When To Disable Autofocus :: Digital Photo Secrets

When To Disable Autofocus

by David Peterson 2 comments

There’s no doubt that the invention of autofocus has pushed photography forward. Most modern autofocusing systems are extremely sophisticated and accurate. They can focus on the area of interest much faster than you can with the naked eye, and in most cases, they do a better job. Having said that, they are nowhere near perfect for all situations. Here are a few reasons why you might want to use manual focus instead.

There are two big reasons to disable autofocus. You either need to be extremely precise with the focus, or your camera is starting to get confused (do you hear the whirring as your camera tries to find a spot to focus on? That’s the confusion). This can happen in a variety of situations. Let’s have a look at a few of them.

Disable autofocus when you’re shooting action

Moving subjects are very difficult for autofocus to “comprehend.” By the time your camera has focused on the subject, it’s out of the frame. That’s not very useful when your subject is quickly moving by, and you need to capture an image.

By switching to manual focus mode, you can point your lens at a point where you think the action will happen. Make sure it’s in focus, and when the person doing the action passes by your spot, start snapping photos. This can really help when you’re shooting in continuous mode. Because you’re using manual focus, your camera doesn’t “try” to focus on anything before you take the picture. It just keeps snapping away.

Disable autofocus in low light situations

Whether you want to do this depends on your camera. Night time autofocus is getting better, but it’s still far away from where it needs to be. To use autofocus at night, your camera shines a light in front of it and attempts to find your subject. More expensive cameras use infrared light, so you don't normally see it. Sometimes this works like a charm. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s just incredibly slow.

If your camera can’t lock onto your subject, switch to manual mode. After all, you know where your subject is located. A few twists, and you should be there.

Disable autofocus when taking pictures very close up (macro mode)

We just covered two situations where you’re disabling autofocus because it simply doesn’t work. Now we’ll look at few where switching to manual focus can give you more control. One of them is macro photography.

When you’re shooting macro, you need to have a very precise degree of control over the area you want to be in-focus. Macro lenses, by their nature give you a very shallow depth of field, meaning much of less of the image will be in-focus by default. If you were to attempt to use autofocus with a marco lens, you’d end up spending a ton of time trying to hone in on a very small portion of the frame.

Why not switch to manual focus so you can make the tiny adjustments you need to make to get the shot just right? Don’t forget to use a tripod too. Your adjustments will be so tiny that the smallest camera movement can destroy your work.

Disable autofocus when taking portraits

Portraits are another special case. Most portraits, whether you can see it or not, have a very specific area of focus. It’s usually the eyes, but it could something else of interest. When you’re working in automatic focus mode, you don’t have the same amount of control. The camera usually ends up focusing somewhere on the face, and that might end up being nowhere near the area you’re the most concerned about.

By switching over to manual focus mode, you can focus more precisely on the eyes. This is especially handy when you’re using a very wide aperture to blur out some of the background. As your aperture increases in size, the depth of field decreases, and that makes precise focusing even more important. Nobody wants to see a nose perfectly in-focus while the eyes remain a blur. Manual focus helps you prevent that from happening.

There are other times when you’ll want to use manual focus instead of autofocus, but I’ve found these to be the main ones. Just ask yourself the following and you’ll know right away.

“Does the image require highly precise focusing? Will my subject be poorly lit and/or moving?”

If the answer is “yes,” it’s time to switch to manual focus mode.

Do you have any photos you’ve taken with manual focus? Show them off and send them my way! I’m always excited to have a look at your work.

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  1. Jocelynne says:

    Thank you for your most excellent information programme. Great suggestions and tips. Useful for the beginner and the professional.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.