5 Situations When Manual Focus is Better than Auto Focus

5 Situations When Manual Focus is Better than Auto Focus

Manual-Focus-2Digital Cameras present photographers with an ever increasing array of Automatic and Semi Automatic shooting modes. Most of these center around different ways of exposing your shots – however many cameras also give options for different focusing modes (auto, continuous focusing for moving subjects and manual).

It’s no wonder then that many photographers never make use of their camera and lens’ ability to focus manually. In fact this week I spoke with one DSLR owner recently who hadn’t even noticed the manual/auto focus switch on the side of his lens.

Image by dsevilla

When is Manual Focus Better than Auto Focus?

Let me start by saying there is no right or wrong time to use either manual or auto focusing – both can produce great results in almost all circumstances – however there are a few times when you might find it easier to switch to manual focusing:

1. Macro Work

Manual-Focus-MacroWhen doing macro photography I almost exclusively switch to manual focusing.

The narrow depth of field in these shots mean that you need to be incredibly precise with focusing and being just a smidgeon out or having your camera choose to focus on the wrong part of your subject can completely ruin a shot.

To use it you’ll also probably want to use a tripod to eliminate any movement of the camera which can make focusing either in manual or auto mode frustrating.

Manual focusing puts the control completely in your hands when shooting in this very precise setting.

Image by maruchan313

2. Low Light

Manual-Focus-Low-LightShooting in dimly lit environments can be difficult for some cameras and lenses when it comes to focusing.

You’ll know when your camera is struggling in Auto mode when every time you go to take a shot the lens will whirl from one end of it’s focusing options to the other and back again before deciding on where to focus.

This can really lengthen your shooting process and make taking quick candid shots quite frustrating.

Switch to manual mode and you can quickly find your focusing point and get the shot you’re after.

Image by Jim Skea

3. Portraits

Manual-Focus-PortraitWhen shooting portraits focus needs to be precise.

The majority of your shots of people will need to have their eyes in perfect focus (although in the example to the left it’s the lips) and so switching to manual focus will give you complete control to enable this to save you from having to line up the focusing points on your camera on the eyes, press halfway down and then frame your shot.

Manual focusing in portrait work helps to ensure the viewer of the image is drawn to the part of the face that you want them to notice.

Image by Djof

4. Shooting Through Glass/Wire Fences

Manual-Focus-WindowIf you’ve ever shot through anything like a window or a mess/wire fence you’ll know how cameras will often get confused on where to focus your shot.

Whether it’s shooting out of a plane window, taking a shot of an image at a museum or photographing animals through fences at the zoo – you might find your camera is confused.

Manual focusing will avoid this completely and allow you to get things just right – focusing upon the subject behind that glass or fence. If you do this in conjunction with a large aperture (which decreases depth of field) and get in close to the fence or glass you might well eliminate it completely from being noticeable in your shot.

Image by Gregory Lee

5. Action Photography

Manual-Focus-SportShooting fast moving subjects (like racing cars, planes, bikes, running animals etc) can be a frustrating experience when shooting with auto focus.

Even the continuous focusing modes can get left behind or confusing if you’re not panning with your subject smoothly.

One way to overcome this is to switch to manual focusing and pre focus on a point that the subject will move through – and shooting at that point. You need to get your timing just right – but you’ll find that it’ll often give better results than relying upon auto focus modes (particularly if you shoot in continuous shooting/burst mode).

Image by fensterbme


Shooting in manual focus mode is a skill that you need to learn and practice. While you will have more time to get it right when shooting still objects – it can become more difficult when shooting moving subjects – so practice.

This week set aside an hour or two with your camera to shoot only in manual focus mode. Practice on a variety of subjects including some moving ones. While your practice session might not produce great results the skill that you learn will be useful to have.

Read more from our category

Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

Some Older Comments

  • Joyce October 3, 2013 12:25 am

    Can someone recommend a digital camera that has both automatic and manual focus? I have not been able to find one.

  • thomashmd April 16, 2013 12:54 am

    this is a great post but with the portraits section, if you DSLR camera has a AF-ON button. you can just change the setting so that rather than pressing the shutter button half way down to focus, you just hold and releases the AF-ON button to focus where you want to and then take the photo. that way you focus once rather the refocusing when you take the photo. having the AF-ON button is also really good for sports if you have your focusing on AI SERVO because you can just hold it in the whole time and not accidentally press the shutter button, and miss that great shot.

  • smacd60 February 15, 2012 04:27 pm

    I am learning to use my manual Focus on my D90. I find that it is on point using on fireworks and my macro flowers. The flowers burst out into view with new vigor. Manipulating DoF shines through here also, here it lets me use the focus to it's best. and not letting the focus master the shot.

  • rb2010 February 15, 2012 11:39 am

    Well since I switched back to medium format film from digital, I find this article quite interesting.

    If I was offered autofocus on my pentax 67II I would not take it.

    To be honest, if you think about the types of photography left after you take away Macro, Low Light, Portraits, Shooting through glass and Action then you aren't really left with that much! :D

    How did people manage with manual focus before autofocus? They just did! :D

  • Cyndi February 10, 2012 12:11 am

    Is it wrong to always shoot in manual focus? I'm just starting out, and I have yet to switch to auto focus. I purchased my new camera so that I could shoot in manual, but is there a time when auto is more ideal?

  • Kartik February 9, 2012 02:56 pm

    Definitely makes sense to use manual focus on these occasions. Well explained.

    Here's a shot I took thru a plane window:


  • DPC February 4, 2012 09:26 pm

    I disagree with point 5 Can't use manual focus on moving objects. Because since the objects are moving, it will be lose focus (be in out-of-focus) soon. It will also result in blurry images, since in order to re-focus the object, you will have to move the side of lens (way to change MF in DSLRs) by a very small magnitude which should be extremely precise.
    Instead of that, for moving objects, its better to click "continuous images" instead of single image and using panning. With right shutter speed, it will ensure that atleast 1 image is the way you want

  • Lionel Gambill January 21, 2012 07:03 pm

    A prime example is the time I was on a train headed for Badaling Great Wall in China. When the Great Wall cam into view I grabbed our digital camera and (I thought) grabbed a shot through the train window. Unfortunately, there were wires next to the track. Result: a shot in which the wires were in perfect focus and the Great Wall way out of focus

    My other example is my past work on portraits. It may be dandy to get a scenic shot with everything in sharp focus, but I like the effect when my subject is in sharp focus and the background a little fuzzy. It's especially good simplifying even a somewhat busy background. The bottom line is I don't want some damned piece of machinery deciding the esthetics of my work.

