Which Eye?

One thing you might be wondering, or not even aware of, is which eye should be in focus – most especially when we are taking a very close up photo of our dog where they are angled to the camera with one eye closer to the camera, and one maybe slightly further away, and we have a very narrow depth of field.

You’ll be learning more about depth of field, but it’s important to note that it’s normal (and in my opinion totally fine) if one eye is in focus, and the other isn’t.

If you’re working under these conditions, it’s very important to make sure that the eye closest to the camera (and usually the most visible) is the one that is in focus

This isn’t apply if the dog is looking directly into the camera, as the eyes will be on the same plane of focus as each other, or if you’re working with a wide enough depth of field that both eyes are in focus.

It’s important when only one eye is in perfect focus.

So make sure your focus area is over the eye closest to the camera, and that you choose the photo where that eye is in focus.

Below is a rather subtle example. The key is to look at the fur around the eyes, and where it’s sharpest.

An extreme close crop of a similar image. 

Back Button Focus

Back button focus (or BBF) is a term you’ll hear thrown around a lot in pet photography. It can seem a bit daunting and confusing at first, but push through – getting the hang of it is totally worth it.

Basically, when you take your camera out of the box, without BBF set up, you half press the shutter down, the camera focuses, and then you fully press the shutter to take the photo. 
This can be a bit fiddly and annoying because before you know it you’ve taken the photo and it’s focused on the wrong thing and it keeps re-focusing between each shot and the focus is jumping all over the place.

What BBF does, is it separates those two tasks: find focus, take photo, and assigns each one to a separate button. The focus part is done by a button on the back of your camera, and the shutter part is done by the shutter!

What this means is that you move your focus point over the dog’s eye. You hold down the focus button with your thumb, and keep holding it. The camera focuses on the eye and tracks the eye. You take some photos (camera continues focusing). You can then take your thumb off, then press it down again to refocus, take some more photos and so on.
Say you have a dog running. You place the focus point over him, hold down your thumb, and follow the dog with the camera. When he’s at a good location/distance/whatever, you press the shutter button. The whole time, the camera has (theoretically) been tracking the dog!

Another Benefit to BBF

One other great thing about BBF is the ability to fix composition. Let’s say you were taking some photos of a dog posing on a rock. The dog jumps off, and you suddenly realise that the whole time you had been framing the photo VERY CLOSE to his head, or not giving him enough space to look into! Oh no! Is this going to be a job for Photoshop’s Content aware crop!?
Not necessarily!

Assuming you haven’t moved, and you haven’t pressed the focus button on the back again, you can take a few photos of the scene without the dog in it! Because the focus is still set where the dog was, the depth of field will still be correct for the photo! Without BBF, the camera would have tried to focus on the scene/background when you pressed the shutter! 

This means that we can easily get more parts to our scene if we need them, without having to re-pose the dog! This is also helpful if you have a handler or client who needs to stand close to the dog to stop it from moving. You take the photos with dog and owner in the scene, then without moving, and without pressing the Focus button on the back, you tell them to move to the side, out of the frame. You can then take some photos of the scene without them in it, and mask them out easily in Photoshop because the Depth of Field and focal area is exactly the same as in the photos with the dog!

This is not possible to do with the shutter-half-press! In that case, you need to change the camera to manual focus, or press the manual focus button on the lens, if it has one, before trying to take the photo of the background.

There will be more on this technique of fixing composition in future lessons.

How to Set It Up

It can take a little getting used to, but I promise with some practise, you won’t go back to half-press for focus, and using that 2nd button with your thumb will become second nature.

Each camera has its own way to set BBF so make sure you check the manual of your specific camera, or jump on YouTube. 

With many videos on YT they do talk about “Focus and Recompose” – a similar concept to what I discussed above, where you can focus once, then if you don’t press the focus button again, you can move your camera to change the composition of the photo. I would caution you against focusing like this with our dogs. Essentially it makes the photo much more like a “single shot” because the focus is set in one place now. It’s not tracking the dog, it’s wherever it focused last. If you move slightly forward or back, or the dog moves, then it may no longer be in focus.

What About the Nose?

Because I photograph with a very narrow depth of field (more on that coming soon), the nose in most of my photos (especially close up head and shoulders shots) is usually blurry.

I often see people asking in Facebook groups: “But how do I get soft, blurry backgrounds and the nose in focus?”


Personally, I don’t care if the nose is out of focus.

I don’t want my audience looking at or getting distracted by all that shiny detail of the nose. I want them looking at the eyes!

