10 situations when manual focus is better than autofocus

First published:
May 5, 2023
January 31, 2024

10 situations when manual focus is better than autofocus

First published:
May 5, 2023
January 31, 2024

Say cheese by Dogcatcher

There are times when technology simply can’t deliver, and when this happens it’s often best to take a more manual approach to photography

Autofocus is amazing, there’s no two ways about it. Not to mention, modern cameras come with a plethora of autofocus modes, often hundreds of focus points, subject tracking modes as well as advanced features such as Eye AF for humans and animals. These are just the tip of the iceberg for some cameras, so you may be wondering why you would ever need to use manual focus when cameras are so capable when it comes to autofocus.

Despite some incredible advances in autofocus technologies in the last 5-10 years, there are still times when taking control and using manual focus is the best option. The main reasons are when the camera’s AF system struggles in a particular situation, which does still happen, and also when you need to lock focus at a particular point. This further extends into specific subjects where these situations are common, and that’s exactly what we’ll explore here.

The majority of lenses are capable of manual focus, which is most often selected using a switch on the side of the lens. Although with cameras that have fixed lenses, such as the Fujifilm X100 series models, this is selected using a switch on the side of the camera. To manually focus, you simply rotate the focus ring on the lens until the desired part of the subject looks sharp in the viewfinder or on the LCD screen.

1 When using manual lenses

Vintage film camera. Photo by Ryhor Bruyeu - f/4.5 | ISO 400 | 1.3s

Manual lenses, which are manual focus only with a manual aperture ring, are still manufactured by a handful of companies with Carl Zeiss and Samyang being among the best known. Then there are vintage lenses that can be bought second-hand. Vintage lenses will, in some cases directly attach to DSLRs, but with mirrorless cameras you will likely need to use an adaptor.

These lenses obviously need to be focused manually, but this doesn’t mean that they’re inferior to autofocus lenses that can also be focused manually. In some cases they’re superior and there are various reasons why some manufacturers still produce manual focus-only lenses.

2 Macro photography

Autumn tones. Photo by Jo Ottey Photography

Manual focus is often best for macro photography because when working close-up, autofocus can struggle to lock onto the subject and will continually hunt for focus. In this situation, manual focus allows you to quickly focus on the desired part of the subject, which then remains locked for subsequent shots.

Another reason is that when shooting macro, you may be intending to capture a 1:1 ratio, which is where the subject is the same size on the camera sensor as it is in real life. For this, you manually set the lens to the minimum focus distance which is denoted by 1:1, and then move the camera gently backwards and forwards to find focus.

3 Shooting portraits wide open

ThaNaKa Girl. Photo by Quach Tung Duong - f/5.3 | ISO 100 | 1/400s

Eye AF is a game-changing autofocus feature if your camera offers it, and in many situations it will serve you well regardless of the aperture you’re shooting at. Eye AF simply recognises the subject’s eyes and will focus on one of them, but it isn’t perfect and sometimes an eyelash might be the point of focus or even the eye furthest away from the camera. For standard Single Shot AF, focusing on eyelashes is the biggest problem.

When shooting at f/1.4 or f/1.8, for instance, even the slightest misfocus will blur the eye, so when shooting portraits wide open manual focus can be the most reliable approach. Plus, you can ensure that the subject’s eye that’s closest to the camera is in focus, rather than risking the other eye being selected by Eye AF.

4 Landscape photography

Kirkjufell. Photo by Christian Scheiffele - f/8 | ISO 100 | 1.6s

Landscape photography can be shot more than adequately using autofocus, but many landscape photographers prefer manual focus. This is because they can be 100% sure that they’ve focused on the desired point in the frame, or because they’re using hyperfocal distance to focus at the optimal distance in the scene to maximise depth-of-field.

Hyperfocal distance is when you manually focus on a distance for the camera sensor size and lens combination to achieve the largest depth-of-field possible for the aperture setting you’re using. There are apps that can provide this information, and you can also perform manual tests where you focus at different distances in a scene at f/11, such as 15m, 30m, 50m and infinity to see which one produces the largest depth-of-field.

