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Manual Focus in Photography: The Ultimate Guide

How to improve your photos with manual focus

If you want to capture photos that are consistently sharp, then you must learn to focus manually. Yes, manual focus is (somewhat) advanced, but it can be a game-changing technique – if you know when and how to use it.

Below, I share everything you need to know to get started with manual focus. I offer step-by-step instructions on how to get great results, plus I explain when you definitely want to consider using manual focus (as well as when you should avoid manual focus, because it’s not always such a good thing!).

Let’s dive right in, starting with the basics:

What is manual focus?

Manual focus in photography

Every image requires focusing, where the lens shifts its elements until you get sharpness in a particular spot. By default, most lenses do this automatically, which is known as autofocus. But you, as the photographer, can override your lens’s autofocus mechanism and adjust focusing via a ring on the lens barrel. 

That’s manual focusing: where you take control, twist the lens’s focus ring, and change the point of focus.

With manual focus, instead of letting your camera and lens decide where focusing will occur, you do it all yourself. But why is manual focus useful? Is it right for you?

Why is manual focusing important?

Manual focus in photography

Modern autofocus technology is great, but there are certain situations where it struggles. It may lock focus on the wrong parts of a scene, and it may fail to lock focus completely.

Here are just a few scenarios where autofocus technology frequently gets things wrong:

  • When focusing in the dark
  • When focusing up close
  • When choosing between two dominant subjects
  • When focusing through foreground elements

Now, the efficacy of your camera and lens’s AF technology can vary. Certain cameras offer autofocus algorithms that detect eyes and faces with outstanding accuracy, and certain lenses are lightning-fast, even in high-magnification scenarios.

Yet on the whole, most cameras and lenses will get it wrong on occasion, which is why manual focusing is so critical. If you know how to manual focus, you can switch away from autofocus when required, and you can still get the shot. So it’s a valuable skill to have, and one that I recommend pretty much every photographer learn, no matter how useless they think manual focus may be.

How to manually focus: step by step

First, locate the focusing mode switch on your camera or lens. It will likely be labeled with “AF/MF,” where “AF” activates autofocus and “MF” activates manual focus. Like this:

Manual focus in photography

Then switch your setup to “MF.”

(Note that certain lenses cannot focus manually; in such cases, you won’t find any switch. Check your lens manual if you’re unsure whether this is the case.)

Second, find the focus ring, which is often near the middle of the lens barrel (if you’re using a prime lens) or near the end of the lens barrel (if you’re using a zoom lens).

Look through your camera viewfinder, then twist the focus ring to one side.

Manual focus in photography

You should immediately see the focus shift, as different areas of the scene go in and out of focus.

Now, when you’re in a scenario where manual focusing is necessary (more on that in the next sections!), you’ll need to simply turn the focus ring until your main subject comes into focus.

Sounds easy, right? It can be, though it’s sometimes difficult to perceive focus through the camera viewfinder, so I do have a few tips for you:

  1. Switch over to your camera’s Live View function, where you preview a live feed of your camera’s sensor on the LCD. Magnify the image, then adjust focus until you see – while zoomed in! – perfect sharpness.
  2. Consider narrowing the aperture to give yourself a larger margin of error. If you shoot at f/2.8, you must get the focus right. If you shoot at f/8, however, you can stray slightly behind or in front of your subject without worry.
  3. After taking a manually focused image, check the result on the LCD. As with the live preview mentioned above, zoom in so you can be absolutely sure you got the point of sharpness you needed.

When should you use manual focus?

Autofocus technology is great, and I certainly don’t recommend switching to manual focus all the time. Instead, you’ll want to use it in certain scenarios, such as:

Macro and close-up photography

Manual focus in photography

When you’re shooting at high magnifications, lenses tend to hunt for focus – and when they do finally lock onto the subject, it’s often in the wrong place.

That’s why manual focus is supremely helpful; you can use it to gain focus more quickly and to set focus precisely where you want it.