Some print competitions may require the nose be in focus.

If we consider the principles of Depth of Field and how to narrow or widen the plane of focus, we need to do the opposite of what we’ve been doing to get a blurry background. Some techniques to get the eyes, nose and/or body in focus therefore may include:

  • using a wider angle lens, eg., 24mm, 35mm, 50mm.
  • being further away from the dog: full body shots from a decent distance
  • using a narrower aperture, eg., f/3.5, f/4 and so on

Can I still have a blurry background and the nose in focus?

Theoretically, yes. But mostly then it will depend on the background being very far away from the subject. Again, if we consider the elements of depth of field, something is going to have to give us a wide enough depth of field for the eyes and nose to be in focus.

If this is a narrower aperture, the background is going to have to be a decent distance away for it to be blurry.

If you are further away from your dog, the background is going to have to be further away for it to be blurry, and so on.

These photos were all taken at f/3.5 (not the widest aperture) with a 35mm lens, from either very far to very close to Journey, with the background very, very far away. You can see how the depth of field changes for each. Although you can’t see whether his nose is in focus here or not, you can get a sense of how even a very far away background needs you to be extremely close to the dog, or to use a wider aperture, in order to become blurry with these settings and lens choice.

In the examples below, I was using my 135mm. I wanted to change only the aperture, to see how narrow I would need to go before the nose was in focus, and how this affected the background detail. Since it was the 135mm it retained pretty good compression throughout.

Keep in mind that I was quite close to Journey with this lens (eg., he is filling a lot of the frame). 

Keep in mind as well that as I narrow up the aperture, I had to adjust other settings – we cover this more in the Exposure lessons… but by the time I was at f/8 I needed ISO 5000 despite it being quite a light and bright day! So I was starting to see a lot of noise, simply because I wanted the nose in focus.

Hover to see the camera settings, click to enlarge.

If I had not been so close to Journey, for example with a full body shot, then I wouldn’t have needed such a narrow aperture. But then much more of the background would have been in focus as well.

News & Events

News & Events

Focus Area

Different camera brands and models may have different focus area options, so check yours to see what is available to you. 

For most, however, they will have a wide AF-Area, a Centre AF, and a Single Point or Spot. Everything else is usually just variations on size or which part of the sensor the camera will look for something to focus on (right hand side, left hand side, etc). The terminology may be different, but the outcome is usually the same.

Different cameras all have different ways of accessing the Focus Area menu in order to change it. For example, with Sony we could:

  • In the Menu settings: MENU > (Camera Settings) > [Focus Area] > desired setting
  • By pressing the Fn (Function) button (if the function has already been allocated to the Fn menu)
  • By pressing a custom button (if the function has already been allocated to the button)


Single Point or Flexible Spot (small): My recommended option!

Mostly, I use the “Single Point” or “Flexible Spot: Small”. 

This is one single AF point which I can move around the screen with the little joystick on the back of my camera. I can also touch the screen to place the point (very helpful if I’ve managed to lose it!). With the Sony, I can choose if I want this spot to be small, medium, or large. I may make the spot larger if I’m photographing an off-leash puppy.

Different cameras will have different ways of moving this point around, but the idea is to move it until it’s over the dog’s eye. You don’t have to keep it centred! You can move it here or there, up or down, giving you options for how you want to compose your photo. 

Some cameras will have more or less focus points available across the frame, it really depends. I know of some cameras which only have 11 focus points, so you have 11 options of where to move that single point, and you’ll have to compose your photo within that limitation. Other cameras have hundreds! This isn’t a reason to rush out and buy a new camera, but you will want to be aware of potential limitations if you’re trying to have your dog toward the edge of the photo and you’re unable to move your focus point there.

Expanded Single Point

This acts much the same as the single point above, however if it doesn’t manage to find a thing to focus on in the main area, it will grab onto something either just above or below, or slightly to either side of the point. I use this occasionally for action photos, if the dog is zigzagging or not running around in a predictable way (puppies!!) as it gives me just a little more opportunity to get focus in the right place.


Does what it says on the tin. The focus point is in the middle, always. Sure, this could be useful if your dog’s eye is right in the middle, but even then you’re inviting the camera to focus on the nose, since it’s likely to be closer to the camera, shinier, and more centred than one or the other of the eyes. 

