Deal 6: 365 days of training from the world’s best photographers
A Guest Post by Alistair Scott.
When I started using a camera autofocus was something out of science fiction. I mean … it would never work in real life, would it? Apart from anything else, how could it know what you wanted to focus on?
Now fiction has become fact, and pretty well every camera has AF as standard. It works, and works well. But it doesn’t always work perfectly. It can pick up the wrong thing or fail to find anything to focus on, causing the lens to ‘hunt’ back and forth. Sometimes it won’t even let you fire the shutter.
So, here are ten situations when it’s worth turning your autofocus off and going back to the ‘good old days’ of manual focusing:
In low light, contrast is also low, and AF relies on light and contrast to latch on to things. Your camera may have an AF assist lamp built in. But, even if you have it switched on, it won’t work in situations like in the shot above.
Though the image looks bright enough, in reality there was little light, and it required a 30-second exposure.
If your AF metering spot is on something like a plain-coloured wall the camera will find it impossible to focus, no matter how bright the light, and the lens will ‘hunt’. You can re-frame your shot temporarily so the spot is on something with detail and press the shutter half down to activate the AF. Then keep the shutter button half-pressed to lock the focus, and go back to your original composition. Or focus by hand.
Most wild animals have excellent hearing and, no matter how good your autofocus, it will make a noise. Even the slightest whirr is likely to spook wildlife. Switch it off if you want those great, natural wildlife shots.
When shooting landscapes you usually want things in focus from the foreground to distant mountains. This means closing down the aperture to increase depth of field and focusing about a third of the way into the scene (at a point called the ‘hyperfocal distance’ where everything from quite close to infinity is sharp). Switch off the AF. If you leave it on, when you press the shutter it will re-focus … probably on those far-off mountains.
High Dynamic Range photography involves taking several shots of the same scene, all exactly the same except for exposure, then blending them when you’re back at the computer. It’s important to have identical focus in each shot to ensure success. With AF on, it may choose a slightly different focus point for each shot.
When you’re photographing a fast-moving subject, your AF will have its work cut out to keep up with the changing distances. Most times it fails. At this jump, in a radio-controlled buggy competition, I first started shooting in burst mode, with the AF switched on. This was the sort of thing I kept getting.
It wasn’t until I switched the AF (and burst mode) off and pre-focused on a spot where most of the buggies landed that I started to get decent shots.
Taking photographs through glass is generally not a good idea. Avoid it if you can. But sometimes it’s unavoidable, e.g. if you’re in a plane, or photographing fish in an aquarium. The trouble is, the AF may home in on reflections, or marks on the glass. So switch it off.
The golden rule of portraiture is to focus on your subject’s eyes. What’s more, you often use a wide aperture to throw the background out of focus. But if your autofocus picks up your subject’s eyebrows or the tip of the nose then, because you’ve got such a narrow depth of field, the eyes will be blurred.
With macro photography autofocus has a hard time. The depth of field is so tiny that the camera has no idea what you want to focus on and the lens is likely to hunt wildly. You definitely must take control.
Many cameras have the autofocus spot fixed in the middle of the viewfinder. This means that if you’re composing with your subject at one of the classical ‘thirds’ positions it is likely to be out of focus.
In this image a centralised autofocus would not pick up the boat and, on top of that, it would have difficulty latching to the smooth water of the lake.
So … autofocus is brilliant but it’s not infallible. A good photographer knows when to take control of the camera to get great shots in challenging situations
Alistair Scott is an award-winning freelance photographer and writer who has travelled the world widely. He lived for 20 years in Africa, but is now based in Switzerland. His latest book is ‘The LowDown Guide to Family Photography’, which can be seen at www.alscotts.com/fampage
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August 9, 2013 04:02 am
have you guys heard about not using the shutter to af? my t2i can do that and entry level nikons have now the option to take the shot in "release priority" mode, which means you af and then recompose. this way you can af once and then recompose or adjust the exposure and take 1000 shots without af-ing again.
unless the camera can't af because of low light or low contrast, i don't see why would anyone use mf instead of af.
March 16, 2012 04:33 pm
Lots of good tips but I guess it is all depends on the situation. There are times when autofocus work quicker and better than manual focus however like you said, there are times when autofocus can be tricked or simply fail to work. Like most tools, you need to know your camera and know when you can use what settings. I shoot weddings and find I use a variety of settings including focus settings.
January 25, 2012 11:56 pm
On full manual (i set the aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and manual focus), I took this photo and I'm sooo proud to say that I was able to do that. I took two photos in burst mode, this was the first photo. Let me know what you think in the flickr comments if you have a chance!
January 13, 2012 03:14 am
All good advice, I can think of another example, working as a wedding photographer in Devon, I'm thinking about shots when the confetti is being thrown! Fools auto focus nearly every time
December 18, 2011 10:56 pm
Hello every one, nice post. Just wanted to add one more thing where you don't use your AF; it's when shooting underwater.
All the best
December 18, 2011 10:40 am
One feature I use on my Canon camera, and I assume other brand have it, is back button focus. Devorcing focus from the shutter button removes almost all unintended refocusing issues.
December 18, 2011 02:51 am
Use single point autofocus and you won't have problems at all, except for fast moving subjects (raindrops, falling objects) in which you have to focus in advance. In general, i use this method and my pictures are always razor sharp or blurry, whichever I WANT. I use nikon. Cheers!
December 18, 2011 12:32 am
... and one other thing - most kit (zoom) lenses are not made for autofocus - the focus ring just doesn't have as much travel as it ought to. Even my Nikon 18-200VR doesn't have a great focus ring. The 35 f1.8 is so much better in this respect.
December 17, 2011 02:54 am
How about just setting your focus point to center focus point if your worried (and rightly so in some cases) about the camera selecting a different focus point other than what you wanted to focus on. Like for shooting HDR, or portraits. By doing so I know where the camera is focusing...right where I want it to.
And Rodney, would you try and photograph a sporting event using only manual focus.
December 17, 2011 12:20 am
That's all good advice.
