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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.

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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. 

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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

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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.

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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.

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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
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.