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Focusing The Manual Way

Making Explicit Focussing Decisions

Hans Strand

Hans Strand

Hans Strand is an internationally recognised photographer who has received numerous awards for his work and published three books. He lives near Stockholm in Sweden.

I am a landscape photographer and ever since I started in 1981, I have always preferred to use manual focusing. Not that autofocus was an option these days, but still... My first camera was a Contax RTS together with 4 Carl Zeiss lenses. I then gradually stepped up in format from 35mm and finally to shooting with an 8x10” view camera. Quality has always been an important issue for me and therefore I have always aimed to produce images with highest possible technical precision. As the digital era came I bought my first DSLR in 2003, but was not blown away and in 2007 I moved up to medium format using a Hasselblad. There I finally found the quality I wanted. In 2012 Nikon launched their D800E with 36.2 megapixels. I then realised that with this camera and great lenses I could come very close to medium format and with a much lighter equipment. I bought four Zeiss lenses with the Nikon ZF.2 mount. It was a f/2.8 15mm, f/2.8 21mm, f/1.4 35mm and an f/2 50mm Macro. Immediately I found the lenses so much more precise and sharper than any of the Nikon lenses I had tried. I now use this lightweight combination in more than 50% of my work. This year I have upgraded my collection with two of the Zeiss Otus lenses, the 28mm and the 55mm and also a Zeiss Milvus 18mm. They have really become game changers for me. Using these lenses I have moved the technical quality of my DSLR photography to new levels.

Since I am mostly shooting landscapes I prefer using manual focusing. I have never really understood how to use autofocus when shooting a landscape. Even the largest swarm of focus points in the viewfinder will never know exactly where you want to place the focus point. Autofocus is therefore not the optimum method for landscape photography and will in most cases need a manual after correction. When I make a photograph it always follow the procedure of positioning, composition and focusing. I prefer to compose through the viewfinder and not by using live view. When I am happy with the composition I focus the lens.

I have upgraded my collection with two of the Zeiss Otus lenses, the 28mm and the 55mm and also a Zeiss Milvus 18mm. They have really become game changers for me.
This also using the viewfinder. I know that live view is an option many photographers prefer for focusing, but I find it too slow and therefore I prefer to focus in the viewfinder. With fast lenses like f1.4, accurate focusing is rarely a problem.

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  • Good read, thanks Hans. Seeking quality image, especially with 36mp sensors, has driven me to use a prime only kit too. I’d be interested in your view on the psychology of prime use. I feel I do miss some shots, as I get lazy and don’t want to change lenses (again …), but then I find the single focal length does seem to alter my mindset and I start to tune into its ‘limitations’. I miss shots, but gain others. Would like to comment on this conundrum, please …

    • Hi Barry,
      Of course there are situations when you would need a focal length in between the fixed ones. Normally I just accept that. In lack of more wide-angle I just stitch a couple of images together and the problem is solved. I can also crop to get the framing I prefer. All in all my work turns out much more precise doing it the manual way. A zoom lens might make you lazy and you shoot from where you stand, whereas a prime encourage you to do seek for a better positioning , where the elements in the landscape get a better distributiion and line up. Cheers / Hans

      • Thanks Hans, I’m on your wavelength. Prime use is a more considered way of working and I prefer the art-of-slow-composition using them. it’s just I sometimes just get fed up changing lenses, especially in poor weather and then compromise, which isn’t good. Cheers. Barry.

  • Ian

    Beautiful pictures Hans and a very interesting article. Setting focus is one of those topics where every photographer seems to have a different approach – funny really when you consider that all we are doing is turning one control to one point – how hard can it be to find the”right” point?

    If you want to give autofocus a chance then try setting up “back button” control and use only the central AF point, then use the focus-and-recompose method. I find that this is great for hand-held landscape work (like your iceberg shot for example), especially when using lenses that don’t have a hard stop infinity set point. I came to back-button AF via attempting to take pictures of birds in flight but it is a widely applicable technique for other types of photography including landscape.

    I don’t know about live view on your camera but if it took me minutes to live view focus on my mid-range Canon it would be sold today. I find live view is great for tripod work. Even if I focus through the viewfinder I always double check my focus with live view before hitting the shutter. It takes one button press to activate live view (which doubles as mirror lock-up) and then one tap of touch screen to choose my focus point and then two presses to zoom x5, x10 and turn the manual focus ring to taste. With my older cameras before touchscreen, I would work the same way but using the 4-way pad to move the selected focus point.

    Maybe with better viewfinders in higher spec bodies and fast prime lenses it is easier to work through the viewfinder but with the cameras and slower zooms that I use I don’t trust myself or the viewfinder to be able to set optimum focus for landscape work. This especially true if following the simplified Merklinger approach of setting focus on the most distant significant detail in the scene and then stopping down enough to achieve adequate sharpness in the foreground. The image in the viewfinder is just too small to be able to see that kind of detail. This is now my usual approach to focussing landscape scenes I find live view is perfect for working this way.

    It will be interesting to see how many more methods we can come up with for setting one control to one point…

    All the best,


    • Hi Ian, Maybe it is because my Nikon D800E has such a bad live view that I don´t like focusing that way. It simply does not work in bright light. With fast lenses like the Zeiss Otus ones focusing through the viewfinder is much more natural and faster. I am aware that with mirrorless cameras the zoom in and focusing is a very fast operation. Maybe that will be my future alternative. I still like the manual focus lenses though. The lenses feel so much more rugged.
      Cheers / Hans

  • Nice article supported by beautiful images. I’ve stuck with manual focus primes for some time now, although I’ve never thought to focus stack. I quite like the older Nikon lenses with their hard infinity stop and to be honest, using the Nikon D800e I’ve never had an issue with their sharpness. The Zeiss 15mm has been on my radar for a while and this article, unfortunately, may have just pushed me over the edge towards buying one. I’ve always far preferred using a range of primes and never really felt the need for a zoom to cover the in-between spots. I believe in the old adage that what you leave out is sometimes more important than what you put in. The biggest choice is usually what lenses I take with me. I was out wandering yesterday with 2 FF bodies and 7 primes. As is usually the case I only tend to use three – the 28 2.8Ais, 50 1.2Ais and the 105 2.5Ais

    • Hi Mark,
      The Zeiss 15mm has been a game changer for me. I have discovered so many new perspectives with this lens on my camera. It is also pin sharp all the way out in the corners.
      Back to the manual philosophy I also like that some decisions are left for the photographer to make. With everything automatized you don´t get the feeling that you did anything your self except pushing the shutter release. A prime lens also forces you to move your feet and change your position until you get the right framing. Which is another important ingredient of the creative process.

      Cheers / Hans

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