Using manual focus gives you more control over your camera, and greatly increases your chance of success in certain photographic situations.
Manual focus puts you in direct control of a camera’s optics. Having this control gives you greater precision when it comes to deciding how the final photograph is going to look. Bottom line: being able to focus manually is an important photographic skill.
Here are some classic situations where manual focus can do you some real favors:
Photo by Jesse Stephen, Faces of Archaeology
Portraits, at least in terms of focus, are all about the eyes. Unless your creative intent is otherwise, the eyes should appear razor sharp. I’m talking Steve McCurry razor sharp. Otherwise, banish the image to that great digital gyre that’s swirling out there somewhere.
The issue with autofocus when it comes to portraits is that many people make the mistake of letting the camera focus generally on the face. The face, of course, has depth. All too often the camera focuses on an area of the face, such as the nose, that has a different distance to the film plane than the eyes. The different distances are thus subject to the depth of field of the photograph and thus the eyes become slightly – ever so slightly – softened. But the nose is sharp!
To avoid this, one solution is to try using manual focus. Many portrait situations are ones where you can control important aspects of the situation, such as having the camera on a tripod or having the subject sit relatively still. In these kinds of circumstances you have plenty of time to look through your viewfinder and manually focus, spinning the focus ring of your lens back and forth.
Focus just behind the eyes (so they soften slightly), then bring it back to focus just in front of the eyes (again, a slight softness). Repeat several times, back and forth, then lock in the sharpest point between the two and press that shutter. Take several frames – as you nail the focus you always want to be aware of the expression of your subject and exposing at just the right moment.
This can be hard to get, but once you’ve got it you’ll know pretty well when you have the results you need. Best of all (or worst, sometimes), you can’t blame the camera anymore.
Macro, Action, Low Light, Landscapes
Photo by Jesse Stephen (Ancient Hawaiian bone fishhook), Bishop Museum Anthropology Department Collections
Other situations that are similar include macro, action, low light, and landscape photography. Each is a situation where you have control over the situation at hand to warrant considering whether you might be a more effective focuser than your camera.
Macro shots often have an extremely shallow depth of field, thereby increasing the need for exact focusing. Try zooming in on your digital display on the camera back (if you have such a feature) and focusing manually until the edge of that leaf is super sharp (tripod necessary). Then shoot with a shutter delay so as to not bump the camera.
Action shots are often good for autofucus, but you can also set a focus point and let subjects run through them. Such as in the case of a runner coming around a corner at you. Instead of relying on your autofocus to nail a series of shots (variable results are typical), before the runner arrives frame where you think they’ll be and focus on something (a fence post, a pothole) at that exact distance. Proceed to machine gun a series of exposures starting before they reach your focus point and ending after. One image will often be razor sharp. And I mean razor sharp. That’s what we’re going for.
Low light is tricky for manual focus because you can’t see through your viewfinder. But that can be solved with light. As in a flashlight. Or the headlights of a car. With the light(s) on, set your focus. Turn the light(s) off. Expose the scene accordingly. Perfect focus (or at least what you thought was perfect focus).
Landscapes are another one where it’s often good to set your own focus point. Look up something called hyperfocal distance, but the short of it is that you often want to be focused midway into your shot with a deep depth of field. So that the beautiful flower in the foreground AND the peaks in the background are free of the fuzz. Assuming that you’ve wrangled the wind, that is.
Autofocus Ain’t All Bad
The alternative to manual focus is, of course, automatic focus. Auto focus is everywhere (some cameras don’t even have manual focus, or people don’t know how to get to it) and often has various modes (e.g. continuous, single point, multiple point). I’ll deal with auto focus in a later post, but an important point is that both manual focus and auto focus are extremely useful. It is best to know how to do both, but it would seem that many folks always rely on auto.
Focusing is a skill
Once upon a time, cameras had to be manually focused for every photograph. That undoubedly took extra time (although composing and focusing can be done simultaneously). The good thing was that – if you shot enough photographs – you eventually got pretty good at it (or gave up photography, hopefully).
If you don’t have a background shooting with manual focus, take some time and work on it. Because it’s a skill, it takes practice. This can be frustrating (especially when a potentially fine shot is poorly focused) but eventually your results will start to reward the effort. Nailing the focus on one shot is better than having 10 shots that are just slightly soft. And we’ll keep that digital gyre just about manageable.