While the auto-focus in our cameras and lenses are often superb, nothing will get you consistently sharp images than manual focusing—even in low light. The great thing is that it is also very easy to do. Once you have switched to manual focus, simply adjust the focus ring until the details sharpen. Now zoom out. That’s it!
How Manual Focus Works
Manual focus works based on distance. If you look at the barrel of your lens, you’ll see distance markers that go up to infinity. If you had time, patience, a tripod and measuring tape, you could get a tack sharp image by measuring the distance to the subject exactly, but that’s not really practical.
All manual focus lenses have a gauge depicting the DOF at small apertures:
On the focusing ring, the focal distance is depicted in meters (and feet), with infinity marked by ∞. It looks like this:
So together the two scales look like this:
For example, at f/8 we can set the focus such as to place 5m at the left ‘8’ mark, like this:
This gives us a focus zone between 5 meters and 3 meters. That’s a pretty big area in which everything will be in sharp focus.
Most DSLRs switch to manual focus by using a switch on the lens, often marked with A and M or A/M. Switching to manual focus is usually just as simple as flipping that switch. Each camera may differ a bit, so check your owner’s manual if you aren’t sure.
Adjusting the focus is done simply by turning the ring around the front part of the lens. Turning the ring clockwise will focus on objects that are closer to the camera, and vice versa. Since manual focus works based on distance, you could also move the camera instead of turning the lens—this is a popular manual focus method among macro photographers.
Situations where manual focus is best
When shooting through foliage or grass, manual focus and a wide aperture reduces the foreground to a pleasing colorful blur.
With fast subjects like this, it’s best to pre-focus on a particular spot and, when the subject reaches that mark, fire the shutter.
If you autofocus on the horizon, you’ll waste much of your depth of field. For more on how to focus for this type of image.
When you want to combine a series of shots into a panorama or an HDR image, manual focus is absolutely essential to ensure that the focus doesn’t change between images.
Use Camera-Assisted Manual Focus
Camera manufacturers know how difficult it is to use manual focus, so many of them equip their cameras with features to help. On a Nikon camera, watch the bottom left corner of the viewfinder as you rotate that focus ring. When your image is in focus, a circle will appear, when it’s not, there are arrows indicating which direction you should adjust. To get that focus assist to really help, use the single point focus area mode and move the point over your subject.
On a Canon camera, the focus point that is in focus will light up when the proper focus is achieved. A focus confirmation light will also turn on.
Many mirrorless cameras with electronic viewfinders also come equipped with focus peaking. This feature highlights the part of the image that’s in focus in red, so you can see where your focus lies. Look for the feature in your camera menu to adjust just how it works and to turn it on and off.
Set your camera on a tripod and autofocus on something large. Now rotate the little dioptric adjustment knob, just under the top right of the eyepiece. Rotate it back and forth until the place you focused on and the shutter speed/aperture display is really crisp and sharp. This sets your camera up for your eye.
Practice the camera-assisted manual focus techniques. Select the center focusing spot, shoot a few frames then select a different focus spot and try it with that. Compare your shots – do you see much difference in sharpness? The center spot will always be the most sensitive.
Live View focusing is best done on a tripod. Place a stone or other object to focus on at the hyperfocal distance from the camera (using the hyperfocal chart on p83), then use the arrow keys to move the magnified area on the viewing screen to that spot. Zoom in to 10x magnification and focus.
Autofocus (using the center spot) on a static subject and then switch to MF. Now recompose and shoot. As long as the camera-to-subject distance stays the same, your subject will remain in focus. This is a good technique in poor light where you can focus on a bright highlight and then ‘fix’ the setting.
Of course, manual focus is not for everyone, and not for every situation. But it can be a very useful skill as well as a fun new way to shoot in the streets.