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I often see photographers while they're about to shoot, they move their cameras in a rapid square motion while having the subject in their camera before proceeding with the shot.

What am I missing? Is it something to do with the Rule of Thirds?

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There is a concept called "focus and recompose" which is typically used with cameras that have a limited spatial distribution of auto focus (AF) points or only one really good auto focus point in the center of the frame.

If this is the case and the photographer wants to photograph a subject that is not incidentally at the same location within the frame as the auto focus point he can do the following procedure:

  • point camera so that auto focus point is pointed on target
  • auto focus (and keep focus locked)
  • move frame/camera so that final desired composition is accomplished
  • release shutter

Note: This technique doesn't really require what one would consider a square motion. The movement may be executed in a pure straight line. But it may look different.

There is also a chance that the photographer simply doesn't want to change AF points between shots or that he isn't able to because it would last too long to fiddle with the controls.

It could indeed be reasoned in the photographer wanting to fulfil the rule of thirds. But it could also apply in other situations. Many SLR cameras have a rather bad distribution of AF points. (which is trending to get better in future)

A second reason for this behavior could be that he wants to use exposure spot metering which often is only possible in the center of the frame. The same principles apply here as above.

Additional Info: If the photographer uses a SLR in LiveView mode or a mirror-less camera the chances are high that he does not have to fall back to focus&recompose because AF points in this setting are distributed equally over almost the whole sensor area.

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    Focus and recompose is sometimes useful even if your camera has an appropriate auto focus point in the right place; you may not have time to select the correct focus point if the shot is time-critical (I find this often when photographing children). Cameras with touch-screens to select the focus point tend to not have this issue. – Logan Pickup Oct 19 '16 at 3:58
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    @LoganPickup the downside of a touchscreen to slect the focus point is that if you're handholding you have to change your grip and/or move the camera away from your face. In the case the tedious wheel is better, though using the centre point and recomposing is (as you say) often simpler – Chris H Oct 19 '16 at 7:35
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    Logan and Russell, I agree. my camera has lots of focus points, but out of habit I only ever use the centre one then recompose. It's much much quicker for me to focus and recompose than it is for me to fiddle about with choosing the correct focus point – laurencemadill Oct 19 '16 at 14:11
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    How does focus and recompose necessitate a motion that follows a complete square? Why move the camera in all four directions instead of in a straight line from the "focus" position to the "compose" position? – Michael C Oct 19 '16 at 17:03
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    Point and repoint also has to do with metering. If the subject is to be off center, but a small metering area is used, you can expose for the face and then recompose. This is a button marked with * on EOS cameras. – JDługosz Oct 19 '16 at 20:24
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Many cameras don't have a full coverage viewfinder. That is, the viewfinder doesn't show the complete frame that will be captured by the image. By moving the camera to each of the four sides of the frame the photographer can check the edges to be sure there is nothing there they don't want in the picture.

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    That seems unlikely -- if cruft (or drunk squirrels :-)) shows up in the full image, it's trivial to crop it out before delivering the final product. – Carl Witthoft Oct 19 '16 at 11:26
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    I guess I'm just an unlikely photographer, because back in the day I've done it. Not everyone is so relaxed about cropping, especially those who learned in the film era when "custom" lab services included additional charges. Many of us had B&W darkrooms. Few of us had color darkrooms. – Michael C Oct 19 '16 at 17:00
  • Not to mention that there are more than a few photographers/camera users in the present environment that prefer to uset images the way they come straight out of camera: They save jpegs, not raw. They upload all 378 images they took of that tree in the park to facebook as soon as they get home. Who's got time for cropping? – Michael C Oct 19 '16 at 17:07
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    @CarlWitthoft How do you crop a photo shot on positive (slide) film before inserting the slide you got back from the photofinisher into your projector's carousel? – Michael C Oct 19 '16 at 20:34
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    Michael you get a what back from a who to put into a what ? Is this 1965 or something? Let's get real here mkay? – Carl Witthoft Oct 19 '16 at 22:32
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It could be that you are observing the photographer using the Brenizer Method (see also Ryan Brenizer's site) in action. Essentially, the Brenizer Method uses panoramic stitching to create very shallow depth of field effects for portrait photography. The photographer takes overlapping photos in a rectangular fashion, often more than just 4 or 5, and combines them with stitching software.

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