When is Manual Focus Better than Auto Focus?

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.

Read more from our category

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+.

Some Older Comments

  • Maximina Pirie September 3, 2011 12:30 am

    Terrific blog! Have virtually any tips for soon to be people? I'm preparing to launch my own web page in the near future but I am a minor displaced in all the things. Do you pop the question beginning from a zero cost system such as Live journal or even choose a paid back option? There are numerous selections to choose from that we are entirely confused .. Just about any concepts? Well done!

  • Manny Focus September 1, 2011 08:22 pm

    There is no way you can manual focus better than auto. You may be able to manual focus brilliantly but as far as sharpness you'll never beat algorithms built into the chip. You're only fooling yourself into thinking you're a giant among small people.

  • Paul M April 15, 2011 11:14 am

    Thanks for this advice. My wife and I recently completed a cruise around NZ and I made a deliberate choice to ONLY use manual except at night on board the ship. Almost all of my photos turned out fantastic (for my level) and I am still learning so thanks for the reenforcement of the concept of manual.

  • Dennis Mecham November 26, 2010 12:21 am

    By simply using manual focus cameras only the problems of accurate focus vanish as long as the camera and lens are in good working order. By taking a little time to develop enough craft any photographer can get perfect focusing every time. Automated features are not a substitute for learning how to operate a camera. I have also observed, mostly through other photographers, that manual focus lens seem to have a much longer life as they seem to be more solidly built.

    I myself use only completely manually operated cameras. When I was shooting 35mm I did find that auto exposure could be a useful tool.

    Keep shooting.

  • Alessandra October 3, 2010 03:58 pm

    Thank you, this was extremely useful. Long ago I had a fully manual camera and now that I use DLRs I am so used to the Automatic Focus that I had almost forgotten how to use Manual! Thanks!

  • gem August 12, 2010 06:55 pm

    I agree with jim and others above, some lenses, like my super zoom, have trouble focusing at low light (including fluorescent-lighted) conditions even with flash assist so I use manual focusing. If it's extremely dark, I light the subject with a flashlight to help me manual focus since flash assist is of no use..

    For fast action photography with good amount of light, I have to disagree with the blog. I rarely screw a shot using the camera's continuous auto-focus (AI-Servo for canon) and of course makes shooting easier..

    Very informative blog and comments.. Cheers!

  • Jim June 6, 2010 07:28 am

    Under low light, cameras have problems focusing, so we need to manually focus. But the irony is that under low light, manual focusing is difficult too, because many DSLRs are equipped with very small view finder windows making it hard to see.

  • Jean Ahn May 30, 2010 03:33 pm

    well... even if you are lazy... MANUAL FOCUS IS A MUST HAVE TECHNIQUE if you are a real photographer. Although i am not a hater, I cannot take people who do not appreciate the art of using manual focus over the 'convenience' of auto focus... all the great photographers from the past did not get to use auto focus but they did some serious stuff... why can't we do something similar to those without auto focus? JUST FORGET AUTO FOCUS FOR A MONTH and see if you feel the 'need' of it after a month of manual focus training... probably not too much...lol

    Well... do what you want.... but i take photography seriously and spent my time manual focusing and had no problem making better photography than others...AND LONG LIVE NIKON>>>lol

  • Nathan Lee May 10, 2010 06:27 pm

    The best contact lens that i have used are the ones made by Bausch & Lomb. Very high quality and top of the line contact lens.,:*

  • Henry Barnes May 10, 2010 03:02 pm

    The best contact lens that i have used are the ones made by Bausch & Lomb. Very high quality and top of the line contact lens.:-;

  • Kae January 19, 2010 12:28 pm

    One of the things I use to practice my speed is to sit in the back seat of a car during a road trip. I try to be the only one back there with both windows open. I wait in the ready and try to shoot and focus on things as they zoom by. Taking my "Road Pictures" has been a great way to hone not only my focusing skills, but my overall speed as well. This comes in handy when the kids or animals do something unexpected.

