DSLR Autofocus vs. Manual Focus: Making the Right Choice

Man pointing camera at camera

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If you're someone who's migrating from a point and shoot camera to a DSLR model, there are quite a few aspects of photography that you're going to have to learn about before you can begin having success with your advanced camera. One of the most confusing aspects can be figuring out when you should use manual focus, versus when it's better to use an autofocus mode.

To learn more about the debate of autofocus versus manual focus, read the tips below.

Autofocus mode is one where the camera determines the sharpest focus, using sensors that are devoted to measuring the focus of the scene. In autofocus mode, the photographer doesn't have to do anything.

Shutter Lag

Although shutter lag usually is minimal with a DSLR camera, the quality of the autofocus mechanism can determine just how much shutter lag your camera will see. When using an autofocus mode, you can negate the shutter lag by pre-focusing on the scene. Just press the shutter button halfway and hold it in that position until the camera's autofocus locks onto the subject. Then press the shutter button the remainder of the way to record the photo, and the shutter lag should be eliminated.

Manual Focus

With manual focus, you're going to use the palm of your left hand to cup the lens. Then use your left fingers to slightly twist the focus ring on the DSLR lens until the image is in sharp focus. Holding the camera properly is a key aspect of making use of manual focus, otherwise, you'll be awkwardly trying to support the camera while using the manual focus ring, which may make it difficult to shoot the photo without a slight blur from camera shake.

When using manual focus, you may have better luck determining whether the scene is in sharp focus by using the viewfinder, rather than using the LCD screen. If you're shooting outdoors in bright sunlight, holding the viewfinder against your eye is going to allow you to avoid glare on the LCD screen, as the glare can make it especially tough to determine the sharpness of the focus.

Focus Modes

To see which focus mode you’re currently in, press the Info button on your DSLR camera. The focus mode should be displayed, along with the other camera settings, on the LCD. However, the focus mode setting might be displayed using an icon or the initials "AF" or "MF," meaning you'll need to be certain you understand these icons and initials. You may need to look through the DSLR's user guide to find the answers.

Sometimes, you can set the focus mode on the interchangeable lens, by sliding a switch, moving between autofocus and manual focus.

Auto Focus

Depending on the DSLR model, a few different autofocus modes should be available. AF-S (single-servo) is good for stationary subjects, as the focus locks when the shutter is pressed halfway. AF-C (continuous-servo) is good for moving subjects, as the autofocus continually can adjust. AF-A (auto-servo) allows the camera to choose which of the two autofocus modes is more appropriate to use.

Autofocus tends to have problems working properly when the subject and background are a similar color; when the subject is partly in bright sun and partly in shadows; and when an object is between the subject and the camera. In those instances, switch to manual focus.

When using autofocus, the camera normally focuses on the subject in the center of the frame. However, most DSLR cameras allow you to move the focus point. Select the autofocus area command and move the focus point using the arrow keys.

If the camera lens has a switch for moving between manual focus and autofocus, it usually will be labeled with an M (manual) and an A (auto). However, some lenses include an M/A mode, which is autofocus with a manual focus override option.