Why You Should Use Manual Focus and How To Do It

16 March 2022

Just like any camera enthusiast, we love the advancements in autofocus performance of modern digital cameras, and how these systems help you achieve sharp focus with minimal effort. However, we still find in some instances there are benefits to switching your lens over to manual focus. Keen to find out more? Read on to find out why you should use manual focus and get some tips on how to do it successfully.

The benefits of manual focus in an automated time

Autofocus is all about allowing you to point and shoot with your camera while making as few adjustments as possible and still capturing sharp images. Why then would anyone use manual focus, which involves you taking the time to physically adjust the focus ring of your lens until the image is sharp?

Here are a few reasons why you should consider improving your manual focusing skills:

Shooting in dim lighting: While advanced mirrorless and DSLR cameras now feature impressive AF systems that can find focus in low light conditions, your camera and lens will often have to make a few attempts to lock onto a focal point - this is called hunting. Using manual focus removes this hunting, and allows you to make sure your image is sharp before you press the shutter button.

Fast and discreet shooting: As above, using autofocus can often be a little bit noisy, although this is a factor that has drastically improved in modern times. If you are photographing indoors, in hushed environments, or taking candid photographs in which you wish to remain unnoticed, such as in street photography, manual focus is the way to go.

People using manual focus in these settings often develop techniques to make the job quicker and easier, such as zone focusing - this involves setting your focus distance in advance and then selecting an Aperture that assures that everything within a certain distance range will be sharp.

Why You Should Use Manual Focus and How To Do ItWhy You Should Use Manual Focus and How To Do It

Pro tip - When zone focusing a smaller aperture that provides a larger depth of field yields the most success. You may need to bump up your ISO a little more than usual to achieve this.

Why You Should Use Manual Focus and How To Do ItWhy You Should Use Manual Focus and How To Do It

Macro photography: As discussed in our Autofocus vs Manual focus blog, minor shifts in focus can have huge effects on your macro photography results. For this reason, we advise taking things into your own hands and leaving nothing to chance.

Selecting one particularly subject: While AF systems are wonderful, they are not smart enough to know exactly what you want as a photographer. An example of this is if you have multiple subjects within your frame and you want to select which one is the focal point. This is an obvious reason for learning how to focus manually.

Filming video with your DSLR or Mirrorless camera: This is a tricky one as there are pros and cons to using manual focus for video recording. On the one hand, if your video contains lots of movement and focus shifts, it is extremely hard to focus manually, so you will probably want to stick to auto.

On the other hand, if your subjects are mostly stationary or moving only slightly, using manual focus can be quieter, as it removes AF noises and you also remove the risk of your video going temporarily blurry as your lens hunts for focus.

How to manual focus with success

Now that you have been convinced to give manual focus a crack, here are some tips to help make your early attempts more successful and ultimately, enjoyable.

Adjust the diopter on your camera - You are relying on your eyes to get a sharp image when you focus manually, so to be sure you are seeing things accurately adjust the diopter of your camera to suit your eyesight.

Use live view - Live view isn’t always the best option for photography, which is why we preach the benefits of composing with a viewfinder.  For some forms of photography, however, such as landscapes and macro shots, we encourage you to mount your camera to a tripod and turn the live view on. Not only does this larger view make it easier to achieve a visual confirmation of your sharp image, but in most cases, you can magnify the area that you are focusing on - this helps you to be even more precise.

Why You Should Use Manual Focus and How To Do ItWhy You Should Use Manual Focus and How To Do It
Why You Should Use Manual Focus and How To Do ItWhy You Should Use Manual Focus and How To Do It

Pre-focus your lens - Similarly to the zone focusing that we discussed earlier, you can speed up your manual focus performance by having your lens preset to a distance that you think is right before your subject comes along. With this step followed, you should be able to only make minor adjustments before your focus is sharp and you are ready to shoot.

Utilise focus-peaking - Focus-peaking is a tool that is found in many modern digital cameras, which involves a white or coloured highlight appearing in your EVF or LCD screen when an area of your image is in focus. This confirmation reduces your workload considerably, so turn it on if it's available in your camera's menu.

Use a moderate aperture - If you are just starting out and you are scared that your manual focus abilities haven’t been perfected yet, we advise you to use a slightly slower shutter speed than you normally would. This will give your photograph a greater depth of field, which means there is more margin for error on your part.

Here are some great lens options for exploring manual focus

If this post has increased your interest in manual photography, don’t forget to check out our post on basic camera settings and our exposure triangle blog. Our Photography blog is also a valuable source for those looking for gear advice and recommendations, as is your local Ted’s store - stop by for a chat soon!

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