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Focus points: A single focusing point

Early EOS cameras have just one, central, focusing point. It is an effective system that emulates the centrally-positioned focusing aids of the previous generation of Canon’s manual focus FD SLR cameras. With a single, central focusing point, the lens focuses on whatever the focusing point is covering. This works fine – as long as you want the part of the scene that’s in the centre of the frame to be in focus.

If you don’t, you can use focus lock, but that takes time and also means that you have to think about what the camera is doing. Not ideal for an autofocus system. So Canon introduced multipoint focusing. It first appeared on the EOS 10 in 1990; today, it’s standard across the range of EOS cameras and it’s hard to imagine using a single-lens reflex camera without it.

For many of your photographs, there’s a fair chance that you’d get by with a single, central focusing point. After all, the main subject – the thing you want to be in focus – will often be in the centre.

A typical problem with a single, central focusing point occurs if you are photographing two people standing close to each other (above). The camera will focus on the background in-between your subjects, who will then be out of focus.

If you have two people in the frame at different distances from the camera (above), a central focusing point may bring one person into focus, but will it give the result you want?

You might want to position the subject to one side of the frame. With single-point focusing systems, however, when you place your subject to one side the camera still uses the central point to focus, and you run the risk of the main subject being out of focus (as seen above).

Multipoint focusing lets you place the main subject wherever you like in the frame, and it will still be in sharp focus (above). Most EOS cameras will either automatically select a focus point for you, or let you step in and make the selection yourself.

The EOS 7D introduced a new single AF point mode called Spot AF. On a normal autofocus sensor, the sensor for each point is actually larger than the AF point shown in the viewfinder. Spot AF uses the same AF point to perform focus but the area it uses is much smaller – only fractionally larger than the AF point displayed in the viewfinder. This mode is useful in situations where you want to be very precise about the area you focus on, for example shooting through long grass or when taking portraits.

In the portrait situation it allows you to focus on the eye of your model with a much reduced chance that the edge of the AF point will actually find focus on an eyelash or eyebrow with the result when shooting with very shallow depth-of-field that the image is slightly out of focus. This mode can be used when shooting moving subjects in AI Servo, though it will require very good reactions and subject tracking skills to keep the smaller AF point exactly where it needs to be on the subject.

Because of the smaller area used to perform focusing on the AF sensor, the Spot AF mode is not as fast at detecting and correcting extreme de-focus situations.