I am bemused that when part of the mantra to sell dSLRs is 'greater control' the old focussing screen split prism of film SLRs is not utilised.
And added to that, the viewfinders of most (all?) of the entry level (and some above) dSLRs are woeful, (eg in comparison with my old Pentax ME Super). If you are like me and have strong glasses you will have a very hard time manually focussing with these tiny viewfinders. Frankly I'd trade all the video implementation and toy effects and some megapixels for a really nice viewfinder on a small dSLR.
December 17, 2011 12:08 am
Wait. Stop! I haven't read all the comments, but so far I'm not seeing what immediately jumped to my mind after reading this article.
I'm one of those guys that got started in photography back when you had to use a real dark-room, and "digital" was not a well-known word even in reference to clocks or watches. But the hobby was too expensive for me and I had to give it up for years.
Then 3 years ago I got a Sony DSLR and to this day I'm not as satisfied with my work as I used to be back in the day. The article made me hit myself on the forehead... literally. I really need to shut everything down on this beast and just put the settings to what I would have been doing with my old reliable Pentax that didn not have a light meter.
So what's my question? Ummm Can we see an article on reasons to turn ON your autofocus? Seems like this article is recommending turning it off in just about all scenarios. And I think its the best advice I ever heard.
December 17, 2011 12:02 am
Focus lock is a blessing for a bunch of these points. I still think it's important for everyone to explore manual focus of course.
AF isn't the enemy :)
December 16, 2011 11:22 pm
I shoot sports often and when shooting moving action, always use auto focus and AI Servo, never manual.
Even when picking out the spot where the action will occur, I'll pre-focus and lock it until the action shows. I always use the "back button" to focus as well.
As far as for the "rule of thirds", I just focus, lock and recompose.
For HDR, I usually will set the camera to "bracket" the photos, at a difference of a stop or two, auto-focus and shoot.
December 16, 2011 09:45 pm
Some good pointers here :)
Though imo its very easy to use AF when used in single point and because in my case i have 11 of them i can arrange it diffrently if i dont want the middle point to have focus.
I think its good to know when MF can help you get sharper pictures but it doesnt mean you have to use it just because.
And also important to note Af is a help tool doesnt mean you shouldl trust it explicitly.
December 16, 2011 07:08 pm
Lol :)) my 18-55is AF is malfunctioned a long time ago.... And i always use MF :D gives me a grt output :)
December 16, 2011 06:20 pm
For low light and low contrast, turn it off...
For portraits, macro and rule of thirds many of the problems aforementioned can be solved by first focusing the camera, then secondly composing the shot. I will first let the Autofocus focus on the subject I want, then second, move the subject to the point in the frame I want the subject to me.
For wildlife, I use a long telephoto usually... and it's quiet, so no spooking here.
For landscape I'm usually shooting f/11 or higher, so focus isn't nearly as big a problem.
For HDR use AEB and/or a tripod. The subject shouldn't change so the auto focus should be the same regardless of how many frames.
For fast action use AI Servo Mode on Canon or something like that to track the subject as it moves.
December 16, 2011 03:56 pm
@John Lambert -- The simple solution to your problem is to switch over to a single focus point. Generally I use the center focus point as it is most accurate on my camera. However you can decide in advance which one is best for your purpose. Leaving it on fully automatic with up to about 19 points and letting the camera decide which one it uses is a recipe for disaster all too often. Since wildlife is often "in the brush" I found that a single center point worked best for me. However, that means that nearly all of my shots have the subject centered, so I crop for composition in post production. Set right you can focus and then re-compose the image. Check your manual for how to do this as it differs from camera to camera somewhat.
December 16, 2011 02:19 pm
nice read. in sports stuation use SONY A77 in tracking mode. no need to MF ;-)
December 16, 2011 01:01 pm
I learned to use manual focus the hard way. Recently, I went on a trip to the U.K. and shot a few hundred pictures as well as 149 video clips. I used autofocus for all of them, but when I got home I realized that many of them were slightly out of focus. The camera considers what the main focus should be, but I want something else. Now, I use the manual focus very carefully and take a couple of test shots, then blow them up. I find this particularly helpful when i take video clips.
December 16, 2011 12:08 pm
Thanks for this great reminder why I'm too often getting images with the subject out-of-focus, especially in low light. Now if only I could see more clearly the point of focus through the viewfinder, so that I can successfully use manual focus. I wear glasses, which makes it harder.
December 16, 2011 11:29 am
The autofocus of my Tamron lens went bad. I took it to the repair shop and it cost me > USD 30 to get it fixed, only to find out one week later that it went bad again. This article came at the right time. I will try to switch the manual.
December 16, 2011 09:10 am
I just picked up a lens without any auto focus capability - it's kind of scary how many times I've forgotten to get things right myself. But I suspect that I'll get the hang of it soon.
December 16, 2011 08:26 am
I find that most of the problems you mentioned in the article can be fixed simply by manually choosing the focal point...that's made a huge difference in my photography.
December 16, 2011 08:14 am
Thank you for the cool tips. I always take photos with autofocus on and most of the time I cannot get the result I wanted, so I definitely will try to turn it off.
Do you turn off autofocus when your subject is moving, i.e. dancing?
December 16, 2011 07:48 am
In many of the situations mentioned autofocus works well provided you are using the right tools for the job. For instance, in the case of sports an amateur DSLR and a kit lens isn't going to keep up. The other thing that may help is technique. Switch the focusing to single point and pick the focusing spot to where the subject is likely to be and you'll have better luck. Auto focus is awesome I don't miss the days of follow focusing sports action. Alan
December 16, 2011 07:47 am
Focal points are awesome too.
December 16, 2011 06:26 am
I actually had an AF mishap that turned into a pleasant surprise. I was at the zoo and attempting to get a shot of the Cheetahs, but the AF decided to focus on the fence instead. I had to turn it off. But, later, at home when I was looking through the shots, the 'fence' shot turned out to have an ant, carrying something, perfectly in focus and even positioned just right according to the 'rule of thirds'.
So, now I tell people...yeah, I meant to do that! ;)
December 16, 2011 12:13 am
I can't figure out how to manually focus on my Panasonic FZ35.
