Why Should I Focus By Hand?

Why Should I Focus By Hand?

I mean –  I bought an expensive camera that has all the latest auto-focus pixels and sensors and that sort of thing. Isn’t focusing by hand something that the plebs do…?


Yes, it is. Plebs do it all the time. Also scientists, studio photographers, theatrical photographers, sports shooters, and macro workers. They are prepared to twist the focusing ring on the lens of their choice by hand – back and forth until they are satisfied with the look of the thing. They’re shameless that way.

Well, before you protest that they are letting to side down, consider the following:

a. In spite of all the improvements that the camera body makers put into their sensors and autofocus mechanisms to deal with poor light conditions, you can always get poorer light than your camera can cope with. The sun goes down over the horizon nearly every day…and darkness fills up the spots that you want to take pictures of on a regular basis. Even if you intend to banish that darkness with a strobe or Speedlight, you still need to get the image sharp on the sensor before you press the trigger.

b. Many manufacturers put aids to focusing in the form of rangefinders, enlarged central spots, LCD readouts, focus-confirmation dots, and arrows, etc. There are even some that give audible signals. ALL these are ways of telling what the lens is actually focused upon, and they will tell you if you have done it manually.

c. Your hand revolving a lens may be far quicker and far steadier than an electromagnetic drive mechanism. Once you get to the point of focus you may not want to – or need to – saw back and forth with the lens. One hit may be perfect.

d. Less to go wrong in a lens. A simple helix with dampening vs a complex drive motor. Survivability in the wild. No drain on the camera battery.

e. No need to try to steer some glowing rectangle in a viewfinder onto your point of primary focus. No dance of the hours with your fingers through a menu trying to get to the AF section and then to send the rectangle somewhere.

f. Same performance in cold or hot weather.

g. Sturdier helix and barrel construction compared to the lightweight elements that are needed when an electric motor drives the focus. Smaller barrel size as no space for a drive motor is needed.

I practise what I preach –  I can’t afford the Zeiss glass for my mirror-less camera but I do have several lenses that have effective manual settings built into the barrels – you pull the focusing ring back and just turn it at will. The lenses have accurate distance markers and DOF indications actually inscribed in their metal barrels. If I am in the dark and can form some opinion of the distance between me and the main subject, I can set the focus scale and depend upon it to do the trick…even if the AF mechanism has long since given up the fight for focus.

Note: You will see some shakiness in the featured image. It is not because the Zeiss lens is shaky. It is because they handed me one of these before  shot the pictures:


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