Updated 06/2022 with new information and lens suggestions. This advice is also applicable to the: Sony a6100, 6300, 6400, and 6600.
Ever tried to shoot through glass, and instead of capturing your subject, your camera focused on a few stray raindrops? Tried to get a good street shot, and your camera ended up focusing on a tree or a random building?
Happens a lot, and while modern autofocusing systems are extremely reliable, they still can’t compare to proper manual focusing.
A lot of photographers, especially newcomers to the hobby, are intimidated by manual focus. However, through practice, patience, and a little bit of initial guidance, anyone can become proficient with manual focus. In fact, many modern cameras have built-in features to assist you in your journey.
This guide mostly covers the setup & preparation needed for a good manual focus experience, and while it targets the Sony a6000 in particular, these settings are available on most Sony cameras.
We won’t cover the actual practice part of manual focus very much, as that mostly comes down to patience and a lot of trial & error.
So what is manual focus exactly?
Manual focus is the art of, well, manually focusing your lens. Though it takes a lot of practice to master, the concept and execution is very basic. You slowly spin the focusing ring on your lens, and the subject(s) in your frame will fall slowly in and out of focus.
Past photographers all had to focus their images this way. Autofocus wasn’t invented until the late 1970s, and did not become widespread until the mid 1980s. Whilst photography has advanced over the years, manual focusing has stayed largely the same due to its lack of complexity.
Why should I learn manual focus?
In this era of autofocusing lenses and incredible photography advancements, why would you learn manual focus? A few reasons, actually. The first of which we touched on in the introduction paragraph: sometimes autofocus simply fails to perform whether that be due to extreme circumstances or just simple machine error.
Manual focus will allow you to get tack sharp shots through windows, low light situations, etc. where autofocus may trip up and fall short.
Second, it’s simply fun. When I first got into manual focus a few years ago, I had a burst of creativity that lasted months. If you’re used to letting your camera do all the work, you may find that manual focusing gives your other hand something to actually do.
Slowly turning the focus ring, feeling and seeing the immediate feedback, and then nailing the focus on a shot is incredibly satisfying. In addition, for those looking to get into video, manual focus is an invaluable skill to have.
Finally, and this is arguably the strongest point: access to a plethora of new lenses! It is not an exaggeration to say that there are literally hundreds of new options.
These are both VASTLY cheaper than their autofocus equivalents, whilst still retaining virtually the same optical quality. At the bottom of this post, I’ll list my top favorite manual lenses.
In addition to modern manual focus lenses, you unlock a HUGE library of vintage lenses. Yes, it is possible to adapt old lenses to your Sony a6000 (or whatever Sony camera you have).
Adapters usually run between $15-$30 for all sorts of mounts, and vintage lenses can be anywhere between $10-$100 dollars. Yes, they are all old and lack any electrical components, but they still retain comparable optical quality to modern lenses.
How to Manual Focus on the Sony a6000
The Initial Setup (Menu Settings)
Let’s move onto setting up your Sony a6000 to make manual focusing as smooth as possible. It’s important to note that this can be applied to any other Sony camera, the menu buttons may just be in different places.
All steps will have accompanying images with text/highlighting. To start, we’re going to open our settings by hitting the menu button. Once there, we’re going to follow three simple steps.
Step 1: release w/o lens setting.
First, we need to turn on the “release w/o lens” setting. Here’s why: some manual lenses don’t have electrical contacts, so the camera has no way of “knowing” that there is a lens attached. By default, Sony cameras will not release the shutter for most manual lenses unless this setting is enabled.
Simply go over to the gear icon, then to tab three, and it should be near the bottom. Switch “release w/o lens” to “enable”. There is a visual below highlighting exactly where it is in the menus.
Step 2: focus peaking.
Next, we need to turn on focus peaking. What focus peaking does is it highlights the part of the image that is currently in focus with the use of small colored lines. You can change both the sensitivity and the color that it displays. This setting alone makes manual focus substantially easier, as you’ll have live, instant feedback for what is in focus as you compose images.
