Greetings you’re listening to the Liam Photography Podcast, I’m your host Liam Douglas and this is Episode 266. In today’s Episode I want to talk about Focus Peaking, what it is and how to use it.
Anytime you use Manual Focus on your camera it can be hard to tell exactly what is in focus for your shot. You can try to guess using your eyesight only, but you can still end up with a shot where the Focus is slightly off. Similar to the way the Histogram guides you to a balanced exposure, the Focus Peaking can help you achieve Focus with an overlay in your Viewfinder.
So, what exactly is Focus Peaking? Well it is a Manual Focus aid that creates a visual overlay in your EVF or on the rear LCD that basically outlines everything in Focus with a colored overlay. On most cameras the overlay can be one of at least 3-4 colors. Usually you can choose from red, blue, and yellow on most mirrorless cameras and one of the main reasons why it’s a handy feature to have is manual only lenses are becoming more and more popular and there are companies making manual only lenses that are incredibly sharp that can make amazing images. There is also the added benefit that a manual only lens can have a super wide aperture for low light and still be a small fraction of what a comparable electric lens with AF will cost you.
Video cameras were the first to adopt this new technology, but with the advent of mirrorless cameras, now stills photographers can use this technology as well and it makes our lives so much easier. Most cameras will only allow you to use Focus Peaking with a manual only lens but many will allow you to use it with an AF lens as long as you have it in MF mode. Some camera makers refer to it as “peaking highlights” while others call it Focus Assist, but whatever the designation it is basically the same thing.
So, how do you access Focus Peaking on your camera? Well most of the camera makers put it in the AF/MF part of their menu system. On my Fujifilm cameras you go into that menu and then scroll till you find MF assist and then in that sub menu you have the option for Standard as well as Peak. Under Focus Peak on Fujifilm’s cameras you have White(Low), White(High), Red(Low), Red(high) and Blue(Low) and Blue(High). Depending on what conditions you are shooting in you can choose a really bright Focus Peak, ie High, but if say you were shooting a concert in low light or indoors at a wedding in low light you can probably get by using the Low mode, which would save some battery life. At a narrow aperture, such as f/22, the plane of focus is large, and a large portion of the image will be in focus. In this case, focus peaking will overlay color on a large part of the image. This is useful in situations when you aren’t sure what aperture will give you the depth of field that you want.
If your camera doesn’t have focus peaking built-in, you are not out of luck. Since videography has used focus peaking for a while, most external monitors meant primarily for video have focus peaking. The biggest downside is that they aren’t the cheapest accessories, but if you find yourself needing a way to check your focusing accuracy, you may want to consider an investment.
Simply plug in the external monitor to your camera and access focus peaking on the monitor itself. Before purchasing, ensure that the monitor has built-in focus peaking and that it is compatible with your camera. Online camera stores often have external camera monitors on sale around holidays.
So, how does Focus Peaking work? The mechanism behind focus peaking is logical. A focus peaking algorithm digitally analyzes the scene, looking for areas of high and low contrast. In the most simple terms, the areas of high contrast are in focus, and therefore will have a color overlay. The areas of low contrast are not in focus, so they will not have a color overlay.
Most cameras have adjustable focus peaking parameters, which you should use to your advantage depending on the scenario. The two most common parameters are the sensitivity and the color of the focus peaking overlay.
By changing the sensitivity or level of the overlay, the algorithm will either have a higher or lower sensitivity to the areas of highest contrast. This is useful because some scenarios will not have many areas in focus. For example, if you’re doing macro photography at f/1.8, only a small portion of the image will be in focus and a higher sensitivity might be useful.
In an opposite example, landscape photography at f/22 will have a large portion of the image in focus, and a lower sensitivity might be useful so that you can see more of the image itself rather than just color overlay. The nice thing about having a selection of colors for the Peaking overlay is because some colors might not work well with the scene you are shooting and be harder to make out. Just go back into the menu and try a different overlay color. As I mentioned before the most common ones are red, blue, yellow and white, but some camera have more colors than these four.
So when should and when shouldn’t you use Focus Peaking and how do you best use it? Well, if you are shooting landscapes, this is a great time for using it as with the smaller aperture of say F/8, most everything will light up with the Peaking overlay and this might be a time to use the Low setting versus High. And use a color that will stand out more. If you are shooting during sunrise or sunset, the red might not work well, and the same with Yellow, but Blue should be easier to see in the EVF or on the rear LCD, White might “pop” even more if your camera has that color.
What about Portrait Photography? Yes, if you are shooting a person in a studio or even outdoors, Focus Peaking can work really well. If you are trying to do a Family Portrait with little kids that move around a lot, you would be better served with an AF lens as you will have a better chance of getting that Focus you need quickly.
You can also use Focus Peaking with Macro photography of flowers as long as a breeze isn’t making them sway constantly. Focus Peaking would be handy if you are shooting Macro of say Action Figures that you are posing to replicate a movie scene like some photographers have turned into a new niche genre of photography. With Macro work, you will likely be working with a very narrow Depth of Field and there will be little in the scene that has the Focus Peaking overlay, which can make composing your scene for the shot so much easier.
I would recommend trying out your Focus Peaking with various Apertures from as wide as F/1.2 to more narrow like F/8 or F/11 to see how it renders the overlay so you can get a better understanding of how it works and how useful it is for your needs.
Focus Peaking would not be useful for sports as the subjects are generally moving to fast and you would need an AF lens for this type of shooting.
Food or Product Photographer are two more genres where Focus Peaking can really shine as you have subjects that are static and you can vary the Aperture for the Depth of Field you want and get that Focus Peaking doing it’s things so to speak.
Photography can be confusing to someone that is totally new to it and many of you that are might think that there is just too much work involved, guessing if your scene is in focus or not, but with Focus Peaking, you never have to guess. The camera’s CPU and the Focus Peaking algorithm can make your life so much easier and if you are say a student or a hobbyist photographer with a limited budget and already have a mirrorless camera, now you can shop around for the much less expensive Manual only lens from companies like ttArtisans or 7artisans and many others and get one of those super wide aperture lenses that make fantastic images and give your wallet a break at the same time!