Monday, July 23, 2012

How To Focus Through Fences


I was asked recently if I could write a tutorial on how to focus through chain link and other wire type fences. In other words, how do you get the camera to focus on the subject on the other side of a fence rather than the fence itself. The example given was like at a zoo where you want to photograph an animal, but the camera keeps focusing on the fence. Much of this will apply to DSLR's and, as always, it will depend on your camera and its capabilities. Some of the tips will work with point and shoots, but not all of them. Other factors will come into play like your distance from the fence, the subject's distance from the fence, etc.


Manual Focus
The best way to gain control over your camera's focus is to use manual focusing. Many people who own a DSLR have never focused manually. Because cameras are capable of being used in full auto mode, we often don't think to take control away from the camera. Many lenses have a switch on them that allow you to choose auto focus or manual. You may need to refer to your owner's manual to find out how to set this for your equipment. Focusing manually is not as daunting as it may seem. Granted, if you've never done it, there is a bit of a learning curve, but it's not that bad. By focusing manually, you can avoid the fence problem and focus directly on the subject on the other side. This is easier when the subject is still, but can be done on moving animals. At zoos, many animals will pace or wander the same path over and over. If you're having trouble manually focusing on a moving animal, the way around that is to pre-focus on a point where you know the animal will walk and take the shot when it comes into that spot. Manually focusing on motionless animals is easy and is the best way to overcome the tendency for the camera to focus on the fence.


Focus Points
DSLR cameras have a certain number of focus points which are usually indicated by squares on the focus screen when you look through the viewfinder. The number of focus points varies from brand to brand and model to model. As far as I know, all DSLR's allow you to choose either all focus points or a single focus point. How that is achieved also depends on the particular camera. That's where you need to refer to your owner's manual.


If manual focusing is not something you feel you can do, you can set your auto focus point to the single center point and turn off the others. You can then aim the center point through a hole in the fence and onto the subject. Your distance from the fence is important for this. The closer you are, the easier it is to do. If you are too far from the fence, the opening may be too small for this to work. This is a common problem at zoos where there is a fence around the animals and other barriers beyond that to keep people back.


Having all of the focus points activated is good for general photography, but I rarely use my camera that way. The majority of the time, I use just the center point. I have my camera set up so I can change the focus point just by using the thumb pad on the back of the camera. This allows me to change the point even during shooting to adjust as the situation dictates. When all of the focus points are active, the camera will inevitably lock on the fence rather than the animal. Knowing how to set a single point will allow you to work around that.


Manual focus and setting a single focus point are the two options for keeping the camera from locking on a fence. Because it's so closely related to what I'm talking about, I also want to include some tips on how to reduce the presence of fences in photos.


Get Close
This assumes you can get right up next to the fence. By putting your lens against an opening in the fence, it will reduce and sometimes eliminate the fence from the shot. Your lens also plays a part in this. A longer or telephoto lens won't show as much fence as a wide angle lens will. Even with a long lens, there may still be some "shadowing" in the photo. You may find, though, that you can get an acceptable shot just by sticking your camera right up to an opening.


Large Aperture
Using a large aperture (small f number) will create a shallow depth of field and blur out the fence. This works best when there is some distance between the fence and the subject you're shooting. If the animal is close to the fence, the fence will be more prominent, too. The best way to set a specific f stop is to shoot in Aperture Priority (AV) mode or in manual. Leaving your camera on the "green square" or full auto will make this difficult since the camera will choose an aperture based on what it thinks is needed for the correct exposure.


Make The Fence Part Of The Shot
If all else fails, you can try incorporating the fence into your shot. If an animal is up against the fence, you could get a tight shot of an eye looking through an opening. If it's an animal hanging onto the fence, you could again get a tight shot and use that in the photo. This is where creativity and composition come into play. These kinds of fences usually aren't appealing for photographs, but with some imagination, you can compose an interesting shot.


Conclusion
Chain link and other wire fences are difficult to work around and zoos, in particular, are designed for our safety and that of the animals, not so much for photography. Obviously, it would be nice to avoid the fence altogether, but the point of this tutorial is to provide some tips when avoiding fences isn't possible. I am not an expert on the subject and I'm flattered I was asked to discuss it. These are things I've learned and have done myself. Sometimes the end result is what I wanted and sometimes not. Most of this you probably already know, but if there's anything here that helps, then I've accomplished what I wanted to do.


If you have a tip that has worked for you or there's something I haven't covered, feel free to share it in the comments. I certainly don't know everything and learning from others is part of the process of becoming a better photographer.

22 comments:

Carole M. said...