In the menus, navigate to the gear icon, go to tab two, then set your peaking level (high is best), and choose a peaking color (red is ideal for visibility, but I also occasionally switch to yellow). Below are visuals showing where to find these settings, along with an example of their effect.
The final step is to turn on focus magnification and assign it to a custom button. What this does is it allows you to digitally magnify your shot so you can zoom in real close and ensure focus is perfect. To begin, we’re going to go to the gear icon, then to tab one. Choose “focus magnif. time” and set it to “no limit”.
Next, we need to set up the custom button. Navigate to the gear icon, then to tab six. Open the option titled, “custom key settings”. Here, you can set your focus magnification button to anything on the camera. Binding it to the AEL button is ideal, as the button is in a very convenient, easy to access spot. Visuals below detail how to access these menu settings.
How to Practice & Improve with Manual Focus
Now that the initial setup is done, you’re ready to get started. When it comes down to it, there’s nothing complicated or scary about manual focus. You simply need to grab your lens, get outside, and just practice!
That being said, there are a few suggestions and guidelines to make your learning a bit smoother.
I’d suggest getting some practice on still objects. Line up a few random things at varying distances, and slowly change focus. Watch as the focus peaking lines move, and the items come in and out of focus.
A big part of manual focus is feeling “in-tune” with your lens. Practice makes perfect, and eventually it’ll become second nature.
Best Manual Focus Lenses
Speaking of lenses, primes are the best to practice on. There is nothing wrong with manually focusing on a zoom lens, but primes are generally a better choice. This is due to there being one locked down focal length which allows for consistency. In addition, primes generally have higher quality focusing rings, due to not having a large zoom ring taking up all the space.
Below, I’ll offer suggestions for some of my favorite manual lenses. Click the links to see my full reviews.
My first pick would be the Neewer 35mm F1.7. It’s a perfect all-rounder that offers solid image quality, a great focusing ring, and is incredibly compact. It suffers from heavy flaring, but that’s the only real flaw.
Second, the Rokinon 12mm F2.0. Catering more towards the wide-angle enthusiast, the Rokinon is pin sharp, built well, and is excellent for astrophotography.
Third, for portrait enthusiasts, the Kamlan 50mm F1.1 is an incredibly interesting F1.1 lens that is commonly known as “the bokeh beast”. It’s huge, it’s heavy, and it renders beautiful creamy backgrounds.
Finally, for macro photographers, the Laowa 65mm F2.8 is a fantastic lens that offers 2:1 magnification, a gorgeous vintage-esque build, and spectacular sharpness.
Hopefully this article either inspired you to give manual focusing a try, or simply pushed you over the edge to practice more. It’s a fun, engaging way to switch up and spice up your photography, and I still find myself using more manual lenses than auto lenses, even to this day.
Thanks for reading!
- Ultimate Sony a6000 Review
- Guide to Shutter Speed on Sony a6000
- Guide to Vintage Lenses on Sony Cameras
- Using the Sony a6000 for Streaming
- Advantages of Mirrorless Cameras over DSLRs
- Guide to Aperture on the Sony a6000
- Guide to ISO on the Sony a6000
- Guide to Custom Buttons on the Sony a6000
- Guide to Sony a6000 Drive Modes
- Guide to Sony a6000 Focus Modes
- Guide to Sony a6000 Metering Modes
- How to Connect a Microphone to the Sony a6000
- 4 Ways to Charge the Sony a6000
- How to Format the SD Card on the Sony a6000
- Using FE Lenses on the Sony a6000
- Top Travel Lenses for Sony APS-C
- Top Prime Lenses for Sony APS-C
- Top Beginner Lenses for Sony APS-C
- Top Wide Angle Lenses for Sony APS-C
- Top Landscape Lenses for Sony APS-C
- Top All In One Lenses for Sony APS-C
- Top Overall Lenses for Sony APS-C
- Top Budget Lenses for Sony APS-C
- Top Manual Focus Lenses for Sony APS-C
- Top Portrait Lenses for Sony APS-C
- Best SD Card for Sony a6xxx Cameras
Do note that this guide applies to the other a6xxx cameras such as the Sony a6100, a6300, a6400, a6500 and a6600.