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Manual Vs AutoFocus: When To Use Each in Real Estate Photography

Published: 08/03/2021

Are you trying some settings on a new camera and can't seem to figure out how to set focus points due to several options? With DSLRs allowing manual vs autofocus, we're going to help you identify cases where to use them and how to improve focus for real estate photography.

Manual vs Autofocus in Real Estate Photography

Manual focus and autofocus both adjust the focus of the camera lens. However, autofocus is helpful for those who need help focusing as it uses optical sensors to determine the sharpest focus, whereas manual focus lets you control the focus ring by hand. 

Understanding Manual Focus

Manual focus is the process of modifying the depth of field to bring a photo into sharp focus without technical assistance. Like when shooting in manual mode, manual focus gives you more creative control without sacrificing precision.

With manual focusing, you need to use your left hand's palm to cup and adjust the lens barrel. Then, your fingers must twist the focus ring until the photo comes into sharp focus.

It's important that you hold both the camera and lens properly to achieve this. Otherwise, you may create a slight blur from motion shake.

Person taking a photo of an outdoor garden

Understanding Autofocus

Autofocus is a self-directing feature of a lens that intelligently adjusts the barrel and focus ring to obtain image sharpness. It communicates with the camera to determine the sharpest focus.

As opposed to manual focus, using autofocus means you don't have to hold the lens as you shoot, giving you more leeway to think about other elements.

While autofocus is faster than manual focus, the quality may vary depending on the DSLR model. Likewise, the camera model indicates what kinds of autofocus modes you can use. 

  • AF-S: Single-servo autofocus locks focus on the subject once you press the shutter halfway, making it ideal for stationary subjects.
  • AF-C: Autofocus can still track moving objects with continuous-servo, which continually moves the focus as long as the camera or the subject moves.
  • AF-A: Auto-servo lets the camera detect first whether the subject is stationary or in motion. After that, it automatically chooses whether to use AF-S or AF-C depending on the scene.

When to Use Manual Focus in Real Estate Photography

Manual focus is an excellent choice for real estate photography, especially since most of the subjects are stationary. These are some of the most common instances where you can apply manual focus for real estate:

  • Wide-angle shooting: Real estate photography would usually require you to shoot using a wide-angle lens, which can enlarge a scene more than it looks in real life. Also, there will be a lot of focus points in a wide scene, and manual focus can help you choose the right focal point.
  • Differences in image elements: Autofocus tends to have difficulty focusing when there's an object between the subject and the camera or when the subject and background are of the same color. Manual focus is better than autofocus in situations where you need help focusing despite such differences in contrast, distance, and color.
  • Bracketing: Manual focus helps you make sure the focus stays precisely the same for all frames of the bracket sequence. A change in focus between frames would cause softening in the edges of the final image.
  • Low-light shooting: Manual focus can easily pick up lighting changes even when the subject has both bright and shadow areas. 
  • Focus stacking: This type of shooting needs you to take multiple images of the same frame using different focuses. You can only achieve that when you use manual focus for selective focusing.
Hand holding a camera with LCD display

When to Use Autofocus in Real Estate Photography

Autofocus is equally beneficial in real estate photography, especially in the following cases.

  • Setting the hyperfocal distance: The hyperfocal distance refers to the focus distance, which places the furthest edge of a depth of field at infinity. With wide-angle lenses and smaller apertures, setting the focus to the hyperfocal distance keeps everything from a meter or two to infinity in focus.
  • Learning: Autofocus works easier and faster than setting the focus manually. If you want to focus on mastering exposure first, autofocus can give you that chance while it takes care of the sharp focusing.
  • Real estate videography: Although you can also use manual focus for videography, autofocus mechanically adjusts the sharpness as you move, letting you concentrate on your movements and angles.
  • High-contrast images: High-contrast photos have a full range of tones with strong textures and colors. When shooting in bright sunlight, autofocus helps ensure you don't miss a spot in focusing. This is great if your style also includes creative architectural photography.
  • Moving objects: You won't probably have to include fast-moving subjects in your real estate shots, although it's best to know that you can rely on autofocus should you need to capture subjects in motion.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Can I Improve Shooting Focus?

