If you’re migrating from a point-and-shoot camera to DSLR, one of the most confusing aspects can be figuring out when you should use manual focus instead of autofocus mode. Modern-day Digital Cameras present photographers with an ever-increasing array of Automatic and Semi-Automatic shooting modes. Most of these centre around different ways of exposing your shots – however, many cameras also give options for different focusing modes (e.g., auto, continuous focusing for moving subjects, single-point focusing, multiple points focusing, face recognition focusing, etc. manual).
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It’s no wonder then that many photographers never use their camera and lens’ ability to focus manually. So, when is manual focus better than autofocus?
DSLR Autofocus vs. Manual Focus
First things first:
What is the difference between manual focus and autofocus? Very briefly, autofocus requires that the camera set the point of stress in your image. Whereas a manual guide works by letting you determine the effectiveness of focus.
In other words:
With autofocus, your camera does all the work to nail focus and ensure your shot is sharp. With manual focus, you do all the work to determine the direction and get a quick picture.
In truth, this is a bit of an oversimplification; even if you’re using autofocus, you’re still going to have to do some work. For example, you still have to choose where to set the AF point or whether you should set it at all.
Manual Focus Vs Autofocus: Which One Is Better?
If you’re looking to decide which focusing mode makes sense for your photography, then you’re going to want to understand the pros and cons of each focusing mode.
- Gives greater control over the shot’s focus.
- Allows for greater precision when focusing.
- The camera determines the sharpest focus.
- Faster than a manual guide.
- Quality can vary depending on the camera model.
Autofocus and manual focus do the same thing. Both adjust the direction of the camera lens. But, with autofocus, the camera determines the sharpest focus using sensors devoted to measuring it. In autofocus mode, the photographer doesn’t have to do anything.
Manually, the photographer must adjust the lens focus by hand. While both can produce great results in most circumstances, there are times when it’s better to choose one over the other. Choosing the right wedding photographer in Melbourne to capture every moment on your wedding day.
Autofocus Pros and Cons
Autofocus is generally very fast, though its speed does depend significantly on the camera and lens you’re using. Equipment made with sports, and other action photographers in mind can often focus at blazing speeds–whereas other equipment, such as landscape-centric cameras and lenses, tend to be far slower.
Autofocus has also seen some interesting recent innovations, such as tracking. This allows you to set your focus point on a subject, then track it through the frame. As you can imagine, AF tracking is great for shooting moving subjects such as birds in flight, wildlife on the run, and sports players in action.
Recent autofocus systems have also added technology such as Eye AF, which detects the eyes of your subjects (generally people, but sometimes animals, too) and grabs focus.
- It’s automatic.
- It’s faster than manual focus.
- Suitable for shooting moving subjects.
- Good for beginners.
While autofocus is generally very accurate, it tends to fail in specific situations. In particular, autofocus systems depend on contrast to identify subjects–and when the difference disappears, so does an AF system’s ability to grab focus.
So autofocus systems will predictably fail when shooting in heavy backlight, where contrast is very minimal. AF systems also do poorly in low light because your camera needs light to decide where to focus. While current autofocus systems have improved, there will eventually reach a point where every lens fails to focus (though this can vary significantly from camera to camera).
Third, autofocus doesn’t do well when there are many objects in the scene; it becomes easily distracted by foreground objects, while you might want to grab focus on something in the midground or background. For instance, if you try to focus during heavy snowfall, you may end up with issues. The snow catches the attention of the AF system, resulting in hunting and missed focus.
Fourth, autofocus isn’t especially precise. If you want to nail focus at a particular spot off in the distance, you can quickly get near it with autofocus. But you probably won’t hit it exactly, which is a problem in genres such as landscape photography, where you need to repeatedly target a specific (hyperfocal) distance, or in portrait photography, where you need to target the subject’s nearest eye.
- It can cause some shutter lag if you don’t prefocus.
- Can focus on the wrong part of your subject.
- Not as precise as manual focus.
Fifth, autofocus struggles to work when shooting at high magnifications. If you take a macro lens and try to photograph a close-up subject, the autofocus will hurt like crazy–and you’ll probably be forced to give up in frustration.
Autofocus is generally faster and easier than setting the focus manually. It can lock onto a subject faster, as well. This makes it suitable for shooting moving subjects. If you’re doing street photography, for example, you could only have seconds to capture your subjects. By the time you manually focus, they could move, and you’ll lose your perfect shot.
