Home Tips & Tricks Manual Focus or Automatic Focus?

Manual Focus or Automatic Focus?

What is the difference between Automatic and Manual Focus and when should they be used?

Manual Focus or Automatic Focus

Capturing sharp and in-focus images is something I often see beginning photographers struggle with. Many don’t notice it themselves but it’s very visible to those who view the images. Most photographers have at some point struggled with this and have been frustrated by having great shots ruined because they’re out of focus. So how do you get the images focused? Does it matter if you use Manual Focus or Automatic Focus?

Manual Focus or Automatic Focus?

I wont be covering much on the technical aspects of focusing in this article but on the practical uses of Manual and Automatic Focus. If you’re interested in learning more about the technical parts of focusing and how it actually works I recommend reading this article from B&H PhotoVideo.

If your main focus within photography is landscapes you might have been told that you should never use Automatic Focus. Even though I use Manual focus for 99% of my landscape images I believe that there are certain times where Autofocus is the best option. You may also have been told the exact opposite, that Automatic Focus is the only one you should use.

Let’s start by looking at the Autofocus quality before we go through what scenarios are best for each of them.

Lens Quality and Autofocus

While manual focus works equally on most cameras and lenses, autofocus does not. The Autofocus quality is different on most cameras and lenses, and it’s often related to the product price.

If you compare Autofocus of a cheap camera and an expensive one, you may be surprised to see exactly how big the difference might be. Notice that I said might be. In most cases, high quality cameras and lenses are able to focus faster and more accurately.

For a landscape photographer, the Autofocus speed is not especially important as most of the scenes we photograph aren’t moving quickly. Our cameras are on the tripod and we have the time to carefully compose each image. What is most important for us is the fine tuning of the focus. We want the image to be as sharp as possible and focus has an important role in this.

The “problem” with lenses that have an older Autofocus motor is that they aren’t always able to achieve the best focus. When viewing the image on a smart phone or small computer screen you might not see a huge difference but once you begin zooming in on the image you will see how certain areas, if not the entire picture, are out of focus and soft.

For wildlife photographers, or any other photographers that photograph moving subjects, a quick Autofocus is more important. When you’re photographing a lion running away, it’s essential that the focus is quick so that you’re able to capture that brief second.

Manual Focus or Auto Focus
It was hard to get a accurate focus of these quickly moving birds with my old camera.

When I was just getting started with photography a friend of mine taught me an important lesson that I tell others today: It’s better to invest in an expensive lens than an expensive camera. Lenses will stay with you for years but camera bodies will be changed more often. Lens technology advances more slowly than camera.

How To Manually Focus

How to focus manually is an entire article in itself, and one we will publish soon, but we need to briefly talk about it now for you to better understand when it should be used.

Unfortunately, focusing manually is much harder on older lower-priced cameras. I often say that image quality doesn’t necessarily depend on the price of your camera but that it’s the photographer behind it who does the job. However, there are certain benefits to purchasing a newer camera, one of which is “Live View”. Luckily it’s becoming a standard among many low-end cameras now so if you’re looking for a new camera but don’t want to spend thousands of dollars on it, you might find something economical with this function.

Live View is very important when focusing manually. This function lets you see the image live and you’re able to zoom in to fine-tune the focus. By zooming in 100%, or as far as the quality allows, you can easily fine tune the focus by twisting the focus ring gently. Normally you need to twist a couple rounds back and forth around the sharpest point but you should be able to easily find it. That’s how easy it is to focus manually.

The next challenge is to know where you should focus on the image. A rule of thumb is to focus 1/3 into the frame as this is normally where most of the image will be sharpest. However, this changes if you have a subject extremely close to the lens or far away. I recommend reading this article by Cambridge in Colour to get an understanding of Hyperfocal Distance.

When Should You Use Manual Focus vs. Automatic Focus?

If you’ve been paying attention throughout this article, you might already have gotten an idea of when (and when not) to use Manual Focus.

Manual Focus should be used when

  • You’re photographing landscapes
  • Your camera is on a tripod and you (ideally) have Live View
  • Photographing Macro (Closeup images of flowers etc)
  • You’re planning on printing a image huge and need the sharpest possible outcome
  • You’re photographing stars (Autofocus isn’t able to focus well in the dark)
  • You’re photographing in the dark

Automatic Focus should be used when

  • Photographing animals, sport or other scenarios where the subject is moving fast
  • Photographing events and concerts where the subject doesn’t stand still
  • Photographing handheld or when you’re moving

Even though Automatic Focus has its purpose, I recommend you landscape photographers to start exploring Manual Focus.

Automatic Focus has really improved during the last years and in most cases I think it does a good job. Yet, I like to be in full control and be able to get that image just 1% sharper by doing it manually. As I mentioned, you might not see a huge difference on a laptop or smartphone but if you wish to print large images that one percentage can make a big difference.

Recommended Reading

To end this article, I want to recommend reading a couple of other articles we published. If you wish to take sharp images, there are many factors you need to consider and many techniques you should learn. Focusing correctly is one of them.

In our popular article 3 Tips for Sharper images you will learn three essential tips that, combined with mastering focus, will improve the sharpness of your images. I also suggest that you read our Introduction to Fundamentals in Landscape Photography, where we talk about shutter speed, ISO and aperture and how they work together. Choosing the right shutter speed and aperture will have a huge impact on your images as well. The difference between photographing with f/4 and f/11 is much bigger than you might think.

During the next days I challenge you to compare images shot with Automatic Focus and Manual focus and see if there’s a difference. I would love to see the differences, if any, so feel free to share it with us in the comment section below.

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