In fact, I recommend photographers always use manual focus when doing macro photography with still subjects. It makes the process so much easier. (Manually focusing on moving macro subjects, such as insects, is iffier – it really depends on your equipment and your preferred methods of working, so feel free to try both manual focus and autofocus and see which works best.)

Low-light situations

Manual focus in photography

Autofocus struggles in low-light scenarios, especially if you’re shooting without any form of illumination (e.g., in the desert at night, down a dark alley, etc.).

Your lens will hunt and never lock on anything, so manual focusing is a must.

Unfortunately, the darkness makes manual focusing difficult as well, so I recommend you use the Live View technique discussed above. Preview the shot via the LCD, zoom in, and make certain you’ve nailed focus before proceeding.

Note that different cameras vary in terms of their low-light focusing prowess. Try autofocus first, but if it doesn’t work, switch over to manual focus for the rest of the night.

Shallow depth of field scenarios

Manual focus in photography

Working with an ultra-wide aperture can be artistic, but this creative technique comes with a challenge: Due to the ultra-narrow window of sharpness, focusing must be precise.

In other words, if you don’t focus very carefully, it’s all too easy to miss the mark and accidentally focus slightly in front or behind your subject.

Now, there are times when autofocus can do a great job when working with a wide aperture. If you’re photographing portraits and your camera offers an Eye AF option, you may not need to switch over to MF, and you can capture consistently sharp shots using your camera’s AF mode.

But not all cameras offer Eye AF, and there are plenty of times when Eye AF won’t work for your subject – which is why, when using a shallow depth of field, I strongly urge you to consider focusing manually.

That way, you can carefully set your point of focus right where you want it, and you can ensure that you absolutely nail the shot.

Street photography

Manual focus in photography

The pace of street photography can be electrifying. The quick movements, the unexpected moments – they’re practically begging to be captured. You might think autofocus is the best approach, given the speed of the scene. And sure, autofocus can work well for street photography, and many experienced photographers do rely on it!

But don’t be too quick to dismiss manual focusing for street photography. Some of the best street shooters in the world use a technique called zone focusing, where you dial in a relatively narrow aperture – this gives you a good depth-of-field window to work with – and then focus manually in advance.

What’s great about this approach is that over time, you’ll learn precisely where the window of focus exists. Then, when you spot that perfect subject or scene, you won’t have to wrestle with focusing at all. You can simply get in position and snap the shot.

So rather than slowing you down, manual focus actually eliminates delays and can lead to some extraordinary captures. Remember, trusting manual focus in street photography isn’t a limitation; it’s an opportunity to master your craft in a new and rewarding way.

Creative effects

Manual focus in photography

There’s something truly wonderful about capturing a photograph that stands out in a crowd. One of the best ways to create breathtaking and original images is by experimenting with creative effects, such as intentional camera movement, deliberate misfocusing, and shoot-through techniques. But to get the best results, you invariably need to focus manually.

Why? Imagine you want to photograph a person seen through a veil of leaves and branches (that is, you want to use the shoot-through technique!). You want the person to be in focus while the foliage creates a natural frame with a blur effect. If you use autofocus, I can almost guarantee that your camera won’t cooperate. Your lens will hunt back and forth until it sets focus on one of the branches, or it’ll keep hunting and never lock onto a subject.

That’s where manual focus comes to the rescue. With a careful adjustment of the focus ring, you can pinpoint exactly where you want the focus to lie, and you can nail your shot!

Or perhaps you want to experiment with abstract bokeh shots, where the entire image features nothing but out-of-focus blur. How do you tell your camera’s autofocus to focus on, well, nothing? You can’t, but manual focus will allow you to take control and ensure that your point of focus goes exactly where you want it.

Bottom line: Whether you’re playing with back-focus to create a unique blur effect or crafting abstract imagery, manual focus will give you the control you need to make your visions come to life.

Wide-angle photography

Manual focus in photography

When shooting with a wide-angle lens, your subjects are often large objects shown on a small scale, such as trees, buildings, and other inanimate objects.

