Is Manual Focus or Autofocus Better for Street Photography?

1x1.trans Is Manual Focus or Autofocus Better for Street Photography?

"Walking Along" - Santa Monica 3rd Street Promenade

Recently I asked the community on my Facebook fan page what blog post they wanted me to write about. Douglas Bain asked me a question about the advantages/disadvantages of using manual or autofocus for street photography which is a fantastic question. I have debated about this with myself when it comes to street photography. Using primarily a DSLR for street photography, I often switch between the both as they both have advantages/disadvantages. However there is often heated debate between both camps (one saying that autofocus is more convenient while the purists say manual focusing is the only way to go). I will do my best of outlining the pros of both manual and autofocus in street photography in this blog post (and will let you tell me the disadvantages in the comments).

The Pros of Using Manual Focus:

Ah, manual focus. It reminds us of the good-old days when all photographers used to use only manual focusing (thats all they had). Although nowadays all modern cameras have autofocus, there is still a strong number of street photographers who advocate for using manual focus. Why?

1. It is better for shooting at night

1x1.trans Is Manual Focus or Autofocus Better for Street Photography?

"Owl Eyes" - London, UK

It is unmistakable that shooting at night with manual focus is much more accurate (and faster) at night. If you have ever noticed, it is incredibly difficult to focus on dark objects during night which have little or no light or contrast. When you use manual focusing at night, you will capture night scenes far more accurately. If you try using autofocus when shooting street photography at night, you will miss a ton of great shots and opportunities.

2. It is better for shooting from the hip

1x1.trans Is Manual Focus or Autofocus Better for Street Photography?

"Worry" - Santa Monica 3rd Street Promenade

When you are shooting from the hip, it is much better to use manual focus. Why? Because you can pre-focus your lens to a certain distance and whenever you are in that distance to another person, your images should be sharp. When you try shooting from the hip using autofocus, it is far less accurate due to your movement and constantly changing distances.

3. It allows you to use “zone focusing”

1x1.trans Is Manual Focus or Autofocus Better for Street Photography?

Zone Focusing - via Markus Hartel

Zone focusing is a method that many rangefinder photographers use. Essentially when choosing a certain f-stop, you can determine which subjects will be in-focus using a distance and DOF scale. Although this method doesn’t allow you to have tack-sharp images, you have relatively sharp images and it allows you to be much more flexible and capture the decisive moment. If you look at some of the most famous street photographs in history, not all of them are tack sharp (think about Henri Cartier-Bresson’s image below, which is slightly out-of-focus).

1x1.trans Is Manual Focus or Autofocus Better for Street Photography?

Roman Amphitheatre, Valencia, 1933 - Henri Cartier Bresson

Read more on zone focusing on Markus Hartels’ Blog.

The Pros of Using Autofocus:

I would argue that the majority of street photographers with modern DSLR cameras shoot using autofocus. It is a great technology which does make our lives a ton easier in many aspects. Although it still gets a bad rap from street photography purists, there are many instances in which shooting street photography with autofocus is far superior.

1. It is faster

1x1.trans Is Manual Focus or Autofocus Better for Street Photography?

"The Thinker" - Santa Monica 3rd Street Promenade

Although there are many street photographers who can focus extremely quickly using manual focus, autofocusing still has an advantage in bright daylight. This is especially the case when you are walking around in the streets and you see a person at a certain distance you didn’t predict. When you use autofocus, you won’t even have to think and as long as you have your auto-focus point in the center, your focusing will be extremely fast and accurate. Not only that, but many people have a difficult time using manual focus (as they don’t have the same amount of precision as others).

2. It is easier

1x1.trans Is Manual Focus or Autofocus Better for Street Photography?

"Trail" - Santa Monica 3rd Street Promenade

If you are from the generation that grew up using manual focus, you probably won’t have a problem worrying whether your shots are in-focus or not (as this is second nature to you). However for many street photographers who started off with either point and shoots or DSLRS, manual focusing can often be frustrating and annoying to use. Autofocus allows you to not worry as much, and most of the time it does a pretty damn good job.

