Ever tried to get a good photo and your camera ended up focusing on a tree or random building? Tried to focus through glass and your camera instead focused on a few stray raindrops?
This happens quite a bit. Despite modern autofocus systems getting stronger and stronger, they can still trip up when presented with difficult scenes.
Enter: manual focus. It may seem intimidating for a beginner, but with a bit of practice and initial guidance, anyone can become proficient. Modern Sony cameras, with their wealth of features, make it easier than ever to master the art of manually focusing.
In this guide, we’ll go over the setup and settings along with how to practice and what lens to consider. This guide targets the Sony a7iii specifically, but can also be applied to other Sony FF bodies (such as the a7Riii).
Let’s jump in!
What is manual focus?
What exactly does manual focus mean? It’s pretty self explanatory: you spin the focusing ring on your lens, and the subject in the frame will fall in and out of focus.
In concept, it works exactly like autofocus, except instead of a motor moving the focusing elements, it’s your hand.
In the years before fancy AF systems, all photographers had to focus this way. Autofocus wasn’t invented until the late 1970s, and it didn’t become widespread until the late 80s.
Plus, despite the rapid advances in the autofocus world, manual focus has stayed largely the same over the years thanks in part to its simplicity.
Why should I learn MF?
So, in this era of ultra-fast autofocusing lenses, why should you even bother learning manual focus? What’s the point?
There’s many reasons, actually.
AF Isn’t Flawless
The first reason, which I alluded to in the introduction, is that sometimes autofocus simply fails to do its job. This can be due to either simple machine error or extreme lighting circumstances.
Sometimes the camera will focus on a random piece of grass, sometimes it’ll catch a stranger in the background. Even though it gets better and better every year, AF can still be unpredictable at times.
Manual Focus Situations
The next reason, and arguably the most common, is for when you want to shoot through transparent objects.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to photograph an interesting character through a storefront window, or tried to capture a stoic taxi driver, and yet my camera failed and focused on the pane of glass in front of them.
Using manual focus, it’s guaranteed you’ll get the shot every time (well, assuming you focused correctly of course!).
Manual focus also comes in handy when shooting close-ups or other macro subjects.
Every lens has a minimum focusing distance, and autofocus can tend to get a little bit finnicky when shooting close-up shots (the term for this is “hunting”).
Using manual focus provides a much better visual representation of the lens’s minimum focusing distance, plus you don’t have to worry about excessive focus hunting.
Next: low light photography. If you’ve ever tried to use autofocus at night or in a poorly lit building, you’ll know it can become useless when the environment gets dark.
Granted, the Sony a7iii has an incredible low-light AF system. Still though, it can trip up, so if you absolutely need to get the shot, then manual focus should be your go-to.
Other Benefits to Manual Focus
It’s Just Fun!
Manual focusing is also just plain fun! When I first got into vintage lenses, I had a burst of creativity that lasted months.
If you’re used to letting your camera always focus, you’ll find that manual focusing, as my friend put it, “gives your other hand something to do”.
Slowly turning the focusing ring, feeling the tactile feedback, and then finally nailing the shot is incredibly satisfying. Whenever I capture perfect focus, I feel like I’m finally “understanding” photography.
Expanded Lens Selection
Finally, you get access to a vastly larger lens selection. Once you get into manual focus, you’ll have, no exaggeration, hundreds of new potential lenses play with.
FE-Mount Specific Lenses
First off, there are plenty of modern lenses built specifically for full frame Sony cameras. Some examples include the fantastic Voigtlander lineup along with low budget options from brands like Meike.
These fully manual lenses offer many benefits over autofocus lenses while still managing to stay much cheaper (for the optical quality you get, at least).
As a bonus, due to the lack of all the autofocus hardware, these lenses are generally both smaller and better built.
Near the bottom of this article, I’ll include my personal favorite manual lenses (with many links to individual reviews).
Unique Vintage Lenses
In addition to the hundreds of modern manual lenses, you can also dabble in a HUGE variety of vintage glass. A simple adapter, purchasable for a few dollars, let’s you adapt vintage lenses on to your camera.
Adapters are dirt cheap, and I’ve found vintage glass from anywhere between $5 and $500. I picked up my previously mentioned Canon FD lens for five dollars at a garage sale. Yep, five dollars for a perfect condition lens that I still use to this day.
The ability to use vintage glass is an incredible strength of Sony’s system. If you’re interested in diving deeper, make sure to read my full article on adapting vintage lenses.
How to Manual Focus on the Sony a7iii
Initial Setup (Menu Settings)
So, now we’re going to move onto setting your camera up to make manual focusing as smooth and painless as possible. Again, this advice applies to the other full frame bodies (a7riii, etc.), but the button/menu settings may be in different locations.
So, to begin, we’re going to open up the settings by hitting the menu button on the back of the camera.
Step 1: enable “release w/o lens” setting
The first thing we need to do is enable the “release w/o lens” setting. Finding the setting is pretty easy.
