DSLR Auto Focus vs. Manual Focus

When is manual focus better than auto focus?

Man pointing camera at camera

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If you're migrating from a point-and-shoot camera to DSLR, one of the most confusing aspects can be figuring out when you should use manual focus instead of auto focus mode. We'll give you the pros and cons.

Manual Focus

  • Gives greater control over the shot's focus.

  • Allows for greater precision when focusing.

Auto Focus

  • Camera determines the sharpest focus.

  • Faster than manual focus.

  • Quality can vary depending on camera model.

Auto focus and manual focus do exactly the same thing: they adjust the focus of your camera's lens. But, with the former, the camera itself determines the sharpest focus using sensors devoted to measuring it. In auto focus mode, the photographer doesn't have to do anything. In manual mode, the photographer has to adjust the lens' focus by hand. While both can produce great results in most circumstances, there are times when it's better to choose one over the other.

Auto Focus Pros and Cons

Advantages

  • It's automatic.

  • It's faster than manual focus.

  • Good for shooting moving subjects.

  • Good for beginners.

Disadvantages

  • Can cause some shutter lag if you don't pre-focus.

  • Can choose to focus on the wrong part of your subject.

  • Not as precise as manual.

Auto focus is generally faster and easier than setting the focus manually. It can lock onto a subject faster, as well. This makes it especially good for shooting moving subjects. If you're doing street photography, for example, you could only have mere seconds to capture your subjects. By the time you manually focus, they could move, and you'll lose your perfect shot.

That's not to say manual focus is bad for action photography. If you prefer to use manual focus on moving subjects, you can do so by pre-focusing on a spot you know the subjects will move through and shooting that location.

Depending on the DSLR model, a few different auto focus 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 auto focus continually adjusts to track it.
  • AF-A (auto-servo) allows the camera to choose which of the two auto focus 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 auto focus, 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 auto focus area command and move the focus point using the arrow keys.

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

Although shutter lag is usually minimal with a DSLR camera, the quality of the auto focus mechanism can determine just how much shutter lag your camera sees.

When using auto focus, you can negate shutter lag by pre-focusing on the scene. Press the shutter button halfway and hold it in that position until the camera's auto focus locks onto the subject. Then press the shutter button the remainder of the way to record the photo. The shutter lag should be eliminated.

Manual Focus Pros and Cons

Advantages

  • Allows for more precise focusing.

  • Better for macro and portrait shots.

  • Better for low-light photography.

Disadvantages

  • Slower than auto focus.

  • Makes action shots challenging.

Many professional photographers prefer to shoot in manual mode. That's because it gives more precise control over a shot's focus, making it a great choice in most situations where the subject isn't moving much. This is especially true for macro, portrait, and low-light photography. When using auto mode, your camera can sometimes choose to focus on the wrong part of your subject, ruining your shot.

With manual focus, use the palm of your left hand to cup the lens. Then use your left fingers to slightly twist the focus ring until the image is in sharp focus. Holding the camera properly is key when using 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.

You might 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.

How Do I Know Which Focus I'm Using?

To see what 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. 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.

Which Should I Choose?

If you're a new photographer, it's not a bad idea to use auto focus mode while you learn the ins-and-outs of your camera and work to improve your composition and lighting. But, at some point, you should learn to shoot in manual as well. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each will help you become a better photographer and give you more options when practicing your craft.