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Technical Tips: Focus

Lesson 6 from: Family Photography: Creating a Successful Business

Kirsten Lewis

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Lesson Info

6. Technical Tips: Focus


Class Trailer

Class Introduction


What Makes a Picture Successful?


Technical Tips: ISO


Technical Tips: Aperture


Technical Tips: Shutter Speed


Technical Tips: Focus


Using Light to Tell a Story


Using Composition to Tell a Story


Lesson Info

Technical Tips: Focus

So I'm gonna talk about focus only because I have so many people complain that they cannot-- They are having issues with focus. So I'm gonna try and address as best I can without physically seeing you shoot and holding your camera in my hand. I'm gonna try and help you, and if there's any of you guys that are really having trouble with focus, we can chat it out and I can see if I can give you some suggestions. But I want to show you I get stuff out of focus all the time. This is situation where, really bor-- I mean, this isn't a boring scene, but I just wanted to show you a lot of times, I focus on the child, and they're doing activity and they move, and then they're out of focus, right? I choose not to track them all the time in situations like that. I just choose to shoot a lot of it, so as they're coming in and out of the focus, the image will end up being when they're in my focus range. Does that make sense? So you'll see, so here's in focus, and then the minute he moves forward, h...

e's out of focus. The error I see a lot of the time with students in the field is that then they follow him, right? Then they're like, "Oh, oh I gotta--," and now, he's gonna move back, probably back to the same position, and now you've made more work for yourself because now you've gotta refocus again. Rather than trusting the subject is gonna come in and outta that focal plane, just pick the best composition and commit to it, and the best picture'll be the one when he's in your focal range. Does that make sense? I ask that a lot. I don't know how else, if there's another phrase. "You got it," like, "You get it," like... I just wanna keep checking in, 'cause if it doesn't, I want you to tell me so I can help describe it better, but by just-- see, he went back. That's my whole point, so watch. This is where I wanted him, in this clean spot here. Now, this is not a photo to me, this is not. This is good composition, but I'm missing a reaction from him. I'm missing some sorta moment, but I'm prepared for it, right? So he's in the spot I want. Now he's out, and he's out of focus. Now he's merging, it looks like an arm is growing out of his mouth. That's not good. Even though I have good light here, I don't like this. I have a good reaction, I have decent highlights here, but now this is growing out of his nose, and he's got arms coming out of his mouth and chin, and it's not good. So if I showed you my whole contact sheet, you'll see how I just actually move, but my point of showing this is they will go back. Go back, a lot of the time, back into that general area where the composition is good, so just try to commit rather than tracking all the time or following them. Honest question, just by raising your hand, how many of you use back button focus? All right, opposite, who does not? Okay. Have you tried using back button focus? Shake your head yes or no. (laughs) You're shaking your head like, I'm like, I just caught you stealing all the Oreos out of my cupboard. People feel guilty if they try it and they can't grasp it. I'm gonna tell you why I think it's important. I think it's important because each button should have its own job. The problem with especially documentary photography, I don't think it matters if you're doing portraits and there's not a lot of movement, but if you don't separate your focus from your shutter, what happens is, if it's on the same button, you can be following, right, and you've got a good action, and you want to make a good composition, you can do all that by holding it down. But what happens if you forget or they move for a second and you go like this, and then you shoot, it's off focus. It changes, it tries to refocus because that button now has two jobs: focus and shoot. That is the advantage of back button focus. All it's doing is giving this button a job, and that's all it does, and this button a job. It is going to increase your rate of photos in focus once you get used to it. It's gonna increase your rate of better composition because you're gonna feel more confident to be able to focus, and then you can you can recompose and move that subject in a different part in the frame. I don't know if you guys do that, but that is the advantage of back button focus. You only have to hit it once. You don't have to hold it down like you do with the shutter. You can just click it once, and then if you wanna refocus, you click it again and it will stay in focus as long as you stay on the plane. (crowd laughs) If you go forward or back and you come off of that plane, you have to remember to refocus. I say give it two weeks of playing with it, and don't do it at a shoot, practice at home. I don't care if you practice on vegetables. Just practice at your house, getting used to the back button focus, and eventually, for the-- I think people that do it agree it's just automatic. My mom is been a photographer since I was a child. Never done back button focus before. I showed her, and she never went back. She just stayed with it, so it just makes sense to use back button focus. Yes? When you had said that it when you get used to it? Yes. (mumbles) The learning curve I say is about two weeks. I don't know what anybody else thinks. I feel like it's two weeks. Sometimes it's faster and quicker, sometimes it takes a little more time, but if you just practice, practice, practice, eventually become automated, like it's just innate. Your thumb always hits to focus. I have one student that does the pointer finger in... Something, maybe like the third finger, 'cause you can set the focus wherever button you want and there's a button on the front of her camera, and so she focuses with her (clears throat) third, third finger and then this. However it works, I think the most important thing is to separate it 'cause it's just gonna increase your rate of having photos in focus. I feel like when I have students say, "My photos are always outta focus," my first question is, "Um, are you back button focusing "or if you using your shutter?" And I would say at least 80% of them had using their shutter. The other problem is back focusing. Do you guys know what this is? When you shoot and the camera says that your subject's in focus, and then all of a sudden you see the image, and the back part of it is in focus. A lot of times, that's telling you that there's an alignment issue, and so it can be with your lens or with your camera, but it probably needs to be recalibrated or set. There's products you can buy to do it. I don't trust myself, and so there've been a couple of times that I've just sent it away to the manufacturer and had them check and fix it, and both times for me, it has been some issue with the camera reading the lens, and so they just fix it for me, and it's like a couple hundred dollars and it saves me always having to check to make sure the subject's in focus. The other thing I'm gonna just talk about when it comes to focus is the idea of bumping your focus in the field when it comes to storytelling and having layers. And what I mean by is if you have two layers and you're not quite sure which subject should be in focus, like who's more important? What story's more important? I suggest shooting both. Put the foreground in focus, then put the background in focus back and forth, and then when you get back to the studio or to your office or to your bed (laughs) or their computer, check it and see in your contact sheet which makes more sense. I have so many times where I'm like, "Ugh, this is such a good photo!" But you're focused on the wrong person. The eye is wanting to see the other person in focus. Now we say, "Did you bump your focus?" No, so it's another thing to be nice to get used to. So this is an example. I did not set this photo up. This really happened, Mom and Dad were doing the whole Lady and the Tramp thing, the kids were reacting, and I wasn't sure which person to focus on, so I just did both. And I realized that the back, the kids in focus to me, was way better, right? Why? Because their reaction is so much better than the action. The action helps to make this story, right? I love that he's the one that's like... (crowd laughs) Right? (laughs) It's so funny to me. So funny. Focus on the what the eye is-- ugh. Focus tells the eye what is most important. It is your way of telling the viewer how to read your picture. It's telling the viewer what you think is most important. Whatever you choose to put in focus is going to place emphasis on that visually, and so the viewer is going to read the photo accordingly, right? I have focus on him, not Mom in the back. Although I like Mom doing the laundry, if I wanted to say that he's acting up and Mom's not paying attention, I might put her in focus, but that's not the story I'm telling. I just want to tell that it looks like he's playing air guitar with the broom, but he's sitting under a chair, and I think that's funny because I find kids to do weird things. And "things" is not usually the word I use. But I love that, and so that's my focus. We are gonna run through these photos, okay. Again, I'm placing focus just on this 'cause I am saying this is the most important thing. She's pulling off the boots inside but throwing them outside. The reaction is more interesting than the action. I'm putting the focus on him. The action of him randomly with two feet in the air coming out of that hallway is interesting to me. It's weird to me, it's my aesthetic, it's my point of view, so I'm putting focus on that. Lens compression. I could talk all day about it. Think there's classes on CreativeLive all about lens compression. It's just the idea of when it's used a long lens to compress the subject from the foreground to the background. It really, for me, helps get rid of messy, crappy stuff in the background. It helps me to storytell better when I can't solve the problem by moving myself with composition. That would not have been a photo if I had not used a long lens because I could not get rid of that stuff in the back, and the stuff on the other side, if I had gone to the other side, woulda been even worse. I wanted to emphasize them and her temporary fit, and so I used a long lens here. I use a long lens a lot on the playground because it's a really messy environment, and so a lot of the time I want to just clean it up by using lens compression and a long lens. So when you're cleaning it up with your lens compression, are you less worried about merging? Yes, well if it's-- Okay. If I have created good compression, then I'm less worried about the merging because it kind of just disappears into the background. Okay, cool. I just had a question about settings when you are panning. Yes. You could talk about Oh, shoot. those two scenarios and what sorta settings you were using. I forgot to tell my settings. Okay, this is my go-to. Now, it depends on the light, right? But my go-to is usually I gotta bring the ISO way down, I've gotta bring, I put it at f/16, and I shoot at about 1/40 of a second. Some people go much slower, but I'm not good at it, so I need a lot-- I'm not good at it, so I need f/16 so a lot more is in focus or chance of being in focus, and I like it a little bit faster, so I have a better chance of moving with the motion and catching it. So that's my go-to setting. Thank you, 'cause I meant to say that and then I forgot. When you say, "shoot with a long lens," how long of a lens are you talking about? 70-200 is my lens, Okay. and it only works if you really push it, right? So you've gotta be pushing it to get good lens compression. I shoot it about between 180 and 200.

