Landscape photography is often slower paced than other genres, allowing for a more methodical approach to composition and camera settings. That includes focusing; manual focus is more popular for landscapes than most other genres. Indeed, there’s a whole market of third-party manual focus lenses geared almost exclusively to landscape photographers. But autofocus still has its benefits. So, which method is right for you?
Manual vs Autofocus: The Simple Answer
If you’re struggling to decide between autofocus and manual focus, you’re probably thinking too hard. Why? Because there’s only one correct distance to focus for every photo. Assuming nothing is preventing accurate autofocus or accurate manual focus, the photos you capture will be identical with either technique.
But – manual focus tends to be slower, especially if you require pin-point accuracy. And unless your manual focusing method is near perfect, it’s actually less precise than autofocus simply because of human error.
Personally, when I find myself at a more crowded landscape or overlook, I tend to see a surprising number of people using manual focus for most of their landscape photos. Usually, this is not done carefully from a tripod in magnified live view, but while shooting handheld through a DSLR’s viewfinder. This is not a recipe for tack-sharp shots.
Manual focus is for taking over when your camera’s autofocus can’t do a good enough job. For example, with Milky Way photography, almost no cameras can autofocus on the stars successfully, and manual focus is a must. The same goes in low-contrast environments like a thick fog.
Most of the time, though, autofocus is more than good enough. It’s quicker and more convenient than manual focus. And, if nothing goes wrong, it’s identically accurate. That corollary – “if nothing goes wrong” – may sound worrying, but it shouldn’t be. The odds of anything going wrong in autofocus are lower than in manual focus.
You’re also, crucially, more likely to tell if autofocus is inaccurate because the focus point will blink to let you know. If you focus manually at the wrong point, you could take an entire series of photos without realizing it until you get back home.
When and How to Use Autofocus for Landscape Photography
If you use autofocus by default, you’ve probably already realized the cases when it works really well: daytime photos, sunsets, and just landscapes in general. With enough light, there aren’t many situations where autofocus consistently fails. (This is just as true outside of nature photography, such as capturing portraits and sports, too.)
Take a look at the photos below. I focused automatically for both of them, since it saved time, and it was totally accurate:
Keep in mind, though, that all autofocus techniques aren’t created equal. There are still some bad ways to focus automatically that might end up giving you blurry photos, where you’re focused on something other than your main subject.
First, my top recommendation is to avoid autofocus area modes where your camera tries to guess what your subject is. For lack of a better term, I call this “auto-autofocusing,” and it means you can’t position your focusing box wherever you want. Instead, your camera decides for itself what your subject is, and it focuses on that. For most landscapes, single-point and single-servo (AF-S) autofocus is ideal.
Second, there’s a difference between contrast-detect and phase-detect autofocus. With DSLRs, almost always, the viewfinder uses a phase-detect system, while live view is contrast-detect. For mirrorless cameras, all autofocus tends to be contrast-detect (or a hybrid system). Phase-detect autofocus is quicker, but it needs to be calibrated properly or risk some noticeable errors. Even then, contrast-detect is more likely to be accurate overall, although the differences aren’t enough to ruin a photo. But if you don’t have a separate reason to shoot through your DSLR’s viewfinder, live view is usually the way to go.
Third, even the best autofocus systems can get falter in areas of minimal detail. Choose a high-contrast point for focusing, like blades of grass or the edge of a rock. Focusing on a cloud, for example, will not always work well.
Using Manual Focus for Landscape Photography
Despite the benefits of autofocus, there are plenty of reasons why you may still want to use manual focus for landscape photography. I already mentioned that it comes in handy in dark and low-contrast environments, but that’s not the only situation where it matters. A lot of photographers also use manual focus when they need consistent focus from shot to shot.
It looks something like this: When you’re shooting on a tripod and reshuffling your composition slightly for every photo, you don’t need to refocus every few seconds. But if you’re using autofocus, and your camera focuses each time you half-press the shutter button, that’s exactly what will happen. So, a lot of photographers will switch their lens to manual focus to have perfect consistency from shot to shot.
Personally, I don’t do this. I have my camera set to back-button focus so that focusing is decoupled from the shutter button. On my camera, this is the AF-On button, but it isn’t called the same thing on every camera. Almost all of them have it as an option, however.
But when manual focus is essential, how do you use it properly? The best way to get guaranteed precision manual focus is to take things slowly. Use a tripod, open live view, and magnify the live LCD image to its highest setting, or close. I recommend setting a relatively wide aperture – something like f/2.8 to f/4 – to exaggerate areas that are slightly out of focus. Then, carefully and slowly move the focusing ring on your lens until the image looks as sharp as possible. You may need to focus back and forth a couple times to find the sweet spot.
