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When is Manual Focus Better than Auto Focus?

Manual-FocusingModern day Digital Cameras present photographers with an ever increasing array of Automatic and Semi Automatic shooting modes. Most of these center around different ways of exposing your shots – however many cameras also give options for different focusing modes (eg – auto, continuous focusing for moving subjects, single point focusing, multiple point focusing, face recognition focusing and manual).

It’s no wonder then that many photographers never make use of their camera and lens’ ability to focus manually.

In fact this week I spoke with one young DSLR owner recently who hadn’t even noticed the manual/auto focus switch on the side of his lens. He’d grown up with Auto focus on every camera he’d ever owned and hadn’t thought this his camera might have manual focus.

So when is Manual Focus Better than Auto Focus?

Let me start by saying there is no right or wrong time to use either manual or auto focusing – both can produce great results in almost all circumstances – however there are a few times when you might find it easier to switch to manual focusing. These include:

Macro Work

When doing macro photography I almost exclusively switch to manual focusing and find the results much more pleasing.

The narrow depth of field in these shots mean that you need to be incredibly precise with focusing and being just a smidgen out or having your camera choose to focus on the wrong part of your subject can have a significant impact upon your image (for better or for worse).

Manual focusing puts the control completely in your hands and will get your images with the right parts in focus.


When shooting portraits focus needs to be precise.

The majority of your shots of people will need to have their eyes in perfect focus.

Switching to manual focus will give you complete control to enable this rather than having to line up the focusing points on your camera on the eyes prefocussing by pressing halfway down and then having to frame your shot.

Manual focusing keeps this to be a much simpler process.

Shooting Through Glass or Wire Fences

If you’ve ever shot through anything like a window or a mess/wire fence at a zoo or museum you’ll know how cameras will often get confused on where to focus.

Sometimes falsely focusing too closely on the fence or glass instead of your subject.

Manual focusing will avoid this completely and allow you to tell the camera exactly what you want to be in focus and what you want to be blurred.

Action Photography

Shooting fast moving subjects (like racing cars, planes, running or flying animals etc) can be a frustrating experience when shooting with auto focus.

Even the continuous focusing modes can get left behind or confusing if you’re not panning with your subject smoothly.

One way to overcome this is to switch to manual focusing and prefocus on a point that the subject will move through – and shooting at that point.

Low Light

Shooting in dimly lit environments can be difficult for some cameras and lenses when it comes to focusing.

You’ll know when your camera is struggling in Auto mode when every time you go to take a shot the lens will whirl from one end of it’s focusing options to the other and back again before deciding on where to focus.

This can really lengthen your shooting process and make taking quick candid shots quite frustrating.


Shooting in manual focus mode is a skill that you need to learn and practice. While you will have more time to get it right when shooting still objects – it can become more difficult when shooting moving subjects – so practice.

This week set aside an hour or two with your camera to shoot only in manual focus mode. Practice on a variety of subjects including some moving ones. While your practice session might not produce great results the skill that you learn will be useful to have.

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Darren Rowse
Darren Rowse

is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals.

He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

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