December 16, 2011 12:06 am
I remember back i n nineteendiggety when cameras had a fixed, central focus point. You had to focus and reframe if you wanted to use auto-focus with an off-center focus, and if you had a shallow enough depth of field you might even end up being out of focus when reframing.. howeever, cameras let you choose focus points for off-center auto-focus now. Not saying manual focus isn't a good think, I use it all the time, point 10 is still nonsense though.
December 15, 2011 11:13 pm
I was trying to shoot rain drops on a window the other day and the auto focus didn't want to play at all, so I ended up changing to manual focus.
There are definitely times when it's the only way...
I think there can be scary connotations when the word 'manual' is mentioned. But it's best to just give it a go!
December 15, 2011 08:50 am
December 15, 2011 01:23 am
I mostly shoot manual especially when I'm using a fast lens like a 50mm 1.4 or a 85mm 1.8. I use AF when taking snapshots of people using the trusty 18-55mm since it is easy for the the AF to do it's work since there isn't much DOF with the kit lens. planning to buy a nikkor 24-70mm 2.8 and see if i'll take shots on manual or i may use the AF.... nice inputs here. keep it coming guys! ^_^
December 15, 2011 12:53 am
If only I could get a decent prism in my DSLR that would aid in manual focusing. I remember the ease at which a "split prism" would focus. Someone must have something we can use ?
December 15, 2011 12:02 am
Very interesting post to read. Guess except macro I have tried the rest.
December 14, 2011 11:42 pm
I recently bought a new 'super precision' focusing screen (EG-S) from B&H for the Canon 5D Mark II. It makes it easy to do precise manual focusing using Live View.
December 14, 2011 11:30 pm
"When the student is ready, the teacher will automatically appear." Thanks, Alistair Scott.
I was thinking about this yesterday while taking a sunset shot. The light was too dim and the auto focus almost never got me the shot I wanted. I was only thinking about shifting to manual focus and here is the post giving me all the insights. I appreciate it !!
December 14, 2011 10:26 pm
I dont often switch of AF, but there are times when its makes sense and the glaring example is in low light conditions. Often I will be find the light to low for the camera to focus and thats when manual focus makes sense.
While autofocus is great it has its limitations and knowing the limitation of your camera is really important.
Personally I use manual focus when I either dont want to waste time or have a special focus in mind, for instance where glass was used as an example so will gauze also be a problem, especially when the focus is on the other side of the gauze.
Here are some of my photos, where manual focus was used:
December 14, 2011 09:47 pm
the best reason for me to turn off the AF is to relax and compose the pictures in a very slow, quiet and very enjoyable way. For me it is like painting a picture.
For Portraits and specially when i have enough time to enjoy taking Pictures I love to use my old manual lenses, like my fully manual Super Takumar 50mm f1.4. you can see some samples on my flickr-stream
The difference of using MF and AF is more like the difference of riding a bicycle or a motorcycle.
December 14, 2011 05:35 pm
One other advantage of Canon L series lenses is that you can autofocus and touch up with manual focus if you wish as they have the manual focus ring available at all times. Quality matters.
December 14, 2011 05:30 pm
I have been shooting wildlife (mostly action shots) for the past few years. I started with the Canon XSi and found that I could not "see" through the viewfinder well enough for manual focus. I have since upgraded to a Canon 7D and the difference is amazing. The XSi has a "Penta-mirror" where the 7D has a true "Penta-prism" and that makes all the difference. However since the 7D has such a great autofocus system I rarely use manual focus.
One other thing is that I have invested in all L series lenses with USM so that they are virtually silent and very fast to find focus. With most wildlife I use only one focus point (the center) and that solves most of the problems sited in this article. It even worked with the XSi much better than manual focus. I guess the bottom line is that most of the arguments in this article have little relevance with good equipment. I do agree that with Macro Photography you will want manual focus, but with action shots you can use auto focus IF you have good lenses and camera. In fact AI Focus is the way to go with the 7D and L lenses if you are after a diving eagle since they move so fast and it is hard to predict where they will go. You might sit for two hours to only shoot a few seconds and have no time to manual focus in a high speed burst.
December 14, 2011 04:33 pm
I generally find my 5d MkII gets better focus than I do for portraits especially when it comes to kids. The lack of a split focus system, the need for a faster lens for a split focus screen (f2.8), and the limited time to focus with children all lends itself to the modern autofocus system. As others have said, assigning focus to the rear button from the shutter button helps greatly.
December 14, 2011 03:56 pm
This is an interesting piece of article
though i have tried a similar one of this kind long back
December 14, 2011 03:30 pm
I forgot to add - take auto focus off the shutter button and assign it to the rear AF button.
December 14, 2011 03:24 pm
Let me play devil's advocate here:
1. low light - use a flashlight or reflector to help lock auto focus
2. low contrast - ditto
3. wildlife - pre-lock auto focus with mirror up
4. landscape - use centre point to lock auto focus then recompose and fire from a tripod with a cable or timer
5. HDR - use a tripod, lock auto focus, recompose, and use a cable or timer to shoot your bracket
6. fast action - use a pro body with fast AF on continuous mode
7. shoot through glass - use centre point to lock auto focus then recompose (use a polarizer if necessary)
8. portraits - use centre point to lock auto focus then recompose
9. macro - use centre point to lock auto focus then recompose
10. rule of thirds - use centre point to lock auto focus then recompose using 1.6:1 (phi) proportion
Ok, devil's gone. Ironically, I use mostly manual focus lenses these days so this doesn't apply to me but if I am using an expensive piece of modern electronic glass, like a 400/2.8, it seems silly to me to not make full use of it. Good article though because it makes you think about what you're doing and that's the fun part of photography - learning 10 ways to take the same shot.
December 14, 2011 11:20 am
I usually turn off autofocus for 99% of my shots. But I use a trick.
I turn it off from shutter but keep the back button AE/AF-L set to AF using a single focal point.
