How To Use Manual Focus

Manual focusing is a skill that can transform your photography. It encourages you to consider your subject carefully, compose thoughtfully, and construct your image intentionally. And when autofocus fails you – as it inevitably will at times, you’ll be able to fall back on your manual skills!

How to use manual focus

My own journey into film photography has led me down a fascinating path, one that has seen me opt for full manual control over my images. This might seem daunting, but I assure you, it’s a liberating experience.

In the realm of DSLR lenses, most are designed from the ground up for use with high-precision autofocus systems. However, some are more conducive to manual focusing than others.

The key is to evaluate the focus throw – if it only moves a quarter turn in either direction, it’s a lens that’s not particularly suited for manual focusing. Instead, you’ll want a lens with a long and well-weighted focusing mechanism.

In a world where iPhone photography reigns supreme, manual focus might seem like a lost art. Hand a top-notch film camera to a friend unfamiliar with photography, and you’ll likely end up with a collection of blurry shots. But remember, understanding our roots in photography is crucial to our growth and development.

The Power of Manual Focus

What you’re focusing on plays a significant role in determining whether to use manual focus. You might be thinking, “Isn’t autofocus more accurate?” The answer depends on two factors: what camera you’re using and what you’re shooting.

Film cameras typically don’t offer the option to use autofocus. So, you’re left to your own devices, or manual focusing. Most digital cameras have decent autofocus systems that are reliable most of the time.

However, we’ve all experienced those moments when the camera’s autofocus keeps searching, only to focus on the wrong part of the image. This is where manual focus becomes invaluable.

Let’s put the camera aside for a moment and focus on situations where it’s advantageous to use manual focus. I personally prefer to use manual focus in these instances:

  • Astrophotography
  • Street photography
  • Landscape photography
  • Shooting through something
  • Portraits with glasses (shallow DOF)

mastering manual focus

While autofocus is generally preferable due to its convenience, in the situations above, I’ve found manual focus to be a reliable ally, helping me achieve accurate focus almost every time.

Mastering Manual Focus

There are two primary methods to manually focus your camera. The choice between them largely depends on your subject. They are as follows:

  • – Focus racking
  • – Rangefinding focus

Focus Racking

Focus Racking

Starting with focus racking, this is the more challenging of the two. Essentially, you move the focus back and forth until you achieve peak focus. It sounds simple, but it can be tricky to execute perfectly.

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


Any seasoned street photographer should master the art of rangefinding focus. This method relies on a combination of distance and f-stop measurements on your lens to establish 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 meters (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!


Mastering manual focus will undeniably make you a better photographer. It compels you to think about your subject, compose it, and build your image around it. Plus, when autofocus fails, you can always rely on your manual skills!

In the world of photography, manual focus will always have its place. It’s crucial to understand how and when to use it. Practice on your next photographic adventure and share your results in the comments below. I’m eager to hear about your experience!

Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed this article, let me know in the comments below. You can also follow my ongoing adventures on my social accounts. If you’re in London, perhaps we could arrange a shoot? I’m always open to collaborative projects!

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