I’m back guys! First I would like to apologize for my absence recently; I had a tiny accident and I couldn’t shoot macro for at least a few more weeks. Sure feels awkward not being able to go out and have fun T___T
Anyway, that aside, today I have suddenly thought about writing a bit on the method of Focusing in Macro Photography since it is a topic often asked by beginners, including me XD.
For those who are new to the field, Auto Focus (AF) basically means you rely on the camera to focus on your subjects for you; whereas Manual Focus (MF) requires you to focus yourself by turning on the focusing ring on your lens. A quick search on the internet shows that there are different views as to whether you should use Auto Focus (AF) or Manual Focus (MF) when taking macro shots, so which method is actually better?
I suppose you have already expected my answer: It depends on the situation; both AF and MF have their own advantages, and will produce stunning images if used correctly. Of course, the camera, lens and macro accessories you are using will affect your usage of AF and MF as well. For example, cheap Reverse Rings and Extension Tubes do not link the lens to your DSLR body, thus you can only photograph manually.
So now let us take a look at Auto Focus and Manual Focus separately, shall we?
Auto Focus (AF)
In this blog, when referring to AF in Macro Photography, I don’t mean letting the camera focus automatically as we usually do for normal shots. This is because when under very high magnifications, the AF system in the camera will not work properly i.e. the camera will keep on hunting and not knowing where to focus even when the subject seems very obvious to your eyes.
This issue becomes aggravated when you are:
- Pairing your system with Extension Tubes or Macro Conversion Lenses (For more details on Reverse Rings, Extension Tubes, Macro Conversion Lenses and how they work, please refer to Getting Your First Macro Camera)
- Using non-dedicated macro lenses
- Shooting in dim light conditions, or when there is little color contrast between the subject and the background
- Shooting using Live Mode i.e. using the screen
Needless to say, this drawback can be very frustrating to any Macro Photographer. However, this can be easily minimized by manually setting your AF point onto the subject prior to focusing (Please see picture below for illustration). By doing this, the camera will “know” where the subject is located and can simply focus until the subject within the AF point becomes sharp and clear, and you will get your shot. This workaround technique will be used for all AF-related points in this article.
- Simple to use.
- The fast focusing of the AF system (especially on dedicated macro lenses) allows the photographer to focus and capture subjects quickly, applicable even to slow moving subjects. This will give the photographer a higher opportunity to get the shots before the subject flees.
- AF doesn’t involve any adjustments to the focusing ring, so it reduces handshakes and is less tiring to use. The strain on your hands will become apparent after taking a lot of macro shots.
- One handed operation of your macro system is possible with AF, leaving your left hand free to hold the subject in place, or provide a suitable background for the subject etc.
- Usually only dedicated macro lenses are really fast in AF, and they are not cheap. Normal lenses (when paired with AF-capable accessories) still autofocus, but the slower response might lose you some shots.
- Not suitable for very tiny subjects. The AF point might be too large or coarse for the camera to understand which part of the subject you really want, resulting in inaccurate focusing.
- Not suitable for in-flight shots. Flying insects are too fast for the AF system of the lens.
- AF is not that suitable for shots-stacking. For those who are not familiar with the term, image stacking (also called focus stacking) is a method in Macro Photography to deal with shallow Depth Of Field (DOF). Please see Overcoming Shallow Depth Of Field In Macro Photography for more details. The technique basically involves the taking of multiple photos at different focusing and combines them up in post-processing for a clearer and more detailed image. With AF, you can manually select different areas to focus on prior to capture, but the overall process is still slower and less straightforward than using MF.
Manual Focus (MF)
You will have to take photographs using MF when your DSLR, lens or accessories do not support AF. However, there are a lot of Macro Experts out there who prefer MF to shoot regardless. Lenses capable of AF can be switched to MF by simply turning AF off via the AF button on the lens. There are two methods for MF:
- You stand at a suitable distance from your subject (which varies according to the setup you use), then slowly you turn the focusing ring on your lens until you get the desired focus prior to shutter release. This method is commonly used in all genres of Photography, but is more suitable in Macro Phtoography if you are using a tripod.
- You stand at a suitable distance from your subject, but you do not turn the focusing ring to focus. Instead, you repeatedly lean your body slightly forward and backwards while you estimate when your subject will come into focus, only then you press the shutter button. This method is only applicable for macro setups with flash, so that the effects from your leaning will not show up the final image. See photo below for illustration:
The 2nd method is often preferred by those who shoot macro using MF, this is because it is more accurate, and by purposely moving (leaning) in the first place, you minimize “uncontrollable” and “unexpected” handshakes prevalent in the first method.
- Manual lenses and accessories are always cheaper.
- Extreme macro lenses like the Canon MPE65 only comes with MF
- Good for focus stacking using either the 1st or 2nd MF technique mentioned above.
- Good for in-flight shots, again achievable using both aforementioned MF techniques.
- MF shots require a relatively longer time to take, thus the possibility of losing shots.
- The mastering of MF techniques requires patience, effort and time.
- One-handed handling of MF systems is less likely.
- MF setups may be more tiring to handle as compared to AF ones.
These are some of the points pertaining to Auto focus (AF) and Manual Focus (MF) when it comes to Macro Photography. Again, I would like to point out that there is no “right” or “wrong” here; as long as the method gets you the shot you want, then it is the right one for you.
Personally I would recommend beginners to start off with MF since most of the entry-level macro accessories are often analog. Although it may be tough in the beginning, using MF will teach you about the basics of focusing and of course, hone your MF handling skills, which will come in handy even after you have gone pro (especially with photo stacking). Once you have got your first dedicated macro lens, then it is time to shoot using AF, especially for easy subjects.
I hope this article will clear your mind of which focusing system to use~ Thank you very much for reading, have a nice day!
** All photos in this website are taken and owned by me. The use of any photos here is not allowed without my permission.