  • Amber August 27, 2009 04:41 pm

    Thanks so much for this post! For some reason I have gotten into my head that if I do not shoot in manual mode only at all times, then I am not a true photographer. It's great to read all of this and find out that THAT IS NOT TRUE!!!
    The priority modes on my camera are also very helpful. Because then I can set up the exact aperture that I need and my camera figures out the best shutter speed. It feels better knowing that it's ok to not shoot in full on manual all the time. I was having such a difficult time with focusing my lens. I would look into it and it would appear to be in focus but then once I saw the image, it was blurry where I didn't want it to be blurry. Or, I would miss a good shot completely because I just couldn't get the lens to focus in time. Definantly a bummer when photographing children because they sure are really quick and make priceless faces instantly and for only a few seconds most of the time.
    TTessier, I also love what you said "No one can put another man’s hat on his head for him, he must do that himself or it just does not feel right." Words to live by!
    Thanks All!

  • TTessier March 12, 2009 12:43 pm

    Good infor from everyone. I am just getting back into photography since digital has come so far, including the lenses. First off - I agree that the technology has come so far that many good, great even, are shot in the auto mode. I was opposing manual for some reason until yesterday when I was trying some tests shots with low light in the yard. So this morning I went to the beach (Cha Am Thailand) where they have some half sunken boats with the sunrise in the background. I took some in about all the modes and found that to get even colors from front to back, at least in this situation, manual worked better. But, to date, several of my favorite photos I am going to have framed were taken in the auto mode.

    It seems the "Old School" photographers say if you shoot in anything but manual you might as well stick to the point-and-shoot pocket cameras. Old habits are hard to break I know. But, there are times when a numer of settings, auto or manual, will produce a great photo. Just being in the right place at the right time is half the battle. And being able to have an "artist's eye" to even see the photo is the first step. Once you have these two obstacles down, take as many photos as you can if you are new in MANY modes and settings and you will figure out what works for you. No one can put another man's hat on his head for him, he must do that himself or it just does not feel right.

    Thanks everyone for the info I read, I do take what I need........eat the meat and spit out the bones.

    Peace and Joy Always.........TT

  • Wooglah February 11, 2009 12:27 pm

    I'll do it. Tomorrow I'll try portrait with manual focus, and then something else, macro or... When you learn spartan wasy, you can always do autofocus, but you can not do manual if you never learn to do it....

  • FFred November 4, 2008 10:31 am

    That's a very interesting page you found.
    It raises a number if very interesting issues. While changing my focusing screen was more or less on my distant "to do" list, it has now been promoted to "essential must get gear".

  • Jackie October 22, 2008 05:00 am

    THAT makes sense!
    I use a prime lens that did not come w/ my DSLR, and it's f/1.8 - very fast. i looked into your claims a bit more and found this article which is also very helpful in addition to your advice. http://www.jayandwanda.com/photography/dslr_man_focus/man_focus.html
    perhaps it's my camera. perhaps it's my lens. perhaps it's THAT lens on THAT camera. O the possibilities.... that really sucks... ;-)

  • FFred October 21, 2008 06:35 am

    Ok, there are a number of issues here.

    First, modern reflex (DSLR) cameras have absolutely crappy focusing screens (this is the screen that the image is projected upon, in older days it would feature at least microprisms and often a split prism as focusing aids, those days are gone unfortunately).

    Secondly, DSLR makers know that most of their users will *only* use the auto focus (and a significant number will also only use kit lenses). So why do they bother buying a DSLR in the first place ? Well, haven't you heard of marketing ?

    And thirdly, so called "third party" lens makers sometimes have trouble calibrating their lenses for all the models of cameras out there (for example my "Bigma" is being recalibrated right now for my K10). This in no way means the so called "3rd party" lenses are bad, it just means the camera makers are getting better in obscuring the comminication between their lenses and their camera body. 3rd party lenses are often as good (and sometimes better) as brand ones for way less money.

    Another example is the wide Sigma zoom (11-17 I think) which regularly has problems. If yours has focusing trouble, just send it back.

    And if you have trouble with manual focusing, just change the ground focusing glass. Pretty much every camera lets you change it easily (although it's often a plastic sheet). You'll be amazed at the difference it makes.

  • Jackie October 20, 2008 11:25 pm

    still the same problem here too. my eyes are fine, my diopter has been checked too. on my most recent shoot, i shot 200 raw images. once i digitally processed them and then looked at all of the TIF's (i enlarge them on my 17" screen), only 122 were in focus. that was using both manual and auto. i've almost lost confidence in my skills b/c of this. i've mastered composition, lighting, etc..., but the focus problem has me wondering and frustrated.

  • kristarella October 18, 2008 03:42 pm

    Summer, near the side of your viewfinder there might be a lever or scroll wheel or something that adjusts the view. It's called the diopter adjustment. Maybe it's not suited to your eye?

