Should You Use AF Or MF? – Focus Modes Explained

Should You Use AF or MF?

On the side of your lens, you’ve probably noticed a little switch reading AF and MF. Even when you’re trying to choose your camera settings, both AF and MF start to show up again. What do these different focus modes do, and is it better to use AF or MF for your photography?

AF mode (Autofocus) should be used in situations where you want the camera to choose the focus for you. MF mode (Manual Focus) is better used when you need a very specific focal point or are shooting in low light.

To highlight how each of these modes operates, continue below!

What’s The Difference Between AF And MF?

Just as the names suggest, one focus mode is automatic, while the other is manual. AF, which stands for Autofocus, uses the autofocus point in your camera to help choose where to set focus. These focus points can be positioned anywhere in your frame, and the amount you have will depend on the type of camera. Most lower-end cameras will have around 9 autofocus points while high-end ones can have well over 3000. When you’re using AF mode, you don’t have to worry about whether your photo is focused. As long as the autofocus point is highlighted with red or green, you’ll know that your photo sharp.

Now MF mode is a little bit different. MF stands for Manual Focus, and in this mode, your camera has no control over the focus settings. Rather than it automatically choosing where to focus, you’re now left in charge. While using manual focus, the only way to get focus is by rotating the focus ring on your lens. You won’t be able to half-press your shutter button to find focus like you can in AF mode.

At first glance, it may seem like a no-brainer to be using AF mode for all your photos. In fact, that’s the focus mode that most photographers tend to use. Since it saves you the work of checking focus, you can capture images a lot faster. With that said, there are unique advantages that MF mode offers that I’ll expand on later.

Types Of Autofocus (AF) Modes

When you switch on AF mode, you might think that that’s all there is to it. In reality, there are actually two primary types of autofocusing modes that will drastically change how your camera finds focus.

The two main types of AF modes are Single-Shot and Continuous. These names are slightly different depending on the camera model you use:

  • Canon: One-Shot and AI Servo AF
  • Nikon: AF-S (Autofocus Single) and AF-C (Autofocus Continuous)
  • Sony: Single-Shot and Continuous AF

Single-Shot AF Mode

Across all camera brands, this focus mode works in the same way. When you half-press the shutter button, your camera will grab focus once. If you move your camera or the subject changes position, you’ll need to reset your autofocus by half-pressing the shutter again. For photos where your subject isn’t moving, this focus mode works well. With one autofocus sample, you know that your image will be in focus.

Continuous/Servo AF

Rather than only taking focus once, continuous AF works to track focus as your camera changes positions. By holding a half-pressed shutter in this mode, the focus will continuously change as you or your subject moves. This is ideal for shooting any movement where your subject could be coming towards or going away from the lens. Rather than having to find the focus for every shot, your camera will continue to track the subject as it goes through the frame. For sports or event photography, this is a huge advantage.

The Advantage To Using AF Modes

AF modes are an easy way to save yourself a bit of time. Rather than having to check and recheck that everything is in focus constantly, you can trust that your camera has done it for you. With moveable autofocus points, it’s easy to guide your camera’s autofocus to exactly where you need.

Besides saving time, autofocus allows you to focus on other things. Instead of concentrating on focus, you can spend your time composing the shot or working with models. Once you’re ready to shoot, you don’t need to think about where the focus is. All you need to do is set the AF point and start snapping away.

In just about any style of photography, AF mode is a great go-to option. Unless there’s a specific reason to use manual focus, there’s no real reason to switch over.

When To Use Autofocus Modes

Although AF is useful in most situations, there are certain ones where it’s absolutely crucial.

1. Shooting Action

Autofocus is an absolute must whether you’re photographing sports, wildlife, or your kids playing in the house. When things are moving all other the place in your frame, you don’t have the time to adjust the focus manually. Even if you did have the time, it would take significantly more effort to ensure every photo is tack sharp. Using autofocus, you can focus on keeping your subjects in the frame and capturing a great shot. Not whether or not your photo is in focus.