..a nicely written tutorial you've shared Brian; thanks for taking the time

Linda said...

Thank you for this, Brian! I have been using manual focus occasionally, though I don't often trust my eye! But, I am trying to figure out how to change the focus points to single...guess I will have to get out the book! I have not been able to find anything yet. Great job today! I appreciate the time you invested in sharing the information with us.

Beth said...

i think i will print this off ...because i will need it in person. a lot to remember ...considering i am only in the learning stages. ha. ha!! thank you for the lesson. i know it will help lots. out to find me a fence. ha. ha!!! (:

Faye said...

If you ever did a photography class in Louisville--or close by--I'd certainly take it, Brian. I appreciate your style of instruction. It's like you're telling us this is what I've learned from some study and a lot of trial and error. It won't guarantee success all the time, but ever now and then--oh boy!

Jan n Jer said...

Great tutorial Brian...wish you could visit out camera club n share some of your tips. I think I will print this off n pass it around to the members. WE are all amatuers and have soooo much to learn about our camera's! Thanx for sharing!

Stewart M said...

Hi there - I think that the best idea in this whole post is the once that runs through all of it - learn to use your camera with some of the bells and whistles turned off. It’s really not that hard - and if the picture does not work, it’s not the end of the world.

My other tip would be to look for high angled views over the fence - so in a zoo look for a platform, in the "wilds" stand on a gate (climb a tree!) If I park on the side of the road I often stand inside on the road side door - this also allows you to rest on the roof!

Nice post.

Stewart M

Pamela Gordon said...

A great post and helpful tips. Thanks Brian!

Debbie said...

some really good tips brian!!

often, my camera easily passes the fence and zooms on the animal. i recently shared a picture of an eagle where it did just that.

perhaps the focus was not perfect but my nikon did a really good job at knowing what i was after for my photo. i didn't play with any settings, and i used auto focus!!

TexWisGirl said...

i agree with faye and jan - would love to take lessons from you. you have a patience and thoroughness about you that i could learn from.

i have tried manual focus - mostly trying to shoot owls thru tree limbs. sadly my (unaltered) eyesight often tricks me into thinking i'm in focus and it isn't until i upload pics that i realize i was not. i need to try the focus point settings tip.

Grandma Barb's This and That said...

Thanks for a great tutorial, Brian.

Sall's Country Life said...

This is a subject I run into when trying to shoot a bird in a tree. The camera wants to focus on the closest leaf of branch and I just keep clicking until it finds my subject! Now I'm gonna have to get out the manual again to check on these settings! Thanks for the tips!!

Gail Dixon (Louisiana Belle) said...

Very helpful post! I would say I use my center focus point 95% of the time. Later, I position my subject where I want it to be during the edit phase. I never let my camera decide where the focus is and in wildlife photography there are so many other settings to consider, the focus point is the easiest to leave alone.

Mary said...

What a great lesson. I'm going to keep this were I can return again and again.

Renae. said...

Brian, you are right on about the planning for a reunion being fun and aggravating! so true!

I don't have time today but, I am going to study this tutorial and learn all I can!! thanks!!!!

Terri Buster said...

Good lesson Brian. When I get a good camera, I will have to learn all of these tips and techniques.

Island Rambles Blog said...

Love this...I have been looking for some help on avoiding the chainlink fence shot...I really hope you will do more like this, I am bookmarking this so I can refer to it again...It is amazing what you can achieve if you just can blur out that fence!

Rohrerbot said...

Great tips! I use primarily the manuel focus on my work because I have better results especially if that something behind the fence moves. Very helpful post.

JOY @ http://joysjotsshots.blogspot.com/ said...

PERFECT! Just the kind of info I've been looking for. I also see some other tips from the comments above. One trick I did know and learned from my manual, and there is a name for it, is to focus on something close by, and while holding the button down, move the camera to the subject and snap. However, that rarely worked through a link fence because subject was at different distance. I will enJOY trying out your tips!

Linda said...

Thanks for the info Brian...I have tried occasionally with the manual focus...sometimes good sometimes not.

Liz said...

This is great Brian! I have a lot of trouble with manual focus as my eyesight isn't as sharp as it used to be. Great tips though. I think I will print them out and give it a try.

Deb said...

great tutorial Brian....I haven't had a lot of luck with manual focus...but my camera does really well through fences...you definately should teach classes...wish you were in Texas...

sparkle100-havealook.blogspot.com said...

Glad I found you by mistake sort of. I tagged you from someone else.

I love your phtography. I added myself to your many fans .

Thanks for your tutorial.