7 Situations When Manual focus is better than Auto

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Image by Michael Markieta

Auto focus is of unquestionable benefit in a large variety of shooting scenarios, but there are often times when it could actually be wiser to plump for manual focus. In these scenarios, which are outlined below, it is fair to say that autofocus doesn’t perform as well on some cameras, so simply rotate the focus mode selector to M and use the focus ring to sharpen the subject in view. It is also worth remembering that it can be easier in some situations to use the focus lock, in this instance simply focus on another subject at the same distance and then recompose the frame accordingly.

1. Fine details in close proximity

When shooting a scene that compromises hundreds of elements – each presenting a multitude of details – manual focus may be necessary for complete control. This is especially necessary when the subject(s) exhibits small or no variation in size, shape, colour or brightness. For example a field of flowers, a nature abstract close up, a busy high street packed with pedestrians etc.

2. Obstacles are in the way

If your subject is partially blocked behind an obstacle that you are unable to move out of the way or intend to keep (adding context), manual focus can help you to pinpoint the main subject. Furthermore if you team this approach with a wide aperture, you can creatively blur the obstruction from view. For example a caged or penned animal, a person looking from a window or stood behind a gate etc.

3. Geometric confusion

Many architectural photographers, especially those favouring contemporary design will often favour manual focus over auto. This is because modern architecture often exhibits geometric patterns that can confuse the camera’s auto focus. For example those shown on skyscrapers.

4. High contrast

When presented with a scene that contains large areas of sharply contrasting brightness it is likely your autofocus will struggle. For example if you are shooting an outdoor portrait with the subject stood in the shade, but have decided to incorporate a large area of adjoining light.

5. No contrast

As with areas of high contrast, photographers may find that scenes with no contrast present the same focusing issues, i.e. the main subject of your image exhibits the same tones and colours as its background. A common example of this is a freshly built snowman in a field of crisp white snow.

6. Dominating features

Compositions that contain objects that are bigger or bolder than the intended subject may also throw off your autofocus.  For instance a person dwarfed in front of an intimidating cityscape may be lost using autofocus, switch to manual for a quick and effective solution.

7. Night

In situations where you want to shoot in complete darkness you may find manual focus is your only option. Examples of when this may be true include: shooting star trials, the northern lights or creating light graffiti. Often focusing at night is a case of trial and error, so scrutinize results by zooming in to the images presented on your LCD and adjust accordingly.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Natalie Denton (nee Johnson) Natalie Denton (nee Johnson) is the former editor of Digital Photographer magazine, and is now a freelance journalist and photographer who has written for dozens of photography and technology magazines and websites over the last decade. Recent author and tutor too.

  • Enrique

    Another one: when taking pictures from an airplaneĀ“s windows (polarization).

  • Enrique

    In landscape photography you do not focus on infinity but to hyperfocal distance to maximize DOF.

  • ANdy Silva

    i encounter this many times when shooting from a plane’s window . . .

  • Zakir

    how to Lock all Focus point in canon 60D?

  • Another timely example would be fireworks. Trying to autofocus would drive anyone crazy.

  • Brent Nora

    You may have your camera body set to continuous auto focus.

  • Guialuzon Musa

    Yes true, actually I’m looking out for it.

  • Gregg Hasenjaeger

    One of the best examples of when not to use auto focus.

  • Gregg Hasenjaeger

    When you have too many competing objects it will confuse the camera as to what you want to focus on. The image below was shot with a 300 mm lens the auto focus would have just kept trying to focus endlessly.

  • Roger R Bastien

    What can you do with a manual camera that you can not to with a auto focus camera? TAKE A PICTURE WHEN BATTERY DIES! Won a lot of bets with a Pentax Spotmatic oldie but goodie.

Some Older Comments

  • Gerald L. George December 16, 2011 03:16 pm

    Wow..I have never used the MF at all since I have had my D-100 Nikon..after reading all the info..and comments I anxious to get out and shoot...Thanks for the Article..New to Dig. Phot. School..Shot years of Wedding Photography on the side using Auto Focus for Several Years...also a combat Photographer in Vietnam..
    Being in combat one does not have the opportunity to use manual focus ...