While autofocus is fast, it also comes with a slight lag. It takes time for the focusing motor to work. So that’s always something to be aware of, especially if you’re doing action photography.
That’s not to say that manual focus is terrible for action photography. If you prefer to use a manual guide on moving subjects, prefocus on the spot you know the residents will push through and shoot that location.
Depending on the DSLR model, a few different autofocus modes should be available:
- AF-S (single-servo) is suitable for stationary subjects, as the focus locks when the shutter is pressed halfway.
- AF-C (continuous-servo) is suitable for moving subjects, as the autofocus continually adjusts to track it.
- AF-A (auto-servo) allows the camera to choose which of the two autofocus modes is more appropriate to use.
- Autofocus tends to have problems working correctly when the subject and background are similar when the issue is partly in bright sun and partly in shadows. An object is between the subject and the camera. In those instances, switch to manual focus.
When using autofocus, the camera focuses typically on the subject in the centre of the frame. However, most DSLR cameras allow you to move the focus point. Select the autofocus area command and shift the focus point using the arrow keys.
If the camera lens has a switch between manual focus and autofocus, it should be labelled with an M (manual) and an A (auto). However, some lenses include a M/A mode, which is autofocus with a manual focus override option.
Although shutter lag is usually minimal with a DSLR camera, the autofocus mechanism’s quality can determine how much shutter lag your camera sees.
When using autofocus, you can negate shutter lag by prefocusing on the scene. Press the shutter button halfway and hold it in that position until the camera’s autofocus locks onto the subject. Then press the shutter button the remainder of the way to record the photo. The shutter lag should be eliminated.
Manual Focus Pros and Cons
Focusing manually is very precise–which means that you can carefully pick your point of focus from a chaotic scene.
In tricky situations, manual focusing can also be a lot more reliable than autofocus. You use your eyes to direct the focusing (and your eyes are much better at seeing than your camera’s AF system!).
- Allows for more precise focusing.
- Better for macro and portrait shots.
- Better for low-light photography.
While there are a few exceptions, manual focus is generally far slower than autofocus.
This means that manual focus performs poorly when dealing with action scenarios, such as birds in flight or sports players running. Also, the manual guide requires that you, as the photographer, choose the point of focus.
This is often fine, but there are situations where you want to trigger a shot but can’t see to focus manually, such as when you’re shooting from the hip (e.g., you have your camera hung around your neck or held at your waist while you fire off some shots).
Of course, you can always focus manually in advance. But that’s not always the best approach, especially if you’re aiming for an artistic, shallow depth of field look.
- Slower than autofocus.
- It makes action shots challenging.
Many professional photographers prefer to shoot in manual mode. That’s because it gives more precise control over a shot’s focus. Manual focus is an excellent choice in most situations where the subject isn’t moving much. This is especially true for macro, portrait, and low-light photography. When using the auto mode, your camera can sometimes focus on the wrong part of the subject, ruining your shot.
With manual focus, use the palm of your left hand to cup the lens. Then use your left fingers to slightly twist the focus ring until the image is in sharp focus. Holding the camera correctly is critical when using the manual guide.
Otherwise, it will be awkward to support the camera while using the manual focus ring. This may make it challenging to shoot the photo without a slight blur from camera shake. We have the best wedding photographer in Yarra Valley to capture your beautiful moments on your wedding day.
When is Manual Focus Better than Auto Focus?
Let me start by saying there is no right or wrong time to use either manual or autofocusing – both can produce great results in almost all circumstances – however, there are a few times when you might find it easier to switch to manual focusing. These include:
The narrow depth of field in these shots mean that you need to be incredibly precise with focusing and being just a smidgen out, or having your camera choose to focus on the wrong part of your subject can have a significant impact upon your image (for better or for worse).
Manual focusing puts the control entirely in your hands and will get your images with the right parts in focus.
Macro photography is taking shots of typically tiny subjects extremely close-up. For instance, shooting a bug’s eye up close and personal is an example of macro photography.
Unfortunately, when it comes to auto-focus, many camera lenses have a hard time focusing on the subject if it’s very close to the lens. As a result, there can be issues with lock-on that occur, such as the lens clumsily switching the focus point backwards and forwards or missed focus, where your lens focuses on the incorrect topic.
When shooting portraits focus needs to be precise. The majority of your shots of people will need to have their eyes in the perfect direction.
Switching to manual focus will give you complete control to enable this rather than line up the focusing points on your camera on the eyes prefocussing by pressing halfway down and then having to frame your shot.