That way I can manually focus or use the back button to quickly focus on the precise point I am shooting
December 14, 2011 11:04 am
This is fine if your eyes are good! In my case, my vision is poor & I must rely on AF to get any kind of decent photo!
December 14, 2011 11:03 am
so is that why my flash sounds like it's frying when it's trying to focus????
December 14, 2011 11:01 am
I always use the center AF point only. I can choose the place I want to focus on, and press the shutter button half way. Then I can move the camera to frame the photo the way I want.
December 14, 2011 10:52 am
I use auto focus on moving subjects all the time... And have no problem with focus acquisition. That being said, I use a 7D and L glass...
December 14, 2011 10:44 am
Fantastic advice & great shots to portray it. Definitely found out about the portrait subject's eyes blurring the hard way...
He mountain shot thing is awesome to know. I never would've guessed this process.
Thanks for writing!
December 14, 2011 09:13 am
Though I agree with a lot of these points, framing the subject in the centre, holding down the shutter button part way, then re-framing then pushing the shutter button will often keep the subject (now off centre) in focus. Good for rule of thirds/shooting through crowds etc.
For aquariums, I find its best to use a low aperture (which creates shallow depth of field), that way, you are putting the glass even further out of focus - also its probably dark so the low aperture would help.
December 14, 2011 08:54 am
Great article. MF is the best way to take close up photos. My personal rule is to use everytime MF when there is no rush.
Here is one example of a close up in MF:
June 2, 2010 05:57 pm
I realised 3 days ago that AF is not good at all if you want to focus your way and I thought I'm just crazy, but it seems that I have founded here all the reasons to turn it off.
April 8, 2010 05:15 pm
For everybody that's looking for the little split circle to focus your DSLR with, it's part of your camera's focusing screen. Most DSLRs these days don't have a split image on their focusing screen (no need with autofocus, right?), but you can purchase aftermarket screens for many cameras. Google "DSLR focusing screen" or "split focus screen" or "canon XSI split focusing screen" in my case. "katzeye" or "haoda" are a couple of brand/supplier keywords.
January 28, 2010 08:59 am
If you want to use auto focus in low light a simple trick is to shine a small led torch onto your subject just as you focus. Once the camera has focussed, keep the button half pressed to lock the focus, switch the torch off then take the shot!
January 5, 2010 05:36 pm
It's important to mention that today's DSLRs don't have standard focusing screens that allow for accurate manual focusing at apertures wider than 3.2 as they project more of the aerial image to increase brightness in the viewfinder. If you're going to be manually focusing your camera at wider apertures, it is imperative that you replace the screen in your camera with a precision focusing screen. The image is likely to be darker, but the picture will be much sharper and will allow for accurate focusing at wider apertures.
January 3, 2010 10:15 pm
It is a very helpful article especially for those who rely heavily on the af of the camera. However manual focusing for most of novice photographers like me is a difficult thing to do all the time. A good thing in today's slrs is the selective af points which normally come in choice of 3 , 9 , 11 and more af points depending upon the apparatus purchased. Moreover it is true that almost all of the cameras are preset at the center of the frame for af, but then we always can reframe the image after taking the focus lock . One suggestion or another , at the end of the day , af on or off ,remember - You are as good a photographer as your pictures are..........
December 31, 2009 12:50 pm
One issue, most DSLR lenses have no guide markings on them to show the distance you are focussing on, something that causes me no end of trouble trying to take good night sky photographs. I want to focus on infinity, but the AF cannot pick up and focus on stars... the moon maybe, if it's out.
Also, as others have said, most DSLR viewfinders have no focussing screen to help with manual focussing.
I guess the manufacturers have decided in todays world of expecting everything to be done automatically there is no point in manual focus even being a realistic option.
December 30, 2009 12:36 am
Like others who've already posted, I would prefer to focus manually at times, but the lack of a prism to help me find that sharp focus makes it too hit and miss. Is it possible to buy split prism screens for Nikon DSLR's?
December 29, 2009 09:55 am
oh, I'm so mad and upset...
after a morning in the dark...to get some good shots of the Olympic torch, now I see why my pictures are garbage...
If I read this email yesterday, for sure the quality would be much better. I have the camera, but is missing the knowledge...
thanks to all who added so many good and very good info for shooting action in the low light. I have canon xsi with 17-55 f2.8 for a year and I'm doing pretty good (I'm pleased with the output) in a good light, but is more to learn in order to get good results
always would be a next time, but today was the one lifetime opportunity, and that's part of the photography to catch the moment what would never repeat again...
any negative positive feedback are welcome, that what would make me improve.
December 29, 2009 04:43 am
I find I rarely us straight auto focus, but I also rarely manually focus . What I usually do is use a manual focus mode that allows me to point and press a button to pre-focus at the distance I want. It is similar to pressing the shutter half way down and the re-framing the shot, but it also works well when using a tripod
December 29, 2009 01:18 am
Autofocus is a tool. So is manual focus. Sometimes you need a flat screwdriver and sometimes you need a phillips or square drive. Just because it's advantageous to shoot something in manual focus occasionally doesn't mean you have to turn it off all the time. It's an extra tool in your gadget bag... play with it, work with it, get used to it, and it'll always be there when you need it.
December 27, 2009 10:40 am
One more reason: when using Tilt-shift lenses. Of course they do not even have AF, but that would be useless anyway.
I must say that I do sometimes switch off my AF for some of the reasons above, but not always. For the buggy you can also lock focus on the place you want it to land? Also though some of the reasons by commenters are valid in my perspective, some others look a bit 'elite', similar to the single-speed-no-brake-cyclists ;-)
I love my AF and it has saved me many times. I would have lost many images on http://ExposedPlanet.com (especially all the portraits, less the landscapes of course) if I needed to spend any second more due to MF.
Keep shooting, Harry
December 26, 2009 11:43 am
this is a fabulous article. i grew up with 35 mm and was used to manual focusing. i guess with digital, i got a little lazy. i just switched my camera to manual focus and will try this focusing instead. i just took a few test shots and got great result. didn't have to worry about the sensor finding a focusing point. i focused myself and click. less frustration.
i'm off to do some more manual shooting.