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Ratings and Reviews


I own Kirsten's 3 classes. And they are ALL amazing, inspiring and refreshing. She is not only a super talented photographer but an amazing teacher and person as well. I have learned so much from each one of her classes. I have never met a photographer so willing to share and see their students succeed. I highly recommend people not only to buy this class, but all 3! I would not be the photographer I am today if it wasn’t for her. After following her advise for the last 3 years I am finally engaging with the audience I want and I feel true to myself in the way I shoot. This makes a huge difference in my everyday. I am am truly grateful to this photo wizard lady. ps: warning, make sure you are on birth control. These classes might make you want to have children, just to get amazing images like the ones she takes LOL (joking) #not

Carrie Littauer

This workshop was by far the best photography workshop I have ever been a part of. Kirsten's work, her humor, her authenticity, her expertise and perspective will forever change the way I work with families and go about documentary photography. I am so motivated and inspired to dig deeper into my role as a photographer, and as a person, to make a real difference in the lives of those that I photograph and with my art. I'm thrilled to have been in the LIVE studio and am so grateful for Creative Live for giving phenomenal artists like Kirsten this exposure and opportunity to teach other creatives like myself! Thank you.

Johanne Lila

In the very minutes Kirsten Lewis' first class (first of three) for cL aired, I realized I needed in on this awesomeness. I became a 1 Year Mentorship student with her right away, and now I have been so incredibly fortunate to be in the studio audience for the live taping of her final class (or the third of the three, who knows what the future might hold!). For me as a 'Kirsten Lewis alumni' taking this class was perfect. I was reminded of things I knew, but had forgotten. I learned a ton of new stuff. But most of all, I remembered why we do this work in the first place: The love that is right there in the reality of life. How much this work matters to real families out there. And how much it matters to keep getting better at this, to give our families better work. I will be forever greatful that I chose the best mentor, Kirsten is such a gift to all of us. And if you're still in doubt: This class is AMAZING! If you're new, if you've at it for a while, if you're alumni: Gold is HERE!

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