2. Portraits

Portraits are a time when you want to make your subject feel comfortable. Most people are already a bit on edge sitting in front of the lens, but it gets even worse if you aren’t constantly talking to them. Unless you’re a fantastic multi-tasker, you’ll have a hard time thinking about manually focusing while still engaging your subject. By using an AF mode, you can snap photos quickly and will have a much easier time capturing authentic, candid moments.

3. When You Want To Be Ready For Anything

Whether you’re shooting causally or as a professional, it’s always a good idea to be ready to take a shot at any moment. You never know when the perfect candid smile might arise, or something incredible happens while shooting wildlife. You don’t always have the luxury of time with photography, and that’s why using AF instead of MF is so beneficial. Unless you know you have time to set your focus manually, leave your camera switched to autofocus!

Is Autofocus Cheating?

When I first started photography, I always thought of autofocusing as cheating. Using manual focus is a more authentic and natural way of focusing a lens. If you’re a true photographer, you use all manual settings, including your focus.

And as I’ve learned over the years, I wasn’t alone in that thought process.

In reality, using autofocus isn’t cheating in any way. Just because you use autofocus doesn’t mean that you’ll get a better photo. It just means that you spend less time focusing. It’s a tool for you to use to capture the exact photo you wanted in less time.

One way to look at it is to call an excavator a cheat to using a shovel. Why dig a hole with a machine when you can do it manually? Well, the answer is simple, it’s less work, and it’s a whole lot faster. Using autofocus is the same.

As the age-old saying goes, “work smarter, not harder.”

Why You Might Want To Use Manual Focus (MF)

After all this talk about autofocus and how great it is, let’s bring it back around to manual focus. Surely there must be a reason why it’s still an option on your camera!

No matter how much you love to use autofocus, it doesn’t always get the job done. In situations where there’s not enough light, or you need a very specific focal point, it’s time for manual focus to shine! Since your autofocusing system uses contrast to pick focus, it doesn’t always work great in the late evening or in a dark room. Even though you can see the subject, there’s still not enough contrast for the camera to grab focus. Luckily you can use your own eyes to get the job done.

Similarly, your camera doesn’t know the creative intent you have for a photo. Sometimes AF mode will struggle to find the perfect point you were hoping for. Rather than battling with your camera to pick focus, switch over to MF mode and manually set your focus. Using manual focus is like the backup option you use when your autofocus isn’t pulling its weight.

When To Use Manual Focus In Your Photography

There are a few types of photos that MF mode is perfect for.

1. Night Photography

Whether you’re taking photos of the stars or a city at night, manual focus is the best option. Since there’s such a small amount of light, your autofocus would struggle to find the right focus. Using LiveView and focusing manually, it’s easy to find something to focus on in the dark, whether that be a star or a street lamp!

 2. Macro Photography

Unless your camera has a ton of autofocus points, manual focus will save you a lot of time. With one focus ring adjustment, you’d have the exact focal point you wanted in no time.

3. Whenever Autofocus Isn’t Doing The Job You Want

Rather than battling with AF mode for a specific focus, switch your camera to MF and call it a day. You shouldn’t be too attached to one setting or the other, and there will be instances where your autofocus isn’t doing what you want. Instead of trying to figure it out, switch to manual focus, and move on.

Ultimately, when deciding to use AF or MF on your camera, you should pick the one that works best for your situation. If one mode takes longer than you’d like, try switching over to speed up the process. These focus modes are each a tool for your photography, so take advantage of each of them!

Article By

Brendan Williams

Hey, I'm Brendan! I'm a professional photographer and photo retoucher who has spent the majority of his career shooting or retouching outdoor lifestyle and social media campaigns for brands like G-Adventures, xoxo Bella, P&G, Fitbit, Chevy, Tourism California, and more. You can view my photography portfolio here.

These days I primarily focus my efforts on this site, creating guides and tutorials that I wish I had earlier in my career. Each week I publish new tutorials on Photography, Photoshop, Lightroom, and Canva to help you unlock new skills and bring your creativity to new levels! Everything you learn here is backed by real experience, so you can finally skip the fluff and focus only on what matters.

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