3. It is more accurate

1x1.trans Is Manual Focus or Autofocus Better for Street Photography?

"Pretty Shoes" - Beirut, Lebanon

If you are using a DSLR with a small viewfinder, it is often difficult to get things in-focus using manual-focus. Using manual focus is far easier with cameras with large viewfinders (think about full-frame DSLR’s or rangefinders). Therefore generally speaking, using autofocus is far more accurate in most cameras. Most modern digital cameras (especially DSLR’s) have incredibly accurate autofocusing systems, especially with ample lighting.

So should I use manual focus or autofocus?

The answer to this question ultimately lies with you. There is no “right” way to shoot street photography, as every street photographer has his/her own style and technique. Some people are more comfortable using manual focus, while others using autofocus. I honestly think that the best policy is to do a mix of both. Every situation calls for a different technique.

Bonus footage

Check out this fun (and unscientific) focusing test (using a DSLR, Rangefinder, and Micro 4/3rds camera) from Kai on DigitalRev below (thanks Travis Forsyth for the link)

So what do you think? Do you prefer using manual or autofocus for street photography? What are some other pros/cons you can think of either? Leave a comment below and drop your knowledge!

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Comments

  1. says

    Eric,

    Of course it depends on the subject and conditions. As you note, manual focus usually works better for shooting from the hip. And in the dark. Particularly if shooting candids under dark conditions and you need to turn the focus assist light off! This one was shot with a P7000 — which has a very bright focus assist light, so I turned it off and prefocused manually (not hard with the DOF that lens has): http://www.arovingvision.com/Street/content/DSCN0879_large.html

    But when shooting street portraits with a wide aperture under sufficient light I want the speed and accuracy of autofucus as I usually want a narrow depth-of-field (this one shot — on a DX Nikon) with a 60mm at f/2.8: http://www.arovingvision.com/Street/content/_KST8722_large.html

    Sometimes it is fastest to use both. Rather than move the focus point in the viewfinder or focus-hold-recompose, it is often faster for me to leave the focus point in the center, get an approximate focus with the AF, and manually adjust the focus for my subject (easy with ‘S’ series Nikon lenses, can’t do it with my older ‘D’ series lenses).

    Kit Taylor
    http://www.arovingvision.com
    kst@arovingvision.com

    • says

      Ha ha – You get a lot of surprising faces when you shoot at night with the auto assist focus light illuminating the subject before the shot is taken. A bit like a deer caught in the headlights or a red laser dot from a sniper rifle.
      Now there’s a thing – why don’t street cameras have a laser pointer ? :)

  2. says

    I mostly use autofocus -faster, easier, as you wrote… Hey do you really do this pre-focusing thing? I would not be able to estimate the distance accurately.
    There’s another point I’d like to add: I’m not always wishing to have the focus on the object that is closest to me – so sometimes it’s faster and easier to use the manual focus in those cases…

    • says

      I do this pre-focusing thing with my rangefinder. You will be able to estimate the distance accurately after a bit of practice. I did. So will anyone after a few weeks.

  3. says

    Manual. Mainly because I never have owned an auto focus camera.

    If the conditions don’t allow for a comfortable zone focus DOF, I’ll reset the focus to infinity after every scene. Only having the adjust the focus in one direction is very fast. You never end up wasting time by going the wrong way.

    • says

      “If the conditions don’t allow for a comfortable zone focus DOF, I’ll reset the focus to infinity after every scene.”
      Wow ! I started to shoot street photography with a film rangefinder and never thought about doing that. Pretty clever. I’ll try that next time I get out shooting.
      If I can shoot let’s say at f/8+, I know I don’t need the focus to be tack sharp if time does not permit so I just focus quickly and blodly. It’s difficult to do at first when you come from the digital world but it’s just something to learn.

      @Eric, my DSLR has a flip screen and in the metro or at the park I like to use the live view mode with the screen flipped so that nobody notice me. In this case, the auto focus just takes forever so I prefer to focus manually.

