How Using a Manual Focus Lens Can Make You a Better Photographer


Back in the days of all manual, focusing your lens was a  skill that every photographer had master. Focusing used to be that thing that made your camera an extension of your hand, therefore a direct extension of your photographer’s eye. That whole agenda came to an end in the early 1990s with the arrival of autofocus systems that were able to actually focus faster than us humans.

That is another key frame along the medium’s timeline. Where new technology started a chain reaction that changed the face of photography forever. Until the appearance of mirrorless cameras that is.

Manual Focus Ouria Tadmor

A photographer looking to purchase a new lens for their mirrorless camera in 2016 might find that there are many manual focus lenses made nowadays alongside the autofocus ones. That means one thing: the market has said the word, manual focus is not dead.

Feed your spirit with the following thoughts to learn how manual focusing can make you a better photographer.

Doing versus supervising

And old carpenter once said, “If you want something done right the first time, do it yourself.” That was always reiterated when a new machine came to the industry to perform a task better, faster, and more efficient than a trained man could ever do.

Instead of being a skilled craftsman, now all you need to know is how to make sure that the machine is doing its job, that’s the truth about an autofocus camera. It is one thing for your brain to rotate the focusing ring with your left hand and stop rotating at the correct focus, and a whole different thing to wait for the green light or beep confirming focus has been achieved. 

Manual Focus Ouria Tadmor

Sometimes you might choose to use only one central focusing point, lock it on your subject and then recompose your frame. That way you are still doing some of the work yourself, but you do it by pressing a button rather turning a ring with your left hand.

Pressing a button (or half-pressing the shutter, in most cases) is a very different connection between your hand and the machine than turning a ring with your left hand. Allowing your hand to learn the feel of the lens. Letting your hand know when and where to turn the dial and where to stop. It takes a greater effort of your brain, but only until your muscles learn it and bypass the need to think about the action. Then it frees your brain to think about the picture. In autofocus mode, your brain always has to check on the machine, make sure that focus is where you want it. That takes brain power every time. Brain power that could have been used to be more creative.

The need for speed

Manual Focus Ouria Tadmor

It’s true, the autofocus machine is indeed faster at turning the lens to the right distance than any human hand will ever be. But then it needs to wait for the brain to approve it before the shutter is pressed all the way and the photo is taken. So it is actually you that slows down the machine.

There are ways to overcome the speed limit of manual focus. For example, one way is to pre-focus on the distance your subject will be positioned at the moment of exposure. This is a technique that was very popular among sports photographers in the days before predictive dynamic autofocus. It required a fair amount of planning and knowing the nature of your subject. A property that let to visualization of the final image even in sports photography.

Another way, more popular among street photographers is called Zone Focus. You approximate the distance of your subject and make sure that they are within the depth of field by setting the focus and aperture correctly. It is a fast and simple technique that will force you to plan your frames. Thus forcing you to be more sensitive to your surroundings than a photographer who responds to a moment by half-pressing the shutter and then pressing it all the way. A street photographer trained in zone focusing does not have to pay attention to focus at all because they adjust their focus and aperture with every change in the scene without even thinking about it.

Manual Focus Ouria Tadmor

Move slow, think fast

When photographing a portrait with a fast telephoto lens you want to have the subject’s nearest eye in focus. There are many ways to achieve that with autofocus cameras. Some of the modern mirrorless cameras will lock on the near eye and stay focused on it for you as long as it’s there.

What a manual focus lens does for you is exactly the opposite. It is almost impossible to keep the near eye in focus with a portrait lens at a wide open aperture. The shallow depth of field means you will have to pay attention to your subject’s smallest moves such as breathing. By doing so it will focus your attention on the subject and you will start noticing facial features that would have been left behind at the photographing speed of autofocus lenses.


Zen and manual focus

Use manual focus to put control of your photography back in your hands. It will slow you down and make you think more. For many of the greatest photographers throughout history, the process was as important as the final picture. When you let yourself indulge the process your photographs will benefit.

It is a totally different experience to manual focus using a lens that was created for autofocus than one that was made to be focused by a human. Invest in yourself and buy a vintage affordable lens that fits on your camera then go out shoot with only that lens. This way you will be able to feel what it is like to really do manual focus photography.

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Ouria Tadmor 's art and message to the world is street photography. He uses his art to deliver the message of tolerance and acceptance, by teaching it to other photographers. Ouria lives in, and is inspired by the city of Jerusalem, where he also works as a photojournalist and teaches in several art schools. Read more about Ouria's work on his website or Facebook group.

  • Marcelo

    I’m very nostalgic about this and was very good read this text. I believe that our feelings are an extension about our body, so, think in focus as an extension about our brain, make all sense. Very good text and I’ll look to use in my pictures. I belive that is more a disruptive break, because we are ever time trying be more fast, but, have a autofocus is not necessarily “be more fast”…

  • Ron Olivier

    A very well-written article, and after reading it I must confess that I was ‘spoiled’ by having auto-focus. It was really a blessing because I’m pretty nearsighted and can’t always tell the difference between simply being in focus and being tack sharp. But when I was challenged to try manual focus, I was really amazed that it was a lot easier than I thought using the live view screen with highlights of the part(s) of the picture that were in the sharpest focus. I now actually prefer manual focus in many situations. It’s another tool that I now have at my disposal.

  • Ouria Tadmor

    Thank you Marcelo!
    It is the truth, faster AF doesn’t mean faster thinking. I was thinking that to myself today as I read about new cameras released for next year.

