If you want to consistently capture in-focus photos, focus peaking is a great feature.
But what is focus peaking? And how can you use it for tack-sharp images?
That’s what this article is all about. By the time you’ve finished, you’ll know exactly what you need to do for the best possible results.
Let’s dive right in.
What Is Focus Peaking?
Focus peaking is a camera feature that allows you to view which areas of a scene are in focus–before you take a photo.
You look through the viewfinder or the LCD screen.
And your screen highlights the edges that are in focus.
Then, as you shift the point of focus, the highlights change to reflect the newly in-focus areas.
This is a technology that’s been around on video cameras for years, but has only recently broken into the still photography world.
Now, several things to note:
First, only some cameras offer focus peaking; it’s not really a standard feature. So if you check your menu and cannot find it, your camera probably doesn’t include it as an option.
Second, you cannot use focus peaking unless a camera screen is active.
So you cannot look through a DSLR’s optical viewfinder and use focus peaking to ensure you’ve nailed focus.
Instead, you have to use the rear LCD if you’re using a DSLR.
Mirrorless cameras do allow you to access a display via the electronic viewfinder. That means that you can view in-focus and out-of-focus areas of the scene as you take the shot, while still using the power of viewfinder-based composition.
Setting Up Focus Peaking On Your Camera
The method for activating focus peaking varies from camera model to camera model.
However, you generally need to first shift to manual focus–then find the Focus Peaking option in your camera menu.
Just select this, and you’ll be good to go.
You’ll also be given the option of adjusting the color of the focus peaking lines. For instance, if you’re shooting a photo of trees, you might select a white focusing peaking option–but if you’re photographing white cars, you might wish to switch to the green focus peaking option.
When Should You Use Focus Peaking in Your Photos?
Focus peaking is a useful feature for whenever you’re working with manual focus–but there are a few particular times it’s an especially good choice.
When Photographing at Night
If you’re shooting at night, it can be very difficult to determine whether you’ve nailed focus while looking through the viewfinder.
But with focus peaking active, it becomes much easier to identify the areas that are in focus–and the areas that will be blurred.
When Using a Very Shallow Depth of Field
If you’re working with a wide aperture (e.g., f/1.8 or f/2.8), you’ll frequently find yourself struggling to identify which parts of the scene are in focus.
Focus peaking will get rid of most (if not all) of this uncertainty.
Simply turn on the focus peaking function, then carefully watch for highlighted edges as you move focus across the screen. You’ll then be able to focus quickly and accurately.
I sometimes use this while doing manual focus macro photography, because the tiny depth of field is very difficult to see solely through my camera’s electronic viewfinder.
When Trying to Maximize Depth of Field in a Scene
If you photograph landscapes or architecture, you’ll need to ensure that the entire scene (or at least the entire main subject) is sharp.
But if you shoot without focus peaking, it’s often difficult to tell whether certain areas have enough depth of field, especially areas along the corners or edges of the frame.
Now, I don’t recommend you use focus peaking as the only method of determining whether you’ve gotten an acceptable photo.
Instead, I recommend you use it as a starting point, then zoom in to check focus once you’ve taken a shot.
When Photographing Action
If you’re trying to photograph action while focusing manually, then you’re going to struggle.
This is true regardless of whether you’re shooting wildlife, birds, sports, or anything in between.
But turn on focus peaking, and things will get better.
Will it give you a 100% success rate? No, but no autofocus systems work perfectly all the time, and it’ll certainly help you do better than if you just tried to eyeball it.
Pitfalls of Focus Peaking
Even if your camera offers focus peaking, you may not want to use it in all manual focusing situations.
Certainly, focus peaking is a good idea when working with a very shallow depth of field, or when struggling to focus at night.
But focus peaking comes with some issues that you should be aware of.
First, seeing highlights all over your LCD or viewfinder can be off-putting. Instead of allowing you to evaluate the scene for interesting light, colors, and contrast, focus peaking covers up a lot of these key elements–which can be distracting or downright destructive to your workflow.
Sure, you get more used to focus peaking over time, but I recommend only activating the setting when you need it for this reason.
Another issue with focus peaking has to do with lens aperture mechanics.
You see, some camera setups adjust the aperture as you dial in different f-stops. This means that you are able to view changing depth of field in real time–so when you dial in an f-stop of f/8, you see the depth of field widen in the viewfinder or on the LCD.
But other setups don’t work this way. Instead, they only change the aperture when you go to fire off a shot.
In such cases, the widest aperture on the lens is generally the “resting” point for the lens. So what you see through the electronic viewfinder or on the LCD is a version of the scene when captured at the widest possible aperture, not the scene as it will look when you’ve finally shot it.
Here’s the problem:
Focus peaking relies on data from your camera sensor.
So if the lens aperture doesn’t change until you take the shot, you’re going to get focus peaking for what would have been in focus had you only been shooting at maximum aperture.
To some extent, this isn’t going to be a problem. Focus peaking will still allow you to identify the central point of focus.
But it won’t allow you to identify all of the scene that is in focus, which means that it’ll be pretty useless when helping determine whether you have sufficient depth of field.
Here’s the bottom line:
While focus peaking can help, it’s not perfect, and so you won’t want to always rely solely on focus peaking for focusing in your photos.
Focus Peaking: Conclusion
Focus peaking is a useful technique that many photographers are completely unaware of.
So when you’re focusing manually, it’s worth giving focus peaking a try. See how you feel when focusing with and without focus peaking.
Because in some situations, focus peaking is ultra-useful.
Don’t ignore it!
Yes! Plenty of photographers use focus peaking, though the practice was initially (and still is) far more popular in videography. However, you can only activate focus peaking with certain cameras, so you’ll want to make sure that the camera you have offers focus peaking options; otherwise, you won’t be able to use it when in the field. Specifically, many mirrorless cameras do offer focus peaking, either via the electronic viewfinder or the rear LCD.
Sometimes. Focus peaking can indicate depth of field, but only on cameras that allow you to preview depth of field via the viewfinder or Live View. Many cameras don’t actually adjust the lens’s aperture until you actually fire the shutter button, so you won’t get an accurate reading of depth of field via the focus peaking highlights.
I recommend you use focus peaking whenever you’re focusing manually. But if you find it to be cumbersome, try it only when shooting fast-moving scenes, shooting at night, or shooting with a shallow depth of field.
No, focus peaking is designed to work with manual focus only.
Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.