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Benefits Of A Manual Focus Lens

Technology is advancing at such a quick pace it may be hard to imagine any purpose for using a manual focus lens in 2020. All major manufacturers are developing their quickest, most accurate AF systems that we have ever seen. This includes Fujifilm’s phase detect which pioneered accurate focus systems for mirrorless cameras just a handful of years ago and paved the way for face and eye detect algorithms. Even animal eyes are now trackable by the latest systems, resulting in more accurate images being captured across most photography genres.

As photographers, we perhaps tend to lean towards shooting ever more quickly, capturing more fps and ‘getting the shot’ by utilising ever faster gear all round. However, there are a lot of valid reasons for rewinding by just a few decades worth of technology, to the early 1980’s when autofocus first appeared on SLR’s. It’s worth noting that just about all photographers were using manual focus lenses prior 1980 for all subjects including he greats, such as masters of documentary Don McCullin and Steve McCcurry, landscape photographer Ansel Adams and too many amazing female photographers including Cindy Sherman and Margaret Bourke-White. What these all have in common is capturing timeless images, still admired and discussed today. None of them used autofocus lenses, despite capturing war images, portraits and fast moving subjects.

Why would a manual focus lens help in 2020?

Extreme bokeh with manual focus fast aperture Noct lens

Extreme out of focus bokeh with manual focus fast aperture Noct lens
The argument for using manual focus revolves around taking your time and developing an artistic eye, above always capturing and never missing a shot. The concentration required on the actual moment when an image is created is increased no end when manually focussing. There is a deliberate and involved process which takes practice and attentiveness in ensuring accurate focus is achieved when all aids are removed. This allows the photographer to immerse themselves in the art, or the craft of making a picture. Being fully immersed within the subject and moment can help when photographers are trying to portray a moment to the viewer. After all, are we not generally shooting something which has a meaning, visual appeal or story that we are trying to convey to others? Here are some ideas for which genres are most suitable...


Manual focus in landscape photography

Manual focus was used in this low contrast misty scene to gain 100% accuracy

Landscape is a genre which has been around since the beginning of photography and even today, the most accomplished landscape photographers swear by manual focus. Reasons for this include getting pin point accuracy on where we are directing the viewer, never missing focus due to the camera picking the wrong point and relying on our eye rather than equipment. This has not changed since the earliest days and will not despite advancements in tech such as focus stacking or AF. When looking at a scene we can be 100s of metres from our subject and manually focussing is often critical, especially if employing hyperlocal distances for maximum depth. Zeiss manufacturer the Milvus range of manual only optics, and include several ideal for landscape including the 25mm f/1.4 ZE for Canon and Milvus 18mm f/2.8 ZF.2 for Nikon. There is no doubt that these are at the very pinnacle of optical design, yet are entirely manual focus. The range is quite broad with glass up to 135mm long for telephoto subjects.

Artistic styles and shallow depth of field
Freelensing is a niche genre that has been around for a few years, involving removing the lens from the camera body in order to isolate the subject with a thin depth of field. The idea is to capture creative ‘dreamy’ images with clear subject focus and imaginative softer out of focus areas. Some ‘defocus’ lenses such as Canon’s RF 85mm f/1.2L USM DS Lens or Nikon’s AF DC-Nikkor 105mm f/2D aim to create similar effects directly from the lens, with their ultra thin depth of field and wide apertures. There is an advantage to manually focussing even with these advanced optics, and that is because of the ultra thin depth of field. Even the most advanced AF system can focus a few millimetres away from where we want our focus to be, and a few mm can make all the difference at f/1.8 for example. Doing the job manually ensures photographers get focus right where they want it, not a mm out.

Macro and closeup photography with manual focus

Using manual focus for thin depth of field in macro shot

Using manual focus with very thin depth of field in this creative macro shot
Capturing extreme closeups or macro images is a whole delightful genre which captivates many photographers. Working on miniature subjects, or at very close distance generally requires manual focus even when lenses have auto as the depth of field is so narrow. If we want the eye of a butterfly, or particular stamen on a flower in focus, we generally cannot leave it to the camera to decide where that falls. This means manual focus is often king with macro work, with professionals using a rocking motion over just a few millimetres to accurately capture their chosen focal point. I could write a whole post on a lens I recently purchased, the Voigtlander APO-Lanthar 65mm f/2 Macro. Despite costing well under £1000 I cannot think of many other lenses which capture the same combination of sharpness, colour and well-balanced images on a Sony mirrorless body. It is the culmination of these attributes which give the lens a unique ‘character’ and is also a manual only focus offering. Personally I still have a fairly low accuracy rate with maybe 25% in focus after using the lens for around 500 shots. However those which are in focus are a sheer joy when compared images from our glass, combining the character of the lens with images that hard to define, but beautiful to look at. Maybe the end results are similar to Zeiss in terms of an undefinable characteristic.
Another manual lens which would no doubt delight the user is the new Nikon Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct Lens. Having read reviews and watched videos about this masterpiece I have no hesitation in suggesting anyone with deep enough pockets should invest in this glass. By all accounts it provides sheer brilliance at the lowest DOF possible for mirrorless.

Bird and wildlife photography
Many professional and advanced enthusiasts swear by manual override when capturing distant wildlife subjects. This can be due to foliage and branches in the way of the subject, tricking AF functions. Also shifting focus by a few hairs to capture the eye can be critically achieved in MF or simply because they know they’ll achieve the most accurate results without in-camera aids. Another reason is low levels of available light or low contrast scenes which are often found in nature. All of these present the ideal opportunity to flick the focus ring manually and ensure pin sharp acquisition is achieved.

We've written a new post about manual focus with a macro lens here in our complete guide to nature macro photography.

Video recording

The highly desirable Zeiss 25mm f/1.4 ZE for Canon

The highly desirable Zeiss 25mm f/1.4 ZE for Canon. Manual only lens
Moviemakers and cinematographers will be well versed with using manual-only focus lenses. Focus pulling is a skilled art and even newly designed Cine lenses are predominantly manual focus today, although some do have systems to connect with ‘focus follow’ aids. When shooting video, directors are looking for smooth focus transitions, dreamy wide aperture shots and emotional scenes. If cine lenses were autofocus, the camera would be switching points and hunting through low light scenes, ruining expensive captures where a whole team is often in place each day. This is the same for low budget or solo productions, where the smoothest filming takes place manually at all times.

Technical reasons where manual focus could provide better results

  1. Low contrast scenes where AF hunts
  2. When razor thin depth of field is required
  3. Landscape images
  4. Macro or extreme closeups
  5. Misty or foggy conditions which cause hunting
  6. Low light situations where there is not enough edge definition
  7. Where the photographer chooses an obscure focal point

When manual focus may not be ideal

  • Fast moving sports or action
  • Super wide shots where the depth of field is universally covered
  • Unrepeatable moments during events, such as a wedding ceremony, unless you have a lot of MF experience.

Generally if you are new to manually focussing I would tend to avoid mission critical images for paying clients where you need a high percentage of accuracy. If you’ve just taken on an assignment and never practiced MF, stick with what you know until you are proficient!

If you are not currently in the market for a new lens, or would like to practice before committing, most modern lenses have a manual override setting either as a switch on the barrel itself, or within the camera menu settings. Why not practice and see whether it is something you would like to explore further with a dedicated manual option in future. In an older post we discussed why Zeiss lenses are so formidable, read the related article here and please post your comments if you have any thoughts. You may enjoy other posts in our tips and inspiration section as well as this one. Happy shooting!

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By Nick Dautlich on 18/02/2020

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