I own two genuinely spectacular vintage manual focus Nikon lenses: the 200mm f/2.0 and the 400mm f/3.5. Both are capable of incredible imaging, since both were made during an era of craftsmanship in photographic manufacturing unmatched by any today.
I don’t use these lenses as often as I think I should, and the reason is simple: they don’t have autofocus. I shoot a lot of sports, and autofocus, especially the very precise and fast autofocus in my Nikon D2H cameras, is a problem solver. Select the center sensor as your starting point and bam! Instant focus.
With these two manual focus gems, though, I am the focus mechanism, and I take a little pride in the notion that after 15 years of using autofocus, I can still focus, shoot, and chew gum at the same time.
There are a lot of techniques for managing focus manually, but the main means are follow focus, which, like it sounds, is where you follow the action and focus continually as it moves, and pre-focus, where you try to predict where the action will happen and set your focus to that point.
Both have advantages, and both have drawbacks. If you have a pretty good eye and decent hand-eye coordination, follow-focus keeps pace with what’s happening on the field, whether it’s a runner storming down the baseline in baseball, or a basketball forward driving to the goal.
Pre-focus works really well for sports in which players start or stop at a specific location. For example, all batters in baseball start in the batter’s box, and all basketball action ends up in the vicinity of the basket. Pre-focusing on areas like that can produce very impressive results.
A friend of mine in the Houston area sometimes shoot Houston Rockets basketball, and prior to the game he mounts a camera behind the glass of the backboard on the court. He pre-focuses his lens on an area just in front of the edge of the basket, since allowing the autofocus to operate while he is away from his camera would be unreliable. He then shoots with the camera using a remote release.
Most of the time when I pre-focus I remain ready to follow focus. For example: I will be pre-focused on home plate in anticipation of a runner scoring, aware that the throw might get away from the catcher and allow the other runner to take third base.
Like everything else in photography, manual focusing takes a lot of practice. Many younger photographers might think of it as a dead art, but as long as I want to be able to shoot with some of history’s greatest older lenses, I am keeping my skills, and therefore my photos, sharp.