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Understanding Your Camera's Focus Modes

Manual Focus Mode vs Autofocus Mode

Camera focus modes… If you are anything like me when I first started you will be asking yourself, what are the focus modes? what are they for? what do they do? So let’s get into it…

First of all, do not get the focus mode confused with the focus area modes. There is a post coming up about this but just know these are 2 completely different things. A camera's focus mode is the main setting of a camera that tells it how to focus on the subject, automatically or manually.

When taking photos, choosing the correct focus mode is crucial. There are mainly 2 focus modes: Autofocus mode and Manual focus mode. Nowadays, cameras come with a variety of autofocus modes to choose from but since they are still automatic modes, I have kept them in the same category.

Setting your focus mode

First things first… how do we even choose a focusing mode? There are several ways to do this and this might be camera dependent. If you have set it to one of your function (Fn) buttons, then you can easily choose and change between modes easily by pressing the button and scrolling through the options with one of your dials. But if your camera is brand new and you haven’t set up anything, do not worry, I’ll help you find it.

I am a Nikon shooter, so beware that this might change from camera to camera. Make sure to check your camera guide if you have any issues finding this option.

Head into your camera menu and click on the “Photo Shooting Menu” and “Focus mode” after that (see images below).

Nikon Z7II Photo Shooting Menu
Nikon Z7II Photo Shooting Menu

Now, you can also change from Auto to Manual or vice versa from your lens by flicking the little switch on the lens from "AF" to “MF”.

Focus mode switch on Tamron SP 70-200mm F/2.8 lens
Focus mode switch on Tamron SP 70-200mm F/2.8 lens

Manual Focus Mode (MF)

I’m going to start with manual mode since there is only one and it’s an easy one to explain. Manual focus mode is the most basic type of focus mode available on most cameras. Here, you will have to manually (duh!) adjust the focus ring on your lens. That’s it!

Nikon Z7II Focus mode menu - Manual Focus
Nikon Z7II Focus mode menu - Manual Focus

Autofocus Mode (AF)

In photography, the autofocus mode is the one mostly used. Why? Well, it is simple and easy IF you know how to use it properly. You might be a bit confused because I basically said that both modes are easy.

They truly are. The only problem I see with manual focus is that it can be hard to see if your scene or subject is completely in focus. However, nowadays there are things like Focus peaking (according to Adobe, Focus peaking is a real-time focus mode that uses the camera’s Live View focusing aid to highlight peak contrast areas with a false-color overlay in your viewfinder. This can help you determine what part of the image is in focus before you shoot) which makes it really easy to know where your focus is. You would need a higher-end camera so not everybody has access to this feature.

So, unlike manual focus, the camera shows you in the viewfinder where it focusing on with a little red square in most cases. So let's get into the different autofocus modes, shall we?

Auto AF

Also known as AI Focus AF in Canon cameras, this option is the most Automatic option out of the whole bunch. That is why this option is not available in every model as the higher-end cameras expect you to do a little bit of work to get your subject in focus.

Another important thing to mention about automatic autofocus is that it switches from single AF and Continuous focus mode as it sees fit. More about those modes coming up.

The next 2 modes are considered automatic because the lens adjusts by itself to the distance the photographer sets it up to but it won’t do it on its own.