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Manual Focus versus Auto Focus - Which Camera Mode Should You Use?

written by: Misty Faucheux•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 3/9/2010

Manual Focus and Auto Focus create very different types of photographs. Learn what camera mode you should use for photographing sporting events or taking a picture of the daisy in the field.

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    Which Camera Mode Should You Use?

    Deciding when to use manual focus and when to use auto focus can be rather confusing. When you use auto focus, the camera decides what to emphasize in the picture. You can readjust the auto focus by holding down the shutter button, but other than that, you have very little control. For more serious photographs, most professionals use manual focus. Manual focus provides them with more control and the ability to set up the shot the way they want it.

    If you do decide to use manual focus, you have complete control. You decide where to set your focus. Manual focus, however, is much more labor intensive.

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    When to Use Auto Focus

    Both auto focus and manual focus can be useful. Auto focus, however, is mostly recommended for regular, daily snapshots and also for quick shots. For example, while some people use manual focus for sporting events, auto focus can make for better action shots since you don't have time to set up the photograph.

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    Obscured Shots

    If you've ever shot through something like a window, you know that auto focus can sometimes get confused. Oftentimes the auto focus will emphasize the window as opposed to what's outside of it. With manual focus, you can concentrate of the subject. This makes your shots clearer and sharper.

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    Portraits and Low-light Photographs

    Manual focus is also great for portraits. Auto focus will often accentuate aspects of a person's face that shouldn't be accentuated. Manual focus allows the photographer to accentuate the entire face instead of just the nose or cheek. Since the face and the eyes are the most important part of a portrait, manual focus will allow you to concentrate on these features.

    Manual focus should definitely be used for low-light photographs. Auto focus has trouble finding subjects when there's little to no light. Using manual focus will make your shots less noisy.

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    Nature Photography

    Nature photographers almost always use manual focus when taking pictures of animals and landscapes. With manual focus, you control the shot and can focus on, for example, the flower in front of the deer as opposed to the deer itself. With auto focus, this is very difficult to do. You will definitely obtain clearer and sharper images when using manual focus for nature photography.

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    Practice Before You Begin

    There is one caveat to manual focus; you need to practice taking photographs using manual focus. With auto focus, the camera does all the work for you. And, for many people, this is the preferred mode since their eyes may not be as sharp as their viewfinder. But, with manual focus, you do all the work. So, you need to practice before you start taking photographs in that mode.