  • Pradip Hudekar September 4, 2010 12:27 am

    It would be great if you could add example photograph for each of these situations

  • John Castle July 30, 2010 09:32 am

    I use a K100D Pentax. I have discovered Manual Mode and would like to continue to use. Who else uses the same Pentax camera. When making the appropriate exposure adjustments it is difficult to see on the viewfinder the changes, to get the 0,0 exposure setting. Is this the camera or my poor eyesight. It is ironic in that I notice below and ad for Sony's New SLR camers and alph 390 apparently will show on the LCD some of that which may be shown on the viewfinder. Help.

    John

  • B July 25, 2010 02:04 am

    Adam: If you don't have some kind of focus assist for low light (like on the more advanced Canon speedlites), you can put your lens into autofocus, shine a flashlight where you want to focus, let autofocus work its magic, then switch to manual focus to "lock" the focus in.

  • Jennifer Moore July 23, 2010 11:17 pm

    I use a Nikon D60 and still only have the kit lens. ($$$!) I have found, over time, that the auto focus is really pretty much worthless for most applications. I don't know. Maybe the kit lens is just not that great. I DO know I've outgrown my kit. Just waiting to have the money to buy something decent.

    So I use manual focus most of the time, these days. The main times I don't are when I'm doing product shots for my art or vintage items, etc. I don't need to get too artsy with those, so auto is fine. Other than that, 9 times out of 10, I use manual.

  • Adam July 23, 2010 11:05 am

    Any suggestions on how get into focus in the dark?

  • Ashvanie Shammi Verma July 14, 2010 01:38 pm

    I would like to add one more... Yesterday we had rain here and while I was just trying to take a click I found autofocus was on the background wall instead of the drizzle. So I quick decide to take it throug mannual focus.

    It means, during rains the mannual focus is also helpfull.

  • Richard Earl July 13, 2010 08:25 am

    Robin... there is no way those photos depict "fast moving objects" or "silly speeds." The bike might be doing 80 mph and it might be on a stand. When you need words to explain the picture, as you surely do in these photos, you've entirely missed using the power inherent in the photographic art.

    However, if the object is to produce an in focus photo that clearly shows all the advertisers' logos plastered all over the rider and bike, then you've hit the jackpot! And I do agree that manual focus for this type of photo is the only way to go.

  • Robin Sanders July 10, 2010 02:28 am

    Add fast moving objects close to the camera. On the Isle of Man you can get closer than 10 feet from bikes doing silly speeds. I pick a spot on the road focus on it then switch to manual focus. Time it right and you get the perfect shot of a bike doing 80 mph. It takes practice but is the only way to get the image. Autofocus is just not as fast as a TT rider. Look in the old gallery on my website for lots of examples.

  • Kuldeep July 9, 2010 06:54 pm

    The list is very helpful for amateur photographers like us; I would like to add that it would be nice if the points were supported with photographs (examples) for better understanding.

  • Fred Haider July 9, 2010 03:29 pm

    Add macro's to the list.

  • Robin Sanders July 9, 2010 03:01 pm

    You need manual focus when shhoting high speed objects close up. On the Isle of Man at the TT races I was only ten feet away from the bikes doing 60+ mph. The only choice is to manual focus on a spot in the road and shoot just before the bike reaches that spot.
    [eimg url='http://robin-sanders-photography.co.uk/743albums825/TT/IMG_0852.jpg' title='IMG_0852.jpg']
    The shutter lag should mean that the bike is in the 'sweet spot'. It takes practice but it is the only way to work when you are that close.

  • Ronnie Hartman July 9, 2010 10:58 am

    I've discovered that focusing manually does not work for me because, like a lot of people my age, I wear "progressive" corrective lenses & I cannot hold my head in the right position to look through the lens with the correct part of my glasses! Fortunately, my 40D's auto focus rarely provides me with any unhappy surprises.