  • Ouria Tadmor

    Thanks Ron,
    I am sure that now with the new confidence in MF you will find new ways to see the world in pictures.

  • Sebastien

    Nice article! I am no expert, far from it actually, but my attempts at manual focusing were a bit disappointing. Focus was “ok”, but not as perfect as what I get with the “eye focus” feature of my camera. Besides having fun with manual focusing, my go-to mode for consistent good result is still autofocus.

    Maybe a landscape or even street picture is easier to get right than a portrait, in manual focus mode? Or do I just need to practice so many hours (and kinda miss good shots in the meantime)?

  • Larry Walton

    I could focus as fast with a matt fresnel focusing circle that for some reason do not exist on modern cameras.

  • kimberly.colgan

    I usually gain in the span of $6 thousand-$8 thousand on monthly basis for freelancing i do from my home. For anyone considering to work basic computer-based tasks for few hrs /day from your living room and get solid salary while doing it… Then this invitation is for you…


  • Tim Lowe

    Great article. I’m mostly large format and used to focusing with a loupe. (You want to see slow?) When I do pick up an SLR or DSLR, I’m constantly frustrated by the fact that repeated half-presses of the shutter give slightly different focus points. I just give up and turn it off.

    Also, what a great thing lenses with DoF markings are! Shooting landscapes it’s tempting to focus at infinity, throwing away a huge opportunity to get closer objects in focus with the lens opened wider.

  • Ravindra Kathale

    I have a NIkon D3300 DSLR. Many times I switch off AF and shoot manual, and I do feel more in control. Inspired by your this article I would like to buy a general purpose MF lens Can you suggest some? Thanks.

  • Michael

    I use only center cross-focusing point in my Canon 6D which is the most accurate point for AF mode. So I made few tests using the manual focus and AF focusing using the center point by shooting the same geometric abject at the widest aperture on my lens (f/4) at 100mm focal length. In addition, I put my camera on the tripod and use the shutter release cable to avoid any camera shakes. Guess what, there were absolutely no differences in the tack-sharp images. I even have to admit that some of my AF images were just a bit sharper. Well, you know this feeling while you are turning the focusing ring back and forth to get the sharpest possible focus and sometimes you just might miss a little. I mostly use my very accurate AF using the AF-ON back button with the center point only and recompose but in a very special cases I might use the manual focusing too.

  • Stephen Eather

    A well written article Ouria, thank you. I use a Sony A6000 which I’m very happy with. Apart from a couple of Sony lenses, I have 2 Minolta lenses dating back to the ’80s. They are amazing – sharp as a tack, crystal clear and produce super images. Gotta love manual focus :). Keep up the great work, Steve.

  • Jensaddis

    Thank you for the great article that reflects my thinking and way of photographing as well. I don’t use my Nikon equipment any more except the 50mm and 35 2.0 manual whereas I mostly use Fuji XE and Xpro cameras with one autofocus lens – the 35 1.4 – but most of the times old Canon Fd and Fl lenses with a Metabones adapter or Samyang manual lenses as manual focusing creates sharper and imho better composed photos. Also I am coming back to analogue Photography more and more as the display distracts me from composing in or with the view finder.

  • Ouria Tadmor

    Thank you Sebastien,
    It’s so true, you have to give up some good results and shoot out blurry photos but you will gain the process that will make you a better photographer.

  • Ouria Tadmor

    That is so true Larry! I did photojournalism work with a Nikon FE2 and it was at least as fast as with any AF camera of today.
    The last model I know that can take a matt fresnel focusing screen was the Nikon D700. But manual focus is back with 2.36 mp viewfinders on late models of mirrorless cameras.

  • Ouria Tadmor

    Thanks much, Tim!

    I still miss my good old Mamya C330 every time I do a portrait job with my mirrorless camera now…

    The problem I see with DoF charts today is that circle of confusion is no longer a relevant factor, since digital printing is calculated by DPI and not by size of grain and film enlargement, and is there a way to calculate DoF when it is going to be seen on various mobile devices with various screen resolutions ? (Where most photographs end their journey nowadays.)

  • Ouria Tadmor

    Hi Ravindra,
    I am happy to inspire you and glad to have expanded your vision and joy from photography. Your camera is not made to work with Nikon manual focus lenses even though they use the same mount and they will fit, therefore I would consider a Nikkor 35 F1.8 AF but you can use it on MF mode.
    if you find MF photography to be your cup of tea I recommend to consider a move to mirrorless camera before getting into a DSLR system with many lenses.

    A good mirrorless camera that I find great for MF and very affordable is the Olympus OM-D EM-10 (mark I) with this camera and others like it you can find endless pool of new and vintage manual focus lenses for almost no money on ebay. The total investment in yourself will be more or less the same as buying a good lens for your DLSR.

    Hope that helps…

  • Ouria Tadmor

    Thank you Michael
    The idea using manual focus if to become a better photographer, not necessarily to have the sharpest photo every time.
    At the end of the day the camera, lens and all whats in between them are just tools to get the photograph you want, choosing the right tool for the right task is always good.

  • Ouria Tadmor

    Thanks for sharing your great photos Jens!

  • Thanks for the article. I am doing Photography since the film era and practiced well to do MF. Even after shifting to DSLR but all of my lenses are M42 thread lenses. Confident to make focus faster than AF 🙂

  • and it is not necessary all the AF users get the exact sharp focus on the subjects they want all the time.. When you go through their raw shoot then only one can see the wastages.. 🙂

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