      – Woods

  4. says

    Auto focus every time for me, even at night where my 5D and 50 1.4 have only ever let me down once, and I could have got that shot if i’d remembered this lens has full time manual focussing which is as close as I get to using manual. I have just changed the focussing screen in my 5D though and will try again at night using manual out of curiosity.

  5. says

    I do know in my younger days I could manually focus faster than most digital cameras do today. But my old eyes have trouble using microprism focus mechanisms so the move to AF and digital has been a savior for me.

    My current DSLR allows me to disconnect AF from the shutter release button and assign it to another button. This gives me many advantages including zone focusing. Even though I have been able to walk right into situations and pull off some excellent shots, the real drawback is, it is a SLR and can attract attention which means stealthiness is a key.

    I’ve been in search of a solid digital RF. I’m hoping the new X100 is just the ticket.

  6. says

    I like them both. Manual focus forces me to slow down–it nurtures the “me/camera relationship.” And it just gives you a larger sense of gratification and satisfaction at the end of the day, because you had to work a little harder for manual shots. Auto focus nurtures the “me/surroundings relationship.” You focus more on the environment than on the camera when using AF. Plus I don’t care what people say, “sharpness” done right is ALWAYS stunning.

  7. says

    Only one comment. Shooting from the hip using manual focus is both a blessing and a curse. It heavily depends on how good you can estimate distances and what aperture you use.

    Shoot at f/4 and smaller and you are, generally, fine. If you want to shoot wide open though, say at f/1.4, and you only have 25cm of dof to play with, then, you’re screwed.

    For situations like these I reckon a “Full auto-focus camera (all points)” would come to it’s own. From what I understand, autofocus cameras focus on the closest object, perfect for most “off the hip” situations.

    What am I missing here?

  8. says

    Nice post Eric, personally I use MA/A so if my camera’s having trouble a quick shift will help capture what I’m trying to. I’m just too slow with manual focus. I should go out a couple days and only shoot in manual as a challenge / test. Might write about my efforts doing that on Wednesday on Faces of London.

  9. says

    I use auto-focus, mainly because my eye is not that sharp (when looking at viewfinder). I trust my camera to get tack-sharp photo :D.

    I also use AF for shooting from the hip. Although I missed the intended focus point, at least something will be in focus :D.

  10. Charlie Kirk says

    i think it depends on what focal length and aperture you are shooting at. also on the type of camera you are using.

    i prefer to use wider lenses and to shoot closed down so, even if i had af lenses, i would probably just stick the lens in manual and zone focus.

    to those reading this that have dslrs, i would recommened picking up an olf mf 28 or 35 – they have much better markings for zone focusing, and the movement of the focusing wheel tends to be a lot smoother and sturdier.

  11. says

    thanks for write up Eric,

    awfully true, there’s no “right” way to shoot street photography. Everybody sure has to find their own way they’re comfortable with. i carry both rangefinder and dslr for street photography! :)

  12. says

    I find that autofocus is better than my eye when using a DSLR in daylight. Modern DSLR have different modes – single point (make sure you get the subject in the focus point or you’re going to get a sharp image of the tree behind) – 9 points or more – the camera selects the focus point based on closest object or by what the camera thinks you want to focus on (this can be hit or miss).
    If I’m shooting from the hip in ample light, I’ll zone focus and use a smaller aperture to get more depth of field hence a better margin of error. In low light or if I want shallow depth of field I might open the aperture to get the speed and use autofocus.
    I find manual focus can be difficult on a DSLR when looking through that little viewfinder – a rangefinder is much better and faster to manual focus. I thought about getting the X100, but I’m put off by the non-rangefinder focusing. I’ll see when it comes out, else I’m saving my pennies for a Leica.
    I’m still finding my feet on the street, so thanks for posting this and all the comments.

  13. says

    I tend to treat each camera format differently. A majority of my stuff is on a rangefinder and after a bit of practice, you become pretty fast with the manual focus and you are absolutely right when it comes to shooting from the hip….. set your range (easier with wide lenses) and go at it.

