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Why Use Manual Focus?

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With autofocus doing the work for you, why would you want to manual focus? Doesn’t it mean there is a higher chance of ending up with a blurry image?

For everything connected to manual focus, read on. You’re in the right place.

A black and white street photography portrait of a man crossing a road shot using manual focus mode

How to Manually Focus Your Camera

From here on out, you’ll need to manually focus every shot. You’ll notice this when you come to press the shutter release button halfway.

The motors won’t kick in, and you won’t hear that usual beep. But, you might still see the focal point flash red.

To focus, you need to use the focusing ring at the end of your lens. By twisting this ring will adjust where you place your focal point.

You’ll see the viewfinder scene change immediately. But, this isn’t a correct representation of what your final image will be like.

Depth of Field Preview Button

Most modern DSLRs have a depth of field preview button. This helps to solve the problem with the lack of representation from the viewfinder.

It gives you an idea of what the final image will look like. This will depend on your chosen aperture, focus and depth of field.

This button you’ll find next to your lens mount. The exact placement may change. It depends on the camera manufacturer and camera model.

Check your camera’s manual for the precise location.

When you depress this button, the aperture will close down to its actual setting.

Expect your preview image to darken a little. This will not appear on the final image.

A close up of a DSLR camera and lens - how to use manual focus

Live View

One of the best ways to track your focus is by using the Live View mode. This feature gives you a real-time view of your scene on your LCD screen.

This allows you to take a step back from your viewfinder, and judge your focusing on a larger screen.

After focusing, turn on Live View mode and zoom the view, into your scene.

You’ll be able to see what areas of your image will be in focus.

Focus Distance Windows

Another possibility for manual focusing is by using the focus distance window. This is a feature of some lenses, where the focal plane comes in the form of a distance.

This is the space between the subject from the camera. These are usually shown in both meters and feet.

They range from the lens’ smallest focusing distance, all the way up to infinity. These measurements are not exact, so take them with a pinch of salt.

They act as a guide since they don’t really connect to the depth of field you are shooting with.

A close up of using the focus distance window for manual mocus

Macro Photography

Macro photography means you are dealing with a very small depth of field.

At larger and larger apertures, focusing becomes more and more important.

Using your manual focus is key in making sure your subject is crisp. You can help yourself by adding lights or using the focus stacking method.

Selective Focusing

There are times when you’ll want to have full control over your focus. This would be for creative purposes when there are many layers to your scene.

Autofocusing an object through leaves, for example, is going to be troublesome.

Manual focus gives you control over selecting the areas in your scene that you want sharp.

A close up of a dictionary with sharp focus on the entry for 'focus'

Focus Stacking

Focus stacking is a great way to ensure every part of your image is in focus. With landscape photography, it’s pretty simple.

You place your camera on a tripod and stop down the aperture to achieve a wide depth of field.

But, when it comes to macro photography or shooting in low light conditions, it isn’t optimal.

Leaving your aperture closed down will force your ISO to raise. This, in turn, reduces the quality of your image.

Focus stacking is a process where you take many images of the same scene. With each extra image, you change the position of the focus.

This could be anywhere between 6 images and 20, depending on the aperture you are using.

The wider the aperture, the smaller the depth of field. The smaller the depth of field, the more images you need to capture for an entire scene in focus.

Manual focus is best for this, as you have complete control of where you place of the focal point.

Start at either the front of the image or the back, and move through the frame. You can leave out a distracting or unattractive background.

After you have taken the images, you need to review them to ensure a sharp focus throughout.

The images are then stitched together using editing software, such as Adobe Photoshop. The result will give you one image in focus.


A panoramic image is a series of many images stitched together. This process forms a much larger image.

This is a process that takes place during the post-processing stage. Consistency throughout each of these shots is paramount.

By using autofocus, you leave the task to your camera and lens combination. If the images do not have the same focus points, the resulting images will look disjointed.

Atmospheric panoramic image of a forest

Rangefinder Cameras

Rangefinders are a type of camera that fitted with a rangefinder. This device is a range-finding focusing mechanism.

Its design is to help you achieve a perfect focus. These performed alongside analog cameras that had no autofocus function.

My Polaroid Land Camera 180 have this type of focusing. It provides a split-image of your scene.

By using your viewfinder and focusing ring or arms, you overlap the images on top of each other. When they conjoin, you know your scene is in focus.

The above rangefinder is a split-image rangefinder, but there is one more type. The split-image type is ‘coupled‘ meaning the viewfinder and focusing works together.

A non-coupled rangefinder will display the focusing distance.

With this type, it is up to the photographer to transfer that information to the focusing ring.

Rangefinders don’t always come with the cameras. You can buy them afterward and attach via the camera’s hot shoe.

Rangefinder cameras make it easier to focus, allowing for a much speedier capture.

Low-Light Conditions

Autofocus is a wondrous invention. But, there are times when it doesn’t perform so fast. Or at all. One of these situations is in very low-light conditions.

This will depend on your camera and lens choice.

It is easy to end up with a blurred image when the autofocus struggles to find a focal point.

This is more complicated when you find yourself in situations where you can’t use Live View.

Atmospheric photo of a dark interior of an industrial building shot using manual focus

Low Contrast

Autofocus works best when the scene presents a higher level of contrast. What is contrast? It’s the difference between the light and dark tones in the environment you are capturing.

The bigger the difference, the easier it is to photograph.

When a scene doesn’t provide you with rich contrast, your autofocus system is going to suffer. For light-colored subjects against a bright background, use manual focusing.

Still Objects Vs. Moving Objects

Still objects are much easier to capture that those that are moving. The faster the object is moving, the harder it is to capture.

The same goes for moving subjects that are closer to you. Manual focusing is going to be a challenge,

With still objects, you have a better chance of achieving a sharper focus. You can take your time to test your focus, and use a tripod.

A faster object needs to be focused on beforehand. Even before it enters your viewfinder.

How can you do such a thing? Well, since you somehow need to know where the object is going to go, you may need to guess.

You use that guess to manually focus on an area that object will cross.

Atmospheric long exposure photo of a subway train moving through a station shot using manual focus

Wide-Angle Lenses

When using wide angle lenses, larger objects are represented by smaller versions of themselves. Buildings, trees and other still objects are much smaller than in real life.

This makes them much more problematic for autofocus to get a good lock.

A manual focus helps to ensure a sharp and crisp focus.

Analog Lenses

The Polaroid SX-70 Sonar OneStep was the first autofocus single-lens reflex camera.

This camera was released in 1978. Every lens before this and many after it had to be focused manually.

If you didn’t know how to manually focus, you couldn’t photograph at all.

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