Why Every Photographer Should Use a Manual Focus Lens

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Your camera is smart. It has processors that are able to run algorithms, for near instantaneous adjustments to compensate for lighting conditions and changing environments. I’m a professional lens reviewer, and tend to complain if a lens/camera combination takes more than a split second to achieve accurate autofocus. But the reality is that most modern camera/lens combinations achieve accurate autofocus remarkably fast. Modern DSLRs can pretty much see in the dark, and still focus reasonably well with a near absence of light, and their performance at extremely high ISO settings is phenomenal.

Yes, your camera is most certainly smarter than your father’s, but the question is, are you a smarter photographer than your father?

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Could it be that the wizardry of modern processors, sensors, and autofocus motors (AF) cocoon modern photographers from what actually happens in the process of taking photos? And, in doing so keep us from having to learn some of the essential basics of photography that could make us better? Here is why I think every photographer should spend some time with a manual focus only lens.

Aperture

A press release for a modern lens will say something like, “Nine rounded aperture blades.” That means next to nothing to most modern photographers for one simple reason – they will never see those blades. All they will ever see is the glass within the barrel of their lens. The reason for this is simple: lenses with an automatic iris aperture (the camera sets the aperture electronically), focus with the lens wide open (aperture blades withdrawn), and only stop down to the chosen aperture in the split second when that the shot is taken. It is pretty amazing how quickly this all happens, when you stop and think about it.

Most lenses produced for Canon EF mounts (excluding Samyang/Rokinon lenses along with a few non-mainstream models) have an auto iris aperture control. Even Zeiss manual focus lenses in Canon (ZE) mounts have automatic irises, and Samyang/Rokinon is retooling many of their lenses with AE versions with auto aperture control. Put simply, very few modern lenses in a Canon mount have an actual aperture ring. Nikon shooters get a few lenses with manual aperture rings (for some reason Zeiss lenses include one on Nikon [ZF] mounts.)

Auto aperture iris control is great for convenience. Just twist the dial on your camera (often in third stop increments) and select the aperture you want, or even let the camera choose it for you in an auto mode. It’s quick and painless.

The downside, of course, is that the actual significance of what is happening when that iris is opened wide or closed down is often lost upon modern photographers. We can talk about “stopping down” a lens or the advantage of a wide aperture prime, but until you have actually seen the difference in an aperture iris you won’t have a full sense of what that really means. Take a look at this series from the new Rokinon 50mm f/1.4.

When you actually see that aperture closing down you really get a sense of the difference between the f-stops and how much more light gathering there actually is at wide apertures. This series starts at f/1.4 and goes to f/8 – see how much difference the aperture size makes in the amount of light entering the camera?

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My wife is an intelligent woman. She even has a pretty decent eye as a photographer, and has taken some great photos. But despite having been married to a gear guy since 1997, and having a hundred or so lenses going in and out of our house, she still to this day often gets confused about aperture. It can be confusing, as the logic (due to the way that f-stops often get reported) is backwards. Bigger numbers mean smaller apertures -and that seems backwards. There is no mistaking this with a manual focus lens with a manual aperture ring – you can physically see the aperture iris shrinking as you stop the lens down (choose a smaller aperture size – larger f-stop, like f/11 etc).

More photographers would get what aperture numbers really mean in terms of light gathering, if they physically saw the aperture blades close down or open in their lenses.

Light Gathering

Most cameras have a standard focusing screen, that does not show the true depth of field. This, added with the fact that the camera typically focuses with the lens wide opened, means that you often don’t get a sense of how much less light is available when the lens is stopped down (f/4-f/16, for example) or how much more is available at large apertures (f/1.2-f/2.8). Most DSLRs have a DOF (depth of field) preview button somewhere, but it is often in an obscure location and rarely gets used by many people. For this reason many photographers have never seen the true depth of field of any of their wide aperture lenses, or any other lens for that matters. This changes when you use a manual focus lens (particularly with a focus screen that shows true depth of field). More on this in a moment.

Yes, it is a pain when the viewfinder is quite dark when you have a manual aperture lens mounted and stopped down to, say, f/8. That’s the reason that modern lenses and cameras don’t show you this in your viewfinder. But it also means that you aren’t being forced to learn what f/8 really means in terms of light gathering. You also don’t see how much more light is available, or how much more shallow the depth of field is with a large aperture. You don’t really think about your aperture setting at the time of capture, resulting in a loss of creativity because your mind isn’t forced to visualize what aperture means to the shot.