    You could try autofocusing and the change the diopter and see what it looks like to you.

  • Summer October 18, 2008 11:22 am

    I'm having trouble w/ my manual focus when taking portraits, I make sure that I'm completly focused in the viewfinder, but then they come out blurry. Should I be using autofocus?

  • Marko Pyhäjärvi July 1, 2008 03:10 am

    Always. That's what I have learned in practice. I used auto focus much some years ago but I got lots of pictures that were not sharp at all. I decided to get rid of auto focus and use my feet instead.

  • Bastaman June 29, 2008 02:57 pm

    I always insist my students to use and learn about manual focus. Still I found much ease to use manual focus. But now a days because of the technology most of the photographers use auto focus to capture the moment.

  • sherry June 29, 2008 12:09 pm

    This is great. I've really only used manual focus in low light when the camera doesn't really know what to focus on, but I've never thought of the other times it could be useful. One of my big frustrations is a lack of sharp eyes so I'll definitely try that!

  • FFred June 27, 2008 10:28 pm

    Manual focus is also better when your lens front or back focuses ;)

    I have this problem with a Sigma lens (going back for recalibration, this is covered by the warranty).

    The main problem I have with focusing is that while "old" reflex cameras were designed with manual focus in mind, and had lots of focusing help built in (like the split circle), the ground glass in the modern digitals no longer have those. Luckily you can usually change the glass to get an old style one (I have to do this on mine).

  • sanders June 27, 2008 04:55 pm

    Hello everyone,
    This is an interesting discussion going on. I have tried various times to work with manual (I also wear glasses). And I'm also experienceing 'out of focus pics' when using manual focus. This is very annoying.
    I hav also considred various times to by a focus screen. But i am a bit wary to do that since you have to install the focus screen yourself and I am affraid to ruin my camera.

  • Olivia June 27, 2008 04:30 pm

    Rich and Jackie... i have the same problem and it's especially frustrating when you're fighting with time. To me it's definitely my eye problem. I hate wearing contact lens and find it a nuisance when my glasses bang against the viewfinder. As for the viewfinder lens correction, does it really work? Sorry to ask dumb questions but i'm a beginner

  • Jackie June 27, 2008 09:53 am

    Thanks kristarella. Don't have eye problems, I will check the diop though.

  • kristarella June 27, 2008 09:37 am

    Jackie, I doubt it's the lens. It could be your eyes, but if you don't usually have problems then probably not. It's likely to be the dioptic view: there's a little adjustment next to the viewfinder that you can adjust for your eyes. Check your manual for more.

  • Jackie June 27, 2008 08:11 am

    Let me clarify, my aperture is usually at 4. While this is not as large as I would like for it to be(i would prefer 2-3!), I have kept it here to aid my camera in not blurry-ing up most of my shots, yet still blur most of the background.

  • Jackie June 27, 2008 08:05 am

    Rich, I have the same problem of trying to get a crisp focus on manual. I mostly shoot portraits w/ a 50mm lens on a fairly large aperature (necessary for the type of portraits I specialize in). Is it my lens? Is it my eyes? Is it my camera? I have to drastically over-shoot each client just to make room for the blurry ones that will show up. It's becoming frustrating. It's not my lights, I have great lights and am outside a lot too. Pls HELP.

  • d4n131m3j14 June 27, 2008 06:31 am

    I'd say depends on the lens, manual focusing the nikon 18-55 is horrible, however manual focusing my Nikkor-O 35mm F/2 is a beauty (also the 105mm micro nikkor is nice at focusing manually).
    Some times with a tripod and a still object I auto focus and then switch to manual, I had great results at the World Rally Championship with autofocusing also.

  • ziad June 27, 2008 05:37 am

    Use manual when doing time lapse photography. It's the best option, most of the time. Sometimes, you will wanna go AE mode too.

  • Raymond Chan June 27, 2008 03:01 am

    @kristarella - Hi, I do get that "when are you going to shoot expression" alot with manual focussing on my 50mm mainly because I try to get the perfect shot most times. Although some may say that AF is bad in low light, I'd also add that Manual focussing is also not easy at all in low light. I can focus (pretty) fast manually, but the people I shoot just don't seem to have the patience most of the time. Grr. Practice is the key, I guess. Cheers for the reply.

