The Great Confusion | Drive Modes vs Autofocus Modes

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There seems to be a lot of confusion between various Camera Drive Modes and Autofocus Modes. I can understand the confusion as it is easy to mix them up if you are a beginner. However, I sincerely expect that after having read this article, you WON’T do this EVER again.


Before starting off, I would like to mention that I am just going to point out the fundamental principles and their uses in this blog. All cameras and the procedure in which you change settings are different; but the principle holds true for all. Look up your user manual to find out exactly how you can change your own camera settings and employ what you learn today.

No more mix ups alright… Here we go then!

Camera drive modes:

Camera Drive Modes basically determine the number of images the camera takes when the shutter button is pressed once. Generally all cameras come out of the box with ‘Single Shot’ as the default drive mode. The ‘Single Shot’ mode as the name suggests, allows you up to take ONE image when you press the shutter button. This shooting mode is perfect when you are shooting stationary objects like a building or a landscape; but it would be highly inefficient when shooting fast-moving objects like a race car or a football player. What you need then is to take multiple images in quick succession; so that you don’t miss the split second action. There is no time to press the shutter button multiple times. Bummer!


So, what we use in these scenarios is called the ‘Continuous Drive Mode’ (also called the Burst Mode). What this mode does is, it essentially lets you take multiple images with a single press of the shutter button. The shutter keeps on firing as long as you depress the shutter button (well technically till your camera’s buffer runs out or you card fills up). Sounds amazing, doesn’t it? This mode is widely used by sports photographers, wildlife photographers and many photojournalists too.

Continuous Drive

There are many other camera drives, you can read all about them in this article here. The principles are same for ALL cameras,  ALL brands.

The Single Shot and Continuous (High/Low) modes are by far the most used modes for obvious reasons. The others are more of special modes required only on specific occasions.


Focus Types:

Our advanced digital cameras are capable of so much these days that it is hard to imagine a situation where our cameras would not be able to capture the image we want, if we use it correctly. Learning the various autofocus modes available on our cameras and how to use them properly is of paramount importance. Determining where the focus on a particular image should be and then being able to focus right there for a given period of time (which nearly always is a split second) while shooting is one of the most important lessons to learn in photography or for that matter in any visual art form.


Coming back now…

There are mainly three autofocus modes that are available on our cameras:

  • Single Autofocus.
  • Continuous Autofocus.
  • Automatic Autofocus.

Let’s break them down now…

Single Autofocus:

Like the ‘Single Shot’ drive mode, single autofocus focuses only ONCE on the subject when you press the shutter button halfway and then locks the focus in till you take the photograph. This autofocus mode is again useful while photographing stationary subjects.


Continuous Autofocus:

Continuous autofocus is used in situations where the subject is moving and is NOT stationary. The difference between continuous and single autofocus is that; while using the continuous autofocus the camera continuously adjusts the focus for the moving subject and tries to keep the subject tact sharp. So, in other words, the cameras keeps on focusing and readjusting the focus for as long as you press the shutter button down.

Continuous autofocus
Credits :

Bonus Tips:

  • Lenses with large apertures (f/1.2, f/1.4 etc) tend to focus faster.
  • The center autofocus point in most cameras generally have cross point autofocus, which has the capability to identify horizontal and vertical contrast points resulting in faster autofocus.


Automatic Autofocus:

When in this autofocus mode, the camera decides automatically whether the subject that you are trying to shoot is moving or is stationary and depending on that the camera behaves likewise: switches to either single or continuous autofocus mode. This may sound wonderful and you might probably be thinking now “.. why on earth do I need the other autofocus modes then? Can I just not always choose the Automatic Autofocus?” Sadly the answer is NO. Although our cameras are quite advanced these days, the Automatic Autofocus doesn’t really always perform as well as we might want it to. Especially in scenarios where the subject is initially stationary but then starts moving.

Runner Race

Example: Say suppose you are shooting a 100 meters dash race and you are standing next to the tracks. Initially all the runners will be stationary when they are at the start line and taking their positions, so when you point your camera at them, your camera thinks “Stationary subjects -> Single Autofocus”.  Now when the runners start running, you are still locked onto Single Autofocus and all your shots will be nothing but out of focus and a haze.

I would insist you stick to either Single or Continuous Autofocus and not use the Automatic Autofocus so much. Most of the time you WILL know beforehand whether or not you are about to shoot a moving or a stationary subject. Choosing an autofocus mode manually and not letting the camera decide what you need is a far better and surer way to nail your focus every time.

One last thing to note. To be able to select from all the drive modes, you need to be in any of the semi-automatic or manual mode. Some camera modes may be barred from choosing in your camera model if you are shooting in COMPLETE AUTO mode. For heaven’s sake: GET OUT OF AUTO!! That hell of a green box.

For a complete understanding of the mode dial and its functions, read up Mode Dial | Features Explained | Beginner’s Guide.

Remember remember:

I have seen enough people now mixing up these two completely different things and turn up utterly confused. I hope you have grasped the difference between Camera Drive Modes and Autofocus Modes now. Understanding these two fundamental pillars of photography is very important for your one-eyed life.

Go ahead, keep shooting and keep making beautiful pictures.

All the best!


Also published on Medium.