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If you’re a beginner in the wonderful world of photography, if you’ve never used an older film camera, or a combination of both, you might be unfamiliar with the workings of manual focus. Even if you are, you may not have thought about how you would use it in real-world situations.
Fortunately as DSLR owners, we have the best of both worlds between manual and automatic focusing; we have a choice as to how we decide the subject of our photo, and other points that aren’t as important. This is an advantage for you, and having a better understanding of the “other” focusing method will allow you more flexibility and leave you better prepared for a wider array of situations while in the field.
But keep in mind, you’re not learning manual focus as a replacement for automatic focus, you’re learning it as a compliment.
While modern DSLR’s and their lenses have varying degrees of complexity for automatically focusing on a specific point within a scene, film cameras before them relied on a manual system to focus. The photographer would turn the focusing ring on the lens until the subject was sharp, then snap the photo. When the modern AF (autofocus) systems came around, the camera became smart enough to identify the subject(s) or the more important part of the photo, and focus on that without much interaction from the user.
You might think, why would I want to do it any other way? I can have the camera choose the most important thing to put into focus, or I can even manually select a focus point, and have it always focus there. What reason would I have to turn this system off completely and rely on myself?
There are a few reasons, in fact, but first, let’s cover how to use manual focus in the first place.
To manually focus an AF-capable lens on a DSLR, first locate the mode switch on the lens. It is usually labelled “AF – MF”. Switch it to MF. After you’ve done that, the lens will be in manual mode, and pressing down the shutter release halfway will no longer engage the autofocus system.
Find the focusing ring near the end of the lens. Twisting this ring will adjust focus, and you will immediately see the effects of this through the viewfinder, with different areas of the frame coming into, and going out of focus. Because your viewfinder isn’t a perfect representation of what your image will look like, you may need to use a couple of other tools to verify focus.
Firstly, you can use the depth of field preview button. Almost all modern DSLR’s have this feature, and it allows you to get an idea of how your current aperture and focus will appear in the final image. If equipped, the button is usually next to the lens mount, although the exact placement might vary depending on your camera model; be sure to check your camera’s manual if you’re unsure of its location.
When you press the button, the aperture will close down to its actual setting, so the preview image could darken a bit. This darkening will not be recorded on the actual image.
An even better way to monitor your focus is by using the Live View feature of your camera, which gives you an accurate representation of what your camera sees on the LCD screen. After focusing, switch to Live View and zoom in to the area you’re focusing on (zoom the view, not the lens). You’ll be able to clearly see what is actually in focus, and what is not.
So what shooting situations might benefit from the wonders of focusing like our forefathers?
When you’re shooting macro or close-up photography, you’re usually dealing with an extremely thin depth of field. At larger apertures, focusing is extremely important. Manual focus allows you to ensure that the most important part of your subject is crisp.
As wonderful as autofocus is, it tends to falter a bit in low-light situations, the amount of which usually depends on the lens being used. You’ve undoubtably experienced times where the autofocus struggles to find a focal point, and leaves you with nothing more than a blurry preview through the viewfinder.
Focusing manually allows you to take the guesswork out of these situations (remember to use Live View to check it)
There are also times where you may prefer to control your focus for creative reasons. Shooting a model through a frame of trees, for example, or requiring the background of the photo to be in focus while the foreground is not.
While modern autofocus system can usually get this right, manual focus allows you a level of control that’s hard to automate.
When shooting with a wide-angle lens, particularly in landscape photography, your subjects can tend to be a larger objects shown on a smaller scale, such as trees, buildings, and other inanimate objects. In this situation, since they occupy a smaller area of the frame, controlling the focus of the shot on your own will usually yield better results.
When we take panoramic photos, or a set of photos stitched together in post-production, consistency throughout the shots is key in several areas, one of which is focus. Not ensuring your focus is consistent throughout the shots, along with other things such as lighting and white balance, can produce a disjointed result, failing to convince the viewer’s mind that they’re looking at one continuous photograph.
Autofocus on modern cameras work best when there is a higher level of contrast between the dark and light tones within an image. These systems tend to struggle when contrast in the frame is reduced, such as shooting a light-colored subject against a bright background.
Since the human eye has a much higher dynamic range than the cameras you’re shooting with, you can manually choose the best focus in these situations.
Although it may seem counterintuitive to disable systems on our cameras that are intended to make things easier, it may be just the thing to spark our creativity.
A habit I always try to maintain is to visualize what settings I’ll need to use before I go out to shoot, and this is a good time to determine if the scenario I’m going to be presented with lends itself to turning my autofocus system off.
At the end of the day, just keep in mind that there is no right way or wrong way. The “right way” is different for all of us. However, knowledge is power, and you can only benefit from knowing the ins and outs of how your camera works and what options are available to you.
“There is only you and your camera. The limitations in your photography are in yourself, for what we see is what we are.” – Ernst Haas