Recently I've gotten into street photography, and I've noticed there are some situations where it is technically impossible to autofocus, to be precise, when you have moving objects and don't want to focus on the object that is closest to the camera. Picking a specific AF sensor would, obviously, be way too slow in this situation.

What I'm wondering is: Is it possible to train focussing manually so well that you can be sufficiently fast in these situation that you can focus correctly in these situations even with a wide aperture? Obviously, this would require a big viewfinder, a lot of manual-focussing training and a lot of composition training (you have to know what to focus on in order to actually focus). Can anybody of you do this? ;-)

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    \$\begingroup\$ You should try it, I think you will be surprised how fast Manual Focus is with a little practice and a lens you are comfortable with. \$\endgroup\$
    – BBischof
    Apr 10, 2011 at 15:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ Definitely. As long as you're not using one of those lens with really tiny focusing rings. Also this article might be of interest to you: erickimphotography.com/blog/2011/03/… \$\endgroup\$ Apr 10, 2011 at 15:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @jon2512chua Very helpful link! Especially the video at the bottom :) \$\endgroup\$
    – eflorico
    Apr 10, 2011 at 16:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ The old timers amongst us will tell you that for a long time this was all we did. What really helps is a split image screen in your camera. You can focus surprisingly quickly with that. You can buy suitable screens for most DSLRs. \$\endgroup\$
    – labnut
    Apr 10, 2011 at 22:54

4 Answers 4


Absolutely! And especially in street photography or low-light situations, you don't even need to be quick.

Say, you are shooting people walking along the sidewalk while you are sitting at a cafe across the street, you can pre-focus once and just snap away as interesting people walk by. Autofocus would try to refocus every time you took a shot, and that lag causes lost shots.

If you understand your aperture and shutter speeds well enough, you can also employ something called "hyperfocus" that allows you to control the depth of field and set a range of distances in which everything will be in focus.

And as for your Leica buddy, the photographer views the scene in a rangefinder through a different lens. So there is a tradeoff: while they might be able to focus more critically on distant objects (which are also more likely to be in focus anyway due to depth of field), they have more difficulty focusing on and composing close objects due to parallax (the viewfinder and lens see the scene from a different angles).

  • \$\begingroup\$ oh yeah, of course there's a trade off... but anyone using it understands that it's not general purpose, and when you've become tuned in to a system like that, I think you pretty intuitively know how it behaves and how to work with it. Not that I'm a massive advocate. Not sure what hyperfocus has to do with shutter speed btw ;p \$\endgroup\$
    – PeterT
    Apr 10, 2011 at 20:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've owned two Leicas (MP and an M8) and really dug rangefinder focusing. At the same time parallax and lack of DOF preview were a hinderance. Hyperfocus is controlled by setting the aperture, and that requires a complimentary adjustment of shutterspeed given the light conditions, that's all I meant by that. \$\endgroup\$
    – IAmNaN
    Apr 10, 2011 at 21:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, I can certainly see that they would be. I think may Leica friend may have been overly idealistic / romantic about certain aspects. \$\endgroup\$
    – PeterT
    Apr 10, 2011 at 21:23

As with every skill it is quite useful to have the ability to work with manual focus properly. Especially low light situation can cause wrong or very slow auto-focusing, whereas a manual focus works squally fast in any situation.

Learn about the "Hyperfocal Distance" (Wikpedia Entry) that will give you some basic knowledge about getting sharp results in many situations.

Once you've got your head around this basic understanding of focusing, you have to get a feeling for each of your lenses, since they behave completely differently.

Grab your most used lens at first and try to find the point where things are the sharpest. work with non moving objects first. after you focused on an object, start altering your distance (move your feet) to this object. See and feel how the object gets out of focus, or does it become even sharper?

Work with aperture values > f8 first, since your DOF allows you more tolerance.

In the end it is all about practice. Don't forget: Some decades ago, no one had auto focus at all and this era produced some of the most stunning pictures ever made.

