AF Tip – Autofocus for Portraits

Posted November 25th, 2015 by   |  Photography  |  Permalink

Using the correct autofocus settings will help you create great holiday portraits.

Note: Part of this article is an excerpt from our new book titled The Nikon Autofocus System, Mastering Focus for Sharp Images Every Time. It has been modified to include information on both Canon and Nikon DSLRs.

The holiday season is coming up and we’ll be taking lots of portraits of friends and family over the next two months. It is time to brush up on your autofocus skills for holiday portraiture.

The most important thing to focus on when you shoot portraits is the subject’s eye. Humans learn a lot about a person by looking into their eyes, so in a photograph, the eye must be critically sharp. Therefore, I generally like to use single-point AF area for my portraiture. This allows me to accurately select my focus point (eye) where a different autofocus setting like auto-area or group-area might pick a different point of focus.

Single AF

Single point autofocus allows you to focus on a specific object like an eye.

Group Area AF

Be careful when using other autofocus patterns like Group Area AF. As you can see in this photo, the pattern focused on the tip of the nose, causing the eyes to be out of focus.

If you shoot with a fast lens, like the 85mm f/1.4 lens with the aperture wide open, then you need to be particularly careful about critically focusing so you don’t accidentally focus on an eyebrow or the ear. At f/1.4, your DOF (depth of field) is so narrow that if you don’t focus directly on the eye, then it will be out of focus and the viewer will reject the shot.

Group Christmas Portrait

For group portraits, focus about 1/3 of the way into the group from front to back.

When you shoot groups, use a smaller aperture like f/8 or f/11 to gain more DOF, and focus about one third of the way into the group to maximize the DOF. In group portraiture, you don’t necessarily focus on any specific person; rather, you focus into the group to maximize DOF. One third of the DOF occurs in front of the focus point and two thirds of the DOF occurs behind the focus point.

When shooting portraits, you frequently need to focus, then recompose so the subject is on the left or right of the frame. Therefore, you’ll need to set your autofocus motor to single servo. On a Nikon, this is called AF-S, and on a Canon, this is called One-shot. If you if you are a back-button focuser (you know who you are), then you’ll set the camera to AF-C or AI-Servo for Nikon and Canon respectively.


For shots like these, I focus first, then recompose for the best composition. I also shoot in burst mode to try and capture the best expressions.

I keep my camera in continuous high (CH on Nikon, Continuous on Canon) frame rate so I can shoot bursts if necessary. Even in portraiture, there are times when it makes sense to shoot a quick burst of images in order to get the shot. If you use flash in your portraiture work, I suggest staying in single-shot mode; otherwise your flash units won’t be able to recycle fast enough to keep up with a fast frame rate.

Nikon Autofocus Book

Interested in learning more about autofocus on Nikon cameras? Check out our brand new book titled The Nikon Autofocus System, Mastering Focus for Sharp Images Every Time.


The Nikon Autofocus System eBook at Rocky Nook


The Nikon Autofocus System at Rocky Nook

The Nikon Autofocus System at Amazon

Autographed Copies

The Nikon Autofocus System – Autographed Copies

Nikon AF cover

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