    When I do take the DSLR out, I generally will either set the auto focus lens to manual and treat it the same as my rangefinder or will just put on a non-auto focus lens.

    For me, the time it takes for the camera to focus, either I am discovered or have lost the moment.

    There’s no right or wrong here. Strengths and weakness that you well documented.

    Street for me, give me manual.

  14. says

    Eric, all your points are valid. But for the older generation we have to also consider failing eyesight. I use both manual and a.f. depending on the conditions. You politely call them purists, I call them ‘stuck in the previous century’.
    After teaching photography for over ten years I often use the example of a builder.
    How many builders would still be in business if they used hand tools, saw, hammers etc.?

    We have brilliant technology that allows us to take images in ways just not possible in earlier times whether we are talking focus, exposure meters, hdr etc.

    We have to keep in mind that these are just tools. The ONLY important thing is the IMAGE.
    How you get the image is up to but the point is to GET THE PHOTO.

    • says

      I agree, Steve. It’s the image that’s important. How you get there may be different from others, but as photography seems to be largely subjective, I can’t see what difference it makes what system one uses?

    • says

      When creating art, there isn’t necessarily a wrong way and a right way to do things. But I completely agree with you that tools exist for a reason, and if someone chooses to use the latest tools, they should not be ridiculed for it. But the same is also true in reverse. If someone chooses to use the “old” method, they too should not be ridiculed. Whatever method allows you the greatest inspiration and personal expression, you should use it.

  15. digoy says

    i use either, depending on the situation.

    to rich beaubien, i read that the x100 doesn’t have any focusing marks(?) when using the manual focus so it’s better to use the AF

  16. Cameron Ehmig says

    My 50mm is manual focus only, so generally, I use manual. Today, however, I was using auto-focus (which is odd, to me). I was shooting the streets of St. Petersburg, capturing the architecture. So, then I found a studio place, which was a big, art-filled place. The walls were absolutely lined with the beautiful art. It was a bit darker, so at first, I was using my 50mm. Then, I pulled out my wide angle (with auto-focus), and found an entire new realm of photographic adventures. I found that when I used auto-focus, it made everything sharper, from corner to corner, and every detail was in focus, and at the same time, using a smaller aperture. By the time the sun toppled down, I had gained a whole different set of pictures, than I had ever shot before. But, then realizing the darkness of the night-filled streets, I slapped my manual focus 50mm back on, bumped up my ISO, and let the minimal light shine onto the faces of the interesting people.
    In my opinion, auto-focus has its place in specific parts of street photography, however: you cannot beat manual focusing. It is just so rewarding.

  17. says

    I’d rather ride my bike than drive a car. Does that make me “stuck in the last century?” I agree that image is everything. GET THE PHOTO, yes. It’s a question of which artistic process do you enjoy the most.

  18. Jason Fracaro says

    The thing we forget about the times before digital photography is that there were also other tools available to the photographer to obtain focus.

    One being the focus screens and mechanisms (prisms) that rangefinders have.

    Secondly, in the darkroom you can focus “again” or fine tune the focus through your enlarger. (Yes, those ancient things that shined light through your negative onto your photo paper.) Though, not all shots could be saved.

    When I first picked up my DSLR I was always shooting in manual, but was frustrated and disappointed in the results. Then I remembered I don’t have the focusing screen and/or prism system, nor an enlarger.

    So now I shoot 90/10 auto.

    Cheers!

  19. Suruchi Jain says

    I have brought the 50mm 1.8 d so on my dx model there is no auto focus, I click just okay photos. I am confused which portrait lens to invest in now. should it be 50mm 1.8 g or 35 mm g or 50 mm 1.4 g. The thing is i am on a budget however i would still like to know if at all buying a 50 mm g will make any sense or should i go for another portrait lens/street photography/bohek effect. my only main area is if i go for 50mm 1.8 g my other 1.8d will be totally a waste investment unless i sell it?

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