Autofocus With Focus Pixels On Your New iPad Air


The iPad Air 2020 has been one of the biggest budget iPad upgrades in a very long time. And it’s easily one of the best. From the new bezel-less display design to Apple Pencil 2 support, there’s a lot to like. But lost in the mix of these cool features is a new addition that you probably haven’t noticed: Focus Pixels.

Focus Pixels have been used in the iPhone since the iPhone 6. However, this feature has had a slow rollout on the iPad. And since most people have probably never heard of this feature, they might not know what it means for the new iPad Air. Seeing that the old iPad Air (Gen 3) didn’t have this feature, it’s good that new iPad Air owners understand what it is and how it works.

With that in mind, let’s go!

What are Focus Pixels?

“Focus Pixels” is Apple’s name for a popular smartphone feature known as PDAF. PDAF (or phase detection autofocus) is an autofocus technique in digital cameras that allows your device to automatically focus on a subject.

For example, take your iPhone (or iPad Air 2020) and point it at someone else. You will notice that the viewfinder automatically blurs the background while increasing the focus of the person. However, if you touch an object in the background, the person will be out of focus and the object will appear in focus. Here’s what it looks like in action:

In a traditional camera with a long manual lens, there are two twist rings around the lens. The first ring is for zooming in and out manually, and the second ring is for adjusting focus. These two rings work together to bring the photographer’s subject into sharp, clear focus by manually maneuvering the lenses.

Since iPhones, iPads, and other mobile devices don’t have large adjustable lenses, the Camera app needs to be able to digitally focus on a subject. Focus Pixels uses the latest and most efficient means to do this on a mobile device – aka PDAF.

How Focus Pixels (or PDAF) works

So now that we know what Focus Pixels refers to, you’re probably wondering how it works? How does your iPad instantly adjust focus to whatever you press or point your iPad camera without physically manipulating the lens?

The answer is complicated

I am by no means an expert in this area, so forgive me if this is not the most accurate breakdown. Here are the sources (one, two, three, four) that I used to understand this concept if you want a more in-depth reading.

Basically, focus pixels (and other PDAF systems, found in most smartphones) work by masking some of some of your iPad’s camera pixels. In other words, part of a pixel is covered, then another part of a different pixel is covered, and so on for hundreds (or thousands) of pixels.

Your iPad then compares the light entering each of these masked pixels to each other as well as to the unmasked pixels to determine whether an object is in focus or not. When used in conjunction with Object / People Recognition, your iPad can instantly determine the sharpness of a subject in your viewfinder.

If you’ve ever watched an Apple keynote, you’ve heard them talk about the neural engine they use to improve your camera in photography. Focus Pixels is an example of how the Neural Engine on iPad and iPhone can perform thousands of calculations in an instant to provide you with a great shot every time.

Focus pixels (and the annual improvements to this feature) are also behind the improvement in night photography on iPhone and iPad. It allows devices to take better photos in low light while reducing the noise level of those photos.

How to use Focus Pixels on the new iPad Air: Tap vs Autofocus

Ok, so with all the technical stuff out of the way, let’s take a look at how to use Focus Pixels on your new iPad Air. Fortunately, using focus pixels is a lot easier than understanding how they work.

There are two ways to use Focus Pixels on iPad Air.

The first is to simply open the Camera app on the iPad and point your iPad at an object, person, or pet. As long as the subject of your photo (that is, the thing you’re trying to take a photo of, not the background) is fairly obvious, iPad should have no problem focusing on it.

For example, if someone is standing in front of a brick wall, your iPad should automatically focus that person while slightly blurring the background. This is called “autofocus” because your iPad automatically focuses on the subject. Quite simple.

The second method is just as simple. Instead of letting your iPad Air decide what to focus on, you can tap the object or area that you want your iPad Air to focus on.

For example, if there is a light pole in front of a building that you’re trying to take a photo of, your iPad Air can autofocus on the light pole. When you tap on the building, your iPad redirects its attention back to the building, sharpening it while blurring the light pole in the foreground.

Adjust focus and exposure on the new iPad Air

Whenever you adjust the focus pixels of your iPad Air, you should see a yellow box with a sun next to it. This yellow square is about the size of your finger and represents where your iPad is trying to focus.

The yellow sun next to it represents your iPad’s exposure or the amount of light entering your lens. Much like the focus of your iPad Air, the camera will try to handle this on its own. However, you can adjust it manually by sliding your finger up or down on the yellow focus area repeatedly.

That said, I find it’s best to let the iPad handle the exposure automatically unless you know what you’re doing. You can always increase or decrease the exposure later when editing. But if you set your exposure when you take the photo, changing it after you take the photo will usually end with poor results.

Take better photos on iPad Air with Focus Pixels

And that’s all! That’s all there is to know about the Focus Pixels on iPad Air. Hope you learned a bit more about the camera on the new iPad Air. I would love to see it developed to make night photography on iPad as rugged as it is on iPhone.

For more tips and tricks on becoming an advanced iPad user, check out the rest of our iPad articles here on AppleToolBox.


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