Autofocus vs. Manual Focus: When to Use Each for Crisper Photos

Whenever you’re taking photos, the goal often is maintaining as much control over your composition and camera as possible. Which raises a question: Is autofocus or manual focus better for keeping that control and making better photographs?

Macro Flowers Black and White

What is autofocus?

Autofocus is when the camera does the focusing for you based on the focal points you’ve chosen. If you are using full auto — meaning on the auto setting for your camera — you won’t have much say in where your camera decides to focus.

When you chose autofocus, the camera will decide where the focus is depending on which AF (autofocus) mode you chose. Below is a diagram showing these focal points on both a Canon and a Nikon camera.

Artist Rendered focal Points for nikon and canon

Each one of those dots are potential focal points, which can focus on the subject. While autofocus allows the camera to make the focusing decisions based on these points, you can often manipulate the focal point.

What is manual focus?

When it comes to manual focus, no manipulation is necessary: The control is solely in the user’s hands. When you manually focus, you hone in on the subject by turning focusing ring of your camera. It perhaps takes a little more patience, but if you like having total control over your images, it’s the better choice.

When to use each mode

Autofocus

Most cameras have three different AF modes: one-shot, continuous and automatic, and different situations call for different options.

  • One-shot autofocus keeps the focus where you place it for one shot. This is mostly used for objects that are not moving.
  • Continuous autofocus will track an object’s movement to keep the focus in the right place. This comes in handy when photographing moving subjects, like children at play.
  • The automatic function falls somewhere between the other two modes, depending on your subject’s motion. This can be handy if you’re unsure which to use or if you’re not sure whether the subject will stay still, such a sitting pet that could suddenly jump up. (There’s an automatic setting on most cameras, but the closest option on some DSLRs is Program or “P” mode.)

Manual focus

In low lighting when there’s little contrast between your subject and its surroundings, the camera has a hard time focusing on its own. Often, the camera never really settles on a focus point. This is a great time to use your manual focus.

If you know what you want to focus on but it falls between the autofocus’s pre-set focal points, manual focus is your answer. I often find this happens when focusing on a small area of my subject, such as the eyelashes in a close up. This also applies to macro photography, too, when a specific part of your subject needs to be in focus. In the image below, I used manual focus to capture the small dew drops on the flower petals.

Macro Flowers Black and White

Comparing autofocus vs. manual focus

Starting with the full automatic option will help you understanding exactly what autofocus is. In this setting, you give the camera control over the settings for each shot.

For example, if you’re photographing something with its back to the sun, the camera will evaluate the available light and take the shot. When shooting on Manual or “M” mode, you get to specify the settings.

Consider the difference between the following two photos. The first was taken in Program mode (my camera’s autofocus option), and the second was in Manual mode.

Program Mode Dragon Fly ExampleManual Mode Dragon Fly Example

The same goes for these two photos, in which the sun is in front of the subject:

Program Mode Dog ExampleManual Mode Dog Example

So the answer to the question of which is better? There’s no steadfast, black-and-white response. You’ll have to experiment and decide what works best for your situation.

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