11 Tips for Focusing Your Camera at Night

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Night photography is full of challenges. One of the biggest for beginners and pros alike is the difficulty of achieving accurate focus when photographing very dark scenes. However, autofocus systems are constantly improving and many of today’s modern DSLR cameras can focus in darkness that would have short-circuited the autofocus systems of cameras made just a few years ago. Yet, the downside of most autofocus lenses is that they do not have hard stops at the infinity focus point. This hard stop was a boon to night (and daylight) photographers familiar with the pleasures of old-school manual focus lenses.

So, what are some helpful ways to focus in the dark?

1. Use Manual Focus

The quick remedy for a confused autofocus focus is to switch to manual focus. On a DSLR, if you can see the image clearly in the viewfinder in the dark, you should be all set. For critically precise focus, you might have to use some other techniques that we will get into below. One more thing to mention, manual focus lenses are usually more pleasurable to focus than autofocus lenses—they have a better tactile feel, and the precise focus ring movement will assist you in getting accurate focus.

A classic manual focus lens
A classic manual focus lens

2. Infinity Focus

Depending on your subject, the scene before your camera may be well past the focus range of your lens and into the “infinity” distance. In that case, setting your lens to infinity will allow anything past a certain distance to be in focus in the shot. Of course, as I mentioned in the opening, not all lenses have hard stops at the infinity mark, so that can make finding the true infinity point problematic. Keep on reading.

3. Pre-Focus During the Day

One trick is to focus your camera at a distant (infinity) object during the day using your trusty autofocus. Then, switch the camera to manual focus and use a piece of gaffer tape to keep the focus ring on the lens from moving. This technique could also work for objects that are closer than the infinity distance, but only the most dedicated photographers focus on something close-up during the day and then wait for darkness without moving their rig! Obviously, a pre-focused infinity setup will give you more versatility on a night outing unless you are doing a very specific shot.

4. Hyperfocal Focusing

From my article about depth of field: Hyperfocal distance is defined as the distance, when the lens is focused at infinity, where objects from half of this distance to infinity will be in focus for a particular lens. Alternatively, hyperfocal distance may refer to the closest distance that a lens can be focused for a given aperture while objects at a distance (infinity) will remain sharp.

Many older lenses, and some newer lenses, have hyperfocal markings on the lens barrel. Basically, this allows you to set your lens so that, at a given aperture, you can determine at what distance objects in the frame will be in focus. So, without even looking at the viewfinder, you can set your focus.

5. Live View + Zoom

Many modern DSLR cameras feature a live-view function where the mirror flips out of the way and the camera acts like a digital mirrorless or point-and-shoot camera—showing the image on the LCD screen. This technology has been a blessing for night photographers because they now may be able to zoom-in on the image on the LCD screen and manually focus with precision. Of course, if you are out shooting without a mirror in your camera, you can and should use your mirrorless camera or point-and-shoot’s LCD screen and zoom functions to help achieve critical focus.

6. Focus Peaking

Once common in videography, focus peaking is part of some live view systems, mirrorless cameras, and point-and-shoot cameras, as well. Basically, focus peaking shows you regions in the frame where the highest contrast exists by highlighting them in a bright color. The real advantage of focus peaking is when you are using manual focus lenses. Instead of relying on your eyesight to determine when the scene is in focus, focus peaking lets you determine the plane and depth of focus very quickly.

7. Target the Autofocus on the Edge of Bright Objects

If there is a region of high contrast in the image, usually near a relatively bright object, you can aim the camera’s autofocus at that area, and then, by moving the camera or by changing the autofocus point, see if the autofocus will lock on that region. Be sure you have your camera set to single autofocus and not continuous focus. If the autofocus locks on that area, keep the shutter depressed half-way or use the autofocus lock button, recompose, and take the shot you want. You can also use the autofocus to lock on that bright point in the image and then switch to manual focus before you recompose. This will keep the focus from being adjusted by the camera when you change the framing. Of course, be careful not to adjust the manual focus once the autofocus has the scene sharp!

