Three Ways to Nail Focus While Shooting at f/1.4

Shooting portraits with beautiful, creamy backgrounds is a very popular look right now. Using the right gear, you can achieve this look in camera, but one common question that arises from shooting wide open is how do you get perfect focus?

Coming from Manny Ortiz's latest video, he talks about how he is able to get perfect focus while shooting at f/1.4 within his portrait work. The first method he talks about is based on the camera he uses. Ortiz shoots with his Sony camera while using "Eye AF," this is one feature I wish other camera systems would adopt. The autofocusing system is able to focus on your subject's eye.

With continuous Eye AF mode turned on, and while your subject moves in frame, a small green focus box stays locked onto their eye as they move. I personally have tested this feature out a few different times and it works great. While Ortiz may have consistent results using this, the times I have didn't result in 100 percent accuracy, but I am sure I would have a lot less missed focus shots if I was able to use Eye AF. You can jump to the 31:55 mark in the real-world test article's video where Jared Polin also talks about how it has missed a few times for him as well.

If you aren't a Sony shooter, don't worry as Ortiz covers other methods explained in the video can be used to help you lock down that perfectly focused portraits while shooting wide open.

What are some tips you use to help you nail those amazing shots? Leave your answers in the comments below.

[via Manny Ortiz]

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Focus precisely with center point and recompose to loose this precision...

Jesse Coleman's picture

Why should I NOT use back button focusing if the subject is closer to the camera and moving? How/why does back-button focusing work differently based on subject's proximity to the camera?

H. B.'s picture

Well - the nearer you are to the cam and/or the more you move, the higher the risk to lose focus in between back-button focusing and taking the shot, I think.

Jesse Coleman's picture

But with back button focus I can press the shutter release button while the focus button is continually pressed - firing while focusing - which I thought was the whole purpose of separating the focus from the shutter release button...?

Gabrielle Colton's picture

I really need to take this advice, my 1.4 shots are ALWAYS out of focus... My hands shake sooooo badly

Lee Christiansen's picture

Focus and recompose will almost certainly give you issues at f1.4

There are people who claim they can adjust their lean to accommodate but I've yet to meet such a person.

There's no magic to back button focusing. People talk about it like it is the Holy Grail of focus techniques. It is essentially giving us the same operation as manual focus and taking the shot separately, but allowing the camera to set focus, (because we don't have a focus aid in the viewfinder).

If you're shooting at f1.4 then setting the focus once and taking multiple shots will almost certainly fail because the model and / or photographer is never going to stay still long enough for a series of shots.

About he only way to shoot at f1.4 reliably is to have focus points that work accurately at that level and wide enough in the viewfinder to focus on your focus point without (much) recomposing.

And have you microfocus adjustments set perfectly for DSLRs.

What many don't realise are two things.
1) Lenses can have different offsets for their microfocus at different distances.
2) Lenses can have different offsets for their microfocus at different apertures. (Particulary 1.2 / 1.4 primes)

My Canon 85mm 1.2L has 4 different microfocus adjustment settings for f1.2, f2.0, f2.8 and f4.0 (after which it settles down). No it's not a faulty lens. Canon checked it against their stock lens and to a greater or lesser extent they all do the same. It's a "quirk" of lenses that can go very low fstops, but not a publicised quirk.

So if you're shooting wide open and having issues, then check you're shooting with a lens that is calibrated to the body at the distance and aperture that you're shooting at.

As standard I have my lenses and bodies "zero'd" by Canon when new. But I always then refine with my own microfocus adjustments because Canon's tolerances are a little more forgiving than mine.

And remembering that over time, these microfocus adjustments need checking due to wear and stresses on the lens/camera mount.

Having gone through 4 different calibration systems, I've now settled on the Lens Align, (but with a modified target because I think theirs introduces potential errors). LensCal is quite cute but the ruler is the wrong angle for accurate measurements, Dot Tune sounds like a great idea but it relies on the actual operation of the lens focus to match the theoretical performance of the system. FoCal offered great promise, but I've discovered a "quirk" where although the system no doubt measures accurately, it's method of throwing focus befire taking each measurement can introduce an almost repeatable error depending on which lens is calibrated. (There may be a way around this but I haven't played with my theoretical solution). So LensAlign it is for me, and a few happy (?) hours spent at a tethered laptop questioning my sanity as I test and re-test. (But my focus is at least spot on).

Tony Clark's picture

I'm rather old school so I chose to focus manually. I like utilizing the bokeh of Canon L's and my subjects are not always in the center of the frame and I don't want to keep track of what focus point is hot so I never utilize autofocus. As a result, I have more keepers, longer battery life and shoots are more efficient.