This might seem like a time-consuming method, but that’s because manual focus can be tricky. Most people’s eyes aren’t good enough to nail 100% accurate focus using the unmagnified LCD screen, and especially not through the viewfinder. Unless you’ve had a lot of practice, tripod-based live view is the only manual focus method that works consistently well.
For most landscape photographers, the bottom line is simple: Until it fails, use autofocus. And when you do need to focus manually, use high-magnification live view to improve your odds of a perfectly sharp result.
In most situations, the good news is that careful autofocus and careful manual focus will result in exactly the same photos. The benefit of autofocus is that it’s quicker, and it also minimizes human error. Manual focus still has its uses, of course, so you definitely need to know how to use it properly. But for the vast majority of landscape photographers, especially as you’re learning and growing your skills, autofocus should be your default setting.
With regards to this debate, I think one has to look at what is being photographed. I was in China last month on Tianmen Mountain. The mist was so close and thick that in this case it did not matter. Pea soup is thick. Avatar Spire, if I may call it that was barely visible to the eye. Pull up the camera and all you had was mist reflections. I carry a 10x loupe with me to check the focus on my screen. The zoom in technique was useless here. I found more variation going from Manual to Aperture Priority. In most cases I went back to Manual. Tamron 10-24 Di ii VC HLD lens. IMHO if your lens is “hunting”, go Manual. If your battery is low, go Manual.
I’d say it does not matter, Spencer. You have to review anyway be it AF or MF and even if you’d carefully managed the hyper focal distance or half the distance and the correct aperture. So why bother? In any way, the result is acceptable only if everything is in tack sharp focus as you have planned.
When I started out in photography 50 years ago (i.e. well before autofocus was around), focusing landscape shots was often a matter of working out what in the scene you wanted to be in focus, and setting the depth of field accordingly, combining the set aperture with the depth of field and distance scales engraved on the lens and lens focusing ring. This could be checked visually by stopping down the lens to achieve a ‘depth of field preview’. This way you could control whether nearby, middle distance or distance elements in the composition were in focus, or deliberately defocused. More often than not achieving exact focus on a particular branch or blade of grass didn’t come into it. Autofocusing on a point in the scene can, with experience, achieve a similar effect, especially if you are a MFT shooter where depth of field is more generous that for bigger formats and you may not need to be so precise, but to write an article on focusing in landscape photography with no apparent awareness of depth of field, let alone a method of setting it with a modern camera, is somewhat baffling.
Philip, I read the article as a discussion of auto vs manual and not as a discussion of focusing en toto.
Philip, thank you for your comment and perspective on this topic. This article is intended much more for beginning landscape photographers, and it is intentionally limited in scope to just focusing techniques. Our advanced article covers more of the topics you mention: photographylife.com/lands…hotography
However, I do want to mention that Micro Four Thirds or not – doesn’t matter. You don’t get more depth of field by going with the smaller system, assuming your framing is the same. Equivalence is beyond the topic of this article of course, but we’ve written plenty in the past about why this is true.
Also, the depth of field scales engraved on lenses – even those few modern lenses fortunate enough to have one – are not perfectly optimal. They are designed to produce, usually, a 30 micron circle of confusion at each extreme. They also don’t take into account Airy disks from diffraction. In other words, at best, they will give you a “minimum acceptable” sharpness at the extremes. Luckily, there are other methods of focusing and choosing an aperture that will turn “minimum acceptable” into “mathematically maximum possible” for a given scene. We’ve also talked about this before: photographylife.com/how-t…t-aperture
Thanks Spencer but I’m not sure about your contention that ‘you don’t get more depth of field by going with the smaller system’…. according to my usual guru, Thom Hogan, a MFT shooter using a 14mm lens need only set an aperture of f5.6 to get the same depth of field as a Full Frame shooter using a (equivalent) 28mm lens at f11, giving two stops more light to play with MFT (see www.sansmirror.com/artic…-size.html). This of course assumes identical framing of the subject. Is there something here that I’m misunderstanding?
I’ve taken a look at your other article ‘How to focus in landscape photography’ and have a question about your explanation of the ‘double the distance method’. Is this method going to work for a reader, new to Photography Life and not familiar with your other articles, whose 17mm MFT lens is set to f1.8? I note that you don’t refer to the effect of different apertures in this explanation (although you do in your article ‘How to Choose the Sharpest Aperture’). Surely this is critical information if the ‘double the distance method’ is to work?
