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Overcoming The Fear Of Manual Focus

July 11, 2016

Although modern cameras have increasingly accurate and responsive Auto Focus systems, there are some instances when manual focus is the better choice. Manual focus might seem a little daunting to those newer to SLR photography, but it allows you to push your camera and your own creativity further and might be easier than you think!

Although it is important to learn the rules of photography, sometimes it is more fun to break them! In autofocus mode, your camera is designed to lock focus on an object. Switch to manual focus and you can create stunning abstract bokeh effects by deliberately setting your camera to focus well in front of or behind a colourful light source. Try city or party lights, or something that carries light like bubbles or reflections in water. If you are unsure of the distance, just rotate the focus ring until the lights blur to give a festive or dreamlike effect.

If your subject is off to the side or top of the frame where your pre-determined AF points cannot reach, you have two options. Either use the central focus point to lock focus and re-compose, or to achieve a more careful and considered composition you can use manual focus. If you find it difficult to get the image sharp in the viewfinder, particularly if shooting with a shallow depth of field, grab the focus point using auto focus then switch to manual focus and carefully compose the shot. This will not work so well with hyperactive or moving subjects!

When using a tripod you will find that manual focus is easier than auto as it is not so easy to re-compose your shot when the camera is attached to a tripod! By doing this the focus will stay consistent and avoid re-focusing when your press the shutter, also minimising camera shake. This is particularly important when doing night photography using slow shutter speeds, when even the slightest movement can compromise sharpness.

Your camera's auto focus may get confused when shooting in complex situations with multiple overlapping planes of possible focus, like shooting through glass or fences, photographing a bird in a tree or reflections on water. Switch to manual focus to help you focus on a specific point, no matter how small. Often this technique has the added bonus of making glass, wire or bars disappear if you are shooting with a very narrow depth of field.


To become a master of manual focus, try this little exercise:


  • Firstly, switch your camera to manual focus mode

  • Sitting in a room or your backyard, choose something like a piece of furniture or a tree.

  • Without looking through the viewfinder, estimate its distance and set the distance on your lens using the focus ring

  • Bring the camera up to your eye and see if your chosen object is in focus

  • Rinse and repeat regularly in different environments so you get a better understanding of focal distances and depth of field

  • As you get better, try narrowing the depth of field to make it harder!


Remember, sometimes it pays to trust your eye and not your camera.