Manual Focus vs. AutoFocus

Why switching from autofocus to manual focus can be a great choice!

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4 minutes 30


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Camera settings

Achieving correct focus when taking a picture is crucial; indeed, you can’t fix an out of focus subject in post-production using a software. To have a correct focus in photography, you need a clear and sharp subject. If the focal point is wrong, then you obtain a blurry and unexploitable picture manual focus.

If you ever used your phone or a point and shoot camera to take pictures, then you’ve used auto focus. It becomes much different once you step into the world of DSLR’s because you have the option of both autofocus and manual focus.

How do we know when to use manual focus rather than autofocus? Which one is better? The truth is that they ‘re both very useful and although you can always stay in auto focus, sometimes the manual mode gives you more control. In this article, we describe the differences between each mode. In the end, you’ll be able to choose what you prefer.

How Does focus Work?

Autofocus works on this same principle as manual focus. In both cases, you or the camera need to adjust the focus and judge when the image is sharp. For manual focus, you use your hand to move the focusing ring and change the focal point and your eye to judge whether the subject is or isn’t in focus. For auto focus, the camera does all of that itself by using a motor, a sensor, and a control system to focus automatically on the selected area.



First, let’s talk about autofocus. Since autofocus is used for everything from phones to point and shoots, most of us (all of us) used this mode. The capabilities of autofocus are amazing nowadays, and it can assist you for shooting still or moving subjects, landscapes, portraits, and much more.

There’s not just one autofocus mode, but a couple depending on the DSLR you’re using. Knowing which mode to use for your style and situation of photography is important. Let’s go over it now.



– AutoFocus Modes –

Mode 1: ONE SHOT – used for shooting still subjects by focusing on the area you selected.

Mode 2: SERVO for Canon camera (or continuous depending on the brand) – used for shooting moving subjects by tracking it.

– AutoFocus Methods –

Along with the different autofocus modes, there are also different autofocus methods. For Canon models for examples, there are a few methods.

Method 1: Tracking – used to focus on faces or subjects that you touch on the LCD screen. This mode is great for shooting with models and moving subjects.

Method 2: Smooth Zone AF – used to focus on subjects that are within a selected area on your LCD screen. This mode is excellent for shooting family portraits.

Method 3: Live 1-Point AF – used to focus on a single point which is selected by you on the LCD screen. This method is great for shooting a single subject and can serve for a great portrait by focusing on the exact point you want (eyes).

Downside of AutoFocus

One major downside that I have experienced with autofocus is not being able to snap a photo because the camera can’t find a focus point. For example, if I am shooting with a model in a dimly lit room, sometimes the camera struggles to find a focus point and don’t take the picture (our takes it with delay).

Note: Autofocus for shooting portraits is good because it makes it easier to capture a model who is continually moving. However, for close up portrait manual mode can come in handy to be sure that the focus is on the eyes.

Another scenario where autofocus will usually always fail is when trying to shoot the moon or the night sky. Your camera’s autofocus struggles to find a focus point because there is not enough contrast in the scene.

When it happens, a switch to manual focus comes in handy.


Manual Focus

Now let’s talk about manual focus. You may be asking yourself, “Why to use manual focus when I could just use autofocus?”
Autofocus is very convenient; however, there are times when it’s just not quite right. Here are some situations where the manual focus has the advantage over autofocus:

1. Shooting in dark environment

In these cases, your camera can struggle to find the right focus point, and your only chance to get your shot is to switch to manual focus. Trying to take a picture of the stars at nighttime is the perfect examples. Your camera is on autofocus mode and when you try to get the shot nothing to happen because the camera cannot find a focus point.

2. Shooting landscapes

When shooting landscapes, your priority should be to get the sharpest image as possible. In such pictures, different distances should be taken into consideration, and sometimes autofocus let some points slip out of focus resulting in an uneven image. Switch to manual and take your time to find the perfect focus.

3. Shooting macro (close-ups/product shots)

Macro shots can be amazing. You can see all of the fine detail, and it just looks great. Autofocus won’t always pick up those tiny little subtle details that you want when shooting macro. With the manual mode, you can find the perfect focal point with all of that beautiful detail that you are looking for. Take your time, and you won’t regret it!

4. Portrait Shots

Autofocus for shooting portraits is good because it makes it easier to capture a model who is continually moving. However, for close up portrait manual mode can come in handy to be sure that the eyes are in sharp focus. Switching to manual mode avoid any misjudgment of the camera.

5. Action Shots

Although it can be surprising, yes manual focus can be useful for action photography. It’s hard to focus and shoot fast enough to acquire your target and autofocus also struggle with that. The tip is to prepare your shot ahead by focusing on a point you know your subject is going to go through. Using this technic prevents the autofocus mode to make a last-minute adjustment, assuring you to nail your shot.

Note: Of course, if you are trying to shoot an unpredictable moving subject – like a dog – manual focus won’t do. Trust your camera autofocus and choose the right mode (AI SERVO for canon camera)

6. When you want more control

With autofocus, you put all of the control into the camera. It decides what’s in focus, or in other words, what your photo looks like. The beautiful thing about manual focus is that YOU have all of the control and you decide of the style.

In all these situations manual focus can take the win so don’t be shy and try it!