  • loganathan mani January 9, 2012 12:10 am

    I'm having N8 mobile i used to click photos oftenly. I want to concentrate on manual focus i don't what is aperture 7 want to know how to adjust auto focus & manula focus.

  • zJohny January 6, 2012 03:43 am

    great article.
    i just got my 550D and i am totally new to DSLR's...
    I am happy with Autofocus but untill i started to Manually focus my subjects, the result started to come out even finer then what i was getting with Auto mode.
    I started to manually focus on my Rummy Nose Tetras ..they are pretty fast to focus, so its a good learning experience..
    Thanks again mate. it helped me a lot!

  • Doug December 21, 2011 01:38 am

    I shoot gymnastics meets that have the subjects moving rapidly and thus no center point of focus that remains in one location. The subject is typically moving in a general region (high bar, rings, pommel, etc.)but continually moving. Thus what I normally do, say on the highbar for instance, is to use auto focus and focus on the bar itself and then switch to manual focus before the routine starts. I select an aperature that will keep my subject in focus thru the range of motion and adjust my ISO rating to get a speed that will provide stop action of my subject. If not, my autofocus usually selects a wall or something way off in a distance, or "hunts" for the proper subject and nothing is in focus.

  • Sandy McKellar June 27, 2011 09:59 am

    I totally agree with Brian and Peter - why did the dSLRs get rid of the split prism? My old film SLR was only manual focus, and I could focus in almost any lighting situation with that camera, but my Nikon lenses on my D80 are almost impossible sometimes.

  • uncle-rhea April 27, 2011 06:28 am

    i wholly agree. manual focus become second nature especially if you've started on it (aging myself).

  • ANONY MOUSE April 22, 2011 02:48 pm

    I don't think I've ever knowingly (or period) gotten a lens with auto focus. Or used AF in favor of someone else, when avoidable.

  • Digitaly Minded April 17, 2011 01:22 am

    Most often I shoot auto assist w/ the computer doing the show, but when I shoot things which need a sharp depth of field such as macro I feel more secure having my own eye choosing the point of focus rather than utilizing the computer picking what should be in the point of focus and how the depth of field is picked.

  • Kwaz April 13, 2011 08:19 am

    Understanding how auto-focus actually works, along with the auto-focus lock button helps... I never use manual, and all my shots have exactly what I want in focus everytime, all the time… Learn your camera/system before you think your poor eyes are better than computers... So before you reach for that focus ring just to look cool, remember: How about you worry less about how you look taking the picture, n’ more about the final product…

  • Sereina March 23, 2011 09:16 am

    Great tips. I always manual focus with my 50mm.

  • Judy March 13, 2011 02:12 pm

    Great tips on manual focus mode! I tried today to shoot a picture of fishes swimming around using the AF-C mode and it was so difficult for me. Granted I am barely getting to know my camera but thanks for all the tips. I'll play around with my camera tomorrow using the manual focus and see what comes out :)

  • Miguel March 7, 2011 11:31 am

    Thank you so much for this very insightful post. It has answered some of my questions. Especially the one about the fence. I had trouble with that one the last time I went to the zoo. I love this website.

  • rogue83 March 7, 2011 11:28 am

    i've had my slr for 4 years and it has never been out of the manual focus setting. maybe i'll give auto focus a try!

  • Vipinz. March 5, 2011 11:45 pm

    im just a biginer in photography, and i didnt complete any photography courses. im searching for a good teacher, this article helps me a lot to understand about the usage of manual focus because now im using a auto focus camera(NIKKON cool pics- 10mpix).


  • Joe February 12, 2011 12:43 pm

    Good article.
    I've recently acquired a vintage 50mm lens, which only has manual focus. It was tough at first to get to grips with, but after some practice I'm really enjoying manual focus, it's allowed me to consider my composition a lot more as I'm not always focusing and re-composing (I don't trust a camera to choose the focal point for one minute!)

  • Bridget Casas February 12, 2011 04:12 am

    There is some useful information in the article. I am doing a senior portrait shoot tomorrow morning so I will turn off the auto focus (for some of the photos)!

  • Brian February 11, 2011 11:56 pm

    Personally, I wish my camera had a split image and microscreen in the rangefinder again, like my old film cameras had. I have used theanual focus on my DSLR, but without these tools it is hard to determine if I have the precise focus you are talking about. If I had the tools, I would probably use manual all the them!

  • Peter February 11, 2011 09:56 pm

    Thanks for the article.
    None of the kit/consumer price zoom lenses are really designed for manual focus, and most of the entry level dSLR optical viewfinders are too small - if you are a glasses wearer like me and trying to shoot a bird in a tree it is almost impossoble to tell what is in focus from the viewfinder image of my D60. I don't know why split prism focussing screens aren't provided as an option either.On these points my ageing Pentax ME Super is streets ahead (and it had an f1.7 kit lens !).

  • Arun Prabhu February 11, 2011 05:29 pm

    A great thing about the digital camera revolution is the advantage we get to have a preview of our shots. So in any difficult lighting situations you can always preview and then tweak the aperture and shutter speed settings in the manual mode for the right exposure. I find this method especially useful for bird and wild life photography when you may not get another chance. What I do is, I take a sample shot of the sorroundings without the subject, assess the exposure in the preview, tweak the settings if required and then wait for the subject to appear, in this case the bird or the animal. Of course, lighting conditions can undergo some change due to clouds or otherwise.

  • blaize February 11, 2011 04:35 pm

    I'd agree with all except 5...and this is largely because most cameras nowadays have an "AI Servo" mode that tracks the subject when it is moving. If one sets the focal point, then use autofocus, it works like a champ.

