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Manual Focus in Photography: The Ultimate Guide

manual focus in photography

What is manual focus, how does it work, and why should you use it in your photography? That’s what I aim to answer in this article.

You see, manual focus is (somewhat) advanced, yet it can be a game-changing technique – if you know when and how to use it for outstanding results.

Below, I tell you everything you need to know to get started with manual focus. I give you a step-by-step lesson in how to manually focus, plus I share plenty of scenarios where these focusing techniques make sense (and I also explain when you should avoid manual focus, because it’s not always a good thing!).

Let’s dive right in, starting with the basics:

What is manual focus?

Every image requires focusing, where the lens shifts its elements until you get sharpness in a particular spot. By default, most lenses do this automatically, which is known as autofocus. But you, as the photographer, can override your lens’s autofocus mechanism and adjust focusing via a ring on the lens barrel. 

That’s manual focusing: where you take control, twist the lens’s focus ring, and change the point of focus.

seagrass with manual focus

With manual focus, instead of letting your camera and lens decide where focusing will occur, you do it all yourself. But why is manual focus useful? Is it right for you?

Why is manual focusing important?

Modern autofocus technology is great…

…but there are certain situations where it struggles. It may lock focus on the wrong parts of a scene, and it may fail to lock focus completely.

Here are just a few scenarios where autofocus technology frequently gets things wrong:

  • When focusing in the dark
  • When focusing up close
  • When choosing between two dominant subjects
  • When focusing through foreground elements

Now, the efficacy of your camera and lens’s AF technology can vary. Certain cameras offer autofocus algorithms that detect eyes and faces with outstanding accuracy, and certain lenses are lightning fast, even in high-magnification scenarios.

Yet on the whole, most cameras and lenses will get it wrong on occasion, which is why manual focusing is so critical. If you know how to manual focus, you can switch away from autofocus when required, and you can still get the shot. So it’s a valuable skill to have, and one that I recommend pretty much every photographer learn, no matter how useless they think manual focus may be.

That’s where this next section comes in handy:

How to manually focus: step by step

First, locate the focusing mode switch on your camera or lens. It will likely be labeled with “AF/MF,” where “AF” activates autofocus and “MF” activates manual focus. Like this:

The AF-MF switch on the lens

Then switch your setup to “MF.”

(Note that certain lenses cannot focus manually; in such cases, you won’t find any switch. Check your lens manual if you’re unsure whether this is the case.)

Second, find the focus ring, which is often near the middle of the lens barrel (if you’re using a prime lens) or near the end of the lens barrel (if you’re using a zoom lens).

Look through your camera viewfinder, then twist the focus ring to one side.

You should immediately see the focus shift, as different areas of the scene go in and out of focus.

Now, when you’re in a scenario where manual focusing is necessary (more on that in the next sections!), you’ll need to simply turn the focus ring until your main subject comes into focus.

Sounds easy, right? It can be, though it’s sometimes difficult to perceive focus through the camera viewfinder, so I do have a few tips for you:

  1. Switch over to your camera’s Live View function, where you preview a live feed of your camera’s sensor on the LCD. Magnify the image, then adjust focus until you see – while zoomed in! – perfect sharpness.
  2. Consider narrowing the aperture to give yourself a larger margin of error. If you shoot at f/2.8, you must get the focus right. If you shoot at f/8, however, you can stray slightly behind or in front of your subject without worry.
  3. After taking a manually focused image, check the result on the LCD. As with the live preview mentioned above, zoom right on in so you can be absolutely sure you got the point of sharpness you needed.

Got it?

When should you use manual focus?

Autofocus technology is great, so I certainly don’t recommend switching to manual focus all the time. Instead, you should use it in the select scenarios I discuss below:

Macro and close-up photography

When you’re shooting at high magnifications, lenses tend to hunt for focus – and when they do finally lock onto the subject, it’s often in the wrong place.

That’s why manual focus is supremely helpful; you can use it to gain focus more quickly and to set focus precisely where you want it.

