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I took a number of photos like the one here. Each was at the same settings but each time I asked the camera to focus (with a single focus point) and the focus point right on the girls face. The display on the camera shows the focus point right on her face and each time the camera confirmed focus before taking the shot.

Yet looking at the photo, it seems as though the focus has locked on the branches of the trees above and not actually on the girls face.

settings and detail views at 100%

Edit: Focus mode was AF-S and I was mostly using viewfinder.

Other photos taken closer up are tack sharp but ones at a bit more of a distance seem all to have missed focus entirely. What if anything could I have done to help make sure the camera is locking focus at the correct place?

Obviously, such things as "get closer" or "manual focus" but assuming this is the composition I want what is the best way to have the autofocus actually focus on the correct focus point? What am I doing wrong?

EDIT: Screenshot from Capture NX-D which seems to confirm focus on face, but clearly it's not.

capture nx-d screenshot

  • What focussing method are you using? AF-C or AF-S? AF-C can wander like that, AF-S shouldn't. Were you in Live mode or viewfinder? – Tetsujin Feb 26 at 8:41
  • AF-S focus mode and viewfinder primarily. I did take a couple of shots with live view but this example was viewfinder. – Tim Feb 26 at 8:44
  • Unrelated to the question: what software did you use in the screenshot? – Saaru Lindestøkke Feb 26 at 9:56
  • Software is called Raw Therapee. rawtherapee.com – Tim Feb 26 at 10:03
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    How many focus points were enabled? Open the image with Nikon CaptureNX-D (free download) and see what it shows for which focus point was used/confirmed. – Steven Kersting Feb 26 at 16:17
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Here are a few things about "AF points" that a lot of folks don't know:

  • Most AF "points" are larger than the squares used to represent each one in your camera's viewfinder. An AF "point" is defined by a set of two lines on the AF sensor that measure light coming from the same point through opposite sides of the lens.
  • Most areas of sensitivity are rectangular, either in a vertical or horizontal orientation. "Cross type" AF points are really two sets of lines at 90° to one another.
  • The AF system will lock onto the area of greatest contrast anywhere within the active AF "point(s)".

If the actual coverage area of your AF "point" includes the tree branches, it will focus on the greater contrast of the dark leaves in front of much brighter leaves in the background. This is because there is more contrast there than in your subject's face.

Nikon doesn't seem to publish details about exactly what areas are covered by each AF "point" the way Canon does. If they do, I can't locate such a map for the D750 so we can't show you a "map" specific to your camera's AF system. But the way the actual area of sensitivity is larger than the squares in the viewfinder (or on the LCD screen in live view) is very similar across brands. So is the way coverage areas can overlap with large numbers of AF "points".

Here's a map of the Canon 5D Mark II focus system. The focus points visible in the viewfinder are the small black rectangles. The areas of sensitivity for each 'point' are shown by the blue rectangles. Notice that only the center point is sensitive in both the vertical and horizontal directions, the rest are either vertical or horizontal only. The red points are smaller assist points for the center point when the AI Servo option (AF-C in Nikon parlance) is selected. There is nothing visible in the viewfinder to even hint at the existence of the AF assist points! These points help the system track moving objects in the frame.

5D2 focus map

Here's a map of the more complex system in the Canon 7D, along with a diagram of the focus array sensor and a chart that tells which sets of lines are responsible for which focus points. Notice that all of the focus points are cross type, and the center point includes a diagonal cross type point as well. If you look at the chart of the sensor array, you see that the lines for the diagonal cross are spread further away from each other, and thus more accurate, but only usable when a lens with an aperture of f/2.8 or wider is used. You can see in the lower diagram how much larger the colored areas of sensitivity are than the AF "points" as shown in the camera's viewfinder. Most other modern DSLRs with high numbers of AF "points" are similar

7D focus system

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  • In the first photo it shows the camera is a Nikon D750 and a 50mm f/1.8 lens. Should have put it in the main text. Thanks for this explanation though. – Tim Feb 26 at 22:26
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    I didn't notice it in the thumbnail embedded in the question. It is clear if zoomed in on the full size image. Nikon doesn't seem to publish details about exactly what areas are covered by each AF "point" the way Canon does. If they do, I can't locate such a map for the D750. But the way the actual area of sensitivity is larger than the squares in the viewfinder (or on the LCD screen in live view) is very similar across brands. So is the way coverage areas can overlap with large numbers of AF "points". – Michael C Feb 26 at 22:39
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    Yeah. I've just done some looking around for a map as well and can't find one like these.... but I certainly do appreciate the explanation you've provided and it does make sense. Thank you. – Tim Feb 26 at 23:01

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