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How to Use Manual Focus Lenses

My first digital camera was a Nikon D90, and, as with the other 23 changeable lens cameras I’ve owned since, it was intended for autofocus. You’re just supposed to put the focus point where you want to focus and let the lens and the camera do the work. This usually works well, unless it’s too dark or your lens is manual focus only.

I used to be scared of soft focus when using manual focus lenses, and I was jealous of the marvelous options in manual focus lenses, like terrific wide angles from Rokinon/Samyang that are both sharp and inexpensive. But the lenses that tempted me most were the Lensbaby’s.

The Edge 80 and Edge 50 offer tilt control, and the Velvet 56 and Twist 60 are not only razor sharp, but they also have elegant effects. All these tools were unavailable to me because I couldn’t manually focus. Then I learned about two tools built into my cameras.

DSLR: Focus Indicator

There’s a little circle in the corner of your DSLR viewfinder that lights up when the camera is focussed on the subject in the focus point. You may not have noticed it, but now you can use it to help your manual focus results turn out much better.

The focus indicator light works even when you use manual focus. Just put the  focus point on the subject, then adjust the focus ring on the lens until the circle lights up. On my Nikons, there were arrows indicating which way to turn the focus ring to bring the subject into focus. Besides using manual focus lenses, you might also find this useful for manually adjusting focus when the camera can’t focus and just keeps hunting.

Mirrorless: Focus Peaking

I sold my Nikons and switched to using Lumix mirrorless cameras a few years ago, and the manual focus features are one of my favorite things about that switch. Since these cameras are using live view in the viewfinder all the time (what you see is what you get), they can overlay a focus indicator on the picture, called focus peaking, to show exactly what’s in focus. Video cameras have done this for ages but now stills photographers get it, too.

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Mirrorless cameras, like this Lumix GX8, have focus peaking, which uses a colored highlight to show what’s in focus; blue in this picture.

When I’m manually focussing, I see a blue highlight on the edges of everything in focus. As I adjust the focus ring, the blue travels closer and farther through the view. I love using focus peaking with the Lensbaby Composer Pro lenses because when the lens is tilted I can see the peaking move left and right or up and down across the frame. The peaking ensures that my important subjects fall within the depth of field.

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GX8 with the Lensbaby Edge 50.

You should experiment with your camera’s focus peaking settings for sensitivity and color. It’s important to practice with the sensitivity so you know what will really be in sharpest focus when you get back to your computer. The color setting is a personal choice; I prefer blue because it rarely matches the color of my subject and it stands out in the viewfinder.

Conclusion

Modern DSLR viewfinders just aren’t designed to make manual focus easy, like older film cameras were. But, if you use the focus points and make adjustments until the focus indicator circle lights up, you’ll get pretty good results. Conversely, Mirrorless cameras are ideal for manually focussing, and outperform old film cameras in a big way. Whichever you use, start practicing and don’t be scared to try some of those excellent manual focus lenses.

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