Overcoming Autofocus and Camera Shake Problems

Having an autofocus camera does not guarantee that all of your pictures will be in focus the way you want. In fact, an autofocus camera can often be difficult to get the right focus if you want to use the rule of thirds in composing your photos. With your subject set slightly off to one side, the camera's autofocus system will usually try to focus on whatever it sees in the middle of the frame. If that item is in front of or behind the focal plane of the main subject, then the focus will not be on your intended subject.

Besides having different focal points that your camera is trying to lock on to, there is the problem of camera shake which is usually caused by low-light situations. When taking pictures in low-light situations the shutter speed of the camera will be slower so that more light can pass through to the image sensor. While you probably don't have any indicator on a compact point-and-shoot camera as to the shutter speed of the picture you are trying to take, anything below 1/125 s will be hard to hold by hand and get a crisp picture. A full-sized dSLR camera will indicate when your shutter speed is too slow. A compact camera may display an icon to let you know that camera shake may be a problem.

Both compact cameras and full-sized dSLR cameras can suffer from autofocus and camera-shake problems. Compact camera users don't have as many options as dSLR users, but these tips should help eliminate some of the problems no matter which camera type you have.

Autofocus: Does it really help?

The first problem with autofocus features is when the camera chooses to focus on an object that is not the subject of your picture. This is the most common autofocus problem and is the easiest to overcome. You will need to specifically tell the camera what your subject is so that it knows what to focus on.

When you place the subject in the center of the frame, the camera will usually focus on it just fine. However, for nice photographic composition you want to use the rule of thruirds and place your subject slightly to one side of the picture. Your camera will try to focus on whatever is in the center of the frame. However, there is a feature called focus lock. This allows you to lock in the focus and exposure by holding down the shutter-release button halfway. It depends on your camera, but there is usually an audible or visual clue that the focus has been locked in.

To use this feature to your advantage start with the subject in the center of the frame. Press the shutter-release button half way to lock in the focus. Once the focus locked in, move the camera while still holding the shutter-release button to get the composition you desire. Press the shutter-release button the rest of the way to take the picture.

Low Light: When a flash can't help.

The rest of the tips deal with focus problems that are due to lack of sufficient light. There are times when a flash is not appropriate or sufficient to provide the lighting you need. Most camera flashes are effective to just a few feet. They are totally useless when taking pictures of skylines and far away objects. Here are some tips that will help you stabilize the camera to get sharp photos.

Hold Your Camera Close

One of the major disadvantages of compact digital cameras is the loss of a physical viewfinder. Now that most smaller cameras only have the video screen, there is no way to hold the camera to your face and take a picture. Using your face as an extra point of stability is a great way to eliminate camera shake on slow shutter speed photos. This is exactly the reason why full-sized cameras still have a viewfinder. Experienced photographers know that they will get better photos when stabilizing the camera by keeping their arms pressed into their sides and their eye firmly connected to the viewfinder.

Your camera may not have a viewfinder but you can still pull your arms in tight and use the trunk of your body to hold the camera in place. This may mean that you will have to hold your camera a bit lower so you can still see the digital display while giving it the stability it needs.

Use a Tripod

Obviously using a tripod is the best option for stabilizing a camera in any situation. Even a cheap tripod is better than no tripod. Though there are reasons tripods sell for hundreds of dollars you will get a huge boost in stability by going from no tripod to a $20 model from the local discount store. Besides helping to eliminate camera shake, a tripod can be used when wanting to get into the picture with your friends and family.

Make Your Own "Tripod"

You can make your own tripod that can be carried in a pocket by using an eye bolt and a piece of string or rope. Cut a length of rope about three times longer than you are tall. Tie the rope into a loop which is tied to an eye bolt that is 1/4"-20. That is 1/4" in diameter with a thread count of 20. Your hardware store will understand that. (There are some cameras that are 3/8"-16, but those are not common).

Screw the bolt into the tripod mounting screw on the bottom of your camera and stand on the rope with both of your feet spread apart. By adjusting the distance of your feet from one another you can adjust the height of the camera. Ideally you want to make the loop long enough that you can hold the camera at eye level and have your feet spread apart in a firm stance. Adjust the rope accordingly.

Pull up on the camera. With the rope stabilized by your feet, the camera is much more steady left to right. You only need to be concerned with keeping the tension on the rope and not leaning forward or backward while taking the picture.

Use a Building or Pole

Finding objects around you to stabilize the camera is easy to do. While taking a picture of a city skyline you can use the railing of a balcony to rest your camera on. Holding your camera firmly against a pole can help eliminate camera shake too. A building is usually better than a pole since you can rest the camera on something that is not rounded.

While holding your camera against another object, you can still introduce camera shake when you press the shutter-release button. You can take your shaky finger out of the equation by using the camera's built in timer. Set the self timer to take the picture and you can concentrate completely on holding the camera steady.

These tips should help you get better focused pictures. Whether your focus problems are due to the camera's autofocus features not focusing on what you want or because of camera shake, you should be able to capture more pictures in focus more of the time.