whether the photographer is focusing through the viewfinder or through live view.

These two autofocus systems are:

  1. Phase Detection Autofocus - which is used when you are focusing through the viewfinder. In this system, the camera’s mirror is required to pass light to the sensors that detect and adjust focus.
  2. Contrast Detection Autofocus - which is used when you are focusing through live view. This system uses the camera’s image sensor to focus rather than the a mirror and special sensors used by phase detection systems.

Note: Mirrorless cameras and other camera’s without a mirrors (e.g. smartphones) only use contrast detection autofocus, so if you use a mirrorless camera, this section doesn’t apply much to you. Only DSLRs use both systems.

While the physics and technical details of how autofocus works are a beyond the scope of this article, are two key differences between these two autofocusing systems:

  1. Speed - contrast detection is slower than phase detection, therefore focusing throughout live view is slower than focusing through the viewfinder.
  2. Accuracy - contrast detection tends to be more accurate than phase detection, therefore focusing through live view is more accurate than focusing through the viewfinder.

Given these two key differences, the best way to focus on a landscape is almost always through live view.

This is because the focus point in a landscape composition (e.g. hyperfocal point) typically doesn’t move, so the speed of your autofocusing system shouldn’t be an issue in most cases (unless you are shooting a moving subject like wildlife).

Accuracy does matter, however, because accurate focus is a key element of any good landscape photograph.

Tips for Using Live View to Shoot Landscape Photographs

Now that you know that live view is the better way to go when focusing on a landscape, here are some tips that will help you get the most out of using it:

  1. Magnify your focus point to 100%. When you zoom into your focus point through magnification, it makes it easier to see if the focus point is perfectly sharp. If its not, try to autofocus again (I recommend doing so by using back button focus) or use the focus ring on your lens to fine tune your focus in manually. Zoom buttons are usually on the left hand side of the back of your camera.
  2. Use a tripod. A tripod is a must for many reasons, including autofocusing. When your camera doesn’t move, it will have an easier time focusing on your chosen focus point.
  3. Use focus peaking (if your camera has it). Not all camera’s have this feature, but if it does, it can help you fine tune your focus when in manual mode. When you enable focus peaking, your camera will highlight the outline of in-focus edges in your image using a bright color that you choose (e.g. yellow, red, green). This feature only works in manual mode on my Nikon D850.  
  4. Use an LCD viewfinder like a HoodLoupe. These allow you to see your camera’s LCD without glare. Glare can seriously inhibit your ability to see how accurate the focus is on live view, especially when you are outside in the bright sun. I recommend this HoodLoube by Hoodman to help you fine tune your focus perfectly using live view.