Why Your Food Photo is Not Focused and How to Fix Out of Focus Pictures

Lentil Soup Photo

Food photos that are unintentionally out of focus cannot be corrected. Perfectly styled food with great use of props cannot save the photo, if the photographer fails to focus correctly.

You may be surprised to know how many things can go wrong that can cause out of focus pictures. Yes! even in auto-focus mode.

In this post, we get into one subject that isn’t talked about much in books or blogs. We discuss how auto focus mode can lead to out of focus images and how you can capture sharp food photos.

We are not talking about impressionist art here. There are certain artistic ways where photographer purposefully blurs the image and creates an outstanding art. That’s not the focus here. We are talking about those cases, where the artist wanted a sharp image, but could not.

Let’s look at some reasons why your photos are out of focus, even when you are using auto focus mode.

5 Reasons Auto Focus Mode Does Not Work

1. Low light

The most common situation when auto focus fails to work is in low light situations. If you shoot dinner after sunset when natural light is really low, you may find auto focus motor keeps on focusing in and focusing out. This is because, the light is too low for the camera to find a spot for auto focus.

In some cases, camera focuses on a spot that has more light than rest of the scene and if you press the button, you will have captured a photo that will have to be discarded.

I have noticed this especially when trying to shoot food in a metal utensil. If the edge of the metal is shining and I am completely relying on camera brain, it will focus on the metal rather than the food itself.

To avoid this situation, make sure that the subject is well lit or you use manual focus and carefully focus on the right spot.

2. Light behind the subject

When you are trying to shoot your dish that is backlit, nailing focus on the exact spot is tricky. Backlighting presents a technical challenge in focusing on the right spot.

Whenever camera cannot find the focus spot, your focusing motor acts crazy. It tries to find a spot while searching the entire frame and the depth. It then makes a decision and focus is locked and picture is captured.

This is true for any situation where focusing is tricky, but specially true for backlighting and low light situation.

To correctly focus in this case, use manual focus.

3. Wrong Auto Focus modes

Some time back I was capturing dripping maple syrup on pancakes. I took a tethered photograph, and it popped up on the big screen. Out of focus. This was the fifth photo that was going to be trashed.

At this point, we had already dripped lot of maple syrup, and in few more attempts, pancakes were going to be useless for a photograph.

In each of these attempts the focus point was moving. And then I checked my focus-mode. It was on “continuous mode” and camera was capturing a point and focus was following that point. Even though, the difference was minor, on the big screen, it looked pretty bad.

The lesson here is that these days DSLR cameras come with many different autofocus modes (primarily three – single area, continuous and hybrid). Choosing right focus mode for right photo shoot will help you avoid wasting 2 big bottles of maple syrup.

4. Focus On the Wrong Spot

Perhaps the most common mistake of all time is to pick a wrong autofocus spot. If you are shooting a soup in a bowl, rather than setting the focus on top layer, you may accidentally set the focus on a spot behind the soup bowl.

That’s not good.

After you check the auto focus mode, make sure you check that focus is set on the right spot.

5. Lens Stuck

Until few months ago, I was using this lens . But few days back I realized that there was a serious issue with this lens.

The focus motor was getting stuck every now-n-then. I would switch it to manual mode, and play with it and turn the auto-mode back on and it would work fine.

This is more of a technical gear issue that taught me no matter what, learning a little bit about your gear is important.

How to Capture Sharp Food Images

For creating sharp food photograph, you need to take time and patiently execute few important steps:

1. Be intentional about your photograph

Food photography, and for that matter, any type of photography needs to be thoughtful exercise. You have to understand what your goal is, what you are trying to communicate with that photo. If you can’t answer this question, you won’t know where in the frame should you focus.

Understanding the goal of the photograph, for his reason, is absolutely important.

2. Use the right mode.

We have talked about different focus modes. If you have completed step 1 thoughtfully, you will be able to decide the right focus mode. Skip the first step and you will scramble with your camera while the ice cream is melting on the photo set.

3. Survey your frame

Here’s the last thing you should do to make sure your images are sharp – observe with your eyes open. When you peak through that viewfinder, make sure you screen the frame and carefully ensure that the area that needs to be in focus, is sharp and crisp.

Very often the urge to pressing the button is so high that we forget to observe.

Finding Focus

It’s very puzzling for me to find very little being written about focus and how to achieve sharp and perfectly focus images. I came across a book that talks about focus not just from a sharpness perspective, but on a more broader level.

In this book, Nicole talks about a broader meaning of sharp image. She spends considerable amount of time on the intention of your photograph. It’s a great book for anyone who wants sharp food photos.

The book is available here.

  • Michelle

    I didn’t know there were different auto-focus modes! I’ve been having problems with my pictures not being sharp enough. I’m going to experiment with these settings to see if it helps. Thanks!

    • Thank you for your comments. Yes, with different type of auto focus modes, its really easy to not select the right mode and get the focus off… very frustrating… specially if you find that out after you have transferred your photos to a bigger screen.

  • Love reading this post. I have had issues dealing with focus, at times and then the photography session would become trial and error method, which i so dislike . very informative

  • one of the other reason which could result to out of focus is wrongly use of the aperture setting. I love bokeh. but over doing it in food photography tend to backfire. So instead of setting at f1.4 for a shot, f4.0 or even f5.6 could get better result and with some reasonably nice bokeh too (Depending on your lens and camera body make, too)

  • Thanks.

  • Really interesting. I think the aperture has a huge effect on the overall sharpness, especially in the studio. By the way, do you have any pizza photography tutorials coming up? Would be great to read one. Gideon Hart – http://www.gideonhart.com

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