Using Manual Focus on Your Sony a6000

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?

This can happen quite a lot, and while modern autofocusing systems are incredibly reliable, they can still trip up when presented with complicated scenes.

Subject photographed through a car window using manual focus.

A lot of photographers, especially newcomers to the hobby, are intimidated by manually focusing.

However, through practice, patience, and a little bit of initial guidance, anyone can become proficient with manual focus.

In fact, many modern cameras now 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 (including the other a6xxx series bodies).

So, ready to learn how to manually focus? Let’s dive in!

Oftentimes, autofocus can struggle to shoot through windows.

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.

an image where manual focus would have been useful
Without manual focus, the camera would have potentially focused on the glass.

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.

Autofocus Isn’t Flawless

The first reason, 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.

Sometimes it’ll focus on a stray raindrop. Sometimes it’ll focus on somebody’s dog in the background. Heck, even when photographing a landscape, you may just want to make sure every bit is properly focused.

Autofocus can just be unpredictable at times.

Photographing a reflection. Autofocus may have gotten confused by this shot.

Glass/Transparent Objects

The next reason you may want to manually focus is to shoot through glass or other transparent objects.

While autofocus systems are continually getting more intelligent, I find that my camera can still trip up when trying to photograph a subject through a glass window.

Take the photos below, for example. There’s a very strong chance autofocus would have focused on the panes of glass instead, completely ruining the shots.

Low Light

Anyone who has tried to shoot at dusk or indoors knows that autofocus becomes useless when the environment gets too dark.

Although it can be quite difficult to manually focus when you have very little light to work with, you’ll likely still have more success versus if you had relied on autofocus.

Macro/Close-Ups

Finally, close-ups and macro subjects.

Every lens has a minimum focus distance, and autofocus can tend to get a bit funky when up close and personal with macro subjects.

Using manual focus will provide a much better visual representation of the minimum focusing distance of the lens, plus you won’t get excessive hunting like you would with autofocus.

macro photo of a watch
Manual focus can insure your macro shots are correctly focused.

Manual Focusing is Fun!

Next, 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.

Whenever I capture perfect focus in a shot, I literally feel like Henri Cartier-Bresson (ok, maybe not quite that great, but you get the idea).

Expanded Lens Selection

The final advantage is that you get access to a plethora of new lens options!

I’m not exaggerating when I say you’ll literally have hundreds of new potential lenses to play around with.

E-Mount Specific Lenses

First off, there are plenty of modern lenses built specifically for Sony cameras, examples of which include lenses like the Meike 35mm F1.7 (my review here) or the Rokinon 12mm F2.0. More of my top picks will be near the bottom of the article.

These fully manual lenses are VASTLY cheaper than their autofocus equivalents, whilst still retaining virtually the same optical quality.

As a bonus, due to the lack of autofocus, manufacturers are usually able to make these manual lenses both smaller and better built (for the price).

A collection of manual focus lenses. Image Credit: LensBubbles
Manual focus opens you up to literally thousands of vintage lenses.

Weird Vintage Lenses

In addition to the wealth of modern manual focus lenses, you unlock a HUGE library of vintage glass.

Yep, it’s totally possible to adapt decades-old lenses to your Sony camera.

Want to use a 1970s lens from the Soviet Union? You can. Want to use an old CCTV lens? You can.

a vintage camera lens
The Canon FD lineup is pretty famous. I personally love the 50mm F1.8.

I personally have been a pretty big fan of all the vintage Canon FD lenses that I’ve tried.

Adapters usually run anywhere between $15-$45 for all sorts of different mounts, and I’ve found vintage lenses anywhere between $5-$500.

The ability to use vintage glass is such an underrated aspect of Sony’s system.

If you’re interested in diving deeper into the world of old lenses, read my full article on vintage glass.

vintage camera lens on a table

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: most 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 (aka take a photo) 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.

Activate the release w/o lens setting.

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.

Settings on focus peaking on the left and then an example of focus peaking on the right.

Step 3: focus magnifier & custom buttons.

Focus Magnifier

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 the first tab. Choose “focus magnif. time” and set it to “no limit”

Custom Button

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. You can, however, assign it to any button you’d like.

Visuals below detail how to access both these menu settings.

Settings for focus magnifier & custom keys.

Summary of Steps

Just in case you missed a step and don’t want to go back and read through, here’s the summary.

  1. Turn “release w/o lens setting” on.
    • Open Menu –> Gear Icon –> Page 3.
  2. Enable “focus peaking”.
    • Open Menu –> Gear Icon –> Page 2. (choose a peaking level and color)
  3. Set “Focus Magnif. Time” to “no limit”.
    • Open Menu –> Gear Icon –> Page 1.
  4. Assign Custom Button.
    • Open Menu –> Gear Icon –> Page 6. (assign “focus magnifier” to a custom button)

Final Thoughts

Practicing Manual Focus

Now that the 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.

bokeh lights
Get out there and practice!

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 is a short list of some of my absolute favorite manual lenses. I’ve included purchase links along with links to my full review of each lens.

Meike 35mm F1.7

My first pick for a manual lens would be the dirt cheap Meike 35mm F1.7.

It’s a perfect all-rounder that offers solid sharpness, a great focusing ring, an incredibly compact build, and an affordable price. Seriously, this thing is CHEAP.

Check out my full review here where I cover all the pros and cons of this affordable little beast (I’ve owned it for a couple of years).

Rokinon 12mm F2.0

Next up is the Rokinon 12mm F2.0. While a bit more expensive, it’s well worth the price.

Catering more towards wide-angle enthusiasts, the Rokinon in pin sharp, built well, and is quite compact.

If you’re interested in astrophotography, this lens has a huge following of night sky enthusiasts.

Laowa 65mm F2.8

Last but not least, we have an epic lens for macro photographers: the Laowa 65mm F2.8.

It offers 2:1 magnification (a rarity on APS-C), a gorgeous vintage-inspired build, along with spectacular sharpness.

It costs a pretty penny, but if you’re huge into macro photography, it’s worth considering.

taxi in new york city
Manual focus takes a lot of practice but it is well worth learning.

Conclusion

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.

Looking to dig a bit deeper into mastering your camera’s manual controls? Check out my a6000 guides on both shutter speed and aperture.

Thanks for reading!


Do note that this guide applies to the other a6xxx cameras such as the Sony a6100, a6300, a6400, a6500 and a6600.

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