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Make Your Social Media Photos Better – Part III (Focus on what you are doing)

Here the subject of the photo is the stream of water and it needs to be in focus. But there are lots of other “moving parts” in the image for the focusing sensor to pay attention to, so you have to make sure you are focusing on the water

Too many images posted on Social Media are soft, or often even downright blurry. While sometimes some softness is desirable, that should only be done intentionally and I am sure the majority of those soft images I see are not intended. As new photographers, one of the primary fundamental things we learn is that an image must be in sharp focus.

Sharp focus is one of the harder things to get right with a smartphone camera

Like the exposure issues in Part II, this is one of the harder things to get right with a smartphone camera. Modern “dedicated” cameras which are, after all, specifically designed to make pictures and do not have to do all the other work a smartphone does, have lots of controls. Most of them are user configurable. The “camera” (really just software) that comes standard with most smartphones has very limited capability to user-configure (though I am told the newest iPhone and Galaxy S9 have begun to add some of these things).  So, again, this is going to be easier with an third-party camera app, if possible.

You can see the water here is soft. The camera’s focusing sensor was “fooled” (really it was probably the user that was fooled) by focusing on the rock in front of the stream of water and let the water go blurry

As I noted in Part II, smartphone cameras are “all-automatic.” This means the software is attempting to do all the things you need to do to capture a digital image.  This means it has to determine proper exposure and focus for you. The focusing system is similar to the light-metering system, in that they both use a measuring device.  In the case of focus, the measurement is the distance from the sensor to the subject. That information is used to tell the camera lens to focus. Knowing that “subjects” often move, most camera manufacturers’ software by default, continually measures and refocuses. Some do better than others. It is possible that the moment you click the shutter does not exactly coincide with when the lens actually makes the capture and save. This may mean that the subject has moved in the meantime and the focus point has changed. This is not likely to happen often, as the camera apps just keep getting better at this. Most of the newest cameras also offer an algorithm called “face recognition.” It is designed to pick out a face or faces in the image area and purposely focus on them. Of course, the problem with this is when you have multiple faces in different places in the image (especially from back to front). Like any technological device, it is important for the user to understand what it is measuring, so you can control that aspect.

Like any technological device, it is important for the user to understand what it is measuring, so you can control that aspect

But there is another, perhaps less obvious concern, and this is most likely to be the culprit. Note that I have used the word “subject” several times above. To understand what is happening with the focusing system, we have to first know what we mean by “subject.” For our purposes here, I will define the “subject” as “that part of the image that you want to be in focus.” I know: the whole thing dummy, right? 🙂 . Digital images, as well as hard copy print images are essentially one-dimensional. The subject matter of our photographs is almost always 3-dimensional; often with substantial depth. The camera lens is not physically capable of rendering the entire depth of the scene in sharp focus. So we have to choose which part(s) we want to really be in focus.

Again, this is accomplished with the measuring tool in the camera. If we do not know where in the frame it is pointing, we will have to resort to our best judgment of the very small screen of our smartphone, often in poor light. The app I am using has the ability to turn on the little small rectangular bracket superimposed on the screen; and to move it around. Moving it around is a nice feature for composition. We will discuss that in Part IV. But the most important thing is to know that you must place the bracket on the part of the photo you want to be sharp (remember that you may also have this bracket set for measuring exposure, as we discuss in part II). When people are in the photo, that should be a face (and if possible, even someone’s eye).

One other thing to understand. Because the lens cannot make everything in the image sharp, it will become selectively more blurry as things move away from the focus point. The “back” (background) of a scene is more susceptible to blur than the front in most cases where smartphone lenses are involved. So if you are taking that sunset shot you want to try to set your focus point on the horizon, rather than a close object in the front (foreground) of the image (for the photographers out there, I appreciate that I am over-simplifying this, but again, this is mainly addressing smartphone snapshots).

Try experimenting with this and you will hopefully begin to see that you do have some control over the sharpness of the image. I think this will make your images better (at least – sharper 🙂 ).

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