  • Bryan Karl February 11, 2011 12:25 pm

    Thank you for this great article. I have never used the manual mode of my camera before. I actually just used it one time, accidentally. I will try to practice with manual mode soon. Thanks!

  • Chris Kiely February 11, 2011 07:55 am

    Thankyou for the great and very helpful article. I find when I use my +4 Macro filter on my 300mm lens, it is much easier, and I get far better results with the camera set on Manual. I use it frequently because Macro is one of my favourite subjects and something I am still trying to master.

  • Paul Kasko February 11, 2011 04:17 am

    Shooting the drummer. You think his face is in focus but when you look at the photos the cymbals are in focus.

  • Jeff H February 10, 2011 01:35 pm

    Outstanding article! Also showing my age, I still have a Minolta SRT101 which has the ultra advanced feature of a built in light meter!! (It was for it's time!).

    I agree with previous posts that I'm seriously disappointed with new consumer DSLR's, and even prosumer models, lacking a proper through-the-eyepiece focusing screen (split screen or microprism). I rarely use manual focus anymore because I'm not confident that focus is accurate unless I use a long zoom, zoom completely out, focus, then zoom back and recompose. Generally speaking though, I do only use the center focus point and change the AF mode to suit the situation (i.e., AF-Servo for action/sports). I figure I can crop after to get best composition if necessary (though I'm old school so I have little knowledge or experience with more "high-tech" post-processing techniques). I have also moved AF to the AE lock buttton, which I though was incredible, once you got used to it. Unfortunately, it's not an easy change on my body and I got tired of switching it back and forth.

    Unfortunately, today's DSLR's do so much, that new photographers either don't have the time or the inclination to really learn how to take "proper" photos, not relying on Photoshop. Digital photography makes it way to easy to shoot a boatload of pics to get "the one". Back in the day, it cost money for the film and processing, so you were far more careful and precise.

    I often read lens reviews where the reviewers complain about "soft focus", and often wonder if it's really a matter of the wrong focus point being "selected", and very short DoF.

    Please don't mistake my comments as arrogance, as I don't really think I'm that good. After tens of thousands of exposures (admittedly most of those in the last few years with a DSLR), I only have a relative handful that I think are worthy.

    I would challenge new photographers to, for the best part of a month, explore full manual. Learn and understand everything the camera is doing for you. I was recently having a lot of problems with flash, and had to do a ton of research to find out just how my camera/flash are metering/working. At the same time, I learned a lot more about my flash so now I can use it in manual mode if I want or need to.

    Just sayin'.

  • Timo February 10, 2011 01:55 am

    Great article, I can only confirm these tips.

    Moreover, you should definitely try out manual focus lenses if you have the opportunity – they are cheap (if bought used), but the optics are practically as good as with AF lenses.
    Here is an example from my blog:
    I took this photo with a non-autofocus lens, a “nifty fifty” (f/1.8) from Nikon.


  • camcorp February 10, 2011 01:12 am

    And don't forget back light

  • lito February 9, 2011 09:18 pm

    i want to ask my camera 450d canon with 18-250 mm
    how to do setting of aperute & shutter speed when taking picture
    using portrait,landscape,close up mode.
    Place help me ,


  • Jeremy February 9, 2011 04:27 pm

    I haven't read all the comments so it's possible this has been brought up, but, this article should be renamed:

    "5 Reasons to Not Let Your Camera Choose the Autofocus Points For You."

    How about just selecting the focus point to the center (and most sensitive) point and then placing that spot on the intended spot of focus? Then recompose as desired. Much easier, faster and more accurate.

    To avoid the cumbersome "hold the button halfway to focus" bit, move the auto focus function off the shutter button and onto the AF-ON button or the * button. There is at least one article written on this here with a lively discussion following. Ask most pro photogs how they do it: auto focus and get it off the shutter button.

  • Greg K February 9, 2011 01:22 pm

    Nice article. I think you could add panoramas to this list as well. Maybe this should be a list of 10! ;)

  • Vratnica United February 9, 2011 10:09 am

    Useful tips on focusing.

  • George Dewey Powell February 9, 2011 09:27 am

    shooting soccer was quite a learning curve for me, and although I don't know if the method I have chosen is an "accepted" method, it now works for me, and although action, I use AF and a monopod. With my D90 below eye level, and rotating hips or balls of my feet I can follow the action until I see, either the ball coming down, or players on an intersecting path, and then duck to the viewfinder and depress the shutter release for 3-5 frames. I use manual focus when given the opportunity, especially shooting free kicks, where the ball is stationary and I can focus and raise the lens, pending the arrival of the kicker, and these are always superior shots.

  • Lon February 9, 2011 08:14 am

    No mention of maximizing DoF by using hyperfocal focussing, in here - if you have a lens with DoF range markings on the barrel and you are shooting at smaller apertures where background is focussed to infinity, if you want to achieve extra DoF in the foreground while still keeping infinity focussed, you can pull the focus point closer to the mark indicated rather than all the way to the end of the focus ring limit. So if you are doing a landscape but want your foreground framing to be as sharp as possible while keeping the distant subject in focus, this would be a good time to put it on MF and use those indicators (not very common on modern zoom lenses).

  • Brandon February 9, 2011 07:40 am

    Back-button focusing. Single focus point. AI Servo.

    This is how our cameras are set up 99% of the time. The only time we switch is for macro work, which we don't do an enormous amount of. Separating the focus mechanism from the shutter is hugely helpful in all of the situations described above. That's why back-button focusing is so wonderful. Learning and getting used to it isn't that bad. It takes about a week to train yourself. And you'll never go back...

  • Toni Aull February 9, 2011 07:29 am

    Wow-Thanks john A.

  • John A. February 9, 2011 07:25 am

    Note that some cameras now have capture-in-focus features which let them snap the picture the moment the AF system detects focus has been achieved. Focus manually on where the runner/car/horse/bicycle/etc will be and press the shutter button - when it gets there the camera will catch it.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck February 9, 2011 06:58 am


    one situation where Manual Focus produces superior results is when one is shooting multiple exposures at different EV for HDR Imaging. Here, the camera is set at Aperture Priority and the exposure is varies by shutter speed. If one leaves Auto Focus on, the camera may adjust the focal point during the bracketting sequence. This results in an inferior outcome.