December 26, 2009 03:03 am
Happy christmas to all. I just read your article on using manual focus, something i never do. Its funny i should read this article today as ive been out photographing in low light and have not been able to get the desired result, and would never have dreamt of using manual focus, im a relatively new to all this photography stuff but i do love it, and every opportunity i see a good photo im out with my camera and i might have shot the same spot several times but every picture looks so much different to the last due to the conditions. After reading about the manual focus i reckon i could have achieved my desired results last night if i had used it but from now on im going to try it out.
December 26, 2009 01:03 am
Well I have a Nikon D40 and 4 lenses, only the 50mm 1.8 is manual focus, to all those people that say bad things about the D40, mine does auto focus in absolute darkness, I've tried it in a room and in a hall, as for outside, there is no such dark night as the pitch black room, so yeah it does auto focus a night. Of course there are situations when I turn off the auto focus, but when it's something important I do rely on the auto focus. As for framing, there is always half press/re frame, Auto Focus Lock button and stuff like that. The Macro is another thing, I do own a fairly good Macro lens, the Tamron 90mm Macro 1:1, and it has a motor for D40, but I shoot on manual focus, there some things that you can't shoot in auto focus, not to mention that the Tamron 90mm auto focus is so sensible that when the butterfly just winks at me, LOL, and the auto focus starts to hunt back and forth :))) that's why people have made the On/Off switches for the auto focus, because you can either use it, or turn it off if you like to shoot manual :)
December 25, 2009 03:18 am
I’m lazy at times and tend to “overlook” several of the suggestions. Yea I know about them but…
(Thanks for the kick-in-the-pants!)
December 24, 2009 06:29 pm
#6 - the obvious difference between the first 3 takes and the last one is the shorter DOF on the last one. You did not only switched to MF, but you also opened the iris and shorten the exposure time. So, you shorten the DOF and also got the sand grain frozen in the pic. The framing also helps with the overall quality of the pic :)
And I have one case when MF is a pain in the ...: when you have a pocket camera where MF is done by means of +/- buttons and the like. I have such a camera and I prefer the half press and re frame method.. :)
Otherwise, good article. Thanks!
December 24, 2009 01:28 pm
Well here is the Action SHOTS I snapped off on the Sprint Cars at Cowtown Tx. I was Not locked on this pack of cars when I saw it start to happen I just pointed the Nikon D-40 with the Tamron 2.8 70-200 . The sprinter going over the top came to rest I walked out and the driver asked me to check his shocks , they were still hooked up! They pushed him off and he finished the race. The 10 Car Sammy Swindell started last and won the heat race only to be docked a lap cause the track was closed and his crew came out to the car! I have tried to pre focus in manual only to get blur , I pre focus on the track in auto hold it on half wait for the races to come around I follow the racer after I click !
I do miss some shots but find that sometimes it gets me some great shots ! I will Work on using the Manual. I use it on the MOON ! on the tripod !
Merry Christmas and a Wild New Year
December 24, 2009 01:23 pm
nice article, i agree if you have time to set up your shot, portraits, landscapes, things that are not moving. awesome shot of the rc car. i shoot alot of drag racing with my 50mm 1.8, i use center focus, and i watch the vehicle in my view finder, and i just use ai focus, with the burst mode. during the day so i get the motion blur, i use tv mode or shutter priority. and at night i just bump up the iso and use manual priority. i tried what you are doing to pick a spot, but then i would miss wheelies and crashes. anyway, very nice article, thank you for sharing! and merry Christmas to everyone! john
December 24, 2009 12:14 pm
A few days before I read this article I realized how much more accurate manual focussing is compared to AF. You can actually see what is sharp and what isn't. I realized AF was focussing on the wrong thing (how does the camera know what my subject is?) I checked some of my old 35 mm slides taken with manual focus and - guess what - they were all tack sharp. So now it's back to manual focus for me and sharpness where I want it and not what my camera wants.
December 24, 2009 09:08 am
Only half the points made are relevant. the others show a lack of understanding of the various focusing modes and settings that are available on most DSLR's. Infact most DSLR manuals have quite detailed explanations on how and when to use the different focusing modes and settings.
December 24, 2009 07:20 am
I understand peoples' positions about using manual focus, but I never really trust that my eyesight is doing a good job focusing properly inside a tiny viewfinder. Anyone else?
December 24, 2009 07:02 am
Good points, but I will echo the sentiments of Terry. If you take the auto focus off of the shutter button, you remove many of the problems. I have had my Canons focusing using the * button for years and I rarely turn off auto focus except for low light. Even fast action I generally will use AIServo and the * button.
December 24, 2009 06:39 am
Great Article - Thanks.
I have a D40 and 3 manual focus lens for it (due to its absence of a focusing motor) and find the Tokina wide angle easy to use in manual mode . Not so the other 2 lens especially the 50mm f1.8, which has to narrow a band of movement to make focussing easy, as a consequence I use the newer but inferior 35mm f1.8 lens simply because it is DX!
I often use spot metering and focus on the D40 and have been "told off" by a camera technician for it......he thinks default settings work best in most instances!!!! Obviously I disagree esp. with the D40...
Manual focussing has another very big plus for me it slows me down and I take better pictures when I have time to think about what I am doing....as long as its inanimate or very patient of course! ...and my eyes are wide open to see that silly little green dot in the view finder...but I suppose it beats the ground glass screen of my first film SLR and I can't say the slit screen devices were that much better to use either.....on the whole I think auto everything is also just great...especially when you are in a hurry!
Again great article and great mail out - so much to read and learn.....
December 24, 2009 05:29 am
The problem for me is that most lenses for DSLR cameras do not have a focusing reticle. While macro photographs of a rose with dew, I was trapped in a circle of focus, shoot, view picture, zoom in to the dew drops to see if they were in focus, adjust the focus, shoot, view... It took fifteen minutes to get an acceptable image. The small viewfinder is really not a problem, as my 35mm slr film camera had a viewfinder about the same size, but all of the lenses that I had for it had a focusing reticle so I could assess the focus.
