A few years ago, a special feature started showing up in the new generation of mirrorless cameras. Even now, nobody really talks about it, but it’s lurking in the submenus of cameras from Sony, Panasonic, Olympus, Leica, Fujifilm and Pentax, and more. Used smartly, it can take your shooting to another level.

It’s called focus peaking. It’s a focusing aid that uses colored digital highlights to identify all the elements of a scene that are in focus. It’s primarily intended to help photographers who are using manual lenses quickly and easily determine that their images are indeed sharp and crisp. The feature is great for quick confirmation while shooting on the go, and validation while shooting in situations where you might have a hard time confirming focus optically — bright daylight, for instance, or when dealing with awkward camera positions. This is an important benefit of the system, and the most useful, but it can also seriously boost your creative talents.

Focus peaking uses colored digital highlights to identify all the elements of a scene that are in focus.

The trick is using it not simply to confirm basic focus, but to use focus peaking to precisely dial in your depth-of-field. This, of course, is one of the key elements of scene composition for thoughtful shooters — controlling which elements of a scene are in focus. By increasing your aperture size — via lower f-numbers (f/1.4, f/2.8, f/4, etc.) — you can bring specific elements of your scene into focus while blurring foreground or background elements.

When focus peaking is activated, you’ll be able to gauge the precise effect of different aperture settings, as you watch the digital overlay “roll” across the scene as you adjust your focus. (This can be observed both in rear LCD screens and electronic viewfinders.) It will alert you to situations where you might be using too wide of an aperture — a fast lens, for instance, might have a razor-thin focal plane, so someone’s eye might be in focus, but not her ear. This helps prevent missteps like that. Conversely, it will let you confirm situations where you want everything in focus. If you don’t get a full screen of flickering white highlights, you’ll want to increase the depth of field via a higher f-number — f/10, f/16, f/22, etc. The feature works with both manual lenses and fully automatic ones, in which case you’ll be using it less to confirm focus than to help confirm how your aperture selection is impacting your shot.

Once you grasp the nuances of depth of field, helped along by focus peaking, you’ll have far more control over your images, with results both subtle and powerful. Unfortunately, Nikon and Canon have avoided including this feature in their cameras, even though it’s feasible in the live-preview mode for DSLRs. (A digital screen is required, of course.) Hopefully that will change, but until then, mirrorless users will have a clear edge — at least when it comes to focusing.

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