Focusing can be one of the trickiest parts about shooting film because we can’t see our images immediately after they’re taken. Sometimes when images come back with focusing issues, we know exactly what went wrong. Other times, we’re at a loss for what happened. Our recommendation for troubleshooting focusing issues is to start with what you have the most control over and then work your way through what you have the least control over. If you’re experiencing focusing issues, start at the top of the following list and work your way down until you find a solution!
First off, let’s talk shutter speed. Faster is better for moving objects. When capturing images with people, make sure to shoot at a shutter speed of 1/60 or faster, since slower shutter speeds like 1/30 or 1/15 can pick up on hand movement, causing camera shake. Some photographers find their hands to be particularly shaky, so if that’s you, try shooting at 1/125 whenever possible.
On the flip side, if your subject is stationary, you can also shoot at slower shutter speeds. A good rule of thumb is to match the shutter speed with the focal length of your lens. So on a 35mm camera paired with a 24mm lens, you can shoot 1/30th -1/20th (if your hands are steady) and get sharp images. On the other end, if you’re shooting a 200mm lens, 1/60th isn’t going to cut it when considering motion blur. You’ll need to be at 1/250 or the equivalent of your focal length in shutter speed. This applies to any lens on any format. For instance, an 80mm lens on a 6×4.5 should be no slower than 1/60th. Same thing with a 55mm on a 6×7. Using a tripod for slower shutter speeds is also a great safety net when shooting stationary objects, especially for those of us with shaky hands.
Another possible solution is shooting at a higher aperture to create more depth of field. Film has a more shallow depth of field than digital, so you can generally close down your aperture (for example, take it from f2.8 to f4.0) and still get significant bokeh.
Next up, double check the diopter to make sure nothing has been bumped. The diopter is a little gear (usually next to your eyepiece) that controls what you see through your viewfinder. It’s not connected to your camera lens, so when it gets bumped or adjusted for another person’s eyesight, it could look like you’re focusing properly through your viewfinder, when in actuality that’s not the case. For specific instructions on how to adjust your camera’s diopter, reference your camera manual. If you don’t have a hard copy of your manual, you can easily google the pdf version!
If autofocus is preferred, it could be that your camera’s autofocus system failed and focused on the wrong part of your image (autofocusing in older film cameras is less reliable than it is in cameras being manufactured today). Sometimes, double checking to make sure your focus is right by manually focusing can help.
Having a bright screen installed in your camera makes things so much easier to focus, especially in older film cameras. If Bill Maxwell is a new name to you, he makes custom screens that not only increase brightness, but contrast as well, which is super great for any of us with bad eyes. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are various kinds of focusing screens available. You may find you prefer one that is all clear, a grid, split focus, or split contrast. Click here or here for some visual references of possible focusing screens you could choose from.
If you’ve tested all of the previous options and you’re still having focusing issues, it could be that the gear itself is causing the problem. When poor focusing is related to gear, typically it is because the film is not taut against the camera’s focal plane. As a result you’re having back focusing issues because your film is loose and behind the focal plane. One roll with the majority of images out of focus is not necessarily alarming and does not always mean you need to have your camera serviced, but this is something to keep an eye on for future scans. Keep in mind that equipment issues could be isolated to a particular camera insert or back, so it’s helpful to keep track of which rolls were shot with which equipment. If you think your gear is the problem, start marking which rolls were shot on which equipment. For a small fee and based on how many rolls you send in, we can keep your rolls labeled the same way in development.
Whether it’s as easy as adjusting camera settings, a matter of better understanding your camera, or a gear related problem, we hope this list helps to assist you in solving focusing issues!