In such situations, because these objects occupy a small area of the frame, it can be hard to control your lens’s autofocus; it might lock focus on an unwanted area of the image.

I tend to switch over to manual focus, though on certain cameras, you do have the option of magnifying the preview on the LCD and using the touchscreen to carefully select the right focus point.

Panorama photography

Manual focus in photography

When shooting panoramas – which are created by stitching a set of photos together in post-production – consistency throughout the shots is key.

And that includes focusing consistency, where you focus on the exact same distance for each image. Otherwise, you’ll get a disjointed result, and you’ll fail to convince the viewer that they’re looking at one continuous photograph.

That’s where manual focus comes in handy. You can use it to pick your point of focus and leave the lens focusing in the same spot, no matter how the scene changes as you rotate your camera.

Hyperfocal distance photography

Manual focus in photography

Whether you’re capturing rolling hills or a bustling urban scene, achieving complete clarity throughout the frame is highly desirable – it’ll add depth to the shot, plus it’ll allow the viewer to appreciate each and every detail.

But capturing an image that’s sharp from foreground to background can be a challenge. Your first step is to choose a narrow aperture, like f/11, which helps keep more of the scene in focus, but that’s just part of the equation. Without a perfectly placed point of focus, even a narrow aperture won’t keep the entire scene sharp, especially if your composition includes elements in the foreground.

That’s where the hyperfocal distance comes into play. It’s the specific point of focus that’ll maximize the depth of field in your shot. (Note: Your camera doesn’t come with a built-in hyperfocal distance calculator. When out in the field, you can use a rule of thumb, or you can find a tool that does the calculation for you.)

Once you’ve figured out where the hyperfocal distance lies, manually focus on that exact spot. Autofocus often won’t cut it here, as it lacks the precision required for this technique. Once again, manual focus puts you in control, letting you set the lens exactly where it needs to be to capture a breathtaking landscape or cityscape in all its glory.

Low-contrast situations

Manual focus in photography

Autofocus relies on contrast between the dark and light tones in an image. Contrast is what allows the autofocus to say, “Hey, here’s a subject I should focus on.”

In low-contrast situations, such as a dark tree against a dark background or a white car against a snowy landscape, autofocus might just fail you. The lack of contrast can lead to continuous hunting by the AF system, which is not only annoying but also ineffective.

That’s when you might want to switch to manual focus. By taking control of the focusing ring, you can achieve the sharpness you desire without the hunting. Just remember to switch back to autofocus when you move on to a different subject so that you’re ready to quickly react to the next photographic opportunity!

Manual focus vs autofocus: When is manual focus bad?

Manual focus can be a powerful tool in your photography toolkit, but it’s not always the best option.

If you’re dealing with moving subjects or fast-paced scenarios, focusing manually may be completely fruitless. You might try working with your lens, but without the time to move the focus ring back and forth, check your focus on the LCD, and/or retake shots, you’ll likely miss the moment.

Manual focus in photography

Therefore, in genres such as sports photography, wildlife photography, bird photography, event photography, and car photography, autofocus is generally your friend. Your camera’s autofocus system is designed to quickly lock onto subjects and keep them sharp, so in action scenarios, it’s often the better choice.

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. If you’re photographing an animal at night and autofocus won’t lock onto your subject, you can consider manual focus. But as a rule of thumb, stick to autofocus when dealing with action. It’s more reliable in those instances and can save you the frustration of missed shots!

Manual focus in photography: final words

Manual focus may have seemed daunting, but now that you’ve finished this article, you know it’s easy – and that it can be super useful in the right scenario.

So practice focusing manually. Even if you struggle at first, you’ll get better. And you’ll be so glad you took the time to learn.

Now over to you:

Do you plan to use manual focus? When do you think you might use it? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Tim Gilbreath
Tim Gilbreath

is a natural light photographer, writer, designer and musician with a love for nature and the outdoors. He’s also a retro/pop culture aficionado, and although he was born and raised in Houston, Texas, he has called the Florida west coast his home for the last 13 years.

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