    Here is a shot of a cob webby window, Autofocus Off

    "Windows Web Site" Prager Winery, CA: http://t.co/5jcAf37

    Regards, Erik
    Kerstenbeck Photographic Art

  • Toni Aull February 9, 2011 06:55 am

    I like this Info. Alot.... I Have bad eyes..far sited and near sited at a tender age of 48~
    But it seems that my eyes won't adjust to far distances... Wonder Why?

  • Edie Layland February 8, 2011 05:12 am

    Thanks for these tips! I was at the park the other day photographing kids as they ran around the park equipment, slides, swings, and that kind of thing. I was using autofocus in continuous mode, but it wasn't working very well. It was frustrating to have a focused photo in my viewfinder that went bad because my autofocus didn't seem to know when to stop. I decided to try the single servo mode next time. I am encouraged to try manual after reading your article, though predicting where a kid will go next is not so easy to do. Ha ha!

  • Amit Chaudhary November 22, 2010 07:17 pm

    Give me some idea about manual focus lenses available in the market....

  • lifeslikethat September 8, 2010 06:43 am

    I wish I had read this before I went to the zoo yesterday!! I used auto focus mostly being a newbiew and all! Quite a few of my pictures have the dreadful wiresmesh in them!!

  • Gunasekhar July 20, 2010 08:10 pm

    Although some people may think, we cling to old ways of photography, I appreciate this article. Very often I am getting pissed off with the auto focus in my DSLR. Especially in low light and confusing scenarios, it is very funny to watch the camera getting confused on how to focus and disparately searching for subject. In such cases I move to manual focus and snap and it is very often. Now my attention moved to secure few old manual lenses, possibly primes as I am very much comfortable with manual focus. Some times I feel this auto focus thing is not really needed for serious photographers, where manual focus is much faster, reliable and you get what you precisely want.

    Nice article.

  • Don Bird May 28, 2010 02:15 am

    Sorry for the spelling i am sure you know what i am saying.

  • Don Bird May 28, 2010 02:14 am

    Baxxy buying used is ok but do your homwork first .At leese nwe you can send it back there are some plaves
    that well take back used but you may be getting into the same problems i say this because i know sevreal
    people that gave up and bought new JUST do your homework and get it in writing if not i would move on.

  • Don Bird May 28, 2010 02:06 am

    If you want a good camera get the canon 50D read reviews on the 50D for the mony you cant beat it like i
    said i love mine and i do a lot of photo work in the field indoors outdoors its a great camera it has enough settings it well to last a long time just get good lens the kit lens a good start also if you can aford it get the
    18- 200mm lens its a realy good lens a 50mm or the one i realy like 85mm if you get these lens you well
    not reget it makes for a nice starte well last you awhile go to amizon and check out the reviews on 50D
    and the lens they show potos taken with the 50D belive me its a nice camera if you want vodio 7D but i dont
    think spending that kind of money is wirth it for that kind of money you would be better off 50D and lens.

  • idb May 28, 2010 12:46 am

    Baxxy, I did a google search and found this old DPS survey:

    You could check these out first but I doubt you will find a digital P&S with manual focus.
    I would look for a good, used DSLR with appropriate lens instead.
    Good luck.

  • Don Bird May 28, 2010 12:28 am

    Baxxy. i am not sure it is only for DSLR cameras or not i dont have film cameras anymore i have a canon 50D and love it os much more you can do with DSLR cameras.If i come to think of it i think all i did was
    manual on film but that was years ago.I find my 50D does all i need if and only IF i were to another camera it would be large format but i dont think that well happen i do have the funds for large format that is not the
    problem I have found no mater what other people say you DONT have to spend large amounts of cash
    on that kind of cameras to get realy realy good photos JUST a nice DSLR like the canon 50D WELL do just
    fine its all in the lens you have thars where its at.

  • baxxy May 27, 2010 05:35 pm

    Can someone please clarify... is manual focus for depth of field only available on DSLR or can it also work with full control on quality point and click cameraS?
    I want the control over focus but don't really want to spend over £200 if possible... any recomendations?

  • Glyne April 3, 2010 07:22 am

    I tried experimenting with manual fucus while shooting in sports mode and sometimes find it difficult depending on the angle at which I held the camera....I have a Pentax K2000 with a 18-55mm lens. Why is this happening.

    Glyne in Barbados

  • Lynn February 9, 2010 06:28 am

    NICE article. I just got a Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT about a month ago, and I'm still finding the various controls on it. I'm an old fashioned film photographer who has never used autofocus on an SLR, and the tips in the article are really useful. Low light and obstructions like fences and airplane windows will definitely throw Autofocus off! I use manual for those types of situations. Had fun doing Mardis Gras parades over the last few days, but I had to review how to set the focus points on my camera. I had accidentally set it to focus way off to one side and it was ruining my photos! Got it fixed and they look good now!

    Lynn in New Orleans.

  • Julia November 28, 2009 12:27 pm


    I am loving the skill involved in your responses. I am a skilled *film* photographer - breaking into digital just for the ease and convenience/family and friend shots~ and as Christmas gifts to get good shots of grandkids. What camera would you reccommend on the LOW end of price in a point and shoot that HAS manual focus. Any favorites?

  • caroline May 27, 2009 03:42 am

    "I feel like I’m cheating otherwise, is there a point of being a photographer if your camera does ALL the work?"

    If you think automatic focus is cheating, then surely digital photography as a whole is cheating. You really should be developing your own film prints at home.

  • Don Bird from Michigan April 4, 2009 05:36 am

    The problem i see the most is people buy cameras and do not read the manual i think that is a big mistake..
    READ THE MANUAL. Thats how to learn to use a cameras settings. You well be amazed how much better
    you will get .

  • Don Bird from Michigan April 4, 2009 05:30 am

    I have a canon 28-90 lens i use mf all the time i do leave the camera on p.I havent had any problems in
    low light or other wise. I do not care for af anymore mf is great once you get use to it just takes time put
    on mf and just take photos. AS faras other settings on the camera i have used but i like the p setting and
    had no problems.