- Open the menu button
- Go over to the second tab
- Go to page 4 (labeled Shutter/Steadyshot)
- Enable the “release w/o lens” setting
The reason for this is that most manual lenses have no electronic connections, thus the camera thinks there’s nothing attached. By default, Sony cameras won’t take pictures if they believe there’s no lens mounted.
Enabling this setting tells the camera to take photos even if it thinks there’s no lens attached.
Step 2: turn on focus peaking
Next up, we need to enable the focus peaking setting. What focus peaking does is it shows little colored lines around whatever is currently in focus.
- Open the menu button
- Go to the first tab
- Go to page 13 (labeled Focus Assist)
- Scroll down and open peaking settings
- Enable peaking display, then select level/color
What you select for the level and color of focus peaking is largely personal preference. I personally use “high” and keep the color on red. That’s just what works for me.
Having focus peaking enabled allows you to really quickly get a rough idea as to what’s currently in focus. However, to get absolute precision, you’ll want to enable the focus magnifier…
The final step is to enable the “focus magnifier” setting and bind it to a custom button for convenience.
- Open the menu
- Go to the first tab
- Go to page 13
- Set “focus magnif. time” to “no limit”
What this setting does is it allows you to digitally magnify your shot (generally 5x or 10x) so you can pixel peep and make sure everything is in focus.
Set the Custom Button
Now that the setting is enabled, we need to assign the magnifier to a custom button (C1, C2, etc.). So here’s how to get there:
- Open the menu button
- Go to the second tab
- Go to page 8 (label: Custom Operation 1)
- Open the top “Custom Key” selection
- Choose a button then select focus magnifier
You can assign the focus magnifier to any button, but I prefer setting mine to the “AF-On” button (that’s on page 3 of the custom key settings). It’s all personal preference, however, and I know many photographers who have set it to C1/C2/etc.
Summary of Steps
Just in case you missed a step or just want a quick summarized list, it’s below.
- Turn on “release w/o lens setting”
- Menu -> Second Tab -> Page 4
- Enable “focus peaking” (choose a color/intensity)
- Menu -> First Tab -> Page 13 -> Peaking Settings
- Set “focus magnif. time” to “no limit”
- Menu -> First Tab -> Page 13
- Bind the custom button to anything
- Menu -> Second Tab -> Page 8 -> Custom Key
Practicing Manual Focus
So now that the initial setup is all done, you’re ready to get out there and start practicing!
Even though it may seem intimidating, all you need to do is get outside, set your lens to manual focus, and just start shooting.
My personal suggestion would be to start practicing on still objects. When I first started, I’d line up a couple things at various distances, and then slowly pull my focus to see how the peaking lines moved.
The biggest part of manual focus is being “in-tune” with your lens. Every piece of glass has different character when it comes to MF, and practice truly does make perfect.
My Favorite Manual Focus Lenses
With all that being said, you’ll generally find dedicated manual lenses to offer a better MF experience than AF glass.
Fully manual prime lenses are your absolute best bet for learning and, since I’ve used a TON of them, I’ll provide a shortlist of my absolute favorites below (various focal lengths).
Laowa 12mm F2.8
It’s a rather unique lens that manages to offer an ultra-wide angle despite suffering from (almost) zero distortion.
My personal pick if you’re looking for an ultra-wide lens that offers fantastic sharpness, no distortion, and is built like a tank.
Voigtlander 40mm F1.2
Next up: the beautiful Voigtlander 40mm F1.2. This thing is, seriously, a literal piece of art. The design is absolutely gorgeous, reminiscent of high-end vintage glass.
Wonderful aesthetics aside, the lens offers mind-boggling sharpness when stopped down, and a nice, dreamy look when shot wide open at F1.2.
If you’re looking for a mid-range catch-all prime, the Voigtlander is a fantastic pick. A bit expensive though, to be frank. Feel free to read my review if you’re interested in learning more about it.
Samyang 135mm F2.0
Finally, if you’re looking for an absolute monster of a portrait lens, consider the Samyang 135mm F2.0.
It’s razor sharp, incredibly heavy but fantastically well built and the bokeh rendering is stunning.
Here’s where its strength really lies though: the value. It’s cheap as dirt when compared to alternatives from Sony and Sigma (seriously, a third of the price), yet it matches the optical quality of the much more expensive lenses.
Check out the review to learn more. If you’re looking for a budget portrait lens that blows everything out of the water, this lens is the move for you. PS: it’s also great for astrophotography.
As you can see, manual focusing, despite the lengthy initial set up, isn’t actually that hard to get into.
Sure, AF is pretty reliable these days, but I always find myself gravitating back towards my manual focus lenses. I love the process, and I also love the fact that they’re generally smaller and sharper than their autofocus counterparts.
Shooting manual is a fun and engaging way to spice up and switch up your photography, plus it’s an invaluable tool to have.
If you’re looking to delve deeper, go read through my post on vintage glass. If you’re new to photography, check out my other a7iii focused guides on aperture and shutter speed to continue mastering your camera.