8. Shoot the Moon

Is the moon up? Guess what? The moon is likely past the infinity focus distance of your lens. Point your lens at the moon, autofocus, and lock in that focus. If there is no moon you may be able to do the same trick with a bright star or planet depending on how advanced and sensitive your camera’s autofocus sensors are. Again, lock focus or switch to manual focus to preserve the autofocus solution.

9. Flashlight

If you are not photographing a very distant scene, you can do two tricks with a handy flashlight or headlamp. The first trick is to use the light to illuminate your scene to give the autofocus system enough light and contrast to operate. The second trick is to place your flashlight into the scene at the distance where you are trying to achieve focus. Focus on the flashlight, lock in focus, and then remove it before taking the photo.

Fenix Flashlight PD40R v2 Rechargeable LED Flashlight

10. Laser Pointer

Just like the first flashlight trick above, you can hit a target in your scene with a laser pointer and train your camera’s autofocus sensor on that spot. The laser has the advantage of being more concentrated and therefore possibly less obtrusive than a wide beam of a flashlight. It will also be brighter and may be able to help get accurate focus at a longer distance. B&H has several laser pointers that are useful for this purpose.

Laser pointer

11. Test Shot + Preview

Of course, you should always scrutinize your images for accurate focus by viewing them on the LCD and zooming in to the maximum extent possible. If you are shooting high ISO test shots of the scene, use these throw-away images to verify accurate focus as well as exposure—especially if the “real” exposure is very long. There is nothing quite like reviewing a 15-minute exposure to find out that your focus is off. Check your focus with your 15-second high ISO test shot instead!

What tricks do you use to focus your camera in the dark? Share them with us and our readers, below!

And visit our Night Photography section Explora for additional night photo content.

6 Comments

I was using the af assist lamp built into my godox x1t trigger, when it stopped working. I resorted to using my cell phone as a flash light to focus the last few shots. HOLDING the phone with one hand and dslr with the other was a real pain.

Yep, there are things in photography that would be much easier accomplished with a third arm and hand! I have wished, many times, that I had a third upper limb!

A head lamp is a great tool in these light-needed scenarios.

Thanks for reading, Ernesto!

I often use the infrared from a flash mounted on camera, which will be turned on and thereby will shine the subject when pressing half-way down the camera's shutter buton, to focus in a total darkness environment..

Hey Henry,

Good tip! Focus assist lamps are good, depending on the distances from the camera to the subject, but sometimes you will need a more powerful light!

Thanks for reading!

Darn! You mean that I have to focus my autofocus camera at infinity manually? I haven't tried to do any star photography with my 5D III and EF 24-105 f4L. But shortly after I got my 5D, my wife and I were commuting back home and I saw this vanity license plate that demanded a photograph; it was a very yellow car with TWDYBRD on the plate. I tried to take a photo and the camera wouldn't focus. I handed the camera to my wife and said "There's a switch on the lens, A and M. Switch it to M." I was able to focus on the plate at a stop light and take the photo.

I missed reading this article "Who Killed Infinity Focus?" (http://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/features/who-killed-infinity-focus%3F) and now you are a "Myth Buster"! I thought that cranking counter-clockwise to full stop for my Canon FD lenses would focus at infinity. That's what I did when I did "drive-by" shootings when I was in Iowa with my Canon A-1. I'd set the focus of my FD 50mm f1.8 to infinity, frame (with right eye) and shoot, while driving; I've taken a photo coming out of a tunnel on I-40 in Tennessee while driving. I've taken a photo ov Venus, Jupiter, Aldebaran with my FD 28mm f2.8 and also photos of the International Space Station with my 80-205mm f4.5. And now, I've learned that prefocusing doesn't work. I first developed my "drive-by" shooting technique using disposable film cameras.

I didn't know that infinity for FD lenses wasn't necessarily infinity. This rant was in jest.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/ralphhightower/12417589004/in/album-72157630076649274/ (5D 24-105 f4L manual focus)

Hey Ralph,

Thanks for the laughs! Sorry you missed the Infinity article, but glad you found it now! That article took a lot of research and was driven by pure curiosity on my part. The interesting part of the research is that a lot of the folks I spoke to had no idea what the answer was for their partcular lenses until they did some digging with their optical engineers.

As always, thanks for reading!

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