Shooting Through Glass or Wire Fences
If you’ve ever shot through anything like a window or a mess/wire fence at a zoo or museum, you’ll know how cameras will often get confused on where to focus.
Sometimes falsely focusing too closely on the fence or glass instead of your subject. Manual focusing will avoid this entirely and allow you to tell the camera exactly what you want to be in focus and what you want to be blurred.
Shooting fast-moving subjects (like racing cars, planes, running or flying animals etc.) can be frustrating when shooting with autofocus.
Even the continuous focusing modes can get left behind or confusing if you’re not panning with your subject smoothly. One way to overcome this is to switch to manual focusing and prefocus on a point that the issue will move through – and shooting at that point.
Manual is the go-to option for any low-light shot.
Simply put, manual focus gives you more advantages. For instance, let’s say you’re in Live View mode and snapping pictures with a DSLR. Your screen or viewfinder usually will enhance the image sufficiently, so you have a chance to get the idea as sharp as you want.
Of course, the downside with autofocus in low-light situations is that they’re prone to dysfunction because they require a bit of light and some contrast to work in the first place!
Shooting in dimly lit environments can be difficult for some cameras and lenses when it comes to focusing.
You’ll know when your camera is struggling in Auto mode when every time you take a shot, the lens will whirl from one end of it’s focusing options to the other and back again before deciding where to focus. This can lengthen your shooting process and make taking quick candid shots quite frustrating.
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It’s no secret that landscape photography is one of the most popular genres of photography, so it’s somewhat surprising that there’s still some confusion about whether to use manual or auto for this type of shot. You’d think that everyone would be on the same page already!
Manual is the focus of choice for landscapes, simply because autofocus sometimes fails to home in on precisely the point that you want when you want.
Know that you’ll have to slow down considerably when using a manual for landscapes. However, this more systematic approach to landscapes comes with a huge benefit: You can position the focus at just the proper distance to enjoy the exact depth of field that you want your image to have.
The thing with landscapes is that you’ll never be pressed for time when taking them. Unlike action and sports photography, landscapes demand your presence for long periods, as you’re typically setting up your shot for a while and are already camped out in nature. This is to your advantage as you necessarily have to slow down to nail both the focal points and composition just right.
When is Auto Focus Better than Manual Focus?
In photography, there are times when it’s best to use manual focus and other times when it’s better to use autofocus. Of course, the vast trick is being able to tell when each is suitable for the situation you’re tackling!
An attribute of every good photographer can tell what specific shooting situations lend themselves better to one style of focus over the other. As you gain more experience in your career, this will eventually become second nature. At Wild Romantic, we have the best wedding photographer in Mornington Peninsula to capture every single moment on your wedding day.
Autofocus has been a great friend for all the bird lovers out there who are also avid photographers since autofocus has made it easier than ever to shoot birds in nature successfully.
When your subjects are moving unpredictably quickly, such as inaction and sports shots, then it’s far better to use autofocus during your shoots. You’ll want to pick the continuous autofocus mode because the camera will constantly adjust the lens’ focus while the subject moves closer or farther away from the camera.
Essentially still, photography is creating and producing non-moving photography. Think of movie or TV stills for promotional purposes as examples of this type of photography. It shouldn’t be confused with still life photography, though taking pictures of inanimate objects (like a lamp!).
How Do I Know Which Focus I’m Using?
To see what focus mode you’re currently in, press the Info button on your DSLR camera. The focus mode should be displayed, along with the other camera settings on the LCD. The focus mode setting might be displayed using an icon or initials AF or MF. Make sure you understand these icons and initials. You may need to look through the DSLR’s user guide to find the answers.
Sometimes, you can set the focus mode on the interchangeable lens by sliding a switch, moving between autofocus and manual focus.
Which Should I Choose?
If you’re a new photographer, use autofocus mode while you learn your camera’s ins-and-outs and work to improve your composition and lighting. But, at some point, you should learn to shoot in a manual as well. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each will help you become a better photographer and give you more options when practising your craft.
An Interesting Choice
Now you’re seeing that photography is always about choices – making the right choices, to be exact. Based on your selection of either manual or autofocus for specific shots, you can significantly help or sink your images. As with all things in life, it’s vital to know precisely when to apply particular methods.
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It won’t do you any good to use manual focus when you’re taking pictures of race cars at an Indy 500, and you won’t get lovely images if you use autofocus in low-light situations that work against autofocus. Of course, every shooting situation is different, and you should always go with what you believe is best for the scene.