Proper Manual Focusing Technique

"Float Away" by D. Travis North

“Float Away” by D. Travis North

At the hand of an experienced photographer, manual focus can actually be quicker than auto focus.  Aside from efficiency, there are a number of reasons to use manual focus in lieu of your camera’s automatic system, but the most important of all is control.  Pure control.  See your camera is good at autofocusing on kids at play, or some other object closer to the viewer.  But what if you want to focus on something less obvious?  Or what if you want to focus on something of a similar color as the background?  What about something very fine, like a whispy flower?  Your autofocus will fail you and you will be forced to direct it by controlling focusing points.  As one who did not have the benefit of autofocus for the first 12 years working with a camera, I can say that autofocus is overrated.  Portrait photographers need control to make sure eyes are in focus.  Macro photographers will have trouble with autofocus.  Landscape photographers need to be mindful of their depths of field to make sure everything is in focus.  What’s the easiest way?  Manual Focus.  So you should learn how to do it.

To begin, lets talk camera setup.  If you have a camera that supports it – I would highly recommend switching your focusing screen.  There are focusing screens that add a split ring or a focusing grid inside the camera to help you focus.  Many older film cameras come with such a focusing screen.  But many of you with newer cameras (myself included) will not be able to switch your focusing screens.  Worry not, the focusing screen is an aid, and certainly not required.  Next, make sure your viewfinder is in focus.  Your viewfinder will have a very small – sometimes barely noticable – dial next to it.  You may have to remove your eyepiece to gain full access to it.  Use that to focus your viewfinder.  If you don’t know how to do it, consult your manual – the process is a bit like an eye exam (Which is clearer, 1 or 2?  Is 3 more clear, or just smaller and darker?).  What about viewfinder magnifiers?  I don’t believe in them, personally.  I just don’t trust that they’re not distorting my view, so I would not recommend them.  Finally, put your camera into manual focus mode.  Note, however, that some modern lenses also have a switch for manual mode – so you’ll likely need to flip two switches, depending on your camera and lens.

Now you’re ready.  Here’s how to use Manual Focus:

  1. Select the object you will focus on.
  2. Looking through your viewfinder, bring the object into rough focus so that it is no longer blurry.
  3. At the rough focus point, rotate your focus ring back and forth.  At some point, moving the ring in either direction will only cause the object to be slightly more blurry.  The proper focus is at that point.  Depending on the distance from object, this change may be subtle – so pay careful attention.
  4. Snap your photo.

When focusing manually, it’s always important to keep your aperture in mind.  Shooting with a wide open aperture (smaller F numbers) permits only a small depth of field, and your focusing will need to be very precise.  Smaller apertures (larger F numbers) will give you more of a margin for error – but you still want to focus as perfect as possible.  Just keep in mind that as you look through your viewfinder, regardless of what your aperture is set to, the lens is wide open until you press the shutter – so you’ll be focusing with the narrowest depth of field your lens supports.

Just like any skill, it’s best if you practice.  So make a conscious effort to shoot with manual focus often.  Practice makes perfect.


About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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