Sure thing, Philip. Thom’s explanation is not wrong – a 14mm lens on Micro Four Thirds at f/5.6 will give you the exact same framing and depth of field as a 28mm lens at f/11 on full frame (ignoring the different aspect ratios of the sensors).
The incorrect part is to assume that gives you two more stops to play with on MFT. Specifically, full frame cameras already have a two stop advantage in ISO over Micro Four Thirds cameras. So, it exactly cancels out (and it’s no coincidence that it does; this will always be the case comparing sensor size performances, assuming the same sensor generation and quality). So, ISO 100 at f/5.6 on MFT is equivalent to ISO 400 at f/11 on full frame. And, going further, full frame has the advantage overall because you can lower its ISO to (usually) base 100 and use a longer shutter speed to get back that light instead. MFT can’t do that. So, at worst, full frame cameras are no better than small sensors if you need a lot of depth of field – and in any case where you can lower your ISO, full frame cameras are better. Hope that makes sense.
As for the double the distance method, the only goal of that method is to get your closest foreground and farthest background equal to one another in sharpness. If you use a wide aperture like f/2.8, both the foreground and background may be quite blurry – but they will be equally blurry. In order to get them maximally sharp, you still need to select the correct aperture, balancing depth of field and diffraction. If you want mathematical precision, that process is complicated enough that I needed to write the separate “sharpest aperture” article. If you don’t need mathematical precision, just selecting anything from f/8 to f/16 (equivalent) is a good ballpark depending on the scene and your lens.
Hi Spencer, I’m not sure whether you’re standing by your statement ‘you don’t get more depth of field by going with the smaller system’. In good light Full Frame doesn’t actually have an ISO advantage over MFT – that only arises when you have to crank ISO up to maintain shutter speed – but in any case that’s not strictly relevant to a discussion of depth of field, rather a discussion on image noise.
I’m surprised to hear that MFT cameras can’t offer an ISO of 100 or lower, or benefit from the use of longer shutter speeds. Neither seems to apply to the MFT cameras I’m aware of.
Forgive my dimness, but I had assumed that the usual objective of the landscape photographer with respect to focus was to get the image adequately sharp from the nearest point you want to be sharp to the farthest point you want to be sharp. Those points don’t have to be the farthest or nearest, or be equally sharp. That’s certainly always been my concern when photographing landscapes. Either way, the additional information about the critical role of aperture that you supply in your latest comment does rather need to be in the original article, do you not think?
For myself I think I’ll let these issues rest for now. Spencer, can I suggest that you author a new article on focus in landscape photography that puts all the critical information in one place, rather than leaving it spread out across three articles?
Philip, at low ISOs it is more about dynamic range than noise. However, noise differences can still be visible between a Micro Four Thirds camera and full frame if both are at ISO 100, especially in heavily edited photos.
The sarcasm in your answer is not necessary; there aren’t Micro Four Thirds camera’s with an ISO of 25, which is roughly what it would take to match the dynamic range of a full frame camera at ISO 100. Let alone ISO 16 to match the dynamic range of full frame cameras with base ISO 64. Using longer shutter speeds has nothing to do with it, unless you average multiple exposures on M43 to reduce noise (also something that can be done on full frame of course). Hence why M43 at f/5.6, ISO 100, 1/100 second does not give the same image quality as full frame at f/11, ISO 100, 1/25 second – while both have identical depth of field. And if 1/100 second is necessary for a sharp image, full frame needs to be at f/11, ISO 400, 1/100 second – putting its performance, on average, exactly the same as the M43 camera. This, really, is the big advantage of M43: in cases where you need a lot of depth of field and also a relatively fast shutter speed (i.e.,something in the scene is moving quickly), M43 cameras will retain all their weight/size advantages without giving up any image quality over larger sensors, even something like medium format.
To your other point, what you want in depth of field is entirely up to you. My goal is usually to prioritize foreground and background sharpness equally, and to maximize the sharpness of both. That requires focusing at double the distance and selecting the proper aperture, as calculated in the article I linked earlier. But that won’t be every photographer’s goal. For Milky Way photography, the stars almost always take priority, and focusing at infinity is necessary. For some photographers, the hassle of maximizing sharpness (or getting close) is not worthwhile, and they aim for adequate sharpness instead, while minimizing time spent attaining it in the field. Your approach is up to you.
I, too, am done with this discussion at this point, having written several articles and now responded with very detailed answers to questions that, hopefully, are sincere.