Tracking / Lock On etc

 Some cameras have other options, for example a “lock on” tracking option. These usually give the camera the entire scene to choose where to focus (remember what I said about giving the camera control?) and once it finds its subject, it will lock on and track them wherever they move. This might be useful for action photos, photos of puppies or dogs running around where you can’t physically move your camera enough to follow them… but I don’t recommend it for portraits as it’s not usually reliable enough to find the eye.


This uses a relatively large focus area which you can move around the screen. For some cameras this may be for example, 9 focus points all grouped, and the camera will attempt to find the subject/area of contrast to focus on within those 9 points. 

I use this mostly for self portraits, as I know generally where I’ll be in the frame, but not exactly enough to be able to use a smaller focus area.


Searches the entire frame for what to focus on. Complete control is given to the camera. If it wants to focus on the ears, nose, background or a piece of grass in the foreground, it can. 

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. 

Why Isn’t My Photo Sharp?

Table of Contents

As you read through this course, you’ll (hopefully) be trying different settings and answering the question above. However! If you think your settings are all perfect and your images are STILL soft, check back here for potential answers. 

There can be quite a few reasons why your photo isn’t sharp, and there is a BIG difference between out of focus (or missed focus) and general softness, and different factors which can cause all of these. 

Not Focused On the Eyes

Focusing all over the place - nose, neck, bushes, etc

This could be a “focus area” issue. Are you letting the camera make decisions about where to focus? Have you moved the single-point over the dog’s eye? Remember, the more control you give the camera, the more possibility it has to make the wrong decisions. 

If you have the camera on single point and it was over the eye, if you are in an area of low contrast (eg., dark woods with a dark dog) who doesn’t have catchlights in the eyes due to all the shade, there is no area of contrast there for the camera to “grab onto”. Try getting some catchlights in the eyes, or a bit more contrast between the dog and the background to help the camera “find” what it is supposed to focus on.

Always focusing on the nose (or neck, etc, but consistently either forward or back)

This is likely a calibration issue. You will want to search for your camera and/or lens to find out how to do it, but having done a quick google search just now, it seems there ARE some DIY methods, but they can be a bit tricky, and there are also some calibration tools you can buy. Otherwise you can take your gear into a camera store for them to do it for you. 

This website has a lot of information about the process. I don’t want to go into it in this course as it may only be useful for a small number of you.

The Dog Looks Soft, but Everything Kind of Looks Soft

Shutter Speed

Is your shutter speed fast enough? Depending on your lens, anything slower than 1/400 sec may be too slow, and even slight movements as the dog breathes will be enough to just make the dog appear ever so slightly out of focus. Try going up to 1/400 or 1/500 of a second. 

Motion blur compared to slightly missed focus

High ISO

High ISO which results in grain can give the appearance of softness. Some cameras also have inbuilt noise-reduction, but this usually sacrifices details and so the images can look slightly soft. Similarly, adding denoise or reducing noise in editing will also reduce details.

Wide Aperture

Unfortunately some lenses (notably the Canon “nifty 50” – a 50mm f/1.8 lens) can be a little bit soft when shooting at the widest aperture. If you’ve worked through this course and you’re using your camera in manual, your aperture is at f/1.8, and you’re looking at your photos and they are consistently soft, this may be the reason why. 

One way to check is to take a series of photos in good light. Have your shutter at 1/500 to eliminate any possibility of motion blur, and a nice patient subject. Take a photo at f/1.8, then one at f/2.0, one at f/2.2 etc, all the way up to f/4.

Have a look, zoom in on your computer. When do your photos begin to feel sharp? There’s no magic number here. Some lenses will feel sharp at f/2.2, others at f/2.8, and others at f/4! Find the point at which you feel the sharpness is acceptable, and use that as your “widest aperture”. 

Remember you can also add some sharpening in editing too, but we do want to capture the details in camera. 

The Dog is Far Away

We really expect a lot from our gear. Why isn’t your dog sharp when he’s very small in the frame because he’s far away from you? Because the lenses don’t have telescopes in them (and yes, there are zoom lenses, but then we’re zoomed in, and it’s no longer the same “wide” perspective, or dog being far away from you!) and our cameras can only capture so many megapixels. 

If you have a 24 megapixel camera, then your camera can capture a certain number of pixels per inch. So, if your dog is close to the camera, then per inch, many many more pixels are dedicated to the very small details of your dog. As your dog gets further away, there are less megapixels per inch that are for him, and more for the surroundings. If you zoom in and in and in on your dog, then of course he’s going to look soft! Because there simply aren’t enough pixels on the sensor to record the very small details of every strand of fur and every detail of his eyes.


Frenchie photo courtesy of @zelmathefrenchie