  • Junior April 3, 2009 12:25 pm

    In response to lazlee's question, it depends on which lens you use. The upper-spec range of Canon lenses have a symetrical layout and will hold focus at different zoom lengths, but expect to pay big $$$ for them

  • idb March 19, 2009 06:48 am

    In reply to lazlee's question, the focus does not hold when zooming, at least not with either my Pentax 50-200 or 28-55 lenses. And this is when using auto-focus and focus lock or using manual focus.

    Other lenses could be different so maybe there's a Canon user out there who can join in...

  • Lazlee March 17, 2009 04:33 am

    I have a similar problem as Laszlo. As an out of control diabetic I have a problem with the clarity of my vision constantly changing. Some days manual focus is a breeze with great results, other days not so much. I'm new to photography and although this is probably a 'dummies' question I was wondering. Once I've decided on my spot, if I zoom the feature I want to focus on , focus it and then zoom out to the distance I want to photograph, does the focus hold?

    BTW, I'm using a Canon Rebel Xsi w/ 14-40mm EF L lenses for landscape. I've only been able to use it on cloudy overcast days and have been seriously disappointed in the sharpness. The kit lenses that came with the camera seems to do a comparable job. Both seem soft and not sharp at all. Any ideas?

    Thanks! Darren, your many tutorials and articles are deeply appreciated!

  • Oz Rodriguez March 11, 2009 07:58 am

    Thank you you don't know how useful is this for us the beginners. I'm studying photography and you have just answered a lot of questions in my head. Really thank you Darren.

  • idb March 4, 2009 10:51 am

    Today I switched to manual focus while using my macro lens to shoot some flowers. The auto focus was confused by the surrounding leaves and other flowers. MF allowed me to get in closer too. I have a Pentax K200D and a 35mm f/2.8 macro lens. I will definitely be switching to MF in similar situations from now on.
    I agree with the suggestions in the article and have used them all because of being a 35 mm film photographer for over 30 years without an auto-focus camera, until I added a DSLR to my gear last year.
    Btw "bogart", the "film era" is not completely over for some of us...I have 3 bodies loaded all the time.

  • Donovan Glass March 3, 2009 12:13 pm

    Photography is my hobby, and I know of a great way you can easy use auto focus most of the time, and still have CRISP, CLEAR lines.

    It's called High Pass with Linear Light. I use it now on all of my modeling photographs. Works better than manual focusing.

  • Uzool March 2, 2009 04:12 pm

    Thanks, for this very useful tips,just a few days before i was thinking bout my focusing problem ,yours tips really helps me a lot thanks again

  • jason March 2, 2009 09:24 am

    Great web site, i've recently purchased a DSLR. This site is a great guide.

  • Xenon March 2, 2009 12:06 am

    Excellent!! To the point and very helpful. Thanks.

  • G Lee February 28, 2009 10:55 am

    My friend shared this website with me and it is great and those five situations I have encountered a time or two. Great job in writing understandabel detail.

  • Amiram February 28, 2009 09:55 am

    One of the main reasons for using manual focus is trying to obtain a certain depth of field where the actual focus point has nothing to autofocus on. Some cameras have an "automatic depth-of-field" mode that will attempt to do this for you, but - as with other camera controls - in many cases manual is the only way to go.

  • TJSpence February 28, 2009 03:43 am

    Manual focus is also indispensible when shooting full moon or night sky shots.

  • Laszlo February 27, 2009 05:20 pm

    I like this post very much as well as past ones! Not only the descriptions but example shots help me a lot. Thanks!

    I try to use manual focus as many times as possible and practice. I wear glasses generally except taking pictures. My camera has -3.0 to +1.0 diopter adjustment and adjusted according to my glasses (I need approx. -1.25). The pictures of manual focus still have high variance in sharpness. Any tips regarding this would be also appreciated.

    Best regards, Laszlo

  • Niranjan February 27, 2009 03:16 pm

    I would like to add one more advantage. Switching to manual focus can conserve battery power especially when you are using zooms.

  • Anna February 27, 2009 11:07 am

    Excellent post! BTW I have been shooting moon through my window lately due to the cold weather, and no body could ever guess. Anna :)

  • Don Bird February 27, 2009 10:06 am

    I use manual mode all the time i have no problems with it i do low light sports landscape wild life like
    others said you just have to get used to it the more you do it the better you well get.

  • Belinda February 27, 2009 09:49 am

    Another time I find it essential to use manual focus is when using my Canon Remote Control to trigger the shutter. If left in Auto Focus, the camera will refocus on whatever it chooses when you press the RC button, usually providing disappointing results.

  • Janet February 27, 2009 08:16 am

    Thanx for the article and the challenge to shoot w/o auto focus for a week. Being very much an amatuer, this article is very concise w/o lots of technical jargon (for me, at least) and made me understand not only when to use it, but also what both auto and manual do and don't do in those situations. And I always enjoy and learm from everyone's comments.

  • Elsh February 27, 2009 08:04 am

    I subscribed for the letters of this school and no regrets at all. Love the site and find so many usefull thngs especialy for non-pros and beginners. Grate job Daren and many thanx.

  • GL Wilson February 27, 2009 06:50 am

    For those with simpler cameras, my Canon SX10 does have manual focus, but I have trouble with getting the menu set up and the "dial" for adjusting it. By the time I can focus, my bird is gone. BUT, I can change the size of the focus box to much smaller, and that has really saved some of my shots. I leave it that way most of the time, except for people snap shots, where the eye detection works great.

    Another aspect of a problem area for auto focus is framing, e.g. with a tree limb nearby on a scenic shot ... at least there you can focus on infinity, hold the exposure button halfway down to hold focus and reframe.

  • Bryan February 27, 2009 06:33 am

    It seems to me that modern cameras discourage the use of Manual Focus. My first "real" camera was a Pentax K1000 (I know, I'm showing my age). AF was not an option. However, the focus screen made MF a breeze. In the center of the viewfinder, it had a circle split in half. When the two halves of the subject in the circle lined up, it was in focus. The rest of the viewfinder was covered with little triangles or prisms that were more obvious when the subject was out-of-focus, and all but disappeared when the subject was in focus.

