A Vanishing Skill: Manually Focusing a Lens

A tiger swallowtail butterfly harvests nectar from blossoms on one of my cherry trees recently.
A tiger swallowtail butterfly harvests nectar from blossoms on one of my cherry trees recently.

I possess an increasingly rare skill: being able to focus a manual-focus lens.

In today’s autofocus-saturated world, this skill is particularly hard for younger photographers to appreciate. The truth is that for the first 20 years of my career, I neither had autofocus, nor did I need it. And to this day, I have several extraordinary manual focus lenses that I can manually focus swiftly and precisely. I bring them out once in a while to keep my game and my eye fresh.

I would urge anyone getting into digital SLR or mirrorless photography to learn to manually focus. There are times when you can’t convince a camera’s autofocus system to focus where you want, and there may be times when you use non-autofocus cameras. It’s a valuable skill.

Last summer I bought a Fujifilm X-T10 mirrorless camera specifically to breathe new life into all manner of older manual-focus lenses, and that has been very rewarding.

I recently photographed some tiger swallowtail butterflies harvesting my cherry trees. The lens I had with me was my newest acquisition, the Nikkor 50-135mm f/3.5 AIs Nikkor of early 1980s vintage. Manual-focus zoom lenses are harder to focus than prime (non-zoom) lenses, since they tend to have smaller maximum apertures (thus, less-bright appearance in the viewfinder), and the focus throw (the amount you need to turn the focus ring) tends to be longer to accommodate different zoom settings.

Honestly, the challenge of focusing like I did in 1988 adds a layer of stress to shooting, but it also feels like the task is awaking and retraining my old skill.

Finally, my young friend Mac borrowed my blooming cherry trees for a photo shoot recently, and she shot digital and film, the film camera being an Olympus of 1980s, pre-autofocus vintage. She expressed a definite liking for the old camera and the technique required to focus it.

Mac Crosby makes pictures in my orchard last week, moving freely from an autofocus digital camera to a manual focus film camera.
Mac Crosby makes pictures in my orchard last week, moving freely from an autofocus digital camera to a manual focus film camera.

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