How to Focus Manually on Your Nikon D5300

By Julie Adair King

Some subjects confuse even the most sophisticated autofocusing systems, causing the Nikon’s autofocus motor to spend a long time hunting for its focus point. Animals behind fences, reflective objects, water, and low-contrast subjects are just some of the autofocus troublemakers. Autofocus systems struggle in dim lighting, although that difficulty is often offset by the AF-assist lamp, which shoots out light to help the camera find its focusing target.

When you encounter situations that cause an autofocus hang-up, it’s easier and faster to switch to manual focusing. For the best results, follow these manual-focusing steps:

  1. Adjust the viewfinder to your eyesight.

    If you don’t adjust the viewfinder, scenes that are in focus may appear blurry and vice versa. If you haven’t already done so, look through the viewfinder and rotate the little dial near its upper-right corner. As you do, the viewfinder data and the AF-area brackets become more or less sharp. (Press the shutter button halfway to wake up the meter if you don’t see any data in the viewfinder.)

  2. Set the lens and camera to manual focusing.

    First, move the focus-method switch on the lens to the manual position. The setting is usually marked M or MF.

    Next, you need to set the camera to manual focusing by setting the Focus mode to MF. (Get the job done via the Information display control strip.) Note, though, that you can skip this step if you’re using the 18–140mm kit lens or certain other compatible lenses, because the camera automatically changes the Focus mode to MF as soon as you set the lens to manual focusing.

  3. Select a focus point.

    Use the same technique as when selecting a point during autofocusing: Looking through the viewfinder, press the Multi Selector right, left, up, or down until the point you want to use flashes red.

    During autofocusing, the selected focus point tells the camera what part of the frame to use when establishing focus. And technically speaking, you don’t have to choose a focus point for manual focusing—the camera focuses according to the position you set by turning the focusing ring.

    However, choosing a focus point is still a good idea, for two reasons: First, even though you’re focusing manually, the camera provides some feedback to let you know whether focus is correct, and that feedback is based on the selected focus point. Second, if you use spot metering, exposure is based on the selected focus point.

  4. Frame the shot so that your subject is under the selected focus point.

  5. Press and hold the shutter button halfway to initiate exposure metering.

  6. Rotate the focusing ring on the lens to bring the subject into focus.

    When the camera thinks focus is set on the object under the focus point, the green focus lamp in the lower-left corner of the viewfinder lights, just as it does during autofocusing.

  7. Press the shutter button the rest of the way to take the shot.

When you first start working with an SLR-style camera, focusing manually is intimidating. But if you practice a little, you’ll find that it’s really no big deal and saves you the time and aggravation of trying to bend the autofocus system to your will when it has “issues.”

In addition to the green focus lamp, your camera offers another manual focusing aid: You can swap out the viewfinder’s exposure meter with a rangefinder, which uses a similar, meter-like display, to indicate whether focus is set on the object in the selected focus point.

If bars appear to the left of the 0, focus is set in front of the subject; if the bars are to the right, as in the middle example, focus is slightly behind the subject.

The more bars you see, the greater the focusing error. As you twist the focusing ring, the rangefinder updates to help you get focus on track. When you see a single bar on either side of the 0, you’re good to go.

The green focus bars on a Nikon camera.

Here are a couple things to remember about this feature:

  • You can use the rangefinder in any exposure mode except M (manual exposure). In M mode, the viewfinder always displays the exposure meter.

  • In the other exposure modes, you can continue to view the exposure meter in the Information display, even with the rangefinder enabled.

  • Your lens must offer a maximum aperture of f/5.6 or lower.

  • With subjects that confuse the camera’s autofocus system, the rangefinder may not work well either; it’s based on the same system. If the system can’t find the focusing target, you see the rangefinder display.

  • The rangefinder is automatically replaced by the normal exposure meter if you switch back to autofocusing, but reappears when you return to manual focus.

You can leave the rangefinder off and just rely on the focus indicator light and your eyes to verify focus. You can also shoot in the S and A exposure modes. It can be a pain to monitor exposure in the Information display rather than in the viewfinder.

But if you want to try the rangefinder, set the Mode dial to any setting but M and then head for Autofocus submenu of the Custom Setting menu. Change the Rangefinder option from Off to On to enable the feature.

The Autofocus menu on a Nikon D5300