    I was disappointed when I got my first DSLR (Canon 300D) and saw the focus screen (or lack thereof). I have moved up to the 50D, but the MF situation is about the same. The focus screens on most DSLRs almost force you to use AF.

  • alex ringer February 27, 2009 06:05 am

    Other missions I'd recommend manual focusing is when shooting thin plants from a short distance on a windy weather. After you've decided on your subject switch to manual and move your camera/head to and fro until your subject is in perfect focus and click. The moving plants won't let you focus in outo.

  • alex ringer February 27, 2009 05:34 am

    Shooting objects from the ground without looking through the viewfinder should be done with manual focusing in advance. Meaning, set the focus of your object from a point which is approximately in the same distance as your subject, lower your camera to ground level, aim and click. You may not get it right on the first shot and need a second take but it is better than in autofocus mode.

  • Phil Menger February 27, 2009 05:24 am

    But you don't explain exactly what settings to use when taking photos in these five areas. Obviously you switch the lens to mf on the Cannon but then what? AV? TV? M? P?

  • Kendra February 27, 2009 04:11 am

    So with practice are you able to manually focus faster? How do you catch those moving children portraits?

  • Marion February 27, 2009 03:12 am

    Great tips! Don't forget about snow falling! Arrghh with the auto focus! (and don't forget your plastic bag!)

  • philobob February 27, 2009 03:05 am

    I have encounted all of the problems you mentioned in af. However I have avoided using MF because I don't trust my eyes. This said I'm planning to use MF for all of my Macro work. I know that the images will be better because I will pick the point of focus.

  • Richard Schulz February 27, 2009 03:04 am

    I find it quite useful to use manual focus in racing situations where the action shifts and you shoot quickly but you are right, you must practice this. It comes more naturally to those of us who learned viewfinder first. I also make a habit of switching to all manual functions just to stay grounded in my shooting.

  • RPM Digital Photos February 27, 2009 02:48 am

    One of my knitches is shooting aquarium fish. People do like photos of their pets, whether dogs, cats, snakes, birds.... and fish. They can be very difficult to do on auto. I do take a number of practice shots at 1/125, 1/250, end 1/500 shutter speed to stop action them and a higher aperture, 11, 15, 22 to make the fish really stand out from the background. I keep the ISO as low as possible to keep the prints perfect. Ialso shoot from a distance, no flash.

  • Sharopn de Vries February 27, 2009 02:23 am

    I have to take pictures of my miniatures for my website and use the macro for that....talking manual has opened my eyes somewhat....thank you great article......tomorrow here I come hope to have improovemnet in my pictures

  • Trevor Sowers February 27, 2009 01:18 am

    I use manual focus a lot on my EF 200 2.8. Some lenses make manual focus very easy and others make it nearly impossible. I find it extremely useful when focusing through brush to get wildlife shots. On my 40d I made the rear button the focus button and the shutter button is metering and release only. This set up mean I never need to flip a switch or worry about the camera trying to change my manual focus point.

  • jay February 26, 2009 06:24 pm

    great tips. It is difficult to overcome the fear of switching to MF. For me it has resulted in some really great photos. Putting your camera in Manual mode or focusing your lens manually gives you so much more freedom!!

  • Paul R. Giunta February 26, 2009 02:40 pm

    Great set of tips. I find myself an AF slave. Time to resist and give into MF!

  • Roger Bunting February 26, 2009 01:12 pm

    There's also twiggy trees or through hedges,. Auto focus makes the picking out of, say, a bird in the further branches (It's Autumn here in the N hemisphere:) ) difficult/impossible.

  • Richard February 26, 2009 07:21 am

    My problem is that I don't have 20/20 eyesight, so I cannot trust my manual focusing. What's in focus to me, might not be in focus for the camera. This is because the camera can act as "glasses" for you unless you properly adjust the viewfinder for your eyesight.

  • Michael VanDeWalker February 26, 2009 06:03 am

    One of the best things you can do to make auto focus work "better" and focus where you want it on a DSLR is to set your camera to the center point focus only. Don't let it pick the focus points that it thinks are right. Set the focus point to the center point only and recompose as needed.

  • dcclark February 26, 2009 05:05 am

    Well, I'm submitting this again due to the previous one being stuck in moderation -- bizarre.

    For the record, I am in love with nighttime photography, and manual focus is absolutely required in these situations. Under a quarter moon with no other light, autofocus is almost guaranteed to fail -- sorry Chris! It’s often dark enough that it's hard to see your focus clearly through the viewfinder (and the “focus dot” only works some of the time). So, I frequently take multiple shots at slightly different focal distances and later pick the best one.

    Two good examples are these: Centennial by Moonlight and Quincy by Moonlight (two shaft-rockhouses at the abandoned mines in this area). Each one was a 10-20 second long exposure. The first one, I could barely find focus at all, the viewfinder was so dark (I had to rely on the focus scale on my lens) — this was the best of the bunch. The second one was better due to the full moon, and turned out reasonably sharp on the first try.

  • Sam February 26, 2009 04:37 am

    U cannot use autofocus to do fireworks...it just does not work....need to put the lens in manual focus and move the focus ring to infinity !!!!

  • Chris February 26, 2009 03:53 am

    An OK article, but I couldn't disagree more with lowlight or action photography - especially combining both! Check out ishootshows.com or onelouderphoto.com and you will see 2 professional fast action low-light photographers use the d3 and 100% of the time will never, ever rely on manual focusing. And professional sports photographers never rely on manual focus. Why? They have 3D 51-point autofocus tracking cameras and continuous mode. If you are having problems with AF, then your camera is broken, you aren't using an AF-S or AF lens, or you don't know how to use the camera right. Not to mention to DoF at 1.2, 1.4, and 1.8 is so much that if you rely on eyesight that could really throw things off.

    Just my 2 cents.

  • 0rovert February 26, 2009 03:52 am

    Nice article Darren. I've recently started using Manual Focus in combination with Live View and the results are great. The process is still slow for me, but being able to apply 10X magnification to the Live View screen allows for such a finite focus on the subject.

