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How to focus manually – top 20 tips

December 28, 2020

Manual-focus lenses can deliver superb results and you can get some real bargains at the moment, either used or new. Even if your lens has autofocus, AF may find it hard to lock on in low light for example, or you might need to focus manually when taking close-ups. Or when taking a long exposure landscape, using AF may not be appropriate. Angela Nicholson shares her top 20 tips for learning how to focus manually, speaking to a range of photographers.

Image credit Douglas Fry

Practice
Most of us are used to powering up our camera, composing the shot, then pressing the shutter release to get a sharp image. Manual-focus lenses take a little more effort. Douglas Fry has been shooting professionally for over 25 years. In 2000, he switched to using autofocus kit but he was never really happy with it and switched back to manual-focus lenses in 2014. He now uses them exclusively for around 300 commissions every year. His number-one tip is to practise focusing with manual-focus lenses. He says, ‘Practice is a priority – you get better and faster at focusing, so eventually you’re able to keep up with a moving subject. It’s just a case of knowing how fast and how far to rotate the focus ring to keep pace with your subject.’

Set the diopter
As you’re using your eyes to assess the focus when using a manual-focus lens, it’s essential that you get the best possible view and that the diopter on your camera’s viewfinder is set correctly. The little adjustment dials are easily knocked out of position on some cameras, so it’s worth checking your camera’s before you start shooting. It’s just a case of rotating the dial one way or the other until the point of focus is at its sharpest. Of course, this relies on the lens being focused, so it might be an idea to pop an autofocus lens on your camera just to check you’re happy.

Look for light
Just like an autofocus system, our eyes need to be able to see some detail or contrast to be able to focus. That means there needs to be some light and the point of focus probably shouldn’t be a featureless monotone panel. If the subject you are interested in lacks contrast or is in a dark area, consider moving it into some light or directing a light source towards it. Alternatively, focus on something in the light and with detail that is about the same distance away from the camera.

Image credit Jeremy Walker

Use live view mode
If you use a mirrorless camera, you shoot in live view mode permanently, which has some advantages for manual focusing (more on this later). If you’re using a DSLR, it’s worth considering activating the live view and composing the image on the screen on the back of your camera – you can’t use live view with a DSLR’s viewfinder. It’s not ideal to use the screen in all shooting situations, but it’s great for still life, landscape and macro photography – anything when the camera and subject are still.

Magnify
One big advantage of a live view feed is that you can zoom into the preview image to enlarge the most important part of the scene. This is a huge bonus when you’re focusing manually – provided that neither you nor your subject is moving. With some camera and lens combinations, the live view image automatically enlarges where the active AF point is (even though the camera/lens is set to manual focus) as soon as the focus is turned. That doesn’t happen with lenses that don’t have electrical contacts, but it’s often possible to customise a button to activate the magnification/zoom with a press.

Image credit Robert Pugh

Use focus peaking
Focus peaking is another useful feature of mirrorless cameras and some DSLRs in live view mode. When this is activated, the camera highlights the points of highest contrast on the screen (or in the viewfinder with a mirrorless camera). The highest contrast areas are usually the points of sharpest focus, so you can use peaking to guide your focusing. It’s usually possible to set the focus peaking indicator to one of a small selection of colours – white, red and yellow are common. Ideally, select a colour that contrasts well with the scene you’re photographing.

Focus wide-open
Some manual-focus lenses close down to the shooting aperture at the point of capture, but not all do. If you have to manually close the aperture on a lens, close it after you’ve focused. As well as giving you the brightest possible view while you focus, the depth of field is at its most limited, which means that you see the strongest difference between what’s in and out of focus.

Image credit Jeremy Walker

Use hyperfocal distance focusing
The hyperfocal distance is that magical focus distance at which the lens produces the maximum possible depth of field at any given aperture. You can use this technique with any lens, but the focusing scale on most manual-focus lenses makes it easy. All you need to do is decide the aperture you want to use, then on the focus scale, line up one of the two markers for that aperture with the infinity symbol. The other marker for the aperture indicates the closest point of focusing. Landscape photographer Jeremy Walker says, ‘I routinely use hyperfocal distance focusing to get
the best from my Zeiss Milvus and Leica lenses. Some photographers prefer to focus on a specific subject in the scene, but I like to think in terms of depth of field.’

Focus and move
The focus-and-move technique is especially useful with macro lenses, particularly when you want to get the greatest magnification possible. Simply set the lens to its closest focusing point and move the camera forwards (or backwards) until the point that you want to be in focus is perfectly sharp. You only need to make very small movements to have a dramatic effect with a macro lens, so it can help to have the camera mounted on a micro positioning plate on a tripod. This enables you to move the camera very gradually by turning a screw thread.

Pre-focus
Manual-focusing masters such as Douglas Fry have no trouble focusing on fast-moving subjects, but even he recommends pre-focusing when you know where your subject is going to appear. With the focusing done, you can check the exposure and concentrate on getting the composition just right when the subject arrives.

Image credit Douglas Fry

Set the optimum settings
Manual-focus lenses are great for street photography because, with a little preparation, you can shoot instinctively. The first step is to decide what aperture you want to use; f/8 makes a good starting point because it produces reasonable depth of field. Then, either set the focus scale to focus on a point you find works well for your subject and lens – for example, 2m – or set the lens to the hyperfocal distance (see tip number 8).

