Recently, I saw a message in a photography Facebook group that asked why a person was having trouble taking pictures with her camera. The camera was having trouble focusing in a low-light situation, and no matter what she did, she couldn’t get the camera to snap what she was seeing.
While it’s a frustrating problem to have when you’re on a photo shoot, it’s one that can be easily solved on most modern-day digital cameras.
Why does it keep trying to focus?
You might notice in a low-light situation, your camera will try to continually focus on what you’re pointing at. If you watch the focus ring of your lens, you’ll see it shift back and forth, trying to gain a perfect focus.
The reasoning behind this is that a camera’s autofocus system often relies on seeing contrast in an image. If there’s not enough contrast to be seen by the camera, it’ll keep on searching for that tack sharp focus point.
How to change the focusing system
When I get a new digital camera, one of the first things I change is its autofocus priority. By default, most cameras set this to Focus, which camera manufacturers put in place so you can achieve a sharp photograph. But this also creates the situation I described above. If your camera supports it, you can change this to read Release, which allows you to click the shutter button and capture a photo, regardless whether your camera believes to be in focus or not.
This change is especially important if you’re using continuous autofocus (C-AF), so you can set your focus and continually click the shutter button.
Most cameras hide this in a custom menu under either a custom menu or in the autofocus settings. On my Olympus OM-D EM-1 Mark II, this menu option is in the custom C Release menu, and you can set the behavior for both S-AF and C-AF shooting modes. On a Nikon camera like the D850, this option is usually located in the A Autofocus menu. Consult your camera’s instruction manual for specific instructions on how to change this on your camera.
What if your camera won’t allow you to change autofocus priority?
If your camera is older, you might not have the option to change your autofocus priority. In this case, it’s important to know how to work with tricky lighting situations. Consider boosting your ISO and opening up your aperture. While you could slow down your shutter speed, this might be unrealistic in a low-light environment, especially in fast-moving situations.