  • Dusty February 26, 2009 03:10 am

    I only really photograph Jewelry which is a tough job, at least for me. My problem besides lighting is I wear reading glasses so I am not sure weather the item is in focus or not. I try to just leave my glasses off so sometimes the piece comes out blurry so I am at a loss when using manual focus.

  • dcclark February 26, 2009 02:46 am

    Interesting: my comment from 3 hours ago is still awaiting moderation. I'm trying to post this one just to see if it works.

  • LisaNewton February 26, 2009 01:21 am

    I haven't really used my manual focus at all, but I love your suggestions. It's happened to me more than once when I needed to get out of auto focus, and have basically forgotten I could use manual. I'll definitely try to use it more.

    Thanks for the great suggestions........................:)

  • Amy Cham February 26, 2009 01:11 am

    I've found manual focus to be indispensable on wildlife shoots.

    As others have noted, some shots--the most recent example that comes to mind is a nest of baby spoonbills hidden in a cluster of trees--are really near impossible to get with autofocus. With a long lens, I have more than once shot "through" twigs or even branches that can be blurred out of view, but would grab the camera's focus on auto.

    Another benefit of going manual on wildlife shoots is the ability to visually travel through a complex, deep subject like a tree to look for interesting patterns or subjects (which is how I found the baby spoonbill nest at all...it was camouflaged too well for my naked eye to notice).

    Finally, in situations where the terrain or respect for the subject and its habitat makes a convenient vantage point impossible--an example being shooting an eagle in a tree almost directly above from a riverside snowbank--using manual focus with a tripod and live view allows me to set up the composition and focus that work for the subject, then shoot, trusting that things are as they need to be until the subject moves significantly enough to require a new setup.

    More and more, I'm switching off the autofocus...while it's great for tracking on a clean background, the imprecision on low light and closeup work has caused loads of frustration.

  • dcclark February 26, 2009 12:10 am

    Funny -- clearly this was originally posted in 2007, and not even re-copied into a new post!

    For the record, I'll add that I am in love with nighttime photography, and manual focus is absolutely required in these situations. However, it's often hard to actually see your focus clearly through the viewfinder (and the "focus dot" only works some of the time). So, I frequently take multiple shots at slightly different focal distances and later pick the best one.

    Two good examples are these: Centennial by Moonlight and Quincy by Moonlight (two shaft-rockhouses at the abandoned mines in this area). Each one was a 10-20 second long exposure. The first one, I could barely find focus at all, the viewfinder was so dark (I had to rely on the focus scale on my lens) -- this was the best of the bunch. The second one was better due to the full moon, and turned out reasonably sharp on the first try.

  • Andrew G January 16, 2009 10:00 pm

    Thanks for the great article. I think it's also important to mention that manual focus is also a terrific creative tool, for example, when using it with a long lens at night to blur the coloured lights of your background when shooting foreground silhouettes.

  • Pete September 9, 2008 11:41 am

    Great article. Sometimes due to weird lighting conditions its hard to gauge the correct shutter speed and f/stop. In many cases i have metered and used full auto to give me some of these readings. I then gauge from these readings to set my f/stop and shutter speed, lock them, and then switch to manual focus. If time is short then i use either aperture/shutter priority but use the lens switch in m/f with some decent results. No doubt complete m/f usually gives you total control. Only trial and error can help you improve.

  • Local July 13, 2008 02:03 am

    Since I've started using a camera the only time I've used Automatic focusing is when I have difficulty seeing the shot myself in a long zoom.

    I feel like I'm cheating otherwise, is there a point of being a photographer if your camera does ALL the work?

  • bogart June 27, 2008 09:24 am

    When you are shooting manually you have the freedom to choose your subject but you must be fast when you will shoot a moving subject. During the camera film days there was no auto focus not until the advent of N2000 by Nikon. Therefore, manual focusing can be perfected through constant pratice and bring back the memories of the film era.

  • bogart June 27, 2008 09:17 am

    I use manual focus when auto focus falter or becomes confused. This usaually happened when you are shooting macro. The only problem is the grip on the lens is to small. Unlike during the times of Nikon F3 or the film camera where focusing is mannually done, the grip is sufficient to focus the lens. I just hope that lens manufacturer would bring back the old lens where manual focusing would be easy to use.

  • Jackie Mitchell May 13, 2008 07:05 am

    I so totally agree. I take pictures of roofs for drawing and bidding and autofocus does nothing for my shots. In thumbnail mode, the pics look great, in paintshop or any program that makes it bigger, I loose my picture entirely and it just becomes a blurr... What camera would you recommend. I prefere digital, I dont have time to wait on pics to be developed, and I cant afford a 1000.00 dollar camera. I am soooo frustrated..

  • Tony October 14, 2007 06:13 am

    If I use Manual Focus in 400D what are the Manual A(uto) F(ocus) points use for ?.


  • Shahrul Esa September 30, 2007 03:59 am

    With manual focus, you don't need to lock the focus since it won't change unless you changed it yourself. Gonna try setting my * to autofocus, might work very well with my 17-85 is since it has full time manual capabilities

  • John September 21, 2007 09:20 pm

    Using Auto Focus, we can press the shutter halfway to lock focus and then recompose. Can I do the same thing with Manual Focus (for example using Canon 400D) ?.

  • goshort September 21, 2007 01:40 am

    i am in favour of both the mechanisms and as mentioned above the manual focus mode is best. thank u for good suggestions and tips.

  • Paul @ http://www.photographyvoter.com September 20, 2007 07:20 am

    great article again - love the sample images.
    seen on http:\\www.photographyvoter.com

  • mirko September 20, 2007 05:03 am

    To do manual focus you'll better have a decent focusing screen (not the ones on entry level DSLR). I think a pentaprism instead of a pentamirror can be useful too.

  • Jenny September 20, 2007 12:16 am

    Cool stuff

  • rock September 19, 2007 11:37 pm

    Good article. I can agree with all but the last. I shoot track and cross country frequently and I just couldn't do it with manual focus. There are so many runners on our team that I have to focus quickly on and shoot quickly before the next person comes up. Granted I don't always get the best shots of everyone simply because all the runners are faster, slower, in groups, alone, behind trees, etc. I tried it once with manual focus and waited until they all came thru one area and did my best to hit the remote button on time, I only got 1 shot per person and they were almost always out of focus because there were several people bunched up together, or I didn't hit the shutter at the precise moment.

