Tips For Manual Focus Shooting

The D40-series' lack of an on-board autofocus motor means that many lenses available to users of these cameras will have to be used as manual-focus lenses.

For some people this is a simple inconvienience, but for others it can be a major issue. Unfortunatley the D40-series are not the best for manual-focus use - unlike older manual-focus cameras we do not have the aid of split-prisms and fine-grain focusing screens.

It can however be a valuable experience to at least attempt manual-focus photography. To that end we present this list of tips for successful manual-focus shooting:

  • Make sure your diopter is set correctly. Move the slider next to the viewfinder until you can clearly and sharply see the focus brackets and data display. This control adjusts the focus of the viewfinder system - if that's out of focus than you're not seeing the lens' focus properly.
  • Set your focus mode. While you have an AF-S lens mounted, set your focus mode to Single Area. This lets you control the selected focus bracket while using manual lenses.
  • Use the Focus Confirmation tools. All D40-series cameras have a little green dot in the bottom left of the viewfinder than lights when proper focus is achieved. A blinking light indicates that you've nearly got focus, but you should aim to have the light continuously lit. If you have a D60 and are using a CPU (AI-P or AF) lens you can also use the Electronic Rangefinder, which converts the meter display graph into a visual display of the focus plane. Adjust focus until the bar is centred in the graph.
  • Remember to check your focus bracket. The Focus Confirmation tools mentioned above only confirm focus on whatever is under the selected focus bracket (which will flash red when you half-press the shutter button). It's no use trying to focus on somebody's face and get the green dot to come on when the focus bracket is looking at the pot-plant ten metres behind them. If the camera is set to Single Area or Dynamic Area focus you can use the direction buttons to pick the bracket you use.
  • Use good technique. The steadier you are, the more likely you are to get good focus. Control your motion - if you're subconciously moving, especially closer to or further away from your subject, you'll change their distance from you and your focus will be off. Keep your arms close in to your body, and control your breathing.
  • Zoom in to check sharpness. After making the exposure, zoom in on the LCD to verify the sharpness and then adjust the focusing from there. Make any adjustments if they're necessary.
  • Shoot at the highest reasonable aperture. Most lenses deliver their best sharpness between f/5.6 and f/11 (any higher and the image is blurred by diffraction). Using these apertures also increases the depth of field, which widens the plane of focus and can help cover any small mistakes.
  • Try shooting on a tripod. If you're have trouble it can help to practice manual focus while using a tripod. It can help you to forget about other variables such as how you hold the camera and concentrate on simply getting composition and focus right. Tripods are also a great way to ensure that you get the sharpest image possible, as there'll be no camera shake.
  • Consider accessory focus aids. Many manual-focus SLRs are fitted with special focusing screens that include devices called "split-prism rangefinders." They can also be used in DSLRs, and are very handy as they precisely display just how out-of-focus the image is. They can be bought and adapted to your camera, or you can buy one from a specialist supplier. Installation can however be a tricky procedure. Using a magnifying eyepiece such as the Nikon DK-21M enlarges the centre area of the viewfinder, allowing much more precise viewing of focus. See our Accessory Focus Aids page for more information.
  • Use a proper manual-focus lens. The best manual focus experience is had when using a lens that's designed for manual-focus use. These lenses have smoother focus rings with proper damping and longer throws for increased precision. They're also, for the most part, convieniently cheaper.
  • * Shoot bursts. It may help to shoot in bursts whilst rocking back and forward or tweaking the focus ring.
  • Practice, practice, practice. The old adage certainly applies here. Many people give up manual focus, upgrading their lenses or body, before they've had time to get good at it. If you stick with it it can be a very valuable skill even after you buy autofocus lenses.
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