There is one point in Thom’s article where he is incorrect, though, that can easily be misleading – a list of several camera sensor sizes, with the equivalent apertures from one to the other. Specifically, Nikon 1 at 19mm f/8, M43 at 25mm f/11, APS-C at 35mm f/16, full frame at 50mm f/22.
And then he says, “diffraction starts to come into play with some of these options, as well.”
If you’re printing the same size, diffraction starts to come into play with all these options, equally. You don’t get better diffraction performance on Nikon 1 at f/8 versus full frame at f/22. The Airy disks take up exactly the same percentage of your frame.
Nothing against Thom, who is one of only a few genuine experts in cameras and photography who is writing today. But with such a complex topic, it’s not uncommon for even the experts to make some misleading or mistaken claims.
In my opinion it makes no sense to open a battle between fans of either autofocus or manual focus.
Other people prefer autofocus – for good reasons, perfectly fine.
I personally have discovered vintage lenses, and since I have no other choice than manual focusing, I also discovered that that made my photography more conscious, slower and more fun.
With the magnification in the EVF of my Sony I can focus VERY, very exactly.
Christoph, I’m glad you’ve found a set of lenses that you enjoy working with! And you’re right, it’s all down to personal preference in the end.
Spencer, a well written article as usual. Because of an age-related vision problem for the past year or so I have used my DSLR as if it were a mirror less. Viewing everything through a loop via the live view LCD. Consequently, all my images are shot using auto-focus contrast detect, single point. Since I started doing this my rejects have never been because of a focus error. I also use back button focus so once I’ve attained focus it doesn’t change when taking multiple images that will be stitched.
Thank you, Rich. I also see essentially zero rejects due to focus inaccuracies these days, and I attribute that largely to using AF under ordinary landscape conditions. I do see some depth-of-field related rejects because I chose in the field to focus on a subject that is too far or too close – but that’s a different issue, since the camera still locked on just fine to the subject I pointed it at. Those photos would have been just as bad if focused manually.
Sorry, but this article does not live up to your usual quality standards (eg. how-to-focus-landscape-photography is way better). Autofocus fails to balance focus for the whole shot, consider depth of field and lens characteristics (see eg. page 2 of the Sigma 14/1.8 review on this site). Actually, auto-autofocusing is the best mode for this: the more relevant autofocus points are in focus, the better, but careful manual focus with split screen and maybe a loupe would be far superior to autofocus. Lens characteristics like focus shift or curved field of focus are not part of autofocus algorithms most of the time (I heared, that some Nikon lens / camera combinations actually correct focus shift, but I could not verify this). If you know your lens, you can get far better results with manual focus, the differences could arguably be measured in the hundreds of dollars you waste in very good lenses, if you don’t use their full potential.
Daniel, I don’t disagree on that point. The difference is that this article is intended for beginners, whereas the other is an advanced article (which is how I positioned them on our general landscape page photographylife.com/landscapes). So, the various topics you mention, like field curvature and focus shift, are beyond the target audience of this article. Not that they are unimportant!
However, in live view, or the EVF on mirrorless cameras, all the characteristics like focus shift and field curvature are incorporated in the camera’s autofocus (assuming that the camera lets you focus with the aperture stopped down to what you’re using for the photo). Personally, finding such precise manual focus that there is no error at all takes me a significant amount of time – sometimes, with focusing on stars at night, 10-30 seconds. I don’t think people tend to put that same level of precision into manual focus with magnified live view under general conditions.
I see a lot of photographers manually focus at one distance, then take multiple photos with different compositions (even slightly) without refocusing. That alone will throw off accuracy far more than any imprecisions in the autofocus system, assuming you re-autofocus for each shot.
What about hyper-focal focussing to maximise DoF ? That is often trickier with AF, especially if there are no good targets at the range you want to focus at. And stopped-down focussing in general ? I’m not sure in the days of Live View and LV Boost that MF at wider aperture is such a good idea. At the very least I’d add the proviso to also check that you then set an appropriate aperture for the depth range you want to be within acceptable focus.
Another point which might be worth mentioning is that even for fixed objects, in particular if they are close and/or you’re shooting at a wide aperture, there is often some benefit in using C-AF.
Personally I’d recommend that people learn MF first before using AF. That way you’re more likely to be in control, not the camera. But that’s just idealistic :-)
Certainly, David, if you are trying to focus for hyperfocal distance and can’t find a good target at your chosen distance, manual focus is the way to go.