But beyond this, manually selecting your aperture really helps you to mentally dial in the relationship between aperture and depth of field. The fact that you have to think about selecting the aperture, and see a difference in the viewfinder, in both the depth of field and the amount of light, helps you to realize how shallow depth of field shots (with a large aperture) and large depth of field shots (with a small aperture) are going to turn out. I have learned how to mentally visualize how depth of field is going to affect a scene so much more because of using manual aperture lenses. Here is a series from the Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f/1.4 lens. It starts at f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, and then finally shows f/4. Notice the huge difference this makes to the degree in which the background is blurred.

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The large aperture shots are much more attractive, and give a better three dimensional effect to the image. You probably won’t always shoot with manual focus lenses, but using one will help train your brain to visualize your shots more effectively and artistically.

Depth of Field and Focus

It is quite a revelation to use a wide aperture, manual focus prime, with a focusing screen like an EG-S that shows true depth of field. At close to medium distances you can actually watch focus travel from one thing to another, and subjects pop into focus. It really helps you think about storytelling as a part of your imagery. When you think about what you want in focus, it means that you have become intentional about what you want your viewer to see.

Many cameras have AF point spreads that are not wide enough to reach the edges of the frame. Manual focus lenses remove that limitation, and I am more likely to take an image with my subject in focus in an extreme corner when I use one. The rule of thirds for composition is a great starting tool, but sometimes rules are made to be broken. Take a look at this shot of a family games night. The cards are in the extreme bottom corner. Your eye goes there first, but then considers the whole out of focus scene beyond. Your brain allows you to mentally fill in the blanks, and image possibilities, rather than just a looking at a scene.

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Many macro photographers have learned to choose to use manual focus at those very fine distances. It is often challenging to place an AF focus point right where you need it (particularly when using a tripod), but manually focusing allows you to simply focus until what you need to be in focus is sharp. I’ve heard a lot of people fuss over the focus speed of some macro lenses, including the amazing EF 100mm f/2.8L IS. All I can say is that you need to use a manual focus macro lens sometime. Using the Zeiss Makro-Planar in either a 50mm or 100mm focal length helps you to realize how much the macro range adds to the focus possibilities of such a lens. There are so many extra focus points! Using a manual focus macro lens will certainly help you appreciate the AF on macro lenses, and will also help you understand why the AF focus (distance) limiter switch is there and how to properly use it.

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Learning to focus with a manual focus lens will help your mind to understand how to better use autofocus lenses (particularly those with focus limiters).

In Conclusion

We live in a high-paced world. We want everything to be faster and easier. But great art is rarely created is rarely created in a rush. When I am shooting professional event work and weddings, I tend to use image stabilized, wide aperture, zoom lenses. They are big and heavy, but they are extremely flexible and deliver great results. I need speed in those situations, but some of my most creative shots in my catalogue have been taken with manual focus lenses. I slow down and become more creative. Some of my most critically acclaimed images have been taken with manual focus lenses, both inexpensive and expensive ones.

If you have been guilty of doing most of your photography in a rush, do yourself a favor a get yourself a manual focus lens (even a cheap one). If you want a cheap option, grab yourself an SMC Takumar 55mm f/1.8, and an adapter to your mount of choice. You can probably get a lens and an adapter for under $100. It takes some amazing pictures, and will open a world of appreciation for some of the lenses from another era. It will probably also make you a better photographer.

Even better is the SMC Takumar 50mm f/1.4, or if you want to use a value oriented modern manual focus lens, try one in your favorite focal length from Rokinon or Samyang (same thing, just rebranded lenses). You’ll find a number of reviews of different ones on my website. If you are willing to spend more and want the finest optics and image quality available, Carl Zeiss makes some of the best lenses period. They tend to be mostly manual focus, and I’ve had the privilege of using and reviewing many of them.

Once you learn how to take good pictures with a manual lens, shooting with your modern gear will seem easier than ever, and you might even use it more creatively. These are just a few reasons why every photographer should spend some time with a manual focus only lens.

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Dustin Abbott is a photographer, author, and reviewer, along with being a Pentecostal Pastor. He is married to Lana and they have three children. His work has been published in many publications and used commercially by a number of companies. You can find out more about him or read his reviews at www.dustinabbott.net and watch his video reviews on YouTube here.

  • Krzysztof Jozwik

    Every lens I have has a switch, I can go manual whenever I want. Why would I spend money to limit myself, if I don’t have the self control to leave AF off, maybe I don’t deserve to learn.

  • tom rose

    Please don’t tell me (or anyone else) what I/we “should” do. Not even as a device for grabbing interest. Because that sort of title is very off-putting. It smacks of clickbait and control freakery. Far from attracting readers it will drive them away. It is sufficient to tell us why YOU found something useful. Let your readers make up their own minds whether or not they “should” do the same.

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