December 24, 2009 05:21 am
I grew up with a Pentax P3n... manual EVERYTHING, I even wound the film. When I finally got my Rebel XTi, I was so glad for auto that I haven't switched it off for 4 years! Thanks for the creative inspiration, though. I leave all my camera settings on manual, so I might as well focus manually more often, too! I'm gonna get back to my roots!
to my roots!
December 24, 2009 04:57 am
My old Minolta SRT had a shattered image spot in the center of the veiwfinder to make focusing easier. The image within that circle looked slightly broken up until it was in focus.I had a rangefinder camera that used a split image, with the two halves coming together when the image was in focus. My Minolta 5D digital camera has neither a broken image nor a split image spot to make manual focusing easier, and as a result I get an unacceptable number of out-of-focus pictures when I try to focus manually.
December 24, 2009 04:23 am
amazing article , i always shoot fast moving things so i need really good focus and i just discovered the amazing abilities of Manual focus , thanks =)
December 24, 2009 04:21 am
Hyperfocal distance - It used to be that distance scales and aperture markings on lenses allowed you to set hyperfocal fairly accurately. Now it's a guessing game, plus you need an external reference chart. Seems to me that the camera could compute the hyperfocal distance for the current aperture, then focus the lens at that distance. It's all mathematics, and the cameras have very powerful computers built-in. Why can't the camera designers add this feature?
December 24, 2009 04:10 am
Using a D700 I've found just a few instances where the autofocus is frustratingly inadequate. It is mostly in really low light and low-contrast subjects. The other issues are usually managed on how you have the AF system setup. The biggest issue is defining which spot you want to focus on and blam! it focuses. Well, except in those instances of low light and/or low contrast.
I should note that my previous cameras were definitely AF-Off more than on. I'm really liking this D700.
December 24, 2009 03:58 am
Great writing. Really enjoyed it.
Just one question: while focusing manually, how can I be sure I am focusing right where I intend to..? I mean, the viewfinder is so small, isn't it rather difficult to know that with absolute certainty..? As mentioned in the article, the difference between focusing on the eye vs. the eyebrows can make or break the image.
December 24, 2009 03:55 am
brilliant article ... especially regarding the lack of focus on the subjects eyes when shooting portraits.
December 24, 2009 03:26 am
I am very much agreed with your suggestions. I used them very often. One problem is that the lenses nowadays, unlike the 35mm film camera, do not have the split circle at the centre of the lenses. This make the photographers wonder they have the subjects focus, especially at low light situation. I wonder any of you out there having this problem. Please share how to overcome it.
December 22, 2009 12:09 pm
Modern pro/semi-pro cameras such as the Nikon D300/D700, Canon 5D and upwards, there's rarely an occasion that you would need to turn autofocus off. They focus faster and more accurately than you'll ever do using your own eye.
December 22, 2009 12:13 am
I use manual focus now and then when I have to, for some of the reasons mentioned in the article (low light hunting, and things like that).... but I generally find that the autofocus does a much faster job then I can do, especially with fast moving objects! There are times when you cant just camp and wait for something to come through your lens at the exact spot you set your manual focus for!
One of the biggest problems for me in manual focus is that I HOPE your diopter on your viewfinder is setup correctly. Because if it is not, then the focus will look perfect in the viewfinder to your eye.. but will be all blurry in the actual shot!
Also.. I really helps to have a high quality camera with a large viewfinder here. Consumer and even prosumer cameras just dont have a big enough viewfinder to accurately use manual focus in my opinion.
True there are some times when manual is a must, but with high quality lenses and cameras the autofocus works Very Very well these days.
Just one more note....... in high quality lenses focus can be adjusted manually even when on Auto anyway, so if you have a problem, just use the autofocus to get close, and manualy adjust the small amount you may need before fully press the trigger. Best of both worlds!
December 21, 2009 07:08 pm
Good article. I am also a manual fan but the viewfinder's setting is absolutely important for the photographer to successfully focus on subject. If you make amateur mistakes like I do, then you may end up with horrible results :)
December 21, 2009 01:04 am
I just upgraded to a Kodak EasyShare Z915. It takes much better pictures and offers more features than my EasyShare C513. However, when it comes to the Auto Focus I only have the option of disabling the continuous use of it. I don't think there's any way of disabling it totally.
December 20, 2009 09:06 pm
Great tip! I totally agree with you, I used auto focus the early days I own my DSLR, then I switched it off cause in most of the situations I shooted (and shot) it was unuseful... Still today I use it in very very few situations, I'm not skilled enought to always get great results and subjects on focus, but at least it's my own mistake and it lets me improve... when using autofocus I only lost shots without understanding why!
Anyway, I think autofocus is a kind of magic in the modern photography world, just don't well-working enought yet! The machine has not overtaked man's ability yet :)
December 20, 2009 07:00 pm
I have trouble with manual focus. Even though things look like they will be in focus in the viewfinder, the image comes out blurry. I do not know if it is because the image is so small or what.
December 20, 2009 01:16 pm
I shoot in manual most of the time. I guess it is the old school in me, I feel as though I have more control. Great article.
December 20, 2009 06:38 am
Great article...I really enjoyed it. Thank you.
December 20, 2009 04:18 am
I agree with most of the reasons given, and have a solution that I believe gives the best of both worlds (except in case #6). Using Canon cameras I set the camera to focus on the * (20D) or "Focus start" (5DII) button rather than the shutter release. This prevents the inadvertent focus problems listed above. The problem with this method is that it's too slow to follow action. In that case, I use AI Servo and one focus point. I used that in my pictures of the Santa Barbara Marathon recently and had a high percentage of keepers.
I'm adding a shot from the Marathon to demonstrate.[eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/29836657@N07/4165474210/' title='Santa Barbara International Marathon' url='http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2516/4165474210_a473f32369_o.jpg']
December 20, 2009 03:03 am
Having a Nikon D40x which can't autofocus, neither with my 50mm nor with the macro... -.-
I LIKE manual focus, but not always.