Commercial and real estate photographer Scott DuBose recommends using the handy DOF calculator. Meanwhile, architectural photographer Tom Zaczyk also suggests practicing using the back button autofocus

Can You Use Autofocus in Manual Mode?

Yes, you can still use autofocus even when in manual mode, as well as in other modes like Program, Shutter Priority, and Aperture Priority. Manual mode means programming the exposure settings manually, so it won't affect the autofocus.

Do Professional Real Estate Photographers Use Manual vs Autofocus?

It depends upon the photographer, as the use of focus can be a personal preference. However, most professional photographers tend to use manual focusing rather than autofocus as it provides them optimum control over the sharpness of photos.

Conclusion

If you're new to real estate photography, autofocus can help you adjust. However, at some point, you must learn how to shoot with manual focus for better control. Understanding the advantages and downsides of both types can give more flexibility and options when shooting real estate images.

Does anyone else have any advice?

21 comments on “Manual Vs AutoFocus: When To Use Each in Real Estate Photography”

  1. With my Sony A6000 I only photograph using one RAW file, I never bracket, aperture preferred, F/10, 16mm (aps-c sensor) and auto focus. 99% of the time AF works and if not I go to MF.

  2. Larry & Diana
    I agree, that manual focus and setting the hyperfocal distance was always the best way to make sure everything is in focus. it was the way we shot weddings in dark halls and churches.
    That was easier on the older film lenses, and some of the hi-end newer lenses. But being a Nikon user (don't know Canon lenses) I've noticed that not all the newer lenses have the markings to show the hyperfocal distance. Nikon has lowered its quality on many lenses to keep the prices down, including the now plastic filter threads and lens hood mounts. The image quality on many of their lenses are good, but the build is very flimsy.

    I'll use auto Focus and Auto aperture mode outside, but indoors, I almost always use manual focus and manual exposure.
    Because I find my vision not as acute as it was when I was in my 20s, many times, I use the Nikon Right angle magnifier finder on my D-7000 and D-300 (it wont fit my D-700) which helps with critical focus and allows me to not bend down on low angle shots. (sometimes I use a Hoodman Loupe to check images)
    Since my lens is an f-4, I try to stop down about 2 stops for sharpness and depth of field. So, indoors, I try to shoot between 5.6 and 8 at about ISO 400.
    once you get used to manual focus, you will start to understand how your lens works and how to focus about 1/3 into the image room and know what will be in focus.

    Just remember to re-set to auto focus when you get outside, or you might be very upset when you realize your outdoor photos are out of focus and the lens is still set to 4-6 feet......................I know I was.

  3. I do want to add, on nearly all indoor photos I use bounce fill light to help fill in shadows and it also helps to make whites in the image more natural.

  4. I shoot a 70D with a Sigma 8-16mm. I'm usually shooting at 10-12mm, and I bracket 7 shots and shoot a single flash shot. I shoot mostly at f/8. Set up the camera by auto-focusing on an object 4-6 feet away, check the image with magnification to make sure distant objects are sharp, as well as near objects. Then I turn off autofocus and, being careful not to move it, tape the manual focus ring so that it can't move. I'll spot check my shots periodically to make sure they're sharp, but I'll leave the lens at that setting for weeks at a time.

    This works great with an ultra-wide zoom on an APS-C camera. If I switched to a full frame camera, I'd want to experiment to make sure this worked with the longer focal lengths that entails.

  5. My vision tells me...trust auto focus more than my eyes. One time I looked through the viewfinder and never would focus, then realized I didn't have my glasses on. But seriously, has never been an issue with an UWA lens and doubt I could manually micro-fucus any more accurately than autofocus with interiors typically shot at f10-f14. Below f9, windows begin to have clarity issues. The biggest risk is forgetting I set it on manual...which I have done with a telephoto after doing a video focus pull. Then reviewing the next shot - why is it out of focus?...oh yeah. At least I remember to change the ISO between interior and exterior, but occasionally get a reminder as my lights are not lighting the room as they should.

