Camera Focus Modes: What They Are & When To Use Them

Okay, this one was a big one in my classes last week, we actually talked about focus modes…but most people think those are either focus points or focus areas. Focus modes and areas are different but I am going to talk about both camera focus areas and choosing the correct camera focus mode as well as focus points for you to get clear images of the subject you actually want in focus. Sounds helpful, yes? Alright, let’s dive in.

The Different Focus Modes

What is the focus mode on the camera? Well, your camera has several different ways that you can tell it to focus, and most of it is dependent on the scene in front of you, or on what subject you are photographing. So for example, if you photograph landscapes your focus mode will be very different than if you are trying to photograph your kids running around, and different than even a portrait session. All of these scenarios have different focus modes. A focus mode is actually how the camera focuses, not to be confused with where the camera focuses (that’s called focus area). Your focus mode is very important and can make or break how many tack sharp images you get or how often you are yelling at your camera (no…that’s just me?).

Camera Focus Modes:

  • AF-S: Single Shot autofocus (single servo or One Shot on Canon). Single shot focuses when you depress the shutter halfway and locks focus. This is best for a non moving object (like when taking landscapes)
  • AF-C: Continuous autofocus (Continuous servo or AI Servo on Canon). Continuous autofocus keeps readjusting the autofocus as you move. This is especially useful for moving objects (running kids) or panning (following birds flying)
  • AF-A: Auto autofocus (auto servo or AI Focus on Canon). Auto autofocus is when the camera chooses between single shot and continuous. This is useful for when you have changing shooting conditions.
  • MF: Manual Focus. Occasionally you may need to set your camera to manual focus if you are having trouble getting your focus to lock (like in very low light situations). Manual focus is really for when you can control a lot of your scene and when you and your subject are not moving. I very rarely switch to manual focus on my digital camera bodies, but it is there if needed.

So What Exactly, Is a Focus “Area”?

So if focus mode is really HOW your camera focuses (how the autofocus motor works) then the focus areas are WHERE your camera focuses within the frame. So what is the Number 1 rule? Get off auto focus area! Auto area focus looks like a square on the Canon and Nikon. This area mode is actually giving your camera full control over where the camera focuses…and you DO NOT want that! You, as the creator of the image, want to determine what in your frame is in focus. The AI in your camera is just not good enough to figure out what you want in focus and allowing it to choose for you has it wrong 7 out of 10 times, at least! Beyond auto area mode there are 3 other main choices and all are better than auto—so let’s discuss those.

Focus Area Modes

  • Single Point: Allows you to choose a very small focus point on the camera, and allows you to move it around to whatever you want to focus on. For portraits we tend to put this point directly over the eye, for example.
  • Dynamic Area: Very similar to single point, you move the point around but if you subject steps out of the small focus point the camera uses the surrounding focal points to help you lock focus. This is the one I use almost all the time on my camera.
  • 3D Tracking: If you have moving subjects, like in sports photography, this one is a great mode.
  • Auto Area AF: Like I said, I do not recommend auto area autofocus. This focus mode gives over complete control so the camera is guessing what you want in focus. If everything you photograph is center weighted and doesn’t move then this might work, but since I assume you are looking to control and create unique photographs this focus area mode will not do your imagery justice and mostly it will “guess” wrong.

What is a Camera Focus Point?

Your camera may have anywhere from 9 focus points (old DSLR’s like Nikon D3000 or Canon Rebel T3 for example) to well over 200 focus points with a newer camera like the Canon R series mirrorless or the Nikon Z series mirrorless cameras. Focus points actually tell the camera to the exact thing you want to focus on. You can easily change the focal point and make sure it’s where you want it. Or, a lot of photographers do a trick called “focus and reframe” while using one-shot focus mode. This means you lock focus, hold it, and then reframe the image to how you want it to look. This is often quicker than changing the focal point if you are photographing a semi-still subject or are constantly changing your focus points. But if you aren’t even seeing the focal point light up in the viewfinder, it is likely because you have the wrong focus mode chosen.

Left Photo: To manually change the focal point on Canon you often have to switch to manual by pressing the button in red here (may be elsewhere on your camera)

Right Photo: Notice the focal point is all the way to the left on this Nikon D3500, hopefully that is where this photographer wants to focus in their photo.

Hopefully this post has you understanding that camera focus modes are the foundation of any good photo and are key to achieving a good result. Whether you choose to use continuous or single shot, or switch back and forth between them, experimenting with different focus modes can help you take your photos to the next level. Understanding how they work and the differences between them will give you an advantage on your photo-taking journey, and the reward of capturing beautiful shots. As Ansel Adams once said, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it”. So make the most of your camera and create something beautiful.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



I am a professional photographer & photo educator. I’m here to share with you my best (and easiest) tips and tricks for taking amazing photos. I’m sharing years of knowledge as a teaching artist to help you find a way to share your unique point of view with the world. Welcome to The Photo Method.

find your way around


pssst - it's free!

HEY PHOTOGRAPHERS! The Best Beginner Camera Settings

Just got a new camera and wondering where you should start with your camera settings? This free guide gives you all the recommended settings when you are just starting out—from focus modes, to ISO, to getting off auto mode. These are the settings I have given my students for 15 years…I promise they work!

Join The list
☞  SIGN UP TO receive THE LATEST news and updates  ☜
Thank you for subscribing!
Get the camera settings guide.
Sign up to get the download sent right to your inbox!
Thank you for subscribing!
Let's learn to use that camera!
☞  enroll in the free mini course today  ☜
I'm so excited you are joining the free course. Check your email for lesson one!
grab the 7 must ask wedding checklist questions!
Thank you for subscribing!
grab the 5 free editing apps!
Thank you for subscribing!