December 20, 2009 02:00 am
I found this article very helpful...
very well explained reasons for ..not using AF
December 20, 2009 01:54 am
I shoot about 50% of the time on MF...it takes some getting used to. I've taken my share of poorly focused shots but I like having the control especially on my D50 which only has 5 different auto-focus spots.
December 20, 2009 01:11 am
I've never had a problem with autofocus, especially on L series lenses. I have my camera set to easily switch metering modes depending on what I'm shooting. The only time I do turn it off is for Macro.
December 19, 2009 11:24 pm
manual focus ? i have a nikon d40 and two lenses that i have to use in manual focus all the time, a real pain in the ass. i have a shitload of out of focus pictures.
December 19, 2009 09:44 pm
Good reading, our world of Photography is versatile, so get ready to face the challenge
December 19, 2009 09:41 pm
Good reading this is what i need, our world is a versatile place.Need to be ready
December 19, 2009 09:06 pm
I find that I am having the same problems as my camera autofocus when dealing with low light.
I miss the system film camera had, of having to align the center spot in the view finder.
But it's true that switching to manual focus enable a better control of the composition.
P.S. if I am not mistaken, the first picture of this article was taken in geneva ?
December 19, 2009 08:12 pm
This is a great article. As a beginner, I've learned a lot from this post and all the comments above. Thanks for sharing.
December 19, 2009 05:29 pm
[eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/yogendra174/4190175304/' title='Sunset (Panorama)' url='http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2782/4190175304_c4a1bdb3e9.jpg']
[eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/yogendra174/4064647043/' title='Rising Star (My first Pano)' url='http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2699/4064647043_610411f5c2.jpg']
December 19, 2009 05:21 pm
Great article.. thanks for that.
want to add one more
#11 (or # 13 :D) Shooting Panorama i have spoiled lot of my panos with auto focus and then started using manual focus when i want to click 10 photos to stitch into one!!
December 19, 2009 03:37 pm
Let me start off by saying I'm a complete novice and have just recently picked up photography as a hobby. I bought the D5000 and was quite shocked at how well it focuses. Now, maybe my photos are simple and boring, or maybe the D5000 makes big improvements (doubtful), but I am able to move the focus to 11 points, which is pretty good. For macros (and I believe other modes as well) I can move a box around in LV, which can be pretty useful. Obviously, some (most?) of these make perfect sense to me.
Somehow, I doubt I'm right, being a virgin amongst the pros, but would appreciate if someone could shine some light on this for me.
December 19, 2009 02:53 pm
# 5 If You’re Doing HDR: “With AF on, it may choose a slightly different focus point for each shot.” Actually, you can overcome the camera choosing “a slight different focus point for each shot” by using AF initially, then change to MF before taking any shots to make sure that the point of focus doesn’t change.
# 6 Fast Action: If you have time, you can use DOF or landscape mode to choose the parameters of what’s in focus before hand, then change to MF and shoot away.
December 19, 2009 12:49 pm
I loved the 10 reasons to turn off AF! It was like a loving swat on the hat! Maybe my photography problems aren't just my Canon G10 but it operator??
December 19, 2009 09:42 am
Whoops! at f/11
December 19, 2009 09:41 am
"This means closing down the aperture to increase depth of field and focusing about a third of the way into the scene (at a point called the ‘hyperfocal distance’ where everything from quite close to infinity is sharp)."
You would be better off to consult a DOF scale or calculator. The anecdote about DOF extending 1/3rd in front and 2/3rds in back of the focus point is a myth. For instance the hyperfocal distance for a 17mm lens on APS-C format camera is about 4.5'.
December 19, 2009 06:40 am
The two main issues I have:
2: I usually find that, if there isn't enough light for the autofocus to work (i.e. it starts hunting), there isn't enough light to manually focus either
10: this is the weakest reason in the entire article: If you have a camera that you can turn off autofocus, then you definitely have one that can be set to lock the focus once it finds it's point, so you can reframe.
Like anything else, if someone doesn't understand autofocus then they won't be able to use it effectively, and so understanding is a better path than just turning it away completely (then, of course, feel free to ignore what you understand).
December 19, 2009 06:03 am
Sorry, I don't get no.10. Try focus locking and reframing.
December 19, 2009 05:18 am
I agree with Jeff above....manual focus for fast moving objects is tough, especially if you cannot predict where the action will be. Set your camera to its continuous focusing mode and then track the subject as it moves and fire away when it performs the action you want to photograph. This is the technique I use to photography equestrian jumping.
I find using a tripod makes manual focus much more pleasurable as well.
December 19, 2009 04:10 am
I don't have a DSLR, and I find the AF using "spot" setting to be a lot faster than manual focus. Unless of course it's a night shot or some fast action going.
Except from the noise of the hunting lens, and the inability to lock at unfavourable conditions, do you think MF still overrules AF (at spot focusing)?
December 19, 2009 03:49 am
Very good points to keep in mind.
The type of autofocus also matters: If you're shooting action (as in No. 6), try using AI Servo with only the center focus point selected (that's for Canon; I believe the Nikon version is called "continuous servo AF"). With AI Servo, keeping the shutter pressed halfway will enable the the focus to continue tracking a moving object/person up until the moment the shutter is released. (Standard AF will lock the focus when keying the shutter; the delay between that and actually releasing the shutter often allows the object/person to move out of focus range). Older, cheaper lenses often won't focus fast enough to do this, but L series lenses and other USM lenses focus very quickly and quietly. I shoot a lot of sports, and this method gives me more keepers than trying to focus manually.
December 19, 2009 03:13 am
Nice article and examples, that's why I live in manual mode and spot focus 95% of the time. It's really the only way I've found way to get the shot I see, not what the camera sees.
December 19, 2009 02:48 am
Shooting in a crowd, or anytime there's action in the foreground and your subject is in the background, sometimes requires manual focus too. For this shot, for example, I was in a crowd and you can see all the hands in the air... autofocus would pick one or the other, and since everything is moving it was wildly inconsistent. Even recomposing wasn't great because the subject moved in the time it took.
But I agree that most DSLRs are just not ideal for manual focus. I'd say live view is a necessity. Our old manual lenses usually went with manual bodies that had some kind of focus assist, like the split prism on my Pentax MG.
