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Manual or Auto Focus?

Sometimes, digital photography can be more rewarding if one just reads the user manual from start to finish and starts implementing each of the steps methodically. Even with this wisdom, not many do it; not even experienced photographers. One such trait is to always go for Auto Focus. However, there are circumstances when Manual Focus becomes more efficient and even required in some instances. Here are those situations when you should consider turning to Manual Focus to see the difference.

What time is a good time?



Actually, it all depends on your eyesight and how comfortable you are with your camera controls. If you have bad eyesight, auto focus works best, particularly in high-end cameras, yet again, there are situations when manual is better suited. Even if you still can’t go manual, just going back and forth with your camera should help. If this doesn’t work either, then manual is the best way to go.
Here are a few situations when going manual is best:

Close-Up photography


Also called “macro photography”. This method is great for shooting food, products and people so it’s important to bring the camera as close to the subject as possible. However, depending on the lenses you have, there is only so much closer you can go to the subject to work with Auto Focus. However, if you opt for the manual mode, you can get up to 2cm closer to the subject. What’s more, you weed out the problem of wrong focusing, like the auto focus zeroing in on the background rather than the foreground and the other way around. Here is where manual focus is a godsend. Another safeguard while using manual focus is to use a tripod, so that the captured image isn’t shaky.

Night photography


Low light shooting is an art by itself, but if you can master it, you can master any kind of photography. However, here is where manual focus will help you more than auto. This is particularly true of certain cameras and lenses which focus in poorly in dimly lit environments. The lens demonstrates its inability to focus when it goes back and forth without finding a proper place to focus. This becomes even more tiresome if your subject is on a reflective surface or surrounded by it. This will also be a spoiler when you are trying to capture candid shots. Once the moment is gone, the picture is gone, too. However, it’s often hard to actually see your focus clearly through the viewfinder in low light anyways. Try taking multiple shots at slightly different focal distances and pick the best one later.
One other way to use auto mode before going manual is to first get on to the auto mode and look at the shutter speed and f/stop being displayed on your camera screen for a guideline. Now, you can do tweaking of these numbers, lock them, and go manual with these new smart readings. If you don’t have that kind of time, you can use either Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority mode for quick results. No doubt, though that complete manual focus usually gives you total control. Still, only trial and error can help you improve.

Portrait photography


When you are shooting pictures of people, the single point highlight of their picture lies in how well you have focused on their eyes. If their eye is off focus, you’ve messed up the photo irreparably. Therefore, the best way to ensure that the lens doesn’t focus on the collar rather than the eyes is to use manual focus. So, the next time you shoot, focus on the eyes using manual, press half way down and then re-compose the frame and shoot the person. This way, not only will your composition be positively affected, but you won’t defocus the eyes either. Remember, this rule doesn’t apply if the subject is supposed to close his eyes or look the other way.

Shooting through a medium


Sometimes, photography looks best when you employ different ways of capturing the subject. It could be through a looking glass, a window, door, or even the reflection from eyeglasses and mirrors. However, in all these circumstances, and particularly when you are shooting through a window or a wire fence, auto focus goes crazy and is not able to decipher between the foreground and background. Here is where manual helps. Whether it’s to do with taking pictures out of an airplane window, taking a shot of an image at a museum or photographing animals through fences at the zoo, manual focus is the way to go. Another value-add would be to go for a larger aperture as this decreases the depth of field and you get your pictures, sharp and clear.

Action shots


Sports or any live action photography could get difficult with auto focus. The unthinking lens could spotlight an area you don’t want and vice versa. Here is where horse racing and car chases can be caught on camera using manual focus. This requires a great amount of practice before you can perfect it. The best way to do this is to activate continuous or burst mode in your camera and pan the subject smoothly, preferably with a tripod to prevent blurry and shaky images.

Studio shots


If you happen to do any kind of photography, be it portrait or tabletop or fashion, it is best to go manual because once you’ve got the focus you’ve been looking for, you can just place the camera on the tripod and do all the light arrangement around the subject without the bother of losing focus due to the new subject setting.

Wildlife photography


Photographers have also found manual focus to be indispensable on wildlife shoots. When shooting something like a bird in some bush or a tree, the auto focus almost always focuses on the wrong thing. It’s understandable since there are so many things at different depths.



You cannot use autofocus to do fireworks. It just does not work. You need to put the lens in manual mode and move the focus ring to infinity. No excuses here!

And finally…


Practice makes a photographer perfect. This goes for both amateur and professional photographers because there is no end to learning. Space a few minutes every day to manual focus and see how you can better yourself over time. Take interest particularly in action photography, because this takes some time to master.

~Zahid Javali