Why I Prefer Manual Focus (Even With An Auto Focus Lens)

Our recent conversation around how hard photography should be, reminded me how much I enjoy certain manual aspects of photography.

One of those is manual focusing a lens.

With a digital compact I’m quite happy to let the Auto Focus (AF) do the work.

But with a DSLR, the pace and the motives are different. I choose to use these cameras because I want it to be more involved, and at a slower, more immersive pace.

Plus, the majority of the lenses I own and love are manual focus anyway, so I don’t have a choice.

I realised with further thought though, that even with AF lenses, I still fine tune manually.

Not being a fan of multi AF, where the camera has multiple points it can lock focus on, but usually selects anything but the one you want it to, I always default my camera set up to single point AF.

This means having one point in the centre of the viewfinder/screen where the focus locks.

This doesn’t limit me only to making photographs with the central object in focus though.

More often than not I have the main focus off to one side.

So I’ll aim the centre of the VF/screen on the part of the image I want in focus, squeeze the shutter button half way to lock focus, then recompose the VF/screen until it contains all I want, and push the shutter button all the way.

More than this though, there’s nearly always an extra subtle manual step I take, once I have the composition as I want.

This is to gradually rock back and forth ever so slightly to fine tune the final focus.

At this point with a manual lens, I don’t adjust the lens barrel any further, just my own (and thus the camera’s) position.

With an AF lens, again I’ll keep it in position by holding the shutter button half way, then make that final subtle adjustment with my physical position.

With digital compacts, I follow a very similar approach.

The only camera I use differently is my phone camera.

Here I usually compose from the outset, then tap the screen on the point I want to focus on, and the camera obliges. This works well from a practical point of view, but isn’t particularly satisfying in a tactile way, especially as generally I’m not a big fan of touch screens.

Plus I feel constantly on the verge of fumbling the phone and seeing it smash to the ground!

It serves the purpose when required, but with all other cameras – and especially DSLRs – where I enjoy a more engaging and hands on experience, I use the manual approach outlined above.

Why?

It comes down to involvement and control.

A large part of photography for me is the physical experience – wandering around woods, fields and graveyards looking for interesting subjects to photograph, then manually adjusting a camera to get the image I want.

I really enjoy that immersion, that is almost entirely lacking with a touch screen phone camera.

How about you? Do you prefer manual or auto focus, and why?

Let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

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21 thoughts on “Why I Prefer Manual Focus (Even With An Auto Focus Lens)”

    1. Ah glad to fine a similar fellow focuser Tania! As I wrote in the post, the difference between using AF and MF isn’t really much at all, as I still rely on manual focus essentially. I like that consistency across different lenses too.

  1. I like one AF point in the center of the screen that I can lock on to what I want to be sharp, then adjust composition. This doesn’t always work, though. The Nikon is particularly bad at grabbing and holding focus, and is getting worse. I generally rely on AF because I can’t see well enough to focus manually. Besides, the AF DSLR lenses tend to have lousy manual focusing. Using vintage glass is another story, as their focusing mechanism is much nicer and more accurate even with my eyesight. Again it’s generally for “less rushed” images. Paradoxically, needing rapid AF for quick shots usually shows it up as not being rapid enough, whereas I can “pre-focus” a manual lens and make use of DOF to get what I want shot. I’m sure there are AF cameras better than mine, but we work with what we’ve got.

    1. Yes that’s what I like, a single AF point that I just lock on one thing and recompose as I wish. AF with a screen – even a really good, large screen, can still be tricky at times, and certainly much harder than having a VF and a manual lens where you move in and out and really find the optimum focus. Yes sometimes I’m curious about using a high end modern camera and seeing how good it is compared with the “ancient” digital cameras I use!

  2. My shooting style requires both manual and autofocus. Which one I use usually depends on how much control I have over the subject and how that control relates to the time required to accurately focus the lens. I almost always use manual focus for macros, still life and portraiture, frequently with older MF lenses that provide no other option. However, too many good shots are lost when I attempt to apply manual techniques to fast-moving street photography, and for UW photos, the extreme DOF generally negates any effort made manually. I’ll just add that this methodology only became possible after I switched to a Canon DSLR some years ago. The poor focus capabilities of earlier Nikon screw-drive film cameras made MF a necessity for almost everything worth shooting. Based on that, I think it’s also fair to say that one’s selection of MF or AF must additionally be made in consideration of the native abilities of the camera in use, and whether it truly allows the freedom to decide.

    1. Thanks Jack, yeh I think the type of photography and subject do influence how manual you set your camera to me – including the focus. With constantly moving people in a street scene, you either go for hyperfocal and everything within a range in focus, or a fast tracking and locking AF and let the camera do the heavy lifting. I know many combine this with continuous shooting modes so you shoot a dozen images and hope one is good, then discard the rest. This is one of the reasons I don’t really do any kind of street (or people) photography, I much prefer the slow pace of still life photography, and being able to compose and focus in my own time, and not to shoot like I’m spraying bullets like some action hero in a movie with a machine gun.

      1. LOL, that’s truly not my style of shooting, Dan. Maybe the culture of film and manual wind cameras is too heavily ingrained on my psyche, but I also seldom use my DSLR to shoot multiples, hoping to select the best. I generally target single subjects in street photography, and I make a genuine effort to bring a modicum of artistry to the frame. I do know what you’re referring to, and I’m hesitant to call it photography. Maybe “editing,” but not photography. Incidentally, that’s an excellent photo at the top of this blog.