  • David Haworth July 9, 2010 08:23 am

    While you CAN buy better focusing screens for Canon DSLR's and fit them yourself no one has mentioned doing what I do. Set the Camera to focus with one central focusing point. The you can chose a focus point, focus and then reframe the shot while holding onto the focus. For panorama's, focus on a point and then switch the lens to manual focus and the focus should hold for all shots! Simple.

  • ross July 9, 2010 08:17 am

    another number 8:
    when you know where something is about to be, but isnt yet. my example was when my dog ran towards me earlier, and the camera couldnt refocus focus fast enough as it came towards me. if i had manual focus i could set it a couple of steps ahead of him and then just time the shutter release right.

  • mark July 9, 2010 07:39 am

    great tips i will try those and teach to my students

  • Richard July 9, 2010 07:24 am

    I pretty much agree that there are time when manual focus is an advantage given the complexities of a situation, but on a modern SLR most of these, in fact all but low-contrast, night and macro situations, can be overcome easily by learning to adjust the auto-focus sensor in the camera, to choose the right one and use it properly on the go.

    Having said that, I certainly agree with those posters missing good auto-focus screens on modern SLRs, though would like to add that they can be bought and added! But secondly, I find manual focusing much easier and more reliable on MF lenses than on AF lenses. In fact I sometimes feel those lenses have better optics than many AF lenses, though this might just be my personal prejudice. I find I get better results from older MF prime lenses than I do with AF lenses, possibly because often taking the time to focus slows me down just enough to take more care with composition, but possibly because it also puts me in a film frame of mind (so I try to make every shot count).

  • Staffan July 9, 2010 06:37 am

    I agree with the list - I have never got so many photos out of focus since I bought a camera with auto focus. Zimmerman's comment is true - the screens are next to useless for manual focus (well, of course they work but it takes time to be certain that the subject is in focus) and the sceens with split centre or microprisms are expensive these days - and they were standard only a couple of years ago.

  • Igor July 9, 2010 04:50 am

    Hahaahaha "am in the middle of the photoshoot I need my camera back!"
    I am in the photo school right now, this is so inspirational!!!

  • Randy July 9, 2010 03:43 am

    I didn't see it mentioned, but it also often helps to choose a single focusing point, rather than trusting in the multiple focusing points that is the default. I find that this will help me to achieve proper focus in nearly all situations. I tend to leave manual focusing to macro (and not always then) and when I'm using a very long telephoto in dimmer light on a tripod.

  • Martin Soler HDR Photos July 9, 2010 03:12 am

    Great tips, even though I try to avoid manual due to uncertainties on eyesight. I once had a friend that shot several rolls of film in manual only to discover that his eyesight was off and all images were out of focus. That was enough to turn me off.
    But agreed, there are times when we have no choice. What I try to do then is autofocus and then turn it on manual for the actual shot. Such as for my drop photo.
    http://martinsoler.com/2010/06/20/water-drop-photography/

  • Diego July 9, 2010 02:39 am

    Taking advantage of the hyperfocal distance of a lens is another instance where I prefer to use manual focus, in conjunction with the depth of field preview button.

  • B July 8, 2010 02:36 am

    I disagree with all but possibly nos. 5 and 7, assuming we're talking about modern DSLRs and the lenses made for them.

    Consumer DSLRs are just not made for manual focusing, and the lenses made for them (with the exception of some macro lenses) don't make it any easier. The focusing screens that ship with the cameras don't have proper aids and the focus rings on the lenses often don't have enough throw or aren't ergonomically designed to help. Not to mention that today's autofocus systems are extremely effective; nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6 are really user error issues, not failure of autofocus.

    It's like buying a Ferrari to tow a boat. Sure, it probably can, but that's not what it's designed for.

    And this is coming from someone who uses manual focus fairly often, someone who learned on a 35mm SLR with manual focus only, someone who mounts old manual focus lenses on newer cameras. If your autofocus is failing you, it's probably your fault, not the camera's.

