Design, Photography, & Fashion

What Are the Advantages of Manual Focus in Photography? How to Take Advantage of Your Camera’s Features to Improve Your Manual Focus

Written by MasterClass

Jun 26, 2019 • 4 min read

Modern cameras are designed to accurately autofocus an image under most circumstances. That being said, there are many scenarios in which a photographer is better served manually focusing their images. If you’re trying to improve your photography skills and the quality and sharpness of your images, consider learning how to better manually focus your pictures.

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What Is Manual Focus?

Manual focus is the process of adjusting the depth of field of a camera lens to bring an image into focus without relying on autofocus or other technical aid. For most of the twentieth century, manual focusing was the only method of focusing a camera until autofocus became a standard feature of more modern cameras in the 1980’s. Most professional photographers continue to forego using an autofocus system because manual focusing allows them maximum control over their images.

How Do You Manually Focus Your Camera?

The mechanical process of manually focusing a dslr camera is relatively easy: switch off the camera’s autofocus, look through the viewfinder and start to twist the focus ring on your lens. This is the simplest way of manually focusing your camera, but the problem is that the viewfinder doesn’t give you a completely accurate representation of what your final image will look like. There are a few other features a DSLR camera has that you can take advantage of to get focused, sharp images.

  • Depth of field preview: Most DSLR cameras have a feature called depth of field preview. Depth of field preview is usually engaged with a preview button adjacent to the lens mount. This feature will give you a more accurate representation of your final image quality based on your selected aperture and depth of field.
  • Live view: Live view allows you to utilize your digital camera’s LCD screen to get a live view of your image and zoom in on different areas to gauge if the entirety of your subject is in sharp focus.
  • Focus distance windows: A focus distance window is a feature on some manual focus lenses that attempts to give you a measure in feet or meters of how far your focus point is from the camera. It’s more of a rough estimation than an exact measure but can be useful in helping you adjust your focal length.
  • Rangefinder cameras: Some cameras are equipped with rangefinders that are designed to help you focus your camera very precisely and were standard issue on many cameras before autofocus was popularized. Rangefinders provide a split image of your subject. To get proper focus, you try to overlap the split images using your viewfinder and focusing ring.

7 Advantages of Manually Focusing Your Photography

There are particular instances when manual focusing is especially useful and autofocus should be avoided. Some of these include:

  1. Low light conditions: Autofocus is not very good at picking up focus in low light conditions. If you’re planning on shooting in low light, you’ll probably want to opt for manual focus.
  2. Focus stacking: Focus stacking is a method of ensuring that your final image is in focus by taking multiple shots of the same frame with different focuses. After you’ve taken the images, you can stitch them together using photo editing software to ensure that the entirety of your image is in focus. If you’re focus stacking, you’ll want to use manual focus to make subtle adjustments for each of your shots.
  3. Selective focusing: Sometimes you are trying to focus selectively on a small depth of field that your autofocus mode might not know to adjust to. In this instance, you might have to use manual focus in order to focus on the element you are trying to highlight.
  4. Low contrast: Autofocus is most useful when you are shooting images with high contrast. If you’re shooting something that has a lower level of contrast then autofocus is less likely to produce a sharp image.
  5. Focus shift: Focus shift is a focusing issue that is exacerbated by autofocus. Certain autofocus systems switch to maximum aperture when taking focus before stopping down to your intended aperture. This can skew the focus when using lenses that have any sort of spherical aberration. If you’re experiencing problems with focus shift, you can oftentimes solve your issue by manually focusing the image.
  6. Fast moving objects: It can be very difficult to get accurate focus when taking pictures of fast moving subjects. In this situation you’ll want to use manual focus and go about pre-focusing your lens prior to when you’ll need to shoot. This way you’ll have your camera at the adequate focal length when the time comes to shoot.
  7. Wide-angle lens: Wide angle lens can skew the size of objects in your images to be much smaller than they are in real life. This makes autofocusing problematic. If you’re using a wide-angle lens, you’ll most likely need to use manual focus.

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