Manual Focus Vs. Auto Focus: Which Wins For The Street Photographer?


I have often professed my belief that of all the photographic disciplines, it is street photography that most graciously tolerates technical imperfection.

Noise/grain, loose composition, unorthodox framing, all these characteristics are deemed more acceptable in street photography than they would be in portrait or landscape photography.

The technical element that I encounter the most questions about is focusing. People want to know, “Should I use autofocus or manual focus?”

My answer is always that you should use whichever you prefer, which isn’t an answer. The fact is, it depends. In my experience I’ve determined that there are two major reasons why you would want to use autofocus and two major reasons why you would want to use manual focus.

Let’s take a look at those reasons, and then you may be better equipped to make a decision for yourself.

In Favor Of Autofocus

Autofocus is faster. Every camera manufacturer likes to boast about how fast their AF system can achieve focus. The fact is, they’re all pretty good. Of course some are quicker than others, but unless you’re a sports photographer it’s not something you should fret over.

Speed is important in street photography. You never know what sort of fascinating thing might happen as you walk around and you want to be able to capture it as quickly as possible.

Sure, there are photographers who are amazingly adept at focusing manually, but in terms of pure speed autofocus comes out ahead.

Autofocus is more accurate. This isn’t true for every camera-lens combination out there but AF accuracy often falls in line with AF speed, especially when there is adequate lighting.

The importance of AF accuracy should be quite clear. What good is speedy autofocus if your camera insists on focusing on the wrong subject?

When speed and accuracy play nice together it’s easy to write off manual focus as a skill you have no use for. But you might want to rethink that.

Photo by Jason D. Little

In Favor Of Manual Focus

You can use zone focusing. Zone focusing revolves around the idea that when you take a lens of a given focal length, set it to a specific aperture and focus it to a specific distance, everything that falls within that zone will be in acceptably sharp focus. So, if you set a 35mm lens to f/8 and focus it to a point 17 feet away, everything between 9 feet and infinity will be in focus.

One can easily see how this technique liberates the photographer from having to think about settings while walking around. You might not get a perfectly sharp shot every time, but you’ll always be ready for the proverbial decisive moment and won’t have to worry about slow or inaccurate autofocus.

Manual focus is better at night. As always, there are exceptions to the rule, but autofocus tends to struggle in low light situations. If you’ve ever tried to use AF at night I’m willing to bet it was a frustrating experience.

Using manual focus will allow you to accurately focus on scenes where light and contrast levels are low enough to give a camera’s AF system fits.

Not only is manual focus more accurate in low light, but you may also even find that it’s faster. All the time that autofocus spends hunting in the dark amounts to missed shots — shots that you would have gotten with manual focus.

Photo by Jason D. Little | Fujifilm c200

Final Thoughts

So, autofocus or manual focus? I’ve laid out the factors that I feel have the most impact on either technique. Which one you choose really boils down to personal preference.

Some street photographers use manual focus all the time – they zone focus and never worry about missing a shot. Others regularly use autofocus because it’s speedy and accurate.

The capabilities of your particular camera and lens will play a role in how you shoot, as will the environment in which you are shooting. Do what you’re most comfortable with. Do whatever gets you the shot.

Further Reading

  1. How To Focus In Low Light For Impressive Blue Hour, Night, And Astrophotography
  2. Do You Use A Manual Focus Lens? Here’s How To Add Exif Data To Your Files
  3. Bite Size Tips: How To Nail Focus Every Time
  4. Use These Tricks To Improve Your Manual Focusing Skills
  5. 10 Reasons Why You Should Use Manual Focus

About Author

Jason Little is a photographer, author and stock shooter. You can see Jason’s photography on his Website or his Instagram feed.

Good article!

AF beats a rangefinder for speed..if the light / subject is right. But when the light it bad, the rangefinder beats the AF sometimes. So just depends.

Most of my shooting is manual / zone focus. If conditions are good, I like AF.

The question is more complicated these days due to the advent of focus peaking. On my EOS R this makes getting in focus shot of static subjects super easy, and I think with practice you could learn to manual focus for moving subjects as well. Its somewhat ironic that technology has made manual focus completely relevant again.

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