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Simple Steps to Use Manual Focus Effectively

 13th Oct 2020

UBC 2017 250 REPLACED W MASTERCLASSI am a big fan of shooting from the hip, so you’ll often find me using auto focus. But any good photographer knows that manual focus opens a world of creative possibilities that auto just can’t quite provide.

Yes auto focus in today’s DSLRs has become so advanced, BUT that doesn’t mean manual focus is being neglected. In fact manual focus is becoming a more prominent feature in most camera models, even those that are not of high-professional standard. 

Photography enthusiasts are becoming more accustomed to the variety of settings available when purchasing a camera, and can often become quite daunted by them. It really doesn’t need to be intimidating though, getting to grips with manual mode is easier than you might think!

I’ve written this blog to help you learn more about manual focus and how to use it effectively. No one likes blurry photography so getting it right is really important, but you need to know what to focus on - without the help of auto!

We’re going to look at what manual focus is, where to focus and top tips to take away.

What is manual focus?

Manual focus is when you manually focus your lens so you can select your point of focus. Some lenses are manual focus only and don’t have auto focus capabilities. However if the lens has a manual focus ring then any autofocus lens can also be focused manually. Manual focus can be used in cases of very low light, low contrast, or backlighting when autofocus is overwhelmed.  It can be used in static contexts such as landscape photography or macro photography where you absolutely need precise focusing. Manual focus works on DSLRs through a simple rotation of a lens’s focusing ring. The advances in technology mean that manual focus is much more accurate today. 

Where do you focus with manual focus?

Some images have a definitive subject like a person or product so that's what you need to emphasise with careful focusing. You need to think about the image you're taking. For example focusing a portrait which is best with a soft background (shallow depth of field) needs a different approach to focusing a landscape where you want front to back image sharpness. Manual focus is based on distance. If you look at the side of your lens, you’ll see the distance markers. You can switch your DSLR to manual focus by flipping between autofocus and manual on the side of your lens. You can adjust the focus by turning the ring around the front part of the lens. Turning the ring clockwise will focus on closer objects and turning it anti clockwise will focus on objects that are further away.

How do you know where to focus?

Think the shot through. 

For front to back sharpness you'll need a lot of depth of field so you'll need a small aperture. With a short lens which is often more appropriate for this type of image, you have a lot of depth of field to play with because different focal lengths have different depth of field characteristics. With a scene, it's best to include some foreground in the composition to give the photo a sense of depth and it's important to know where to focus so your 'block' of depth of field is in the right place to get everything sharp.

Take a couple of test shots and take your time. Always check the image in your camera's LCD to make sure everything is sharp before you move on too.

Tips for manual focus

Whilst autofocus is a great tool and one I use often, manual focus is a great skill to have. Here are some top tips to make manual focus work for you:

  1. Use live view - Using live view gives you a much more holistic view making it easier to manually focus on your object.
  2. Pre-focus - Auto focus is often better for action shots but if you use manual focus and pre focus then you can capture shots quickly.
  3. Use the camera assist - Camera assist will help you get the most out of manual focus. When your image is in focus a circle will appear to help you identify when to take the shot.
  4. Use selective focus - You have much more control with manual focus. Use selective focus to help you navigate focusing for creativity.
  5. Magnified view - Use a magnified view to help you identify where to focus.
  6. Use a tripod - When you’re focusing manually even a slight movement can affect your focus so using a tripod will help you reduce the chances of camera shake.

Remember that the camera isn’t in charge, you are. Autofocus is a fantastic tool and you shouldn’t feel that you can’t use it. It’s definitely a feature I use a lot, but it’s really important that you learn how to use manual focus because sometimes a situation will call for a more controlled focus such as in low light conditions.

You’ve got the tools you need to master focus, but we both know there’s more to gain from using manual mode.

If you want to boost the creativity of your images, master the technical aspects and get more confident with your camera, take a look at my Masterclass in Photography.

Over 5 weeks you will learn:

  • How to use various settings and feel in control of your camera
  • How to capture beautifully composed, well lit and exposed images
  • How to achieve more with your lenses
  • How to get the WOW factor with your photographs 

Plus weekly encouragement and coaching to help you stay on track and achieve the results you want!