Having recently added a Sony mirrorless camera to my kit, it took me a minute to master what turned out to be a very user-friendly autofocus system. Sure, I understood how to choose between manual focus and continuous or single-shot autofocus modes, but I didn’t really capitalize on the powerful autofocus system until I took full advantage of changing the available autofocus areas. Here’s a rundown of the Sony camera focus areas available in many of the company’s mirrorless cameras, as well as what makes them tick and how to put them to use.
The first focus area that comes up on an A7R3 menu is called Wide. It’s the default focus area, likely set up that way because it’s most like what a point-and-shoot photographer would expect from a camera’s autofocus. It simply finds the most likely center of interest wherever it may be and focuses on it.
The camera makes this decision based on a few factors. It looks at the center of the frame, what’s closest to the camera and for faces. The challenge, of course, is that in this simple Wide area you can’t force the camera to choose one of these over the other. By default, it’s going to go for a face, and if there are multiple faces in view, it’s going to pick the nearest one.
For more control over exactly what area it should focus on, you’ll want to choose a different focus area setting. Pressing the shutter halfway, the camera will display a green frame around the area it’s focusing on.
Switching from Wide to Zone provides more control without much complication. Whereas the Wide area setting examines the entire frame, searching for a face or nearby object on which to focus, the Zone setting divides the frame into nine selectable sections so the photographer can choose where to look for the focus point. This is exceptionally useful when a scene is busy—containing multiple faces or several different objects that may confuse the camera on a wide area setting.
Because Zone only divides the frame into nine segments, they’re still fairly large. The benefit of that is the photographer doesn’t have to spend a lot of time choosing focus areas. But if the objects in the scene are close together, Zone may have a hard time determining which one the photographer wants to focus on. For that, a focus area with more selectable zones may be necessary.
One focus area setting with more precise control is Center. If you’re an old-school DSLR shooter from the film days, the Center focus area will remind you of the good old days. The way it works is simple: put the center of interest in the center of the frame and the camera will focus on it. That’s because the Center setting focuses on whatever is in the center of the frame. If your subject moves out of the center the camera won’t follow.
Photographers who like the “focus and recompose” technique may like this setting, with which they focus and hold the focus lock button on their camera before recomposing the frame in the composition they like.
The Flexible Spot focus area is unique because it’s both very powerful and very straightforward. The camera provides a tiny focus point, visualized by a small glowing square, which can be moved around the frame by the photographer via scroll wheels or the multi-selector (joystick) depending on the camera body. It allows the photographer to be very precise in selecting a small subject on which to focus. This is a great solution for crowded frames or when multiple faces are visible in the viewfinder. To change the size of the spot, scroll left or right on the menu item before selecting it.
Expand Flexible Spot
This setting could also be called “Flexible Spot with a Backup Plan.” With Expand Flexible Spot selected, the camera will first attempt to focus on the precise spot the photographer designates. But if it’s unable to find focus there, it will automatically expand the focus area to include focus points in the immediate vicinity of the selected spot. It’s like Flexible Spot, but smarter.
The Lock-On AF modes offer an enhanced version of the above focus areas, so long as the camera is set to Continuous Autofocus mode. (Any sort of focus tracking won’t work in Single-Shot Autofocus, which is why many photographers prefer to use Continuous AF with these cameras by default.) Once autofocus is enabled and a subject is selected, Lock-On AF will track that subject as it moves throughout the frame. It’s great for sports photographers and candid situations with moving subjects.