The photography community is split over the focus mechanism in recent years. While tech-savvy photographers venerate autofocus with 50 to 600 points, purists swear by manual focus. Therein lies the truth and twists that require objective evaluation to decide which is better suited for your needs. If you're new to photography, your entry-level camera is probably kitted with 8 to 11 autofocus points. It is certainly purposeful, if not ideal in all situations. At kit-level, there are ample focus points to have the best of both worlds. Before forming a fast opinion, let's try and understand the basics of focus mechanism by teleporting to an era when the bubble first broke in digital photography. Till the year 1977, the likes of Konica and Kodak made digital cameras with manual focus rings. These yesteryear cameras were great point-and-shooters with several rare examples in near-original condition still in possession of collectors. While they made short work of analog equipment, the onboard electronics were far behind a fully-fledged auto-focus we know of today.
Therefore, a perfect composition still depended on a photographer's skill insomuch that the ring had to be adjusted with several other inputs making today's generation clueless about how to operate dials and notches if they had their hands on one. Then, something happened by the end of 1977. The Polaroid SX-70 emerged, announcing the dawn of autofocus. 1978 was the year when the race officially began to make a better version of autofocus, and today at the cusp of innovation, we have advanced autofocus systems that see and track subjects in dynamic conditions. So does that make autofocus the killer of manual focus? Maybe not for now.
While beginners and intermediates may wish for fancier autofocus modes of advanced SLRs, the basic DSLRs aren't to be taken lightly. They are still fine equipment for capturing scenes with extraordinary precision. For instance, the Nikon D3300 has only 11 focus points, but if the light and composition are right, you'd be on your way to collect the Pulitzer. So don't let anyone tell you that an advanced DSLR with 200 or more focus points is your only ticket to the pro league. The accuracy and quality of manual shooters can depend on your composition style and ability to track subjects with stable hands. Of course, snapping razor-sharp images of a diving peregrine falcon would need the power of autofocus. But composing a scenery with Muscovy ducks paddling atop still water sounds like the jig manual focus is set up for. So in a nutshell, autofocus ensures you never miss an important shot while the manual focus is all about learning a forgotten art in photography.
In photography, there is no rule of thumb on how subjects are focussed. You could opt for a sharper composition, or get creative with contrast, or mix both to create a third variant. No matter what method you choose, the winning photo is often judged by its ability to evoke certain feelings and perceptions. This is why it's crucial to aim for the sharpest image while building your shot. If you work with macros and a lot of closeups, the manual focus won't disappoint you. But shooting sports or wildlife events in contrasting backgrounds raise the bar for most photographers.
Choosing auto or manual in videography is a personal choice as each has a specific function allowing versatility in shooting scenes. In cinematography, the cameraman is assisted by a focus puller to add emotion into the shot by manually adjusting the focus ring. It seems manual focus weaves the elements into one big fabric to complete the authentic feel. Moreover, no matter how advanced today's autofocus systems are for video cameras, they still seem to carry a few mechanical traits that aren't everyone's cup of tea. The abrupt motor-driven focus shifts can come off as less appealing to viewers. The manual focus is and will always be the king in videography because it enhances the production value.
Shooting stills are different from videos. Shooting stationary subjects using DSLR manual focus modes are more predictable as the photographer will have ample room to compose the shot. Here, autofocus and manual focus can be used interchangeably to get the sharpest shot. If you're shooting action scenes with a lot of motion, set the camera into autofocus for best results, else stick to manual for portrait shots where you want the focus locked onto specific features. Also, manual is better over autofocus in entry-level SLR because the cameras with fewer AF points can hunt without fixating on specific spots.
The performance of an autofocus function depends on the camera model. A typical beginner camera will not ace the autofocus test in specific environments such as shooting in snow or low-light scenes. In both cases, it frustrates the photographer by constantly searching the scene. This leads to unpleasant results that would seem composed in a jiffy.
If you're the type of photographer who scans the scene and makes a mental picture of how the shots would be composed, then you probably won't need to gulp the technology Kool-Aid that camera makers sell in the name of sophistication. You could use the plain old manual focus and get the shots right while still having money left in your account. While several high-end DSLR autofocus modes fail to lock targets, the manual mode lets you select the exact points on the subject and even isolate the foreground from a noisy background. Also, it benefits photographers with better hand-eye coordination.
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