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Focus Modes

Which focus mode will be best for pet photography?

I highly recommend using “Continuous Autofocus” (or AI-SERVO on Canons). This focus mode continually tracks and readjusts focus for micro-movements, of your hands, the dog, etc to make sure that whatever is inside the focus area is in focus when you trigger focus. This is an important definition so keep it in mind as we continue. 

Let’s look at the other modes and see why they may or may not work for our purposes.

  • Single Shot Autofocus: This mode focuses on on area and locks there. It  usually “beeps” when it’s locked on. This is great for non-moving subjects like apples, landscapes, buildings, or very slow crocodiles. Since our dogs are living, breathing animals, I don’t recommend it, especially since we’ll usually have quite a narrow depth of field so even a slight movement from you or the dog could cause the eye to no longer be in focus. 
  •  Continuous Autofocus/AF-C/AI-Servo: This mode finds the thing you want to focus on, then continues to adjust the exact focal area based on its understanding of what you told it to focus on in the first place. For example, if I position my focus point over the dog’s eye then it doesn’t matter if the dog is slightly moving, as it will make adjustments for this as long as I’m telling it to focus (either with shutter half press, or a back button pressed down).
    • This is not to be mixed up with some kind of “tracking” mode. AF-C Does not mean that the focus area will automatically move around of its own accord. You may need to move your camera slightly (or a lot!) to keep the dog’s eye in the focus area. This depends largely on which focus area you’re using.
  • Automatic Focus Mode: This may have different names between camera brands. Basically, the camera decides if it would be better to use single shot, or continuous autofocus mode in the scenario. I don’t recommend, as it might get it wrong. 
  • Manual Focus: You set the focus where you want it manually by turning the focus ring on the lens. The camera’s electronics and autofocus computer systems have nothing to do it. This sounds good because we have complete control, however, because it works much the same as Single Shot (once the focus is set, it won’t adjust for slight movements unless WE adjust it), it it very difficult to use with animals. Some older lenses may ONLY allow Manual focus. If you or your subject move slightly forward or backward, they may end up out of focus, since the lens will not automatically refocus. Plus, manual focus relies on you turning the focus ring the perfect amount to get the eye in focus. There are settings and visual aids which can help with this, but it’s really not ideal for pet photography as our subjects are constantly moving.

Animal Eye AF?

Many new cameras also have animal eye autofocus. This is a great tool and can be really effective if the dog has visible catchlights.

Use animal eye AF but don’t rely on it entirely! I also have my small single point as a backup. If the eye AF can’t find the eye, then I have the single point positioned over the eye ready to get the shot. 

In summary, I recommend Continuous Autofocus/AI-Servo, as much as possible.

Manual Mode vs Manual Focus

Throughout these lessons and across the internet, you’ll often hear reference to “manual mode”. It’s important to note that there are two “manual” things with your camera.

Manual Focus is NOT what we’re talking about when we say manual mode. Manual focus requires us to adjust the focus using the focus ring on the lens, taking any autofocus technology completely off the table. Once you’ve turned the focus ring to where you want it, it won’t move or readjust until you move the ring again. As you can (hopefully) imagine, this is ideal for a camera on a tripod taking a photo of a vase of flowers… and potentially rather problematic for pet photos where we, and our subject, are constantly moving in small amounts.

Manual Mode is talking about the Exposure Mode of the camera – eg., how the camera decides how light or dark the photo is. You can set this using the dial at the top of your camera, that will have M, P, A, S and some other options. You’ll learn all about Exposure and Manual Mode in the “Exposure and Depth of Field” topic. But Manual mode is talking about you having full control over the shutter speed, aperture and ISO – settings which have to do with how light or dark the photo is, and have nothing to do with how or where the camera focuses.