10 Reasons to Choose Manual Focus Over Autofocus When Shooting Photos

Anya Zhukova 30-05-2018

Every beginner photographer, even those who have read our guide to digital photography, knows the struggle of capturing sharp and in-focus images. You can argue that today, autofocus takes care of those issues. All you have to do is point and shoot. But that isn’t always the case.


Have you ever been frustrated by great photos ruined because they were out of focus? Maybe it’s time for you to start using manual focus over autofocus. And in this article we give you several practical reasons to do so.

1. You Can Shoot in Any Light Conditions

10 Reasons to Choose Manual Focus Over Autofocus When Shooting Photos light trails flickr
Image Credit: Ryan Yang/Flickr

One of the most obvious reasons is that manual focus enables you to shoot in any light conditions. Making manual focus the best option for low light photography An Illuminating Guide to Low Light Photography If photography is about capturing light, how do you take photos when light is scarce? Read More . When using autofocus, your lens will keep searching for something to lock its focus on. Often without much success.

Even if your camera has a focus lamp, it probably won’t do you much good late at night. Ever tried using a torch on your subject in order to get your camera to focus on it? Because that’s about the only way to make it work with autofocus.

Don’t want the presence of artificial light in your picture? Or looking to photograph the night sky and capture light trails How to Take Photos With Light Trails in 5 Easy Steps It's simple to shoot photos with light trails. Here are some helpful tips for shooting light trails with your phone. Read More ? Then manual focus is your best friend.


2. You Can Shoot in Low Contrast

You have probably noticed that your camera struggles to focus on certain subjects even in bright light. If you’re shooting something that has similar colors, tones, and textures to the background you’re shooting it against (like a plain wall), your lens can struggle in autofocus mode.

When you’re taking a picture of a wooden table against a wooden wall, switching to manual will give you more control over what should be the point of focus in your shot.

3. No More Struggling With Macro Photography

When working with a small depth of field, you want to avoid even the slightest errors in focusing, as it can easily ruin your macros. When the depth of field is so shallow, your lens will struggle to focus because it simply won’t find something to focus on. Using manual focus enables you to make small adjustments until you’re absolutely happy with how sharp your subject looks.

Here, switching to manual (and using a tripod if possible) will allow you to create flawless macros How To Get Started With Macro Photography Read More that don’t lack sharpness.


4. Get Around Obstacles Blocking Your Subject

10 Reasons to Choose Manual Focus Over Autofocus When Shooting Photos zoo image flickr
Image Credit: Natasha Hermann/Flickr

If you’re shooting a subject that’s blocked by something placed in front of it, autofocus can also prove unhelpful. Say, for example, you’re taking pictures of animals at a zoo, or exhibits at a museum, or if you’re taking pictures of something through a window. Autofocus will most likely pick the obstacle over your subject and it will look like the glass was your point of interest.

Manual focusing will help you avoid this completely. Switch off autofocus if you want to get your focus just right, but on the subject behind the glass or fence. You can even make sure the obstacle is not noticeable in your shot at all. For that, you’ll need to adjust the aperture so it’s at a wider setting (which will reduce the depth of field) and get as close as possible to that fence or glass blocking your subject.

5. You Can Shoot Silently

Have you ever been in a situation when you’re annoyed by the loud sound your camera makes when you take a picture? Like, when shooting a concert, or taking candid pictures of animals or people while trying to be discreet? That sound is the autofocus motor inside your camera.


If you ever need to take pictures in total silence, manual focus is the way to go.

6. Capture Fast-Moving Objects Accurately

This one might seem confusing to some. One of the advantages of having and using a quick autofocus system is capturing fast moving objects. However, sometimes even when you do the planning and use continuous focus, it can be tricky to get that one perfect shot.

If you know that your subject will pass a certain point, it’s always better to pre-focus and wait for the action to take place. All you need to do is fire the shutter at the right moment, just before your subject gets into the frame.

