Autofocus vs. Manual Focus: Which Is Better?

30 December 2021

Like with most technology-based hobbies, when you look into buying a new digital camera, you might initially feel overloaded by heaps of information on all the available features. Understanding the common features will help you find the perfect camera and accessories for your photography.

One of the most popular features that those in the know take seriously is autofocus performance. But what exactly is it and why is it important? Let’s discuss the options of autofocus and manual focus, and how to use autofocus.

What is Autofocus?

In every image, there’s a subject, one that you’ll want in sharp focus. Focusing a camera lens involves the lens elements physically shifting until the clearest image of your subject can be captured. These elements need to be adjusted depending on the distance that your subject is from the camera, with the smallest of adjustments often making huge differences. 

So, how does camera autofocus work? The lens and your camera combine to make these adjustments automatically, a process that occurs when you slightly depress the shutter release button on your camera or press the dedicated back button focus.

Autofocus vs. Manual Focus: Which Is Better?Autofocus vs. Manual Focus: Which Is Better?

Autofocus vs. Manual Focus: what’s the difference?

Autofocus vs. Manual Focus: Which Is Better?Autofocus vs. Manual Focus: Which Is Better?

As its name suggests, manual focus requires a physical adjustment of the focus of your lens, generally by turning a barrel on the lens which shifts elements until the subject is sharply in focus. While autofocus automatically adjusts itself to achieve focus, manual focus lets you decide for yourself what’s in focus, and how sharp it should be.

Autofocus does the work to nail focus and make sure your shot is sharp. Meanwhile, with manual focus, you rely on your eye to tell you the image is sharp. On the plus side, but it allows you to be in control to get the desired shot and get more creative with what you choose to focus on.

AF Systems, Points, and Modes Explained

Many photographers will be happy with this basic understanding of autofocus, but depending on the type of photography you’re about, you may want to understand the different forms and modes of focus to make informed purchasing decisions. Here’s a brief description of the common AF jargon:

  • Contrast Detection AF 

Simple and effective, this system looks for contrast at the edges of a subject and adjusts the focal point until the contrast is sharpest.

  • Phase Detection AF  

With this system in cameras like the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark III, light coming off a subject is measured to determine the distance, and the lens adjusts accordingly.

  • Focus Points 

Within the frame there are points for the camera to focus, so your subject will need to be at one of these points for the autofocus to work. Modern cameras, like the Canon EOS 90D, have a high number of points making it easier to achieve this. The points can be in vertical or horizontal lines, or cross-type points which result in the most accurate autofocus.

    Autofocus vs. Manual Focus: Which Is Better?Autofocus vs. Manual Focus: Which Is Better?
    • Single and Continuous AF 

    These are the two most common modes found on modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras. Single AF means the lens will focus once when you press your shutter, but you have to repeat the process to shoot again, which makes this mode best for stationary subjects. For moving subjects, continuous or tracking AF is best for moving objects, as it focuses on a subject and continues to do so as the subject moves.

    Why would anyone use manual focus?

    Autofocus vs. Manual Focus: Which Is Better?Autofocus vs. Manual Focus: Which Is Better?

    While autofocus is fast, it also comes with a slight lag. It takes time for it to focus. That’s something to consider, especially if you’re into action photography. It’s good to note too that some entry-level cameras such as the Nikon D780 don’t feature AF motors and instead rely on the motors in the AF lenses. Manual focusing skills are valuable to have, and there are circumstances when manual focus is preferable. Such as:

    Your eyes will often do a better job at focusing than your camera when the light is dim. Autofocus lenses can hunt around, trying to find something to focus on.

    Macro photography and a few other forms of photography utilise very shallow depths of field, so even the smallest shift in focus can dramatically alter the outcome of the image. As a camera cannot determine exactly what you want to have in focus, sometimes it’s preferable to take matters into your own hands.

    Take a look at some fast-focusing cameras

    Explore our range of cameras and lenses, or head to your nearest Ted’s Cameras store to have a chat with expert staff. It’s time to put all this knowledge to use to find the camera that’s right for you.

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