    Anyway, I would have likes to hear more specific examples and see some sample photos. Also, the two big ones missed were macro photography and when shooting video.

  • Nick July 7, 2010 05:57 am

    Hello,

    I have Nikon D5000. I am trying to take manual pics but I can adjust the shutter speed and aperture. PLus how would you know that you have focused the image perfectly. I tool couple pics but when I zoom it, it looks blurred..It seemed okay to me when I took those images using manual focus. I would appreciate your reply.

    Thanks,
    Nick

  • Emily Soto July 7, 2010 05:02 am

    Great article! Thanks for the advice!

  • KristinaB July 7, 2010 03:41 am

    I use the manual setting on my camera for most shots unless I am photographing sports. My 10 year old has recently taken up photography and prefers manual as well has he really enjoys macro.

  • Travis July 7, 2010 03:34 am

    I totally agree! For macro work I find using Liveview and the magnification tool helps a ton!

  • Yogendra July 7, 2010 01:37 am

    Trying to add the comment with images AGAIN!! I wish there was a "preview" button!!

    I would like to add 8th: when shooting for panorama.. even if you CAN auto focus you want to freeze the focus for all the shots.. and hence its better to manually focus (or auto focus once and then move to manual focus)
    Example (Also applicable for 7: Night <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/yogendra174/4740814887/"
    [eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/yogendra174/4740814887/' title='Brooklyn Bridge, NY' url='http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4122/4740814887_8db5046056.jpg']

    I would like to include few examples for the above (hope you don't mind that!)
    1. Fine details in close proximity
    <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/yogendra174/4762994231/"
    [eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/yogendra174/4762994231/' title='Peek-a-boo (Explored - Front Page)' url='http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4097/4762994231_43665a4bf4.jpg']

    2. Obstacles are in the way
    <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/yogendra174/4703025768/"
    [eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/yogendra174/4703025768/' title='Performer' url='http://farm2.static.flickr.com/1306/4703025768_b7f8cb286a.jpg']

  • Yogendra Joshi July 7, 2010 01:31 am

    I would like to add 8th.. when shooting for panorama.. even if you CAN auto focus you want to freeze the focus for all the shots.. and hence its better to manually focus (or auto focus once and then move to manual focus)
    Example (Also applicable for 7: Night

    I would like to include few examples for the above (hope you don't mind that!)
    1. Fine details in close proximity

    2. Obstacles are in the way

  • Matthew July 6, 2010 12:44 pm

    I have one to add to the list: museum and aquarium photography. This last weekend I was in a few museums and aquariums where photography was allowed, but flash photography wasn't. In several situations, I was photographing animals that were very sensitive to light - even the auto-focusing sensor light. In this situation, I would just flip over to manual focus so I could take pictures without having to shine lights on the critters.

  • Joseph July 6, 2010 11:21 am

    I`ll second that earlier comment about mirrors ---

    I`ve done quite a bit of work with mirrors. as seen here.. http://ravncat.deviantart.com/gallery/#Mirrors AF will like to focus on one of three things - The mirror itself - The reflection in the mirror - The scene around the mirror. These are likely to be at different distances, and need not necessarily be high or low contrast. Manytimes AF will miss what is in the mirror entirely. This is true of many "reflective surfaces"

  • nzrob July 6, 2010 07:15 am

    Watch out for wire fencing in the background. It's quite subtle, and more often than not confuses the autofocus on my Nikon and Kodak DSLRs. It's easy to miss until you are sitting back at the computer.

  • EEKaWILL July 6, 2010 06:44 am

    Ya i always hate when I'm shooting in complete darkness at night and have no way of telling what i am focusing on!

  • darren_c July 6, 2010 05:30 am

    @Jen at Cabin Fever - I took about 40 photos in Alaska along the Seward Highway with my camera in manual focus because I fogot to check it.