Using manual, you won’t lose time in focusing, which means you’ll have a better chance of getting the a perfectly sharp shot. It’s a good technique for capturing sports action or taking pictures of animals or cars that are moving quickly.


7. Create Flawless Panoramas and HDR Photographs

10 Reasons to Choose Manual Focus Over Autofocus When Shooting Photos HDR flickr
Image Credit: Ahmad Rithauddin/Flickr

Shooting HDR work or panoramas requires taking a series of pictures and then merging them together. Using manual focus (and a tripod) is an absolute necessity if you’re aiming to create high-quality photographs.

After all, you don’t want a part of your panorama to have the background in focus when the rest of the image has a river in the foreground in focus. Similarly, when creating an HDR image you want to make sure the same element is in focus and all the shots line up. Which is only possible if you’re focusing manually on your subject(s).

8. Create Better Portraits

Whether it’s someone else’s portrait or a selfie you want to get right 8 Fundamental Selfie Tips for Taking Better Pictures of Yourself Anybody can take a selfie, but do you have what it takes to shoot a really great and flattering picture of yourself? That's a trickier skill to master—these selfie tips will help. Read More , your focus needs to be precise.

Often you’ll need to have people’s eyes in perfect focus. Using manual focus here will not just give you complete control over it, but also save you a significant amount of time from having to line up your focus points on the eyes, press halfway down, and frame the shot every single time.

Using manual focus is especially important if we’re talking about specific types of photography like multiple exposure portraits. Similar to HDR, it involves taking a series of shots that you’ll then merge together. Unless you’re shooting against a plain background, focusing manually will ensure that the right element of your portrait is in focus and is the same on each shot you take.

9. Make Your Landscape Shots Perfectly Sharp

Getting the perfect landscape photographs Get Perfect Landscape Photos Using Exposure Blending Uneven landscape photos getting you down? Get a balanced exposure without resorting to HDR using exposure blending — here's how. Read More can be extremely difficult but is definitely worth the effort.

In order to get everything in your picture sharp, you should find the hyperfocal distance. It’s the closest point at which you can focus and still keep the edge of your background acceptably sharp.

Imagine finding that perfect point only to have it ruined when using autofocus as soon as it refocuses your shot once you press the shutter. Sounds painful, doesn’t it? Focusing manually will keep that point of focus locked. Even if you don’t see a huge difference between the two on your camera or laptop, you’ll be grateful for using manual focus if you ever wish to print your images in large size.

10. Capture Intentionally Out-of-Focus Images

10 Reasons to Choose Manual Focus Over Autofocus When Shooting Photos out of focus flickr image
Image Credit: Peng Zhang/Flickr

Our final reason should go without saying. Even if sharp images aren’t what you’re looking for, you should still use manual focus for the best results. For example, if you want to make your pictures (or parts of them) intentionally blurred.

Manual Focus vs. Autofocus: It’s Up to You

At the end of the day, the choice between using autofocus and manual focus is still yours to make. On many occasions, using autofocus requires less time and effort. And sometimes you can still take great pictures using autofocus.

The best possible option is understanding how manual focus and autofocus work How Does Autofocus Actually Work? Autofocus is a feature of modern cameras that's easy to take for granted, but have you ever stopped to ask yourself how it works? How does your smartphone do it so easily? Read More in order to know when it’s best to substitute one with the other. Manual focus is usually more reliable, if you don’t need the convenience of autofocus.

Related topics: Focus, Photography.

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  1. paco_gringo
    July 16, 2018 at 8:30 pm

    I've got some new techniques to try now! Thank you!

  2. dragonmouth
    May 30, 2018 at 6:34 pm

    Wasn't it the claim of automatic digital cameras when they hit the market that they will eliminate these problems for us? Or was that just BS from marketing flacs designed to convince the public to buy the latest and the greatest cameras? Now you are recommending that we go back to the manual cameras. The old becomes the new.

    Don't blame the tool for the problems. Blame the person using the tool. A skilled photographer can take good pictures with a Kodak Brownie while a hack couldn't a picture with the $10,000 Nikon or Canon.