      2. Thanks re the photo Jack. If you use a fast enough continuous mode and good AF, it’s almost impossible not to get a good shot, eventually. Reminds me of that quote about monkeys and typewriters eventually recreating the works of Shakespeare if they had enough time for all the permutations to manifest.

  3. I started my photography journey in the late 1970s, for a long time MF was all we had. I even shot sports photography (field hockey) for a local newspaper at the time. So skills were more important back then, as one couldn’t rely on technology.

    As mentioned under your previous post: I’m again shooting with a MF lens right now, and I’m loving it. Slower pace (so a more “filmlike” experience), and sometimes I get a nice abstract, out-of-focus happy accident as a bonus.

    1. I occasionally deliberately shoot out of focus – or focus on something close then recompose so the original subject isn’t in the frame at all – just because out of focus backgrounds with some lens/cameras combos are so pretty!

  4. The way I focus is very similar to what you describe, and I also get much more pleasure out of focusing manually, rather than using AF.
    Choosing the aperture and the shutter speed and then manually focusing, are to me the 3 basics of creating a photograph.
    ISO/ASA is irrelevant. It was set in the film days, and in the digital days it’s pre-set as a range – though I do like it better when I am able to just set a fixed ISO and carry on shooting, for some reason… but it’s not really all that important.

    1. I would agree that I pay little attention to ISO, but that’s because I nearly always have it just set to the sensor’s default, native ISO, so it performs at its best. This is the case with my DSLRs maybe 199 shots out of 200!

      An exception to this is with something like my Lumix FZ38, where I like the b/w film mode, which forces the camera to ISO800 for added noise/grain as part of the overall aesthetic. But with DSLRs, especially with colour, it stays at the native ISO, then I set aperture and focus.

  5. I like very much this image. So simple and beautiful. The simultaneous contrast between colour and grey and sharpness and blur. Really well seen!
    I also like to use the one point in the centre focus, and locking the focus by pushing half way. By far the simplest and efficient method. But especially for closed subjects, I sometimes don’t get the focus I want. I tried the option on the LX3 to zoom in the focus area, but find it weird to use because it only lasts for a too short time. I should try your manual step, if I manage to see sufficiently well the focus on the screen.

    1. Thanks Joel, appreciate your comments about the photograph. I love finding simple elegant compositions like this just waiting to be captured. The natural colour isolation was intentional too, I’m glad you noticed that. I use this when I see it, as long as it’s naturally occurring – I can’t stand those ghastly digitally manipulated images where it’s all black and white except a red hat or coat or something sticking out. Just the antithesis of the natural, found photography I enjoy.

      I think with cameras like the LX3, where you’re relying on a screen only, you have to just trust the AF really. I more often take the shot, then look at the image and zoom in to see if the part I wanted was in focus, then retake if necessary, rather than use magnification whilst taking the shot, which I find ruins the flow and makes it more difficult to get the overall composition right. Yeh especially if it resets before you’ve released the shutter!

      My Lumix GF1 has a horizontal wheel on the back that you push to activate the magnifier on the screen, then can scroll the wheel either way to zoom in or out, and in theory this could be very useful. Trouble is the wheel itself just doesn’t feel good, the material and weight and feel is cheap and plasticky and it doesn’t inspire confidence or give fine enough control. Which stands out all the more when most of the camera controls feel really classy and extremely well built.

  6. Thanks for the advice! I used to rely on the “quick autofocus” option, I will try the spot one to see if it improves a bit!

  7. One of the things I love about my Fuji X-T2 is how easy manual focusing can be when using the focus peaking feature. On the Fuji, focus peaking detects the edges of the highest contrast in the scene and highlights them in a bright colour (red, blue, white) of my choice.

    I can also use almost any 35mm film era lens adapted to my Fuji and never have to worry about focusing.

    The Fujinon lenses have a focus ring with an instant manual focus feature as well. Just grab the focus ring and turn. In the viewfinder (or LCD), a manual focus indicator shows distance to the subject (in meters or feet ) for when I want to use zone-focusing. There is also a manual focus assist feature. When activated, the camera zooms in digitally, filling the viewfinder/LCD with a section of the scene for more accurate focusing.

    There is a digital split image focusing feature, but I have never used it.

    When using manual 35mm lenses at their largest aperture, I tend to use focus peaking and then move the body in-out technique.

    I enjoy using manual and autofocus lenses, but I prefer autofocus.

    1. That sounds a neat camera!

      I had a Sony NEX 3N for a few years which I must have shot at least 50, maybe 100 different vintage lenses on. I used the focus peaking extensively. Then one day I just realised how the camera just felt like a tool, churning out pretty images. I had little connection with, it was too detached, too automated, too digital. I missed the immersive experience of a viewfinder, and this prompted my exploration of old DSLRs like the Pentax K10D again.

      Plus even with digital cameras that only have a screen and no VF, I turn off everything I can on the display, so the scene on the screen looks as close to the actual scene as possible. The more on screen digits and focus peaking and other electronic visual clutter there is, the more detached I feel from the experience, the less if feels like immersive, pure photography.

      1. I can relate to that detached experience. That’s how I felt about my Nikon. My X-T2, on the other hand, is like a favourite slipper; comfortable and show wear from loving use.

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