  • Dusty June 27, 2008 12:59 am

    I have used both and I guess it depends on the subject. I do mostly product micro and am a novice. Now my question is and it may seem dumb to some. But can someone please tell me do you wear your glasses when you are focusing or not?

    My glasses are worn for reading but I have found when doing manual focus sometimes my photos come out blurry.

    I need the whole piece in focus and that seems very difficult to do.

    Any advise would be appreciated.

  • Caryn June 27, 2008 12:29 am

    Manual focus is one of the main reasons why I just splurged on a more expensive camera. I can't count the number of times I've thought I had a subject in focus, only to find out that I most definitely did not. Since I'm a fan of macros, this can really mess up a shot.

  • Jose Luis Castro June 27, 2008 12:28 am

    I think that the point is that in some situations is better use the manual focus than the auto focus, the examples are that, examples, i agree whit all of them, in my little experience in some situations i got better results using manual focus, there is something that you feel, that you see, something in some point of view that you camera simply can't "see" there is the moment to use manual focus for me. In other way i want add that the manual focus lets you chose point of view very interesting if you use it wisely :) Cheers.

  • Andy June 27, 2008 12:26 am

    I'm with Tom and Richard on this one!!!!

    Just how did we cope before auto-focus (Hic Hic)????
    Granted, I now use autofocus most of the time but it can be a P.I.T.A.

    I learn't my photography on Practica's, starting with a Practika Nova, then "L", then "MTL3" oh heady days and hand held metering and manual focus. Progressed to a Minolta X-300 (still manual everything), which is still with me to this day and taking superb pictures.

    Now using a Nikon D80 plus all the other peripheral stuff that we get suckered into buying in this ever-spiralling, never ending, ever spending hobby of ours, but still not convinced 100% about digital so backed up with a used example of a Nikon F55 35mm film camera off e-Bay "just in case"

  • gABY June 26, 2008 11:48 pm

    You can take make a photograph with Auto focus, and I Auto focus works really fine for me in any situation I can provide pictures.

    I agree with all the situations exept Sports and portrait. Specially in Sports there's hardly any time to focus manually, You point, focus and shoot. There's no time to waste.

  • Tom June 26, 2008 05:08 pm

    I strongly agree with Richard. I am from the same "old school" of manual cameras.

    The first camera I had was Zenit SLR. Then, after a few years came Pentax SLR, also a film camera. When I finally bought a dSLR I suddenly discovered autofocus. Initially I thought it will solve problems, but it caused me much more pain than it should.

    Generally, I cannot agree more, that focusing *IS* part of a process of composing a photograph. If you cannot control it, you are not composing a picture - a machine does. At least part of it. I guess it depends on whether you want to "take a picture" (family meeting, etc.) or "make a photograph", when you put all your creative effort into action.

    As for me, I don't use autofocus because I don't trust it. It makes mistakes, unfortunately. Having practiced quite much with it I haven't found a single occasion when auto mode would be better than my fingertips.

    I support the idea of a vote - I would like to know how many of you share Richard's and my perspectives.

  • kristarella June 26, 2008 05:00 pm

    Thanks for this! I just started remembering to use the AE-L/AF-L button to maintain the correct focus when reframing, but I really should practice manual focus, so that I have it when I need it.

    Raymond, I find that my 50mm takes quite a while to find focus in low-light and then I miss the shot because people start making an "are you ever going to take it?" expression... perhaps manual focus is needed, but we need to practice to be quicker?

  • Bran Everseeking June 26, 2008 04:50 pm

    Getting an after market custom focusing screen makes manual focus a treat with AF cameras


    I have been favouring M42 lenses with my DSLR and missed the split prism of my spotmatic

  • kayvaan June 26, 2008 02:38 pm

    If you DO want to use auto-focus for portraits, then all you need to do is change your auto-focus to just use the center focus-point. Use that to focus the eye. You don't have to worry about trying to fight the auto-focus not to focus on the tip of your subject's nose... :)

    Granted - it's still a tiny bit slower than manual because you have to move the center point to the eye and then back to the true center of your portrait (wherever you want that), but it helps.

  • Puplet June 26, 2008 09:00 am

    Sunny days, hyperfocal distance and f8/16? Worked for Cartier-Bresson...

  • Peach June 26, 2008 08:09 am

    This post is rather timely because I just got a 50mm lens and was playing with it last night. Almost returned it because the lens had great difficulty focusing under low light, resulting in blurred photos. But then I switched to manual focus and voila! My photos came out clear and crisp.

