Don’t Be Afraid of Manual Focus

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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.

seagrass

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.

How to manually focus your camera

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.

The AF-MF switch is located on the lens itself if compatible.

The AF-MF switch is located on the lens itself if compatible.

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?

Macro photography

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.

When shooting subjects up close, focusing manually will give you tighter control.

When shooting subjects up close, focusing manually will give you tighter control.

Low-light situations

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.

Subjects captured in low light are notorious for muddling up autofocus systems; manual focus is the best way to solve the problem.

Subjects captured in low-light are notorious for muddling up autofocus systems; manual focus is the best way to solve the problem.

Focusing manually allows you to take the guesswork out of these situations (remember to use Live View to check it)

Selective focus

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.

A photo like this gives the autofocus system too many options to get the depth of field exactly right.

A photo like this gives the autofocus system too many options to get the depth of field exactly right.

Wide-angle shots

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.

Smaller subjects in a wide-angle picture means more work for the autofocus system.

Smaller subjects in a wide-angle picture means more work for the autofocus system.

Panoramas

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.

When your camera is set to focus manually, you can be sure that the proper subjects are always sharp in a panoramic shot.

When your camera is set to focus manually, you can be sure that the proper subjects are always sharp in a panoramic shot.

Low contrast situations

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.

Low contrast is another situation that tends to confuse autofocus systems; your eyes can better differentiate between the subject and the background.

Low contrast is another situation that tends to confuse autofocus systems; your eyes can better differentiate between the subject and the 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.

Give it a try!

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

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

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.

  • Two things to keep in mind:
    1) Older cameras had split focus screens. The reason was so that you could mor accurately see when your image was in focus.
    2) Back in the old days we were often using smaller apertures (today’s f/2.8 lenses were not so common back then).

    So in the old days, even without auto-focus, you had a split screen to help you see when the image was in focus.

    Meanwhile, today’s very shallow depth-of-field lenses require greater precision in focusing, but today’s cameras do NOT have split screen focusing based on the assumption that you will be using auto-focus. (additionally viewfinders with split screen focusing are darker and most people prefer the brighter viewfinder in today’s cameras)

    Point being … auto focus is pretty accurate as long as you understand how it works (that’s a whole other topic) and use it correctly. Meanwhile manual focus through the viewfinder is less accurate than it was in the old film cameras while at the same time it is more obvious when you miss the focus with today’s fast aperture lenses. So … be aware of the pitfalls.

    More on split screen focusing (video demonstration):
    http://petapixel.com/2013/01/02/a-demo-of-split-screen-and-microprism-ring-focusing-in-old-slrs/

  • manicdee

    I would highly recommend using the M/AF switch on the camera body by habit since it also disengages the autofocus motor. If your camera doesn’t have a M/AF switch on the body, go ahead and use the one on the lens.

    If you are using older lenses that are driven by the autofocus motor, attempting to manually focus while in AF mode will cause damage to the lens, the motor and possibly the camera too (not all at once, but gradually as you strain the gears and twist the drive shaft).

    A convenient half-way betwee shutter-release autofocus and manual focus is to use “back button focus”. There are enough articles extolling the virtues of back button focus, there is probably one formthe reader’s specific camera!

  • Great article Tim! I mostly use AF but when it comes to low light or macro, I nearly always switch to Live View and MF.

  • Tim Lowe

    I’ve been shooting a Hasselblal 500 c/m for so long I can’t stand the autofocus on my Nikon D800 anymore. I have autofocus turned off on all my 35mm lenses.

  • Allister Freeman

    Great article, I often use a combination of AF and MF

  • Screamin

    Nobody has mentioned that today’s AF lenses have a very short throw (distance the focus ring travels to get from the minimum to maximum focus0 It has been shortening ever since the introduction of AF systems. They did it so as to shorten the hunt time for the lens to acquire focus. The downside is that precise focus with today’s lenses is a lot more difficult than it used to be. any slight movement of the focus ring results in a change in the focal point. The focus screens are also optimized for AF lenses & that makes using manual focus more difficult. I still use older , film era macro lenses with a viewfinder magnifier to get sharp focus while shooting macro. I used to use older, cut down, manual focus split image screens in place of the stock screen, but just like years ago, they do have their faults as well. Half of the split screen will “blacken out” if you use to slow ofa lens & also when your eye isn’t lined up exactly with the viewfinder…

  • Definitely Tim, there’s something timeless and nostalgic about turning that focus ring.

  • Thanks Daniel!

  • Good point, thanks for posting!

  • Thanks David! Yes, it can be tricky and there are things to be aware of if you decide to go that route. Thankfully it costs nothing to practice (unlike the film-only days).

  • DrFish

    Totally agree. I often find that what looks spot on in the viewfinder, often turns out to be fractionally out of focus on the laptop. A bit of an issue when it’s something you can’t go back and redo. There isn’t always time to faff around with the Live View and take your time over it. A good example being shooting animals at a zoo through a wire fence, so as to blur out the wire in the forefront of the image. I’ve only managed to ever get this right on a few occasions, and mostly the subject is very slightly out of focus. I find that for that situation, selective auto-focus is actually better. But obviously, for a lot of other situations, such as those mentioned above, it would be nice to have a slightly less ‘gung-ho’ focus ring. An inch of travel does’t leave a lot of room for error.

