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

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

How to set hyperfocal distance

Hyperfocal distance is the point you focus on for the maximum depth of field that includes infinity (the point beyond which everything in an image looks sharp, right through to the horizon– and this will change depending on the focal length of the lens).

When you focus at infinity, you’re actually wasting two-thirds of your potential depth of field! The in-focus area of an image is partly governed by the aperture of the lens, and we know that the narrower the aperture, the greater the depth of field (learn How to find your lens’ sweet spot).

However, the way this area of sharpness is distributed is one-third in front of the spot you focus on and two-thirds behind it. It stands to reason, therefore, that if you focus on the horizon, or anywhere beyond the infinity mark, you are wasting two-thirds of your sharp area.

In the days before autofocus, manual focus-only lenses stopped at infinity, so all you had to do, when photographing stars at night for example, was to wind the focus ring all the way to the left, or anticlockwise, to get sharp results.

SEE MORE: 11 common lens errors and how to avoid them

Modern AF zoom lenses actually go some way beyond infinity to allow the autofocus mechanism to hunt, so twist your focus ring all the way to the left – and shoot at a wide aperture – and there may be nothing in focus in your image at all!

For a given aperture and focal length, look up the distance in the chart above and focus on an object at that distance from the camera. Note that there are two tables, one for crop-sensor cameras and one for full-frame cameras (want to know more – see our guide Full frame DSLR: do you really need one?).

For example, a Canon EOS 550D (1.6x crop-factor sensor) with zoom lens set to 24mm and an aperture of f/11 gives us a hyperfocal distance of 9ft, so focusing on an object nine feet away from the camera ensures that everything from half that distance, or 4.5 feet, will be in focus.

Below we’ve put together a cheat sheet for calculating hyperfocal distance on cameras with APS-C sensors, as well as full frame DSLRs. Feel free to drag and drop this infographic on to your desktop to save as a reference.

Manual Focus: how to calculate hyperfocal distance

SEE MORE: 8 reasons why cheap kit lenses are the perfect lens

Final tips for how to use manual focus effectively

The only way to get consistently good results using manual focus is to 
practise your technique! So here are a selection of manual focus challenges, after first calibrating your dioptre to ensure that the image you see through your viewfinder is as sharp as possible – this is particularly important if you wear glasses, which you remove when putting your eye up to the camera…

Photography tips for how to use manual focus - 1

Tip 1
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.

Photography tips for how to use manual focus - 2

Tip 2
Practise the camera-assisted manual focus technique (see Step by Step, p82). Select the centre 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 centre spot will always be the most sensitive.

Photography tips for how to use manual focus - 3

Tip 3
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.

Photography tips for how to use manual focus - 4

Tip 4
Autofocus (using the centre 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.

PAGE 1: Overview; best scenes for manual focus; finding your manual focus controls
PAGE 2: Using manual focus in Live View; camera assisted manual focus; focusing for macro


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  • 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