  • Rich June 26, 2008 07:29 am

    I have a mild glasses prescription and I have found that what appears to be in focus in the viewfinder is not what I get in my photos. Now this will of course vary depending on if I have my glasses on or not, and there is the adjustment on the viewfinder for lens correction, but I find I have a hard time getting it dialed in right.

    Does anyone else go through this? I finally worked it out (at the museum after multiple poor shots) by picking something and focusing on it with a large aperture producing a shallow depth of field and looking at the resulting image. My focus was actually behind where it looked like it was focusing so I increased the correction a click or two and repeated. This took about 5 repeats before I got it locked in as good as I could, shooting without my glasses.

    Is this really the process that must be done? Each time?

  • keith June 26, 2008 07:22 am

    I dunno, manual vs auto.

    But I did want to say: Hey this is a great blog! Yea, like so many sites I stumbled onto it from another link. Thanks for taking the time to share the info, tips & techniques and build a community of photogs.

  • Sean June 26, 2008 06:27 am

    I definitely have to agree with using manual with Macro work. With sports photography though I find the D300 set to 21pt AF with Release Priority, AF-C, Dynamic AF does an uncanny job.

  • approximate June 26, 2008 06:14 am

    My camera's auto focus really struggles when I'm trying to shoot the sky at sunset, so I just manually focus.

  • Raymond Chan June 26, 2008 04:37 am

    I disagree with the 2nd and the last point, where Portraits and Low Light were mentioned. I find that there have been far too many shots that I had missed out on when I used manual focussing on my 50mm on portraits (especially spontaneous/kids). Unless they're a paid model, it's really hard to keep them still (which also tends to lead to a less natural shot).

    In Low Light, it's really difficult to manually focus especially when the viewfinder is not exactly the brightest and light is hardly visible. But on the other points, I have to agree to them =) Cheers.

  • Richard June 26, 2008 03:48 am

    I think the question is round the wrong way, it should read; - "When is auto focus better than manual?"
    I was bought up on a manual SLR (No auto focus) before my conversion to DSLR so I very rarely use auto focus.
    You can’t compose a picture when the machine is trying to take over!
    Maybe we could put manual or auto? to the vote.

  • Smitty June 26, 2008 03:10 am

    I find that manual mode is great for any kind of 'event' (sports, concert, wedding) where I'm going to be a fixed distance from the action. Because I don't know when I'm going to need to shoot, setting manual reduces the shot cycle time by a brief moment and helps me to capture the image that I want.

    This was very significant for my older point and shoot given the slow cyle time in continuous. If, for example, I wanted to capture a dramatic moment in a concert, I really only had one shot at it and couldn't wait for the autofocus.

  • Jeremy Green June 26, 2008 03:07 am

    Manual focus is also critical if you want to shoot multiple shots and then stitch them together into a panorama. Here's one that I shot with auto focus.


    If you look closely you can see differences in the focus depth as you move from right to left across the image. Compare the focus of the grass on the edges vs. in the middle.

    Here's one taken with manual focus so that the depth of focus is consistent across the whole image.


    Manual exposure settings (aperture and shutter speed) and a proper tripod are also critical for good panos.

  • Shimmy Mom June 26, 2008 02:03 am

    Thanks for the advice. I a VERY new to the photography thing and I'm very excited to see what my new camera can do.

  • Kelsey Horner June 26, 2008 01:21 am

    I agree with Chris. I haven't done anything really fast moving, but generally I'm okay with autofocus. I have to admit that I'm still a little afraid of manual focus, mostly because I can't see very well and I have more confidence in the camera's sensors than in my own eyes. It's definitely something I need to start practicing.

  • Hans June 26, 2008 12:58 am

    I shoot a lot of motorsports pictures and mostly use a Canon L series lens (70-200,2.8).
    Using AI autofocus works sometimes, but to get real sharp pictures, manual focus is absolutly mandatory.

  • Kunal Jaywant June 26, 2008 12:57 am

    I use to love auto focusing with my STX-2 film since it had this split focusing. But now with DSLR, there is no split ring focus and have to depend on the green dot that lights up in the viewfinder to confirm the focus :(

    I have really messed up many shots due to poor focus, how i wish the split ring is again available with the dSlrs :)

  • Chris Osborne June 26, 2008 12:51 am

    I don't know about you, but I've had great result using automatic focus with sports photographs. I guess that depends partly on the lens being used.