  • louis

    I often found it is an advantage of mirror less cameras with the electrical view finders, they are very bright even under very low light and higher resolution making manual focus even more practical. Of course, I always confirm focus with magnification in the viewfinder. I done very sharp moon shots with handheld telephoto manual focus lens.

  • Edmund

    Great article, spot on. Really miss my diagonal split screen Olympus ground glass, never blacked out like the horizontal ones.

    But, Screamin, my camera provides an automatic enlargement when using manual focus and this enables really sharp images – just turn the focus ring and the enlargement comes through and then lets you recompose the image by going away and showing full frame until you touch the ring again.

  • Matt Vargo

    Recently bought an old 105mm f2.5 manual focus lens for my Nikon full-frame DSLR. I have to manually set the aperture using the ring AND manually focus it. The result? Some of my best pictures. The old-school approach might take long and be less convenient, but what it does for your mental approach to photography is irreplaceable!

  • Kovir

    that’s right
    I’ve got zeiss 100/2 – it’s great glass but it’s really hard to focus without split focusing screen… It’s too distracting to look at green dot to confirm focus. It woukd be nice to hear “beep” as a confirmation…

  • absolutely Matt! Thanks for reading.

  • Thanks Edmund!

  • Thanks Allister! Yeah I do as well, love having the best of both worlds 🙂

  • Sal

    Great Article Tim,thanks.

  • Jeri Baker

    Good article. I recently purchased zeiss 135 f/2 and am anxious to go out and experiment with it.

  • Thanks for reading Sal, we appreciate it 🙂

  • manicdee

    Manual focus devotees will be happy to know that you can get split focus screens for current model DSLRs. You’ll need to pull apart your camera, so it’s not a project for the faint-of-heart!

    http://digitalcave.ca/resources/photography/katzeye.jsp

  • Vince Contreras

    “…you’re learning it as a compliment.”

    I think you mean “complement”. 🙂 Thanks for this helpful article. I do a lot of bird photography, but I’ve been finding myself more and more falling back on manual focus, especially in conditions involving thick brush/twigs.

  • Thanks Vince, yeah that one slipped through the cracks 🙂 Great example, I appreciate you reading!

  • manicdee

    Thank you for the clear and succinct article Tim! I especially like that you’ve broken the article down by scenarios, explaining why manual focus is helpful in each scenario.

    Another scenario in which manual focus is useful is photographing objects that are moving past at a rapid rate but with predictable positioning, such as people walking past on the sidewalk, cars zooming past on a race track, or a flower bobbing in the breeze.

    The catch with this scenario is that using autofocus will usually fail because the camera spends time trying to find the target, ending up with perfectly focussed footpath, race track or garden bed with intended subjects either out of focus or out of frame.

    So what you do is switch to manual focus, adjust the focal plane and depth of field so that you know where the subject needs to be for a clear shot, then trigger the shutter when the object has moved to where you want it (or even triggering the shutter when you know the object is moving and will be in the right place by the time the shutter actually opens).

  • manicdee

    I have the Nikkor 105mm Micro, which doesn’t have the aperture control ring (as Ken Rockwell states, the G stands for “gelded”). I still adjust the settings through the camera though, and I have to agree that the mental exercise of deciding how I want this shot to work means I end up taking better pictures.

  • Carlos J Encarnacion

    I wished for auto focus when I was learning back in the 70’s in order to work fast moving subjects, it is here and sometimes it does not cut it. For fast moving subjects I use a movie filming technique, although they know excatly where their subjects are going to be at a specific time and scenes can be repeated. Practice predicting where the subject is going to be and what position your hand should be on the focusing ring. It is not easy… I will use autofocus for unpredictable subjects and kind of hope for luck, for about everything else I prefer manual. That is why I prefer Pentaxes and Nikons, they have kept their original mounts and there are millions of lenses out there for them. I can live sans auto focus.

  • Thank you for reading!
    Definitely, that’s also an applicable scenario, and great job outlining the steps 🙂

  • Rcfarago

    I think this is a very good point to make to all those photographers that have become reliant on auto systems that may detract from the act of thinking about what one is trying to achieve! I also liked your article on back focus button use… Good to jog people into thinking and shifting away from shooting as many frames as possible in the hope that one is ok

  • Barry Levy

    I have been a photographer now for about 55 years and I love manual focus. I now use digital cameras, for most of my work and am disappointed, not by my work, but in the focusing screens. The old, manual, cameras had ground glass with microprisms and/or split image areas available (in some of the better cameras, interchangeably). Digital cameras, even the top of the line, do not have this available. I still get fine focus with my digital tools, but yearn for the speed that the older cameras had when focused manually. I hope that these will become available over time. It would be a worthwhile tool to have.

  • Carmen Ray Anderson

    Thank you so much. I have just switched to manual focus and have been experimenting. This article offers the encouragement I need to stick to the process

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