It’s not so long ago that the majority of photographers would have created their images using manual focus. Even the early autofocus systems were not accurate enough to persuade the average professional to take his hand off the focus ring, the auto-focusing being neither accurate nor fast—two essential requirements for professionals and enthusiasts alike.

That has, however, all changed. Modern autofocus systems are fast, accurate, and can take away many of the headaches from difficult shooting conditions. Unfortunately, many photographers these days see this as an exclusive means of focus, and certainly amongst some of the digital generation of photographers, the art of manual focus is dying, and with it the loss of a lot of creative control. In this article we will have a look at when, why, and how to manually focus your camera.

Reasons for using manual focus

Let’s start with when and why using manual focus is important. There are a multitude of situations that might occur that will require you to flip that lens switch to manual, below are just some of them:

  • Low contrast scenes. Try shooting autofocus in misty or foggy scenes and you will soon get frustrated. Autofocus needs contrast to work efficiently, yet some of our most evocative and beautiful images are when the contrast is low. Mist and fog are not the only low contrast situations; any scene with a uniform, flat contrast can fool the camera (sandy beach, still waters, etc.).
  • Low light. Similar to low contrast, low light can easily fool a camera’s autofocus. In particular, dark scenes lit by candles or other flickering light sources will be a major issue for many cameras.

manual focus - Hong Kong Island and Skyline at Night from KowloonLow light and mist can fool autofocus

  • Fast moving action. Autofocus these days can be very good at focusing on subjects moving across the screen, but it can struggle with subjects that are moving toward or away from the camera. Wildlife and sports photographers know all about this problem and often manually focus to compensate.
  • Off-center subjects. Whilst it is possible to use a center autofocus point and move the camera, in some situations where you need to work fast, such as weddings, switching off the autofocus will allow you to maintain creative composition and keep a high rate of in-focus shots.

manual focus - Aloysha Statue overlooking MurmanskAn off-center subject

  • Macro images. Close-up photography requires the sort of high-precision focusing that can only come with manual focus. With the typically shallow depth of field that macro photography provides, it is imperative to find the correct focus point within the scene.

Manual focus simple techniques

Those are some of the more important reasons for switching to manual focus, now let have a look at some simple techniques for getting accurate focus with your camera. For most modern DSLRs, the manual focus switch will be found on the lens barrel, usually denoted by the letters M/AF. If you do not have such a switch, the manual focus mode will be set from within your camera’s menus.

  • The first and perhaps most basic rule of manual focus is to use your viewfinder and not the LCD screen. An optical viewfinder provides you with a direct link to your subject and will be both brighter and more accurate than focusing using the LCD. Most modern DSLRs also have a diopter control, found near the viewfinder. This allows you to tune the viewfinder’s optics to your own eyes and should be considered a critical first stage in using manual focus.
  • Even with autofocus turned off, your viewfinder will still display focus aids. These are usually in the form of arrows directing which way to turn the lens. Make sure, though, that the focus point in the camera relates to the point on the subject on which you wish to focus.

manual focus - Eternal Flame at the war memorial, MurmanskManual focus was vital to this shot

  • Learn the hyperfocal distance. This vital rule is a major weapon in the landscape photographer’s arsenal. By focusing roughly two-thirds of the way into the scene, you can ensure that your image is in good focus from the foreground all the way to the horizon. We will look at the specifics of hyperfocal distance in a separate article.
  • Action, sports, and wildlife photographers will find pre-focusing to be a vital technique. In pre-focusing, you predetermine a point in the scene that your subject will pass through and focus on this point. As the subject, be it a sports car or bird, approaches the point you fire the camera in the fastest continuous mode, ensuring perfect focus in at least one of the shots.

autofocus penguinsPre-focusing is an important skill

  • When manually focusing, focus through the subject, that is, from foreground to background, and then bring the subject back into focus. This will ensure that you find the optimum focus point. This is a particularly useful technique when shooting macro images.
  • When shooting portraits, for the most part, aim to get the eyes pin sharp and use a shallow depth of field. Use the sharply focused area of a scene to draw the viewer’s eye to what you want them to see.

Conclusion

Focusing manually is a powerful tool. Unlocking its potential opens a new world of creative possibilities, but don’t expect to be proficient at it from day one. As with most techniques in photography, the key tasks are to practice and learn from your mistakes. Digital photography makes the practice easy, but don’t rely on your LCD to check your focus, wait until you get home and check on a decent monitor. Learning from your mistakes is up to you.

About The Author

Jason Row is a British born travel photographer now living in Odessa Ukraine. His work has been published worldwide in newspapers, books magazines and strangely on towels from a Turkish textile company.

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