The MF Advantage

Compact cameras and even some DSLRs struggle to lock focus in low light, thus making it important to use manual focus. Exposure: 15sec at f/8 (ISO 100). Photograph/Raj Lalwani

Compact cameras and even some DSLRs struggle to lock focus in low light, thus making it important to use manual focus. Exposure: 15sec at f/8 (ISO 100). Photograph/Raj Lalwani

Raj Lalwani tells you 14 compelling situations in which you should switch off that sophisticated autofocus system, and use manual focus (MF) instead.

Years ago, photographers would look at a scene and turn the focusing ring to bring it slowly into focus. Nowadays, all you need to do is point and shoot. But then, there are some situations in which it would be better to use MF even today.

To Understand the Scene
Imagine shooting a busy scene that has a lot of people in the frame—some in the foreground and others in the background. Depending on which part of the picture is in focus, every scene can be interpreted in multiple ways. Manual focus helps survey a scene. Turn the ring and watch different pictures forming through your viewfinder before you decide which one to click!

When Light Levels Fall
The moment the light levels dip, autofocus becomes sluggish and inaccurate. Also, while using techniques like star trails and light painting, our eyes may see the stars in the sky, but the camera will not know where to focus.

For Dull Subjects
Even in bright light, the AF system struggles to lock in scenes that have low contrast, thus needing the use of manual focus.

Prefocusing for Action
Manually prefocus at a point where you expect the subject to pass. Then, fire the shutter when the subject enters the zone of focus. Since the camera does not have to hunt for focus, this actually gives you a better chance of getting a sharp shot!

To Capture the Moment
As photographers, there are a lot of variables we need to think of—choice of focus, framing, timing and so on. If we remove one variable out of the question, it actually makes things simpler. A narrow aperture like f/16 and setting the focus to the hyperfocal distance will mean that everything is sharp, and will let you concentrate on capturing the moment.

To Experiment with Out of Focus Imagery
AF systems are designed to capture sharp images, so if you wish to break the rules and capture beautiful blurry lights and forms, manual focus is what you need.

While Shooting Through Obstacles
Autofocus systems get fooled while shooting through objects like glass, wire meshes, cloth or the bars of a cage. So whether you are shooting through the windshield of a moving vehicle or a portrait of a caged animal at the zoo, it is best to use MF all the way.

Capturing Close-ups
The problem with using AF while shooting macros is that even slight inaccuracy may result in an unsharp image. Depth-of-field is very shallow at such close magnifications, which is why you should use a tripod and focus manually. You may need to physically move your camera closer to your subject or further away from it.

When Silence is of Essence
The AF motors of most consumer lenses are loud, which is counterproductive in situations that need silence. Manual focus is handy while shooting concerts, animals or portraits on the sly.

When Your Subject is Dwarfed
When the main subject is a tiny spot in front of a dominant background, the camera’s AF system may get fooled and focus on the background instead.

For Scenes That Have Recurring Elements
Imagine standing in an expansive field, with flowers all around. Manual focus is ideal for shooting recurring elements as you then have complete control over which flowers are in focus.

At the Wide End
While using wide lenses, the use of AF can get awkward since the subject is only a speck. If the camera’s AF point is larger than the size of the subject, the camera may focus on the background instead.

While Using Creative Techniques Since panoramas are created by stitching multiple images, each picture should be focused at the same distance.
High Dynamic Range photographs are created by digitally combining two or more exposures. With both techniques, it would be problematic if one picture has the focus on the foreground, while the other has focused on a mountain in the background!

To Be a Better Photographer
It is a great way for you to practise your skills! Even if it does not give you great results to begin with, you will understand your equipment more. Also, it slows you down, and ensures that you examine the scene carefully before you actually click.
The best thing about using manual focus is that such constraints encourage you to think and make you more creative!

The article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue of Better Photography.

Tags: Shooting Technique, Better Pictures, Raj Lalwani, Composition, manual focus, may 2011