8 Reasons Why Manual Focus Is Still Relevant Today

When Carl Zeiss announced a few weeks ago that they were bringing out a brand new set of lenses under the Milvus series, it seemed that few people could bring themselves to care. After all, what’s the big deal? Zeiss lenses, despite their stellar reputation, are known to be extremely expensive—and most troublesome of all, are only available to Nikon and Canon users in manual focus.

But is that really so much of an inconvenience? Is manual focus really that obsolete?

The answer is probably yes if you favour action or sports photography, maybe if you are a street photographer, and arguably no if you shoot video, close-up nature, portraiture, or landscape.

Ilford Delta 100, Hasselblad 500CM - Carl Zeiss Planar T* 80mm f/2.8

Zeiss knows this, which is why they’ve put out one ultra-wide (21mm) for landscape, three standard/portrait lenses (35mm, 50mm, 85mm) for street and portrait photography, and two macro lenses (50mm, 100mm) for nature. All of these focal lengths continue to have a use in today’s world, and benefit in many ways from manual focusing.

I’ve been using manual focus almost exclusively for over a decade and to be honest, this isn’t out of any particular insistence to be a photography Luddite. It just so happens that the cameras and lenses that I like using force me to give up autofocus.

D600 - Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/2 ZF.2

Don’t take this to mean that I think manual focus is better than autofocus however. If Zeiss made autofocus lenses for the mount I use, I’d be the first one in line. In fact, I’m tempted to buy into the Fujifilm X or Sony E mounts simply for this convenience.

I merely believe there’s always a time and place for either method—autofocus is great, but Carl Zeiss and Leica’s insistence on producing quality primes that are almost only available in manual focus forces this issue into the forefront of discussion.

We found the lens designer’s inspiration.

With curves so bootylicious they’ll make Jennifer Lopez flush with envy, the new Milvus lenses are undeniably sexy—and most importantly, if you want to use them you have to play by Zeiss’s rules.

Anyone who has ever handled a Zeiss lens knows they are the real deal. Entirely unapologetic in terms of size, weight, or lack of technology, these Milvus lenses are nonetheless some of the sharpest lenses available, designed for the next generation of DSLRs.

In the coming week I’ll be writing about my thoughts on those new releases, but until then—let’s talk about why manual focus is still relevant today:

1) It’s quite easy to manually focus nowadays

D600 - Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/2 ZF.2

Before I switched over to full-frame I’ll admit that manually focusing was incredibly hard in many situations. The dimly lit and cramped viewfinder of my 1.5x crop DSLR was tiny and offered little aid when it came to confirming whether my image was sharp or not.

But once I moved over to the bigger and brighter viewfinders of contemporary DSLRs, it was suddenly much easier to snap into focus quickly.

Add computerised focus confirmation, focus assistance (zoom), and bright EVFs (for mirrorless) into the equation, and with practice you’ll find that losing autofocus doesn’t actually slow you down that much.

2) It takes the guesswork out of autofocus

Kodak Portra 400, F3HP - Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/2 ZF.2

To be fair, autofocus technology has improved incredibly over the past few years, and face recognition tracking has meant that even simple point-and-shoots will rarely miss Auntie May’s beaming mug as she barges her way into family portraits from every angle.

Whereas before autofocus motors usually aimed for the dead centre of your viewfinder, new cameras are getting better at following foreground objects on the edges of your composition.

Still, on those decreasingly rare occasions when the motor on your camera goes wild and starts locking down on random spots on the frame, manual focus prevails—until that one day when cameras will be able to plug into the USB 6.0 socket nestled in our brains, only you know where you really want the camera to focus.

3) It helps precise portraiture

Kodak Portra 400 UC, F3HP, Nikon 35-70mm f/2.8D

Generally most portraiture photographers agree that it’s important to focus on the eyes. Eye-tracking technology on autofocus has improved this so much, but in close up portraits, even locking onto the eyebrows or nose can ruin an image.

4) It makes little difference for landscape

Kodak Portra 400VC, Mamiya 6 - Mamiya G 50mm f/4 L

Ideally when you are shooting landscapes there is little rush, giving you all the time in the world to slowly compose and get everything ready for the perfect shot. If you know the right hyperfocal distance on your lens, landscape photography doesn’t need autofocus at all. Rather, you can shoot at a suitably small aperture to get the entire image in focus.

5) Sometimes there is no other choice

The Leica Noctilux f/1 on the Sony A7r / Image by Yofred Moik / Flickr

After trying out the sumptuous viewfinder of the a7R Sony II I can see why so many people use 3rd party mounts to attach old lenses onto their mirrorless cameras.

The relative simplicity of classic manual focus lens designs allows photographers to give new life to vintage glass, which can be an extremely good bargain online. Using manual focus lenses on a modern mirrorless can yield unbelievable results at a lower price than if one were to opt for the latest autofocus prime.

Most importantly, super fast autofocus primes don’t (or can’t?) exist, such as the famous f/0.95 or f/1.0 lenses out there.

6) It’s better for video

This is no secret—videographers prefer manual focus over auto. Manual focus is reliable and won’t suddenly hunt for focus, which could ruin an entire scene. Having a consistent focal length that doesn’t shift also allows greater control.

7) It’s quiet

Agfa Portrait 160, Mamiya 6 - Mamiya G 50mm f/4 L

This could be a bit creepy, but manual focus allows you to shoot accurately without the whirl of a motor. Of course most modern lenses have some form of ultra quiet motor, but having no motor at all is undoubtedly more stealthy.

Waiting for autofocus can make you miss the moment

Kodak Tri-X 400, F3HP - Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/2 ZF.2

As I mentioned before, autofocus technology is certaintly remarkable nowadays and will not let you down 90% of the time. But manual focus can give you greater control. For example, sometimes there is a moment where you’ll want to shoot but the autofocus doesn’t lock-in fast enough, with the end result being that the camera doesn’t fire at all and you lose the picture.

With manual focus, even if you can’t focus 100% correctly, you’ll still be able to get something to work with.

And that’s better than nothing.