Advanced Tutorial 3
Focus is obviously an essential element of all photography, and modern digital cameras boast amazing automatic systems to take care of it for you. However, there are many occasions where Manual Focus techniques will always be preferable – and some where mastery of this skill will prove essential…
‘Full Manual’ Part Three – Focus
In the final part of our trio of tutorials on getting to grips with your camera’s Manual controls, we are looking at when it might be necessary to abandon the camera’s Auto Focus system and grasp that Manual Focus (MF) control ring.
Perfect manual focusing takes practice, but knowing when to use it is largely dependent on the shooting subject and its environment.
When to switch to Manual Focus
A good Auto Focus (AF) system on a camera is fast – extremely fast when the shooting conditions are right. So, unsurprisingly, focusing manually in the same conditions requires good reflexes and skilled control of the focus ring on your part.
Conditions are not always ideal for the camera’s own AF system to get the focus right, however – so let’s take a look at some examples of when MF might be preferable.
1. Low-light conditions
When lighting is poor, even the most high-end camera’s AF system may well struggle to find enough contrast to lock focus, so will keep moving in and out of sharp.
It will often be quicker to focus manually – and of course you will have more control over the point of focus.
2. Shooting through fencing or other obstacles
It’s an age-old problem: trying to shoot through a barrier – such as photographing animals in enclosures at the zoo, where there is often a wire mesh or glass in the way. Invariably, your camera’s AF system will focus on the offending barrier, not the subject you want.
So, switching to manual will allow you to focus right through it.
The same can be said for any obstacle that appears in the foreground of a shot and is not your focal point, such as the nearby foliage in this garden pond shot.
3. High-speed action
When subjects are moving fast, it can be difficult for an AF system to keep up with the action. Even continuous AF may have a tough time.
In this case, switch to MF, pre-focus on a point in the foreground that you expect the subject to travel through, select a narrow aperture – to increase your chances of hitting the focus spot – and wait for your subject to arrive!
It may take a few goes to get your timing right, but practice makes perfect.
4. Macro shooting
Shooting ‘macro’ means you are often very close to a physically small subject and using a wide aperture, which makes it extremely difficult to control the focus point.
It is quite possible that AF will miss the point of interest (especially if it is not in the centre of the frame), so MF is almost a must. You will be in complete control of the focus point and, if your subject moves slightly, you can quickly and easily re-focus.
5. Still life or portraits
For still life or portrait shots, focusing speed is not normally an issue.
You often have more time to set up the shot and the subject may well be static anyway, allowing you to carefully choose your focus point and take multiple exposures. So AF can work fine – however, when there is no time pressure, don’t forget that Manual Focus often gives better control and, ultimately, produces the better shot.
How to set Manual Focus
Selecting MF can be done via your camera’s focus control.
On some models, this will be a control dial; on others it can be found in the focus setup menu screen.
As focus is all about ensuring that your subject image is sharp and defined, firstly use the ‘diopter’ control to make sure the camera viewfinder is set perfectly to suit your own eyesight.
Useful Manual Focus aids
Some cameras include features designed to help with MF when using ‘Live View’ mode:
The LUMIX Advantage
Panasonic LUMIX G cameras include both Focus Peaking and Focus Assist, and as LUMIX offers ‘Full-time Live View’ this means these functions are always available.
The magnification factor for Focus Assist can be set to 4x, 5x or 10x – in order that fine details can be more easily seen. The area for checking can also be easily moved or enlarged by using the touch-screen feature on the LCD screen.
Another excellent feature is ‘AF + MF’ mode. This enables you to use Auto Focus for instant focusing, but then manually fine-tune by using the focus control ring. But, if fine-point focusing is what you are looking for, LUMIX models also offer ‘Pinpoint AF’, which uses a fine cross-hair focus point. Combine that with ‘Full Area Focusing’ and, frankly, you may never need MF at all.
Hone your manual focusing skills by experimenting – activate your camera’s ‘Peak Focusing’ function and switch to MF mode. Practise focusing on different subjects, both indoors and outside, and try out your pre-focusing technique on a moving subject, such as a passing car.
So, that completes our three-part guide to using your camera’s manual controls; next, we will move onto its specialist functions. Don’t forget that the many automatic functions built into cameras these days usually do a very good job – but it certainly is good to have the full creative freedom that using your camera on Full Manual can bring.
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