5 Astrophotography

Joshua Tree Milky Way. Photo by Dan Gallo - f/2.8 | ISO 3200 | 10s

No matter how much you try or how good your camera’s AF system is, you’re highly unlikely to be able to focus on stars using autofocus. So, when shooting astrophotography, where the lens is set to a large aperture such as f/1.4, manual focus is the only option. It’s easier to manually focus on stars than you might think, and Live View is the key to success.

With Live View active, zoom the LCD screen into the brightest star in the frame. Now manually focus on that star and when it’s at its smallest and sharpest it’s in focus. Manual focus is also essential when shooting the moon with a telephoto lens.

6 Strong backlighting

Blue wildebeest in dust. Photo by Nico Smit - f/5.6 | ISO 200 |1/500s

Shooting towards the sun to backlight subjects, otherwise known as contre-jour, is a popular technique for all types of photography, whether silhouetting the subject or exposing the point of interest ‘correctly’ while taking advantage of more dramatic lighting.

Autofocus relies on light and contrast, and backlit scenes can make AF struggle to lock onto subjects because of the bright light behind them. It doesn’t happen all of the time, but when it does the best solution is to switch to manual focus to avoid focus hunting and ensure pin-sharp shots.

7 HDR & panos

Snowdonia National Park Landscape Panorama. Photo by Wayne Shakell - f/13 | ISO 200 | 1/30s

When shooting any technique that relies on multiple exposures, such as HDR and panoramic images, you have to be sure that focus is identical in each exposure to guarantee a successful blend between the images when they’re merged into one during post-processing.

Any differences in the point of focus between exposures will completely ruin the technique, and manual focus ensures that the point of focus is locked as long as you don’t move the focus ring on the lens between shots. For landscape photography covering these techniques and others, using hyperfocal distance is a great way to maximise depth-of-field to ensure front-to-back sharpness (see tip #4).

8 Street photography

Walking shadow. Photo by Levent Arslan - f/5.6 | ISO 400 | 1/2000s

Street photography not only requires a keen eye and the ability to anticipate when and where the action may unfold, but it also requires near-instant reflexes to capture it. With little, if any, time to adjust camera settings or to select the optimum AF point for the composition you have in mind, setting the aperture to a medium setting such as f/8 and prefocusing at a distance of 2-3 metres if you like to get close to subjects, or 4-5 if you prefer to be further away, means you only have to think about exposure and composition.

Another situation where prefocusing works well for street photography is when you’ve found an interesting location and you’re waiting for someone to enter the scene. For this, it’s often best to manually focus at the point where you expect someone to appear to ensure that the person will be sharp, plus it also allows you to shoot at wider apertures if a shallower depth-of-field is desired.

9 Low contrast

Sunset in dark mysterious forest. Photo by Cosma Andrei - f/22 | ISO 200 | 2.5s

Low contrast situations, such as in foggy conditions, can cause problems for autofocus because fog can make it difficult for AF to lock onto the subject, or it tries to lock onto the fog itself depending on how dense it is. This is another situation where autofocus can work well, but when it doesn’t manual focus can come to the rescue.

With low contrast situations like fog, it can be difficult to identify when the subject is in focus so focus peaking is a great tool for being able to instantly see when a subject is in focus. With focus peaking, the parts of the scene that are in focus are overlaid with red or white, and this can be viewed on the LCD screen and in mirrorless camera’s electronic viewfinders.

10 Shooting through obstructions

Steaming Pasta. Photo by Michael Avory - f/2 | ISO 100 | 1/125s

When shooting a subject that’s partially obscured by something else to help to add a sense of depth to the image, it’s common for autofocus to lock onto the element of the scene that’s in front of the main subject. Similarly, if the subject is small in the frame and much smaller than the active AF point, the background rather than the subject will often be picked up by AF. Manual focus allows you to select the exact point of focus in either situation, avoiding potential focusing issues to achieve a sharp subject.

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