FYI: (Don’t) “Always focus on the eye.”

This is one of the often heard phrases in this hobby. I’m here to tell you it’s wrong. At least some of the time.

The above image is an example of when it is right. The subject is close and well defined, and the depth of field is shallow. The camera finds the eye with no problem, and it is true that the eye is the focal point which draws viewers attention.

Mottled Ducks

The above image is an example of when it is wrong. This shot was taken at 135 yards and heavily cropped. Obviously, not an ideal situation but sometimes that’s all you get. Below is the image before cropping, taken at 600mm.

In this shot, and any shot like it, I put my focus point on the body for two reasons:

  1. If I attempt to focus on that small target (the eye/head) I am liable to miss the bird entirely and end up with a blurry mess.
  2. At this distance, the depth of field–that area before and after the subject which is in focus–is so great that it doesn’t matter where I put the focus point on the bird. So I aim for the body to get a good focus lock.
Royal Tern

This Tern came by me pretty close. I pulled up and took a quick shot. Not my best effort, as you can see by the screenshot below. A plug-in for Lightroom called “FocusPoint” gives us some good information about this capture.

Even though my primary focus point was on the wing, the head is sharp due to depth of field.
Data from the Royal Tern photo.

I learned this through experimentation, after getting frustrated with missing a number of shots and not being able to figure out why. I use this technique a lot for birds-in-flight if they aren’t very close, or in situations where the background is busy and I can’t get a good lock on the head.

Your Mileage May Vary.

Published by Larry Maras

Nature Photographer in Summerville, SC.

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