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A Beginner Guide into MANUAL FOCUS Photography

A Beginner Guide into MANUAL FOCUS Photography
A beginner guide into manual focus photography

Manual focus is a very important step into progressing in photography and is more than necessary to know it because in some certain situations the autofocus of your lens may not work as expected either the scene or type of photography you’re into may require the manual focus expertise. Or simply, you just love to feel the photograph before you take it.

Although the accuracy of the autofocus in these days and the capability of the lenses we own to autofocus are really great, starting to take manual focus photographs is not just creating a whole another concept of how we take photographs but for sure will improve your photography skill.

How to improve your manual focus photography? Practice among challenging yourself often to use the manual focus in scenarios which allows it, either to grab a fully manual focus lens with no autofocus capabilities allowing you to improve your manual focus skill every time you capture a photo with that lens.

In this guide, I want with you to largely talk about manual focus and find different ways to help you improve your manual focus photography, to set a series of challenges or the best approach which may be convenient for you. I recommend you to keep reading. This guide was originally written on August 2019 and was rewritten at the end of January 2020.

Beginner guide into manual focus photography

What is the manual focus? Manual focus is exactly as it sounds – using your lenses ring to focus manually instead to let your camera to automatically focus on your subject. Sometimes, in fact, to be honest with you, most of the time, autofocus will fail to photograph as you want it to.

Now let’s put altogether a couple of scenarios where the manual focus will work BETTER than the autofocus of your lens and camera.

You have a macro lens and want to do some macro photography, either handheld or on a tripod. Due to the shallow depth of field, you have to step down the aperture, of course, but still, there’s an area on your composition you want to focus: a bee on a flower, let’s say. The autofocus system will not see the bee and focus exactly as you want it, although you use one point focus due to short focal distance, therefore, it is necessary to set your lens and camera on the manual focus.

In the above scenario, when you use manual focus, your camera will not try to focus automatically over and over on the same subject or nearby (depending on your type of autofocus e.g. group autofocus, full autofocus etc.). Neither the continuous mode autofocus won’t work as expected though. But when using the manual focus, you don’t necessarily have to use continuously the ring as you can move forth and back your camera, centimetres and even millimetres while also manually focus on your subject.

A secondary scenario would be that you own a pretty good cheap prime lens, let’s say, and you decide to do some street photography or portrait during the evening on the streets of a city. The autofocus on that lens and camera you have is not that bad, but as the technology is kinda limited, you are not able to autofocus on your subjects as you want, because of poor lighting conditions although your wide aperture may allow you to take those photos handheld. In this scenario, you have to use manual focus.

And as a third scenario, you do landscape photography, you have your filters on, the camera on a tripod but for sure you will have to use the manual focus of your camera. No camera and no lens, no matter how good they are, won’t ever beat the capability of focusing manually in landscape photography, as you can use your live view and digitally zoom exactly in the area of your focus, where you can fine-focus on a level no autofocus will be able to.

Oh. quickly, 4th scenario, you own a manual focus lens as I do with the Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 manual focus.

Those of the above are just 4 of the infinite number of scenarios where you may need to use manual focus. But how should I categorize this better?

Quick manual focus – you need this in a scenario where you quickly have to manual focus such as portrait photography, photographing a moving subject with manual focus, etc. In this scenario, you need to take as many photos as possible in a short period of time using manual focus and as many of the photos to be in good focus. In this situation, you need to train your manual focus speed level and accuracy.

Normal manual focus – this is a situation as one of the above scenarios where you are taking street photographs or macro where you do have the time to manual focus on the subject, street etc. but for this not to take too long as you have a dozen other photographs to take in the area (just as an example). – In this case, you will need a balance between speed and accuracy

Slow manual focus. – Such in landscape or astrophotography scenarios where you have to use the manual focus but you have all the time possible and you need that time to make sure the scene is in perfect focus. You don’t need to train your speed here but the accuracy will matter the most.

