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

“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

“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”

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.

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

“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

“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

“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)

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