Production & Filmmaking
September 26, 2021

Manual Focus vs. Autofocus: When to Use Which and Why

By Daniela Bowker 7 min read

Highlights

  • Manual focus leaves focusing in your hands; autofocus lets the camera take control
  • Autofocus is great when you're starting out, working on your own, or shooting very fast-moving subjects
  • Manual focus will always give you greater control and is a must in low-light situations and working with a shallow depth of field

Until recently, if you asked about "manual focus vs. autofocus" you would always be told that manual focus is superior and that's what you should use, whether for photography or filmmaking. However, there have been considerable improvements in autofocus technology, which means that the answer is now not clear-cut. Depending on your camera, when, where, what and how you're shooting, autofocus could be the better option for video.

canon lens with manual focus and autofocus

What is autofocus?

auto focus icon

Take a look at your lenses, and you'll probably see on them a switch marked AF/MF, or sometimes AF/M, depending on the make. On some cameras, there's an AF/MF switch on the body. Wherever it is, this switch allows you to switch between autofocus and manual focus modes when your camera locks onto your focal point or when you choose where to focus. 

After selecting AF, you can decide on an AF mode, whether you're using a mirrorless or DSLR camera. These autofocus modes will help you use it to its best advantage. When it comes to video, the chances are that you won't want to use single shot or AF-S mode because it holds the focus in one place. If your subject is entirely static, that's great, but that probably doesn't happen too often!

Continuous AF is a better option for filmmakers when the autofocus is always adjusting. On some cameras, you can choose between "multi," which covers all of the frame or "area" or "zone," where you can select a specific part of the frame to focus on. 

Face/Eye detection, or Eye AF, is an excellent advancement in AF modes. The autofocus detects faces and focuses on them. For vlogging, interviews or documentaries, this mode is very useful. 

What is manual focus?

manualfocus icon

When you flick the lens switch from AF to MF or AF to M on some lenses, the control of where your lens focuses shifts from the camera to you. There is a focusing ring on the lens that you will turn to decide where your scene should be sharp and what sharp looks like. 

When you looked through the viewfinder of old manual-focusing cameras, you would see marks over your scene that you would align to ensure that you had focused on your subject. Now, you just tend to manually focus your camera by eye: identify your focal point and twist the focusing ring until it appears sharp. When you're making videos, using an external monitor is an excellent investment to assist your focus. Having a screen that is larger than your camera's and might include focus peaking will certainly help with accuracy.

What are the advantages of autofocus, and when should I use it?

When you're beginning with filmmaking, AF can be hugely helpful. It allows you to concentrate on other elements of filmmaking, such as exposure and lighting, without splitting your attention. Then, as you grow in confidence, you can practice taking control of your camera's focus manually.

When filming a fast-moving subject, it's entirely possible that you just will not be able to adjust the focus sufficiently fast to keep it sharp. In which case, you'd better turn over the task to AF.

For anyone who is vlogging or self-shooting, setting your focus manually and filming yourself is pretty tricky. So let AF get your face sharp in the shot instead.

When solo shooting, it might be helpful to let the camera work in AF so that you can concentrate on getting the other elements of your video right.

Autofocus can be a great help when you're making documentaries or anything that might be unpredictable. For example, if you need to adjust other parameters and focus when things shift quickly, something might slip, leaving your footage less than optimal. By engaging AF, you can rely on the camera to take care of a sharp image. 

Similar to shooting unpredictable things, AF is valuable for getting good B-roll footage if you’re working in fast-moving or changing environments, or again, if you’re working by yourself.

Finally, some cameras now really have excellent AF capabilities, and you might find they can do a better job than you.

What are the benefits of manual focus, and when should I use it?

The single biggest argument for using manual focus rather than autofocus is that it puts you in complete control of your work. MF doesn't depend on what the camera believes to be the right focal point and grants you the precision you want. Ideally, this means that you want to use manual focus as much as possible, particularly if you're working with different types of focus with those few exceptions we've looked at.

It's especially important to select MF if you're shooting macro shots or anything with a shallow depth of field or if you're working in low light. When you shoot macro or have a shallow depth of field, the point of focus is incredibly narrow, making it easy for the camera to slip off of it. Using MF affords you the necessary precision to maintain focus where you want it.

If you're shooting in low light, your camera can find it challenging to locate a focal point and will hunt or "peck" around for one. It's much easier, therefore, to switch to manual mode and select the focal point yourself. The same goes for older or slower gear: sometimes, it's just better to do it yourself!

Finally, if you plan on pulling focus or rack focusing in a scene, the control and precision afforded by MF will work in your favor. Pulling focus takes a lot of practice, and having all the control can be a huge help.

Wrapping things up

Manual focus will always provide you with precision and ultimate control over your focus. Still, there will be occasions when it's best to leave it to your camera. Manual focus vs. autofocus will always come down to you and your situation: use whichever mode you need to get the results you want.

 

About Daniela

Daniela is a writer and editor based in the UK. Since 2010 she has focused on the photography sector. In this time, she has written three books and contributed to many more, served as the editor for two websites, written thousands of articles for numerous publications, both in print and online and runs the Photocritic Photography School.
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