Then, set a shutter speed that freezes any accidental camera movement but doesn’t require a very high sensitivity (ISO). A shutter speed of 1/60sec or 1/125sec is a good choice for handheld street photography. Finally, set the sensitivity to automatic so that you don’t need to worry about having to keep changing the settings – you can just concentrate on the composition and getting the subject within your focus range. Once you’re comfortable with this set-up, you don’t even need to lift the camera to your eye, you can shoot with the camera at your hip or any other level.

Try something different
All Lensbaby lenses are manual focus, and while they can produce ‘straight’ images, their magic is in the creative effects they can create. Wedding and portrait photographer Robert Pugh regularly uses a Lensbaby Twist 60 on his Sony full-frame cameras for engagement, wedding and portrait shoots, because he loves the swirl effect it creates towards the edges of the image. He explains, ‘I like to shoot something a bit different and to do the work in-camera. It saves me time editing my images and when I show my client a shot or two on the back of my camera during the shoot, it helps them loosen up and enjoy themselves, so we get even better images.’

Picture credit Robert Pugh

Get technical
Manual-focus lenses offer a couple of technical advantages over autofocus lenses that tend to get overlooked. For instance, if you’re shooting a series of images to stitch together to make a panorama, you can’t forget to turn off the AF and the focus won’t shift halfway through the sequence. So next time you plan to create such an image, maybe reach for a manual-focus lens. Also, unlike autofocus lenses, some manual-focus lenses have markings to indicate how the focus needs to be adjusted for infrared photography – that’s handy if you have an IR adapted camera.

Switch focusing screen
Back in the days of film, we used to swap focusing screens like camera straps. We bought one that we liked and suited our purposes. A split image focusing screen, for example, makes it easier to see when you’ve nailed the focus manually. If you’re shooting with a film camera, it’s definitely worth investigating whether it can accept a different screen and seeing what options are available. It’s far less common to change the focusing screen in a digital camera, but if you hunt around on the internet, they can be found for some models.

Use a loupe
Many people find it easier to concentrate on the composition of their images when surrounding distractions are excluded from the view – in other words, when they use the viewfinder rather than the screen. However, if you want to use live view on a DSLR, you have to use the screen. A screen loupe basically turns the screen on the back of camera into a large viewfinder, cutting out any distractions and, most importantly, cutting out reflections so it’s easier to see details and focus manually. Alternatively, look for a viewfinder magnifier that will slip on
to your camera’s viewfinder instead of the eyecup to give you a clearer view of the scene when you focus.

Get an adapter
There are literally thousands of second-hand manual-focus lenses available to buy, with many costing less than £50. If you hunt around charity shops, you may be lucky and find some treasure for even less. Then all you need to use them on your modern camera is an adapter. SRB Photographic is a great port of call for these: they sell a huge range, with prices starting at around £16. And once you have an adapter, you’ll have a new hobby – looking for additional lenses to mount on it.

Image credit Jeremy Walker

Shoot continuously
I’m not a fan of the phrase ‘spray and pray’, but it can be helpful to set your camera to continuous-shooting mode in some situations. When you’ve prefocused, for example, if your subject is moving very quickly, you might not be able to time your shot as perfectly as you’d like, so shooting at a few frames per second can really help. However, part of the beauty of using a manual-focus lens is that it helps you engage with your subject and photography, so don’t shoot in continuous-drive mode at the expense of developing that connection.

Image credit Robert Pugh

Embrace the flaws
If you spend a fiver on an old lens and it turns out to have the best optical quality you’ve ever seen, fantastic! Thank your lucky stars. But the chances are, it’s been around a while and is a little battered. And, of course, it may never have been that good in the first place. Modern production methods and advanced coatings mean that we are really spoiled by the lenses of today. Older lenses may be rather soft and suffer from heavy vignetting, chromatic aberration and flare. But rather than fight it, enjoy these aspects of your lens. Turn it towards the sun so that the light bounces around inside, use the vignetting to frame your subject and learn to love the fringing. You’re shooting with the real deal, not adding effects on the computer after the event.

Try a modern manual lens
While there are lots of great second-hand and vintage manual-focus lenses, there are quite a few in current production, too. Zeiss, for example, makes some fabulous manual-focus lenses for modern cameras, Leica’s M-range is entirely manual focus and Voigtländer has some gems. One of the benefits of opting for a modern manual-focus lens is that the manufacturer has ploughed all their knowhow into the optics to create the best image quality they can for the money.

Image credit Dougas Fry

Take your time
All three of the professional photographers mentioned in this article love using manual-focus lenses. And one of the reasons why they love them is because they feel that by focusing manually, they are drawn further into the process of creating their images, so they become more important to them and they enjoy their photography more.

As Jeremy Walker explains, ‘I’m a landscape photographer, so my subjects don’t move much and I can take my time when composing the image. I find that using a manual-focus lens helps me to think much more carefully about what I want to say about a scene, how much depth of field I want and which aperture I need to use. It’s an enjoyable process that has certainly benefited my photography – and if I could give only one piece of advice to anyone who’s thinking of using a manual-focus lens, it would be to slow down and take your time.’

Further reading
Master manual focus, exposure and flash