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How to focus in the dark with infinity focus

While the rain continues to fall in Michigan, I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been able to get out a few times and photograph some night skies. And with the Fourth of July coming up, now’s the perfect time to get ready.

Focusing in the dark is often made out to be tricky, because it’s not easy to have your camera lock a focus on something. This is due to the lack of light and contrast that your camera sees. Sure, the stars might be super bright to you, but they’re too far away for cameras to focus on.

What is infinity focus?

Infinity focus is a setting where everything beyond your lens’ hyperfocal distance will be in focus. From Wikipedia:

“…infinity focus is the state where a lens or other optical system forms an image of an object an infinite distance away. This corresponds to the point of focus for parallel rays. The image is formed at the focal point of the lens.”

In layman’s terms, infinity focus lets you focus things beyond what your camera would usually be able to focus on, and without an autofocus system. This makes it ideal for nighttime photography, as you can still obtain peak sharpness without relying on your camera’s autofocusing abilities.

How to use infinity focus

By focusing to infinity, you can easily come away with sharp looking night photographs. Not all lenses support infinity focus, but you’ll notice a lot of standard lenses on the market do. Fisheye, macro and other specialty lenses usually won’t.

To get started, turn your lens into manual focus mode. Then turn the focus ring until the straight line marker lines up with the infinity symbol, located at the end of the focus ring. This will look different depending on which brand of lens you have, but the infinity marker is always the same design.

Note that oftentimes, the infinity mark isn’t exactly at the end of your focus ring. Many lenses will turn past this mark, and some turn indefinitely, so be sure to the marker is lined up perfectly to the infinity symbol. This will ensure an ideal sharpness for your scene.

Some cameras, like the Olympus OM-D E-M1X and E-M1 Mark II, also allow you to preset your manual focusing distance, and offer it as a focus option in their menu. In this case, you’ll be able to set it to infinity, and not have to worry about bumping the focusing ring.

Avoid focus reset on Olympus cameras

If you’re using an Olympus camera, your camera might be set to reset the focus if you switch back and forth between auto and manual focus. To turn this function off, go to the gear menu, A4, Reset Lens, and set it to Off. This will ensure that, if you get some light and you are able to use autofocus, you can switch back to infinity without having to refocus everything.

Other things to keep in mind

If you aren’t obtaining sharpness with infinity, move it a bit past, as infinity focus points can be altered in high temperatures. Some camera lenses, like those from Canon, feature an infinity compensation mark, giving you a short range of distance to choose from.

When photographing a dark scene, it’s always best to use a tripod. This will help with your sharpness, and also make sure that your camera is stable while capturing the photograph. Especially with landscapes, you’ll need to leave your shutter open for an extended period of time during the dark, and oftentimes hand-holding a camera more than a few seconds can be tricky.

Infinity focus can also work great during the day if you’re using neutral density filters to create a long exposure.

Finally, you’ll also want to turn off any in-camera noise reduction, as it can lead to a slightly softer image.

Infinity focus is the perfect tool when photographing things like long exposures, fireworks and other night scenes. You no longer have to guess on a focus point, or hope your autofocus system will save the day — you can just move the focus ring to infinity and start shooting.

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