In what other scenarios and why you should use the manual focus

There are many more reasons besides those four listed above why you want or you need to use the manual focus of your lens. I will list a few of them below:

  • You want to learn manual focus in photography to extend your bank of knowledge or skill
  • You may have or want to buy a classic old-school lens with no autofocus
  • The photography niche or style you are shooting may benefit more from manual focus
  • Many times, people want to challenge themself in special in photography. Using manual focus all the time is a challenge.
  • You need better control over very shallow depth of field

In what scenarios you should NOT use manual focus or you should avoid it at all?

  • When you are doing sports photography, wildlife in some situations, photographing during an airshow or any other scenario where there is a lot of motion and you have to use the continuous autofocus system.
  • When by any means you need to take a quick picture in focus and you are not confident you can do it with the manual focus
  • In travel or wedding photography or some other types of photography where you are required to capture maybe thousands of photographs and the manual focus will only slow you down.

Thinking about landscape photography, long exposures, astrophotography or low light photography, and even macro photography, there is a necessity to use manual focus, in special if the camera is set up on a tripod. Therefore, the live view mode will come into assistance with digital zooming while using the focus ring to focus on the required element from your composition.

But what about using on your own volition for day-to-day photographs?

When learning how to use the manual focus we are actually learning how to ride a bike for the first time. At first, we may be able to “fall” but later we can manage it properly

As an instance, my favourite lens as mentioned above is the Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 manual focus and manual aperture lens. That, my friend, is pushing me over the edges to use manual focus, which is not just an option anymore, it is a necessity.

Think about fine-art also or taking photographs with shallow depth of field and with a large aperture lens like f1.2 or f1.4. In this scenario, you can never trust the lens to autofocus on your subject or the required part of your subject, due to the focal plane and the focal distance differences.

A few tips for using the manual focus in photography.

In this topic, I want to write in details everything I know and my experience which helped me to improve my manual focus a lot.

Owning a manual focus lens

The first tip will be (if you can) to own a fully manual focus lens. When you have it, you won’t have any other choice only to photograph everything using manual focus and not autofocus anymore. This is probably one of the quickest ways to improve your skill and I am talking out of my personal experience here.

And related to this would be to know and to learn your lens as best as possible. It is important to know the sensitivity of the focus ring, the rotation direction and any other factors related to the lens only which can improve your skill.

Live view mode

If you have your camera mounted on a tripod, use the live view mode. Beware that when using the live view mode, you will not get the exact depth of field as your picture, therefore will be a difference in between what you see and your final image.

But when you are using the live view mode, one guess I have is that you don’t or won’t have to take those photographs handheld with any depth of field, therefore, you have to step down the aperture, increasing the area on your scene which is going to be on focus. Using the zoom function will allow you to fine-focus on your subject or scene probably much better than the autofocus can manage.

Shallow depth of field

Use a fast-aperture lens or step-up your aperture to f/1.8 or higher. In this case, you will have a shallow depth of field and pick your subject to photograph on different focal distances, change your position and angle towards your subject on each photo, forcing you to re-adjust your focus ring. This will help you not only improve your skill but to understand better your lens.

One another tip is to fine-tune the dioptry correction of your eye finder to be able to get the right focus when looking through your eye-finder.

Manual focus in close-up photography and focus stacking

When taking close-up photographs or even in some cases in macro photography, use the manual focus while watching through the eye-finder and focus on the closest point of your subject (e.g. a flower), focusing further and further, and with each millimetre, you focus further on the subject, take another photo until you focus on the furthest point on your subject (e.g. the same flower).

Then you can stack the photographs, as this technique is called focus stacking (external link). When focus stacking, your subject will be all in perfect focus and you have a very shallow depth of field (macro or close-up photography) or your landscape photographs, in this case, would be in perfect focus from the closest point to the infinite.

Focus notification

If your camera has a focus notification, either use it if is accurate or disable it if not. A visual notification is an addon some cameras may notify you if the camera is properly focused on your subject. Those may appear alongside the exposure information when looking through the view-finder.

30-day manual focus challenge (e-book).