    Since then, I place a little card on top of my camera when I put it back in the bag that reminds me to check my settings for the next time such as manual v. auto focus , focus mode S or C (that little switch on the D300 is easy to move if you're not careful), ISO, metering mode, shooting mode, VR, etc... kind of like a system re-set before I shoot again. However, this little trick does not help if you're shooting on the fly and changing settings as you go. You always need to be aware and double check.

    Cheers!

    DC

  • Jason Collin Photography July 6, 2010 04:31 am

    This is a nice list of situations one might not think of right off the bat to use for manual focus.

    I would like to add for macro photography manual focus works well also. For example, all these shots were manually focused (dragonflies & spiders):

    http://jasoncollinphotography.com/blog/2010/6/24/dragonhunter-dragonfly-garden-spider-macro.html

  • Deirdre July 6, 2010 03:48 am

    This is a helpful list.

    I agree with andre about fireworks. I would add two situations:

    1) self-portraits (with your camera on a tripod, place something in the spot you will occupy, autofocus on it, then flip the switch to manual focus).

    2) sky -- although this fits in with low contrast.

    I find it really hard to manually focus on my Nikon D40. The focus dot is just so small. Most of the time when I use manual focus, I take the time to set up the shot with autofocus and then switch the lens to manual focus. I did that for fireworks. While it was light enough out, I focused on something very far away and then flipped the switch (I was using a newer cheaper lens that doesn't make it easy to find infinity manually).

  • Peter de Rooij July 6, 2010 02:53 am

    Good list. I would add another item though: whenever you have very shallow depth of field, autofocus does generally not work well. Examples: macro and very fast primes (when shooting wide open).

  • LibraryJim July 6, 2010 02:29 am

    It is definitely true for indoors low-light situations when you don't want to use the flash. The shutter speed/aperture settings for the auto can come out blurred, discolored, etc. I prefer to use the manual setting in those situations, as I get sharper pics and truer color.

  • Chris July 6, 2010 02:10 am

    Any tips on using manual focus? I do use it sometimes and have had great results but it is a slow process for me to get it right.

  • Jen at Cabin Fever July 6, 2010 02:06 am

    I wholeheartedly agree with this list. I find that unless I am snapping shots very quickly that it works out better to use manual focus for most every photo. Even if auto focus would work using manual focus forces you to take time and think about your photo and composition more than you would otherwise.

    The only thing I try to remember is that when I am done shooting to try and put it back on auto focus. That way if I grab my camera really quick to get a shot of something suddenly (like an animal or something unexpected) I don't have to worry about it being in focus. I don't know how many times I've taken a photo and forgot that my camera was on manual focus, only to have a fuzzy photograph in the end.

    Cabin Fever in Vermont

    NEK Photography Blog

  • Zimmerman July 6, 2010 01:19 am

    The problem is that modern SLRs have terrible screens for manual focus. To actually nail the focus, you have to guess. A proper ground glass screen with a split center or a microprism collar or ring helps enormously. For those who have no idea what I'm talking about, this site has some interesting examples of how manual focus screens work:

    http://www.focusingscreen.com/privacy.php

    I know, it says "privacy.php". I have no idea why. The page contains example shots demonstrating 13 different types of focus screen. In any case, I'm a big fan of the Ec-A/F6-J style. It's just a microprism dot in the middle of the focusing screen. Out of focus stuff looks kind of shattered.

  • Andre July 6, 2010 01:06 am

    I think it works better then auto also on fireworks

  • Marcos Guimaraes July 6, 2010 12:57 am

    Very nice tips. It is worth trying in those 7 situations. What about to use when you focus with high zoom in a tripod?

  • Daniel Fealko July 6, 2010 12:26 am

    Also, when shooting through windows having a reflection, the camera will attempt to focus the reflection rather than your main subject. Manual focus is required in this case.

  • Mish July 6, 2010 12:12 am

    i would add no. 8, when dealing with mirrors (and reflexion from water surfaces). there are times when AF locks on trails of dust and dirt, there are times when it locks on the position of the mirror itself and almost none of the time it finds the focus in the reflected scene.

    good article, ty!

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