    Other than that I am almost always unsuccessful photographing macro in auto focus. Good read thanks!

  • Puplet September 19, 2007 08:30 pm

    Echoing some of the comments above, you forgot 'cluttered foreground'.

  • digi September 19, 2007 07:45 pm

    I have a question, if a point-and-shoot camera doesn't have a manual focus, can I somehow compensate it?

  • winterminute September 19, 2007 04:10 pm

    On my PAS, Macro mode (little flower) and manual focus is an either/or situation. Does "macro mode" do anything other than change how close the auto-focus can handle?

    If so, then can I use manual focus for all my macro shots and not lose out on anything "automagical" that the macro mode used to do for me?

  • Graham Marsden September 19, 2007 02:47 pm

    Another plus point for manual focussing, on the lenses I use for macro. I can get 2cms closer to the subject than with auto-focus.

  • dashdot September 19, 2007 01:42 pm

    I would highly doubt the effectiveness of using manual focus for sports photography, if that was the best, there wouldnt be 15 grand autofocussing lenses, if you are having problems with hunting and out of focus shots, you most likely need to work on your panning technique, your camera does not have the ability to do this, or you have the autofocus settings wrong.
    For low light you should be using a af illuminator, as af systems can see down to about 0 ev, which through a viewfinder on normal dslrs is better than what the human eye can do for contrast detection most of the time

  • Free Nature Photography Wallpaper September 19, 2007 11:32 am

    Very nice basic overview. I do everything manual, but auto focus is sometimes good for things besides sports.

    For sports you need to make sure that depth of field is small, no reason to have the crowd in focus. Check out the site for more examples: http://www.eugenef.com

  • mullingitover September 19, 2007 09:58 am

    This seems like strange advice. For me, the autofocus is always more reliable than my own eyes for very narrow DoF shots (and I have 20/20 vision!). For action shots, manual focus is so slow and imprecise as to be pure folly. For low light shots I use a f/1.4 lens I never have problems with AF 'hunting'.

  • John September 19, 2007 09:47 am

    It's also better for microscope photography, which is a wierd hybrid of the macro and glass problems.

  • Matt Sandy September 19, 2007 09:41 am

    I actually don't own a portrait lens with auto focus. This hasn't been by choice, but because of funding. I have taken some decent pictures though in my opinion.

  • Jan September 19, 2007 09:03 am

    I think this is a great article about when/how to use manual focus. There are truly cases where human judgement or artistic choice exceeds what the camera can do for you. However, there are also many situations where auto-focus can help the photog focus (no pun intended) on the task of composing a shot rather than wrestling equipment and doing automatable tasks. Understanding some of the advanced features of the equipment can be helpful.

    Kevin - you may check your lens docs. Many Canon lenses allow manual tuning of the focus on top of auto-focus (have to turn auto-servo off). That way you can grab and tune, without having to flick a switch.

    figz - On higher end DSLRs you can select the auto-focus points to be used. In a complex scene that can avoid the problem you describe.

  • John Bokma September 19, 2007 03:44 am

    Reflective surfaces. My Sony P&S had an extremely hard time to focus on anything that was shiny, for example berries, the top of a beetle, a scorpion, etc. I haven't checked if my Canon A640 suffers from the same problem (I guess yes), but I am happy that it has manual focus.

  • thekevinmonster September 19, 2007 02:38 am

    I found manual focus extra useful:

    - With long lenses. Why? I have no idea. There's just something very cool about seeing your subject pop into focus. With a wide-angle, it can be hard to tell unless you're close up.

    - doing 'studio shots'. Not really macro, but just 'I'm taking a picture of This Thing'. Leaving the camera in manual everything just lets me leave it on the tripod and snap away while fiddling with light, etc.

  • Kevin Old September 19, 2007 02:23 am

    Great article! I've recently purchased a DSLR and find my self switching into manual mode more than using auto mode as it doesn't get what I want most of the time.

    I do however use auto focus mode to help me "grab" the subject, then I switch back into manual mode and adjust from there. I find that easier than having to move closer/farther from my subject all the while adjusting focus just to get things back in focus.

  • Larry Eiss September 19, 2007 01:40 am

    Thanks for this great post. I have been studying my images lately in an attempt to improve my ability to focus on the most important component of the shot. This article is a timely reminder to take things more in hand.

  • PMatt September 19, 2007 01:26 am

    Another situation:

    Getting an inexperienced DSLR user to take a pic of My Wife and I. What I will do is set the camera on Manual focus mode, focus the shot then just get the user to snap the pic. I have found that if I leave it on Auto Focus the picutre does not always come out the way I want it, and sometimes the dreaded Auto focus Lock comes into play and the focus is on the background instead of us.

  • Klaidas September 19, 2007 01:23 am

    The biggest downside of my point-and-shoot in macro photography is that it doesn't have manual focus. And most shots I do are macro :/

  • Jan September 19, 2007 12:16 am

    One thing I've found very helpful, paritcularly for the action type of shots (5), is to separate exposure and auto-focus on the camera controls. It gives better control when to focus, without having to keep the lens in manual-focus mode, and then not being ready because it's in the wrong mode.

    On the Canon EOS cameras, there's a custom function (#4), which when changed to '1' will put the auto-focus onto the exposure lock button (marked with '*'), and leave the shutter for exposure lock and release.

    That leaves me with two fingers to control both focus and exposure separately. I pick this pre-focus point, focus, and then I'm free to move the camera, lock exposure, and release.

    It takes a bit getting used to, but is quite helpful. Oh, and if you let someone else use your camera, don't forget to turn it off or tell them. My brother in-law tried to take some pictures during a trip we took together, and none of them were in focus :-)

  • figz September 18, 2007 11:55 pm

    Also, when shooting something like a bird in some brush or a tree, the auto focus almost always focuses on the wrong thing. It's understandable since there are so many things at different depths.