Create a 30-day manual focus challenge. Take a photograph each day at least with different scenes and elements but using the MF. Below, I uploaded for you for free an e-book with 30-days manual focus challenge to help you improve your manual focus skill and perception. You can check also our other post 30-day manual focus photography challenge

Macro photography spider, manual focus photography
Macro spider photographed using manual focus by Gabriel at Photornia.com

Different types of photography where you can use or not the manual focus

  • Aerial Photography – In the case of aerial photography, there is no much to say. You use a drone and about all the drone have autofocus on their camera, therefore, manual focus is not an option in this case.
  • Architectural Photography – When you do architectural photography, you may need or want to use the manual focus in different scenarios or even focus stacking depending on the angle of the structures you are photographing (if not all can be in perfect focus)
  • Astrophotography – In astrophotography, the manual focus is the only option. You have your camera on the tripod, you need to use the live view mode, use digital zoom from the live view and focus on the brightest star. Slow manual focus may come handy as you don’t need speed but accuracy.
  • Candid Photography – Most of the time in the case of candid photography you definitely want to use autofocus but not always. In some situations as an instance where you need specifically to focus on a group of people where there’s a lot of motion around, manual focus (normal speed) will come handy, where you need to balance the speed of the manual focus with the accuracy.
  • Fine Art Photography – Personally, in fine-art photography, I am using manual focus. You need to create art and autofocus doesn’t know that. Autofocus only wants to focus on your subject but have no idea of what art means. You need to use the normal/slow speed manual focus.
  • Food Photography – There’s no questioning here, full manual focus. The autofocus is not an option. Probably the focus stacking method would be the best approach.
  • Landscape Photography – Full manual focus unless you are in a hurry or photographing the landscape is only a secondary option and not the main subject and you want to get “a few snaps”.
  • Long Exposure Photography – If you are doing long exposure photography, for sure you have your camera on the tripod. Slow manual focus would be the best approach. The autofocus is not an option.
  • Macro Photography – Full manual focus I would recommend but some photographers may use autofocus in macro photography.
  • Nature Photography – A balance between the manual focus and autofocus, depending on the scene, subject, elements, location and lighting condition.
  • Night Photography – Due to the poor lighting conditions and the possibility to use your camera more on a tripod than handheld, I would recommend manual focus over the autofocus.
  • Photojournalism – Well, simply autofocus (or fast manual focus if the subject is impossible to focus on)
  • Portrait / Family Photography – Here depends on your experience in this type of photography and the gear you use. Balanced choice.
  • Sports or Action Photography – Only autofocus on continuous mode.
  • Still Life Photography – Only manual focus with focus stacking.
  • Street Photography – Depending on the gear, location, lighting condition and experience, there is a balance of using both of them in street photography. I, personally, prefer to use the manual focus as I can create art while doing street photography much better than to let my camera decide where to focus.
  • Travel Photography – In the case of travel photography, would be recommended to use autofocus and enjoy your scenery and travelling. But in many cases, manual focus will come handy.
  • Wedding and Event Photography – You probably want to use autofocus most of the time due to the large number of photographs you are taking, but in some cases when you want to have a photo session with the couple, I would recommend applying the portrait photography guidelines here.
  • Wildlife Photography – Is your wildlife active? Probably most of the time, yes. Use autofocus but in case you are not able to focus properly due to the elements on your frame, the manual focus may come in handy.

Sweet&Love my camera! Conclusion!

Although if you may not consider finding a real application of using manual focus ring other than when is really necessary, I recommend you studying and practising with it as much as you can. Knowing how to manual focus is more than an important step in learning photography and advancing in your journey as a photographer

But contemplate that even the greatest images you can see on the internet, they may be taken using manual focus. Using the manual focus in photography will definitely take you to the next step.

Thank you for remaining with us until the end of this post. Take care and I hope to see you around.

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Manual focus is a very important step into progressing in photography and is more than necessary to know it because in some certain situations the autofocus of your lens may not work as expected either the scene or type of photography you're into may require the manual focus expertise. Or simply, you just love to feel the photograph before you take it.
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