In fact, I recommend photographers always use manual focus when doing macro photography with still subjects. It makes the process so much easier. (Manually focusing on moving macro subjects, such as insects, is iffier – it really depends on your equipment and your preferred methods of working, so feel free to try both manual focus and autofocus and see which works best.)

close-up of roses

Low-light situations

Autofocus struggles in low-light scenarios, especially if you’re shooting without any form of illumination (e.g., in the desert at night, down a dark alley, etc.).

Your lens will hunt and never lock on anything, so manual focusing is a must.

Unfortunately, the darkness makes manual focusing difficult as well, so I recommend you use the Live View technique discussed above. Preview the shot via the LCD, zoom in, and make certain you’ve nailed focus before proceeding.

Note that different cameras vary in terms of their low-light focusing prowess. Try autofocus first, but if it doesn’t work, switch over to manual focus for the rest of the night.

street light against the sunset

Creative focus

There are times when you may wish to focus on an unusual area for creative reasons. For instance, you might shoot a model through flowers, you might deliberately focus behind a flower, or you might deliberately defocus the entire shot for a nice bokeh effect.

In such situations, autofocus is often useless. After all, how do you tell your camera to focus on nothing at all?

Manual focus will solve all your problems.

selective focus of a black-eyed susan flower

Wide-angle photography

When shooting with a wide-angle lens, your subjects are often large objects shown on a small scale, such as trees, buildings, and other inanimate objects.

In such situations, because these objects occupy a small area of the frame, it can be hard to control your lens’s autofocus; it might lock focus on an unwanted area of the image.

I tend to switch over to manual focus, though on certain cameras, you do have the option of magnifying the preview on the LCD and using the touchscreen to carefully select the right focus point.

wide-angle image of a sunset with manual focus

Panorama photography

When shooting panoramas – which are created by stitching a set of photos together in post-production – consistency throughout the shots is key.

And that includes focusing consistency, where you focus on the exact same distance for each image. Otherwise, you’ll get a disjointed result, and you’ll fail to convince the viewer that they’re looking at once continuous photograph.

That’s where manual focus comes in handy. You can use it to pick your point of focus and leave the lens focusing in the same spot, no matter how the scene changes as you rotate your camera.

panorama of a city at night

Low-contrast situations

Autofocus relies on contrast between the dark and light tones in an image. Contrast is what allows the autofocus to say, “Hey, here’s a subject I should focus on.” And without contrast, your AF system will hunt nonstop (which is seriously annoying!).

So if you’re faced with a low-contrast situation, such as a dark tree against a dark background or a white car against snow, don’t be afraid to switch on over to manual focus.

selective focus image of a dew-covered piece of grass

Manual focus vs autofocus: when is manual focus bad?

Manual focus is helpful, but there are plenty of scenarios where I recommend you stick to autofocus.

For instance, if you’re shooting moving subjects, focusing manually is next to impossible; you can try turning your focus ring, but you won’t be able to check focus on the LCD, nor will you have time to preview and retake shots.

That’s why you should use autofocus for the following genres:

  • Sports photography
  • Wildlife photography
  • Bird photography
  • Event photography

Of course, there are exceptions. If you’re shooting an animal at night and your AF won’t lock focus, you can always try switching over to manual focus. But in general, you’ll want to use AF, because manual focus will be far too slow.

Manual focus in photography: final words

Manual focus may have seemed daunting, but now that you’ve finished this article, you know it’s easy – and that it can be super useful in the right scenario.

So practice focusing manually. Even if you struggle at first, you’ll get better. And you’ll be so glad you took the time to learn.

Now over to you:

Do you plan to use manual focus? When do you think you might use it? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Tim Gilbreath
Tim Gilbreath

is a natural light photographer, writer, designer and musician with a love for nature and the outdoors. He’s also a retro/pop culture aficionado, and although he was born and raised in Houston, Texas, he has called the Florida west coast his home for the last 13 years.

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