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How To Use Manual Focus

written by: •edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 9/30/2009

The use of manual focus may frustrate beginners, but it's well worth the effort to learn how: perfect focus done with perfect control, every time you shoot, from macro photography to action shots. This article outlines how to use manual focus quickly and easily.

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    What is Manual Focus?

    Manual focus is exactly what is sounds like: setting the focus manually. Depending on the camera, this could be done either by adjusting the lens by hand, or by tinkering around with some buttons or dials that adjust the lens for you.

    Depending on the camera, focus can be set either by the physical distance, from a few millimeters to a few meters, or by a logarithmic scale.

    On most modern cameras, you can see how in or out of focus your camera is by consulting the LCD screen, rather than the viewfinder as in old cameras. Check carefully to see if the camera is focused on what you actually want it to be focused on, and make sure you keep the lens at the same distance from the subject at all times by keeping a steady grip without shaking.

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    Know Your Camera

    Before you start on even trying to use manual focus, take a good look through your camera manual. Every camera varies a bit as to the particulars of its manual focus, and many cameras have features that are unique to the camera and can't possibly be covered in a general article. See what's available for you to use.

    For instance, many cameras have a focusing mini-screen, which can show a magnified section of your shot so you can see if you really are in focus or not. After all, it's hard to tell on a tiny little LCD screen whether you've got the focus right or not.

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    Speeding Up The Process

    One of the biggest complaints that photographers have about using manual focus is that it takes so much more time to use than the auto focus. However, there's some easy tips to speed up the process somewhat.

    Guesstimate the distance between the lens and the object upon which you want to focus. This will give you a good idea of where to meter your shot and take some of the fiddling out of the focusing process.

    If you'll be trying to focus on something quickly, then it might be a good idea to try prefocusing your shot as well. This could mean simply focusing on something that's about the same distance away as your subject, for instance, the leaf upon which an ant is crawling.

    Another possibility is to use auto focus in junction with a manual focus to get you in the ballpark of where you need to be. So, the auto focus can get you roughly where you need to be, while the manual focus can fine tune the shot.

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    When To Use Manual Focus

    Just because you can use manual focus doesn't mean that it's always the most appropriate option - but on the other hand, there are numerous situations where manual focus really is the best option.

    Macro photography is where manual focus is the most useful, where getting that perfect focus can make or break your picture. Auto focus just can't detect the precise differences of a few millimeters when setting your focus—leaving it up to you to meter it yourself.

    Autofocus takes time—time that you may not have, if you're taking action shots of race cars and runners. If you set manual focus ahead of time, then your camera will be that much faster when it comes to take the shot.

    If you're using lenses, then the auto focus might get a little confused and not work as well, for instance, trying to focus on the lens instead of on the scene. Low light situations are also difficult for auto focus mechanisms to handle. Manual focus here might be your only option.