Manual focus: what you need to know to get sharp images

Manual focus: what you need to know to get sharp images

Manual focus: what you need to know to get sharp images

Your DSLR has comes with a highly advanced autofocus system, so why on earth would you want to use manual focus? Actually there are some very good reasons – various subjects and environmental conditions either fool the camera, or make it considerably harder to get a good shot in autofocus mode.

The AF sensor in your digital camera needs certain things to perform well, and at the top of the list is light and contrast. It uses edges or textures to focus on areas of contrast. If you’re shooting in low-light, AF can have problems seeing subtle, indistinct features.

If contrast is low, as in misty conditions or when aiming at smooth water or wet sand, your camera’s AF circuitry has difficulty locking onto the subject. Manual focus, then, helps you get sharp shots when AF can’t correctly interpret what the lens is seeing.

SEE MORE: Best camera focus techniques – 10 surefire ways to get sharp photos

Another set of AF issues occurs when the camera focuses on the wrong thing. Shooting through a wire fence or a glass window, for example, can cause focusing problems in AF mode because the camera focuses on the obstruction, rather than the subject beyond it, and likewise it can be particularly challenging to get good nature shots through branches, leaves or long grass.

Your camera will always focus on the closest thing the sensor sees, and this can cause problems when shooting a particular animal, when another one flies or walks through the frame and distracts the AF.

So switch to manual focus when you know your camera could get confused.

SEE MORE: First camera crash course – simple solutions for mastering your new DSLR

The final set of conditions where you’re better off focusing manually is to do with speed: either because the subject is moving so quickly that it’s hard for the camera to focus in time, or the slight delay of hunting to achieve focus is long enough to miss the shot.

When shooting racing cars on a bend, for instance, it’s often better to pre-focus on a particular spot on the track in AF, then lock your focus in MF, and wait for a fast-moving car to reach that spot before taking your shot.

The same principle applies in nature photography, where pre-focusing on a perch allows you to prepare for a bird’s landing or take off to get a crisp action shot without AF delay, or even when photographing your children in the park.

SEE MORE: Getting sharp images – every technique you need to know starting out

Shooting situations where manual focus is best

How to use manual focus: wildlife photography

Photographing animals
When shooting through foliage or grass, manual focus and a wide aperture reduces the foreground to a pleasing colourful blur (confused about aperture – download our Free f-stop chart to master your aperture).

How to use manual focus: capturing speed

Capturing speed
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.

SEE MORE: Moving targets – how to plot trajectory and beat camera shake every time

How to use manual focus: landscapes

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, see our cheat sheet on calculating hyperfocal distance.

SEE MORE: 10 common landscape photography mistakes every photographer makes

How to use manual focus: creative shots

Creative shots
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.

SEE MORE: Master your camera’s autofocus – the best AF points to use and when to use them

Main manual focus controls

To help you – literally – get to grips with the manual focus controls on your DSLR, we put together the photography cheat sheet below, which illustrates where to find some of your most useful buttons. Feel free to drag and drop this infographic on to your desktop to save as a reference or print out and stash in your camera bag.

Manual Focus: main controls photography cheat sheet

PAGE 2: Using manual focus in Live View; camera assisted manual focus; focusing for macro
PAGE 3: How to calculate hyperfocal distance; final tips on using manual focus


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  • beans28

    Man, the Como Park Conservatory AND Mall of America in one article?? Go, hometown!

  • Harryhall1989

    There’s just one thing that’s confusing me. If the focusing rule of thumb is 1/3 in front and 2/3 behind and the example distance is 9ft, then why is it 4.5ft in front of the subject, as this is half of 9ft? Shouldn’t it be 3ft in front and 6ft behind?

  • Christopher Lee

    Do you have a lens with a focusing scale? Think of it less as “distance” and more as in “percent distance.” The difference between 1, 2, and 3 ft. for example (compared against 2 ft.) is 50%/150%, but the distances between 99, 100, and 101 ft. are comparatively smaller in terms of relative impact.

    Basically, your depth of field often covers a 1:2 ratio spread on either side of your focal distance, where that “spread” begins at the appropriate marking on the lens and expands linearly to both sides. The spacing on the focus scales usually indicates this.

  • BTW

    I have to question why there are two hyperfocal charts for full frame and APS sensors. Focus and depth of field are solely a function of optics – the sensor has nothing to do with it. While sensor size will make a difference as far as framing and the needed distance or FL to achieve the same field of view between full and APS sensors and hence impact the depth of field, the charts do not make that distinction which makes me not believe them.


    I noticed that. Thought maybe there were other conservatories that looked identical, then I thought that was too much of a coincidence.

  • Dewey

    Manual focus. I have several older very nice Manual Lenses that i have adapted to my Nikon d7100 One can only shoot in Manual or Aperture Priority. Focusing is a slight Problem because unlike the old SLR’s you do not have Split Screen Focusing and at my age (68) my sight is not that good.. But Manual focusing works much better for Night time Photography, along with Live View