How to use manual focus accurately

My journey into film photography is leading me further and further down the rabbit hole. My current work has landed me waist deep in film photography. Throughout this journey I have steered clear of technology and gone fully manual. Throwing away auto focus can be a liberating experience. But, it doesn’t come without its challenges.

Some lenses lend themselves to manual focusing much more than others. Most DSLR lenses are built from the ground up to be used with high precision autofocus systems. A key indicator to how well the lens will perform while manual focusing is to check the focus throw. If this only moves a quarter of a turn in either direction then you are playing with a lens that does not want to be manually focused. Look for a long and well weighted focusing mechanism.

In this day and age of iPhone photography, manual focusing is almost a lost art. Just try giving a film camera to a friend who isn’t savvy with photography. You will end up with a lot of photos like this:

To get where you want to get to in photography it is important to understand where we came from.

Why use manual focus?

What are you focusing on? This is the key determining factor when you are deciding whether, or not to manually focus. Isn’t the auto focus more precise anyway? You say. Well this depends on two factors. What camera are you using and what are you shooting?

When using a film camera you will likely not have the option to use autofocus. Give up, you will be pulling focus yourself. Most digital cameras have fairly good autofocus systems so you can rely on them most of the time. But, we have all been in a situation where you are pushing that button to focus and you find it searching. One done, it lands on the wrong part of the image. This is where where manual focus comes in.

So lets remove the camera from the situation here and focus on situations when it is preferable to use manual focus. I tend to prefer to use manual focus in these situations:

  • Astro photography
  • Street photography
  • Landscape photography
  • Shooting through something
  • Portaits with glasses (shallow DOF)

At the end of the day auto focus is a great tool that is (nowadays) generally preferable to manual focussing. But, when I am in any of the situations above here is how I achieve accurate focus (almost) every time.

How to manually focus accurately:

There are basically two ways in which to manually focus your your camera. It largely depends on what you are taking photos of as to what method you use. They are as follows:

  • Focus racking
  • Rangefinding focus

Focus Racking

We will start with focus racking. It is the more difficult of the two. Essentially, you move the focus backwards and forwards until you achieve peak focus. It sounds easy but in practice is difficult to get correct.

Start by moving the focus from soft focus through the desired focus point and into soft focus again. Then move back past the area of sharp focus into slightly soft focus. Each time you pass the sharp area you want to refine your focus throw, reducing the back and forth.

As you hone in on the area of sharpness you should be only moving the focus a few millimeters either way until you achieve peak sharpness. This method is absolutely accurate when working with static subjects. However you can imagine the difficulties that can arise with a moving subject.

Rangefinding focus

I want to start by saying: any street photographer worth their salt should know how to focus using the rangefinder method. Using this method of focusing you use a combination of the distance and f-stop measurement on your lens to determine an area of focus.

Start by selecting an aperture that gives a decent depth of field somewhere around f8. The amount of area that is in focus depends on the distance between the front of your lens and the subject. If you plan on being around 1.5m from your subject when shooting then you can set this distance as your initial focal depth.

Now when reviewing the distance information on the top of the lens we can see that everywhere from about 1.2 – 2.5 metres (4 – 8 feet) will be in focus. Providing your shutter speed is fast enough you just need to walk within this distance to your subject then pop you’ve got the shot!

To see rangefinding focus in action you can see my first roll of film that I shot in my leica through a POV camera on youtube here.

Conclusion

Learning how to manually focus a lens will make you a better photographer. It’s as simple as that. It forces you to think about your subject, frame it and then build your image around it. Also, when you are unable to use autofocus you will be able to default to your manual skills!

I must stress that I do not manual focus all the time. There is an amazing autofocus system on most modern cameras but for instance with astrophotography there is no way that you can use it! Likewise with street photography, you don’t have the time to wait to focus then reframe. You’ll look up and your subject is gone. With multipoint autofocus you get a lot of sharp backgrounds and only a few sharp subjects!

So as a photographic tool, manual focus will always have a place. It is important that you learn how, and (more importantly) when, you should use it. Get out and get some practice on your next photographic outing. Share your results with me in the comments below I would love to hear how you got on!

Thanks for reading! I just have one ask of you. If you made it this far and liked this article, please let me know in the comments below. You can see what I am up to right now on any of my social accounts below. Also, if you’re in London, perhaps we can catch up for a shoot? I am always interested in collaboration projects!

Ben Kepka – Cultured Kiwi