December 19, 2009 02:46 am
You know, I kind of agree, but as reznor said, I can't really get a good idea of what the focus is like through my 1x1 inch (if that??) viewfinder. I have a Canon XSI (which I love) and it has live view (which I never use), and have tried to manually focus using that, but that's no good either!
I see the merits of manually focusing, but just can't figure out how to do it accurately!
December 19, 2009 01:35 am
I turn off the auto focus frequently, especially when the photo is busy, especially when shooting birds in trees.
December 19, 2009 01:30 am
I don't beleive it's a case of good/bad autofocus systems, I think it's about all autofocus systems to date. I've tried the Nikon D3 (yes with it's astronomical price) and I would still only shoot it manually as I do with almost all of my photography. Autofocus is just not there yet- because of the issues that this post discusses. The new internal lens motors are cutting down on the noise and improving focussing speed, but if the lens can't find the focal point- you just hear it 'whir' back and forth.
However, If I was shooting sports I would have the autofocus turned on and snap those shots off like a machine gun- hoping something in the series turned out. But this does go back to the post where Alistair was shooting a remote controlled car- action coming at you is best to shoot in manual by focussing on the action point and capturing the image as it passed.
I've read a few good articles regarding skadeboard and closeup action photography- mostly performed the same way (focus on a point and wait).
December 19, 2009 01:22 am
I would like to add another one: astronomy. There is no way I would have been able to take this shot of the moon without my live view zoom manual focus (especially because I took it at 300mm KB equivalent).
And of course there is macro. Not only can't you move your camera to help the AF, in macro shots the area in focus is so small it's essential to move it around by hand:
The point about manual lenses is also great, Friedhelm!
December 19, 2009 01:04 am
All good points, but there is also a third option available to many with DSLRs that wasn't mentioned: set it so that the autofocus button is separate from the shutter button. This allows one to focus on a given point, then leave the focal distance fixed while you recompose the shot. The shutter button will not force it to refocus. I prefer this in situations like #4, 6, 8 and 10 above because it is much quicker and easier than changing back and forth between autofocus and manual.
December 19, 2009 12:58 am
As a guy who is relatively new to DSLR photography, this is great advice. I'll remember it this holiday season!
December 19, 2009 12:58 am
Reading this article makes me think you all have horrible autofocusing systems :|
The majority of the points here can be avoided using the half-press technique, or simply choosing a different focusing method (single point, all points, different point, continuous AF, ...).
December 19, 2009 12:57 am
The focus switch on my Pentax K-m is stuck in the "manual" position, yet the lens autofocuses anyway and it will not allow me to manually focus it. Has anybody else ever had this problem or have any idea how to fix it? (without sending it out for repair)
A big majority of my work is macro or night photography and I have to rely on manual focus. Since it is my only camera and I can't afford to buy a new one, I'm kinda left at a standstill right now.
December 19, 2009 12:51 am
Very nice article -- thanks! I especially liked your examples for point #6. There's nothing obviously wrong with the first three photos -- until you see the superior fourth one.
If there's one point of contention I'd make, it's with point #10. Unless you're shooting with a tripod, it seems to me that it would be easier to autofocus (and then lock focus) on your subject (i.e. the rowboat) and then recompose your shot. (Giving this a little more thought, I guess it depends on whether you find it easier to focus manually or recompose with a locked focus -- for me it's usually the latter.)
December 19, 2009 12:48 am
I love to photograph with old prime lenses that I bought cheaply from pawn shops or Ebay. The connector to my Canon was cheap too. Those lenses only have manual focus and they force me to carefully plan my shots. I believe "time" and "patience" are the most overlooked essential factor for creating great images and all the masters of photography had time, especially when they were shooting with a large format camera.
December 19, 2009 12:46 am
Nice post im glad i turn it off in the most of cases you talk.
December 19, 2009 12:37 am
I completely agree. Autofocus has always been something of a gimmick to me. It never worked well, is always noisy, and never quite focused on what I wanted it to focus on, but everyone used it. Just this year I started to turn on my autofocus again- and I'm not that happy with it.
Just yesterday I was shooting a series of closeup nudes (body shapes and forms not the other stuff) and I had the autofocus turned on. Just hearing that motor buzz back and forth, back and forth was overwhelming- trying to focus on skin with little definition. Annoying to say the least. I had to focus on skin edges, or a feature on the skin (somewhere, anything, a bellybutton) and then reposition the frame to where I wanted it. The noise of the autofocus was distracting for both myself and my model, because it was such an annoyance- I had to turn it off.
I feel like an old timer when it comes to photography because I shoot everything in manual (focus, exposure, flash). I grew up using manual camera's. I believe we are smarter than our camera's. Honestly, I have to do it because all of these new camera consumer features just don't provide a replacement for the photographers creativity. But I keep trying them- and switching back. Maybe one day, but not yet.
December 19, 2009 12:37 am
How true. i've had so many situations when the auto focus has caused me to miss shots. When I first started shooting with my new toy (a canon rebel xsi). I thought I'd use the auto focus, only to have it give me fits as it and i disagreaded on what i wanted to focus on. so these days i've reverted back to doing it my self.
Honestly between allways shooting in manual and focusing my self, I have to say the only real advantages to todays digital cameras is the monitor, image stabilization, and the abillity to dispose of shots i don't like, With out having to spend tons on developing.
December 19, 2009 12:30 am
12. when you buy a cheap/old manual focus lens. Like a 200us$ samyang 85mm 1.4 lens.. great tool for the money of you can overcome the lack of AF
A few of the above points could be overcome using another focus point than the center one.
December 19, 2009 12:22 am
11. Shooting with with lenses without internal focus motor (which use the camera's external focus screw motor)
Usually these lenses (like Nikkor's AF 50mm) are so slow, and noisy, to focus that it can be frustrating. Too often the best thing to do is turn off Auto Focus and do it manually
December 19, 2009 12:08 am
Too bad the viewfinder of my Digital Rebel is way too small to properly focus manually.
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