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Manual focus is not dead

A friend recently got her first digital SLR camera. Up until now she has been using a fully manual film camera, including manual focus, so this opened up a whole new world of exciting possibilities. She came over with her camera a few days ago, because she wanted help with a few things. 

Like most of us, the first thing she asked about was focus.

She’d been used to focusing manually on her old camera, so the various autofocus modes were confusing for her. It’s confusing for anyone, even if you’re used to using autofocus only. In fact, new photographers are often very surprised to learn that there is more than one way to autofocus.

Further reading: Nail your autofocus, get the shot!

My friend’s visit got me thinking about our dependence on autofocus since digital cameras came on the scene. Autofocus is the standard that we use.

But there are times when manual focus trumps autofocus. Nine times by my count. So let’s talk about manual focus.

Really important point before we begin

Switch your lens to manual focus BEFORE you start focusing manually (there is a switch on the lens labelled AF MF or A M or A/M M or something similar). This way you’re switching off the focus motor in your lens first.

Some lenses can be focused manually, even when switched to autofocus, such as Canon’s USM (Ultra Sonic Motor) lenses and Nikon’s SWM (Silent Wave Motor) lenses. If you’re not sure if your lens falls into this category, stay safe and switch your lens to manual focus before focusing manually.

The reason for this is that you could potentially damage your focus motor by forcing it to focus manually when it is switched to autofocus.

A good way to check this is to have a look at your focus ring when you autofocus. If it moves, you definitely must not force manual focus when set to autofocus. Switch the lens to manual focus first.

The 9 times manual focus beats autofocus

1. Lack of contrast

You know when you’re pointing your camera at something and the focus is hunting (going back and forth and not actually locking on)? Chances are there is a lack of tonal contrast in your frame. In other words, there is not much difference in the tones of the scene you want to photograph. Maybe it is all very similar whites.

This is the perfect time to switch to manual focus. Give your camera a hand.

2. Low light

If the scene is too dark and you have no way of lighting it, your camera can’t see enough to focus. For you that would be like walking into a dark room. You’ll probably bump into something, because you can’t see it.

Remember, your camera’s “eyesight” is not as developed as yours. Just like a human’s eyesight and ability to see in the dark is not as good as an owl’s.

As long as you can see your subject, switch to manual focus rather than use autofocus.

Further reading: How to focus in low light – seeing in the dark

Manual focus beats autofocus in low light conditions

3. Macro

If you want to get really close up for macro photography, sometimes using manual focus can help you to focus on exactly the part of the scene you want to be sharp.

4. Pre-focusing for action shots

If you want to shoot an action shot, you need to plan for it. Sometimes this means pre-focusing on a point where you know the action will be. Once you’ve focus, either in autofocus or in manual, you’re good to go as soon as your subject is at that point. If you’ve used autofocus to prefocus, remember to switch your camera/lens to manual focus before you start shooting, otherwise it will try to autofocus and mess up all your careful planning.

Perfect examples are horse jumping, or high board diving.

When the action starts you could miss the shot if you’re relying on your camera to focus fast enough.

Pre-focus on a fixed point and use manual focus for horse jumping

5. Shooting through something – glass, wire fence, long grass

Let’s say you want to capture rain drops on a window. You want the raindrops to be sharp and the rest of the scene to be blurred. How does your camera know what you want to focus on. It might be inclined to try and focus on the scene in the background.

Likewise if your subject is sitting in long grass and you’re low down, shooting through the grass to get some good layers in your image.  Add a few gusts of wind and every time the grass moves between your lens and your subject, your camera will try to refocus. The photo at the top of this tutorial is a good example.

How about if you want to shoot through a wire fence and have the scene behind it in focus, or the other way around, the wire in focus and the scene out of focus?

The quickest and easiest solution is to focus manually and then photograph away to your heart’s content without missing a shot.

6. HDR photography and multiple exposure portraits

With both HDR and multiple exposures, manual focus is ideal. Set your focus once and then shoot however many shots you need without your camera trying to refocus every time and possibly focusing on the wrong part of the scene.

7. Landscapes and hyperfocal focusing

When photographing landscapes with a very deep depth of field, once you’ve established the hyperfocal distance, set your camera to manual focus.

Again, this avoids the situation where your camera tries to autofocus when you depress the shutter and mess up your careful planning.

8. Fog

Fog adds a wonderful depth and mystery to an image. Because it is not constant, it is best to use manual focus so that when thicker fog moves into the scene, your camera won’t try to focus on the fog instead of your subject. Or vice versa.

9. Still life / flat lays / products

If your camera is mounted on a tripod and your subject is still, particularly if it doesn’t have the ability to move, why not focus manually and then you’re free to add and take away from the scene without having to refocus every time.

A great example is photographing flat lays, or products, or food for your blog or a client.

With flat lays as you’re shooting from above with the camera on a tripod, it really is much easier and less time consuming to pre-focus and go manual.

Use manual focus for flat lay and product photography

But there’s also this option…

I’m going to throw something else into the mix here and say, why not autofocus first so that your focus is set, then switch to manual focus? If neither the camera, nor the object are going to move this makes sense.

And here’s an even better suggestion…

If you use back button focus and have isolated your shutter to be a shutter release button only, so that it doesn’t try to focus when depressed, you can focus once using back button focusing and then use the shutter button to take your shots.

As regular readers will know, I’m a huge fan of back button focus. Because I talk about portrait photography mainly, I always advocate back button focus to capture anything that’s moving, especially little children.

However, if you’ve ever tried photographing flat lays, or any still life object, you’ll know how much faffing can be involved in getting it just right. Using back button focus to autofocus on an area you want sharp and then using the shutter button just to take the shot removes a little bit of the faff. You won’t need to look through the viewfinder, check your focus and then depress the shutter button each time.

Further reading: Why back button focus is your BFF, and how to use it

Alternatively, you could focus manually and then shoot to your heart’s content, as long as the distance between camera and subject doesn’t change.

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If you have any questions about using manual focus, let us know in the comments.

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