  • \$\begingroup\$ By "working", did you mean focusing or shooting with a large aperture value? Modern lens are wide open during focusing, regardless of selected aperture. Also, with f/8 viewfinder would be quite dark for focusing. But practicing is the most important ingredient for getting better, agreed with that. \$\endgroup\$
    – Imre
    Apr 11, 2011 at 15:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ By working I mean shooting since focusing is happening wide open. Lower aperture especially everything < 4.5 forces you to know exactly what you want to focus on. Take a portrait for example. Focus for the eyes instead of the nose, you can see the difference with such low values. Larger aperture gives you more tolerance to master your first steps in manual focusing, since you have an increased depth of field. Many lenses have distance markers printed on the barrel. Read this article series: link \$\endgroup\$
    – Dr.Elch
    Apr 11, 2011 at 22:13

A couple of years ago, I met a guy who mostly shoots basketball for Sports Illustrated. From what he said, neither he nor any of his colleagues used autofocus at all. The trick, at least according to him, was that you had to get to the point of focusing without really using the viewfinder to check focus at all -- he simply "knew" where the focus ring needed to be for any given distance. He claimed (and I can believe it, after seeing him) that in most cases it wasn't even in focus yet when he hit the shutter release -- he was finishing focusing during the 1/10th of a second (or so) between hitting the shutter release and the shutter actually opening.

The other side of it is, however, that being that good requires a level of fanaticism most of us will never even approach. I ran into him sitting in a bar having a drink -- but he had his camera with him, and picked it up, focused, and shot at least once every couple of minutes. From the way he acted, I'd almost bet he slept with the camera...

  • \$\begingroup\$ ...and in addition, you'll have to re-learn for every lens. This certainly is impressive, but I doubt it's realistic for me to learn this ;) \$\endgroup\$
    – eflorico
    Apr 14, 2011 at 16:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ @eWolf: Having seen it, I'd agree -- it's not only unrealistic, but I don't really even have any ambition in that direction. As far as lenses go, I got the impression that he basically switched lenses with the seasons. When I saw him it was basketball season, and he was shooting a 70-200/2.8. He did say he shot football once in a while, but liked it less because of the weight -- I'd guess that meant "300/2.8". In any case, the impression I got was that yes, he basically switched lenses about three times a year, with the sports seasons. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 14, 2011 at 17:02

A lot will depend on your expectations in terms of accuracy, as well as the equipment you're using and mostly, of course, your own skill and the style of shooting you do.

Myself, I use manual focus most of the time, often on moving subjects. My results are admittedly somewhat inconsistent, but there are plenty of other reasons for that :-)

I found that in the past I was occasionally let down by slow AF in low light... since my old camera couldn't be set to always take a photo as soon as the shutter button was fully pressed, I found that there were times when I'd have rather had a slightly OOF shot that caught the moment, but that this was denied to me by factors somewhat out of my control...

I met a Leica rangefinder user, who as you might imagine has quite impassioned views on the benefits of manual focus. I now echo many of these sentiments.

One thing to be aware of is that the stock focus screens installed in most SLRs are not apparently able to correctly represent depth of field at apertures larger than F/2.8. So, no matter how good your vision and skills, this will be a limiting factor in your results with wide open fast lenses. It is possible to replace the screens for ones with manual focussing aids such as split prisms. In the past, I brought a cheap one of these from an ebay vendor and found that it was badly calibrated or otherwise faulty for use with my camera at the time; many people regard http://www.focusingscreen.com and KatzEye as being worth the cost (I'm considering buying a new one at some point).

Now that I'm in the practise of manually focussing regularly, I may or may not be as fast as the machine would be in a given situation, but I feel a closer connection with the subject and process, and rarely am I frustrated by my equipment. I also don't alert my subjects with the sound of AF motors; so even though at times I may take several seconds composing and framing a shot, people often comment that they find my photography very unobtrusive. I realise that supersonic AF motors might mitigate the acoustic effect, but I'm not too interested as I now feel that MF is fairly integral to my technique.

I do frequently set focus to the right approximate range before shooting as well, particularly if I feel like my subject might be a bit touchy...

  • \$\begingroup\$ Can you tell me how the Leica Rangefinder AF works? I read something like making two lines meet... can you explain this to me in detail? \$\endgroup\$
    – eflorico
    Apr 10, 2011 at 16:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ @eWolf - That would make an excellent question of it's own. \$\endgroup\$
    – Sean
    Apr 10, 2011 at 19:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ Rangefinders work such that you have two images overlaid; one of which shows (approximately) the framing of the shot, and the other is coupled to the focal distance, such that it shifts left and right and aligns with the first image when in focus. Might be worth asking as a separate question, or just searching the web... \$\endgroup\$
    – PeterT
    Apr 10, 2011 at 21:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PeterT I think I pretty much understand it now... Only why are the Leicas so expensive? :-/ \$\endgroup\$
    – eflorico
    Apr 12, 2011 at 14:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ @eWolf: mostly because of low economies of scale, hand crafted in Germany and appealing to people who value this over actual utility. They are nice machines, though. The fact that they are simple is a genuine feature. \$\endgroup\$
    – PeterT
    Apr 12, 2011 at 15:52

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