When I recommended that live view manual focus should be done at wider apertures like f/2.8 to f/4, that’s done to balance the effects of focus shift versus adding more human error. If you’re taking landscape photos at f/16, for example, manual focus at the perfect spot is practically impossible (assuming, of course, that live view is actually stopping down all the way to the aperture you are shooting at). Beyond f/5.6, focus shift essentially disappears on most lenses anyway.
As for AF-C, if you’re shooting handheld, that’s quite true. Thanks for adding that point.
As long as your autofocus system is 100% reliably sure, use autofocus. The problem is that this almost doesn’t exist. The Z 6 is actually the closest I’ve come. It’s never confirmed focus and not been in focus, unlike the X-Pro 2 I had which would sometimes give focus confirmation but then mysteriously be out of focus in a very strange way (not that it grabbed something else, nothing was in focus). DSLR’s may have focus calibration issues.
I use autofocus quite often these days but the best thing about manual focus is that it is MY mistake. It is far far less frustrating and encourages me to try harder next time. When the technology messes up, well, they just makes me want to throw away the camera. Any beginners should absolutely use manual focus.
You make some important points, Einride. I will note that I don’t recommend “flying blind” with autofocus, but also making sure that the camera is doing a good job in the field. Even if you go way above and beyond the norm – magnifying every single autofocused photo you just took to check sharpness – it’s still faster than manually focusing with the care that good manual focus requires.
Given as much time as you need (say, 30 seconds or more), I don’t deny that manual focus will beat the camera’s autofocus overall. It’s why we test lenses at Photography Life by magnifying live view and focusing manually. But even then, we understand that human error applies, so we bracket focus by moving the camera forward and backward on macro rails. Fairly often, our sharpest result is not the initial focus attempt.
“It looks something like this: When you’re shooting on a tripod and reshuffling your composition slightly for every photo, you don’t need to refocus every few seconds. But if you’re using autofocus, and your camera focuses each time you half-press the shutter button, that’s exactly what will happen. So, a lot of photographers will switch their lens to manual focus to have perfect consistency from shot to shot.”
Just found that I have the option to program a button on my camera for turning auto-focus on/of, so I did that. Anyway, your article convinced me to wait for the new Tamron 17-28 mm, even I might not get it before my round-trip on Lake Mjøsa this summer. Was thinking about Voigtlander 20 mm, but will now just wait and hope I get the lens in time.
Øyvind, I’m glad you liked the article, thank you!
I will mention, though – I don’t intend the information above to be an argument against using manual focus lenses for landscape photography. Some of them are simply awesome. I own one and am considering one or two more within the next couple years. Again, with the right technique, manual focus and autofocus photos are indistinguishable. It just requires some extra care, and usually some extra time, to find your focus point manually.
That said, there are more differences between the two lenses you mention than just focusing. The Tamron is the more versatile option, speaking purely from specifications (maximum aperture and focal length range). That Voigtlander, though, is tiny. If you need light weight and compactness above all else, I would not pass on the Voigtlander just yet.
Enjoy your trip to Lake Mjøsa! It looks like a beautiful area.
A good article, Spencer. One thing I find about manually focusing through the viewfinder today is that camera companies no longer make it easy to do so. Back in the 1970’s I had three different focusing screens I’d use on my Nikon F and F2, (Nikon made dozens of variations, even for framing for television) each for a specific use, be it low light, sports, or landscape. As far as I know, today no manufacturer makes a digital camera with interchangeable focusing screens. The matte screens used today are near useless for manual focusing except under ideal conditions. I understand there are some companies who can change out screens (and, I assume recalibrate the meter to compensate), but that’s not only an extra cost, but loss of your camera for a week or two. I don’t think that’s worth the trouble, so live view the best alternative.
Mike, agreed. The OVFs today prioritize brightness rather than manual focus accuracy. I think that some older DSLRs can have a separate focus screen installed, but I haven’t heard of anyone trying it with the new generation cameras, the D850 or 5D IV for example. Might still be possible. Either way, it’s one of the reasons I went mirrorless. It would be awesome for the next D8X0 camera to have a dual EVF/OVF, like the D850 rumors speculated. The DSLR form still has a lot of advantages, especially for photographers with a huge set of native lenses.
Moving from a D800E to a Z7 was a huge improvement for my manual lenses, especially in landscapes. Now I can nail on my Zeiss 135 f2 at 200% zoom through the EVF, and use focus peaking on my tilt and shift to see the plane of focus, these are huge improvements that make manual focus far quicker and more accurate.
With this in mind, for really good landscapes I now prefer manual even with my AF lenses, thats when I can see that a shot is special, else I’ll usually still use AF-S which is just as good 95% of the time.