  6. I do three things to make it simple and no errors. I use Sony a99 but I'm sure any SLR can do the same. Set on spot focus and center weighted exposure.
    Halfway push focus button when its on the object I want to focus on and hold it half way.
    I move the camera around the scene until I see the exposure I want to capture in my EVF. At that point I push the EVL button (with my thumb) locking in my exposure.
    Move the camera around to set the exact composition.
    Finish pushing the shutter button.
    Works like a charm for me.

  7. good question, I want to ask that allsoallso. I focus manuel, 10-24 mm, at about 15-18mm. A f 8-9 where should be best to focus in the room, at the middle, 1/3 in to the room, to have deaph of filed for the hole room.
    thx

  8. Autofocus for me, using the center AF point only. That way, it wont adversely focus on something I don't want it to. Even if I shoot brackets, unless I bump the tripod, the focus doesn't change. The only time I expand the number of focus points is when there isn't enough contrast for the camera to lock focus. I use the same method for events & weddings to keep from focusing on the wrong person. And besides, on the 6d, the center AF point is the most accurate.

  9. I take the camera off the tripod
    Use 1 point autofocus (using back button focus)
    Focus on an edge with high contrast about 1/3 depth into image
    Put camera back on tripod and Leave it on autofocus for all other exposures
    The focus won't change if you're using back button, so no need to switch to manual

    Images should be sharp all the way through as long as you are shooting fairly wide

  10. I will be shooting with the 5D and 16-35 mm lens. Tim W you touched on my other question which was the camera settings. As anyone who uses the 5D knows there are 5 different categories in camera to set up. If you shoot manual do those not matter? Sorry if that's a stupid question, but they still seem to matter as far as I can tell. I do shoot autofocus now with my 70D and have no issues getting clean shots but my settings aren't as expansive. Can anyone shooting RE with a 5D touch on the camera settings, not the lens? Read my post above where I'm having some confusion. Thanks!!!!

  11. I use DOF Calc by Jesper Svensson on my Android phone. There should be something for IOS too. Free and very handy.

    I work with both MF and AF. In a nicely lit room, AF works just fine. Sometimes in a darker room I need to use manual focus and maybe cheat a little if there isn't a convenient object to focus on at the distance I want.

    I wouldn't say that one outweighs the other. Just like many other things in photography, "it depends". For brackets, get your focus point and switch to manual focus so the camera doesn't change it's mind in the middle of the sequence and mess you up. I don't find that MF slows me down appreciably or that AF is enough faster to make a difference when shooting RE.

    If you find yourself shooting larger homes more frequently, it might be your best move to worked tethered to a laptop to have a nice big, and calibrated, screen to check images. With all of the wireless options today, it's pretty easy to do.

  12. I've got to agree with Tom. Back button auto focus is the way to go. This uncouples the shutter release from the autofocus event so that once you have used the back button to obtain focus on a stationary object it doesn't matter what you do with the shutter release. The focus doesn't change unless you manually change it or you press the back button an additional time. Watch the video.

  13. When I first began photographing real estate, I used autofocus. I did this because I simply moved my lights and triggers out of site and did some dodging,burning and corrections in lightroom. However, I use composting and light-painting techniques to achieve visual impact. Therefore, I need to lock focus on my 14-24. Autofocus causes it to breathe a little, which changes the focal length. It's just enough to screw things up. Once in a while I forget, and I have to run auto alight in PS to fix things. My only concern is that I make eventually wear out the switch, given that it is used on a daily basis. Lastly, If I really want to get creative, I sometimes focus stack to get foreground to background detail.

  14. Based on the fact that she is using 7 exposures it's reasonable to assume she is autobracketing the exposures. I don't have any documentation to back this up but imo this happens way too fast for the camera to be focusing between every shot (nor would it make sense to). Like Larry said with a UWA it's pretty hard to miss your focus, so I would say auto is the most efficient way to go. Watch your viewfinder as you focus at half press and as long as you didn't red light that doorknob 2 feet away, full press, back off, and let the timer finish the job.

  15. I shoot with a Nikon D7000. Auto Focus for photos, center weighted. All other settings in manual. I also generally shoot full motion video of the same room after doing bracketed stills. Camera goes into manual focus for video. I cut my teeth shooting video many years ago. I don't trust a camera in auto focus for video ever. I use a Zacuto Loupe because these things are impossible to focus in live-view mode without it.

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