Skills in Practice: Auto Focus Vs. Manual Focus – A Field Guide

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  By Michael Moodie
Skills in Practice: Auto Focus Vs. Manual Focus – A Field Guide

Today I’ll be offering you just a few tips and an insight into the world of Autofocus and Manual Focus. One could say the new age of photography and technological advancement has kinda made us just a tad bit lazy as Photographers. Remember getting your first DSLR and shooting in auto and witness the camera basically doing everything for you, even putting the subject in focus. Then we grew up and decided to make use of Manual mode giving us full control on what your image would look like.

We then continued to use complete manual focus on our lens, controlling the perspective and depth of field of our subject. But why would you want to use Manual focus anyway? When our lives have made easy to just point and shoot with Autofocus. Believe it or not, both Manual Focus and Autofocus has its pros and cons to using them. In this article, I will be outlining just a few advantages and disadvantages of using each, In addition giving you tips as to when and where to use each. Many photographers have been oblivious as to the capabilities of the lenses they’ve invested in and to an extent the capabilities of their camera itself.


Autofocus, in essence, is your camera’s technology and Intelligence going to work. The camera adjusts the lens to obtain focus on a particular subject and how fast this works can determine if you get a sharp image or just missed an opportunity. Here is how it works, the sensors within your camera communicates with your lens to pick up contrast and light level but mainly contrast. Each sensor relatively does its job by measuring the change in contrast and sharpness, however, sharpness is not achieved until the camera has determined the correct contrast. Sounds like a lot right? But your camera does all of this in merely a fraction of a second. There are sometimes, however, when this process may pose more of a challenge than usual and you’ll notice it when you see your lens trying over and over and you’re getting is a blurred or out of focus view from your subject. I usually call it “Focus Hunting” but this doesn’t mean however that obtaining focus is not possible for the desired subject but may be difficult because of a few contributing factors.

The factors that may contribute to “Focus Hunting” are Low contrast, High subject Motion, and Low light levels. Keep in mind the Camera needs light along with contrast to determine its subject therefore when there is a lack of these when taking a shot you’ll realize where your lens struggles to focus or end up focusing on the wrong thing that attains high contrast and light levels. If you, however, select a focal point within your shot that has these fundamental elements then you may end up with a nice low light shot. The number, position, and type of focus points you have may vary in your camera model or manufacturer but none the less the concept is basically the same. These points will help you most importantly in shot accuracy and sharpness even if there is no focal point for your subject it’s still safe to auto focus and then recomposes your shot.

Next up are your Autofocus modes which photographers sometimes tend to bypass and not take advantage of but each mode can make AF shooting so much easier than it already seems to be. These modes are One Shot, AI Servo and Continuous. One shot is self-explanatory and shines when taking still subjects making your shot easier and quicker to take, not to mention amplifying detail and sharpness. Continuous is also a self-explanatory mode for when you’re trying to capture a moving subject, ordering the sensors to focus faster on capturing that golden shot. AI Servo is relatively similar to continuous being that it makes adjustments to the focus distance for moving subjects. Seems like I’ve told you everything you need to know for making your camera do as much of the work for you as it possibly can.

Manual Focus

For the photographers out there that enjoy being in control of everything on their camera including focusing, I salute you. Manual focus may sound harder than it sounds but actually with a little bit of practicing and getting used to the focal ring on your lens it gradually seems like a stroll in the park. But why would you want to make your life more difficult with manual focusing anyway? Well, there actually a few ways in which manual focus make up for the shortcomings of Autofocus. When doing Macro Photography I pretty much instantly switch to manual focus due to the narrow depth of field meaning I’d have to be precise as to what I want to be in focus and not risk my camera going on its own agenda focusing on something else or end up in the state of “Focus Hunting”. Remember you’re in full control of your camera now so I’d suggest using a tripod when focusing manually for Macro Photography. I’ve also realized how useful it can be in the event of Low Light Photography. Due to lack of the sensor being able to detect the correct contrast and light level when in AF mode, it’s safe to switch over and do it yourself or else you’ll be in an ongoing battle with your camera to focus on the right thing like a stubborn child. Also due to the nature of your camera focusing on the closest thing it sees, it would be wise to use manual focus in situations where a glass or fence is involved as a barrier. The camera often ends up focusing on the glass or fence and not the subject behind it and this can often pose a huge problem.

Personally I’m a fan Autofocus and manipulating my focusing point, however, there are tight spots where manual focus became my saving grace. Therefore it’s safe to say that each plays their part even though Manual Focus takes more practice it’s worth it. I hope these tips and tricks helped you in keeping focused and capturing amazing shots!

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Michael Moodie is a Freelance Photographer and Photojournalist. He Enjoys Lifestyle Photography and Traveling while doing all things creative!

Comments (1)

  1. Michael Guest

    Nice article. I only shoot in manual focus, simply because all my lenses are vintage Canon FD. I don’t even have the 18-55 that comes with my Samsung DSLR. So when I’m on Facebook groups most photographers have the latest Canon, Sigma,… Well I’m on Canon FD no tech…