Using Manual Focus Assist Features on the A6000

Once again, a series of posted questions has prompted me to do a write-up to document an oft-used but sometimes misunderstood camera feature. This time it is the remarkable manual focus assist features of my current daily driver, the Sony A6000.

To Auto or Not to Auto

Autofocus on the A6000 is a hybrid system that uses embedded phase-detect sensors and contrast analysis of the image to provide remarkably fast and accurate focus. So why would you want to focus manually when you can just point the camera with it's brainbox full of smarts at something and push the shutter release? If you're like me, you do it because sometimes the camera and the photographer disagree about what the actual subject is in the frame and where on that subject one wants to focus. More to the point of this article, the growth of the E-mount's popularity has resulted in adapters being available to mount almost any legacy lens you may have and a growing number of manufacturers are turning out reasonably priced, purely manual focusing E-mount lenses with exceptional quality for the dollar spent. To take advantage of this optical bonanza,  you can use some of the nifty tools Sony has added to their cameras to make manual focusing easier than it ever was in "the good ol' days".

Manual focus tools

The first tool is Focus Assist (magnifying the area in focus) and it is the most common one on any camera with live-view manual focusing. There are several steps in the process depending on what mode you are in. Following is the full manual process.

First press on the Focus Assist button (customizable, as noted later) shows the area to be magnified. This view makes it easy to move it to any point in the frame using the 4-way navigation button:

The second and third presses magnifies the focus area 5.9x and 11.7x respectively and displays a small representation of the relative position of the focus area to the whole frame in the lower left corner. While magnified, you can still adjust the position of the focus area with the 4-way nav to fine tune the position of the magnified area if needed:
The fourth press returns to normal view.

The other tool we're covering is Focus Peaking. Focus peaking is a technology borrowed from Sony's high-end video cameras that displays a colored halo around the areas of the image with the highest contrast to provide a visual indication of what is in focus. On a still camera it makes manual focusing about as simple as you can ask for. In the image above, the bird's beak is slightly out of focus. Below, focus has been adjusted until the bits of yellow started to sparkle around the edges:
In iffy lighting the sparkly hints under magnification can make or break the accuracy of your focus point. When using peaking in real-time situations and no magnification, the effect is more pronounced and can even be used to follow-focus (its original purpose for video cameras).
My lens collection includes a Lensbaby and its peculiar focusing quirks were very hard to manage before focus peaking was available on my cameras.

Setting up the focus tools

Now that we know what tools are available, this section will describe setting the camera up to access them easily. It will be heavily influenced by my preferences but said preferences have served me well enough that I feel that they are a good starting point from which you can make adjustments if you want. 

Manual focus on the A6000

This section might have been a single sentence with "turn off autofocus then turn ring and look for sharpness" as the main instruction but the manual  focus assist tools behave differently depending on whether you are manually focusing a native autofocus lens or using a true manual lens with no focusing mechanism other than the focus ring. For native autofocus lenses, there are two distinct manual focus modes. When set to MF mode, an AF lens can only be focused using the focus ring (the zoom ring on the 16-50 PZ lens switches to focus only and you can only zoom with the zoom switch), DMF mode (Direct Manual Focus) allows you to focus manually after the AF has acquired focus. Half pressing the shutter release will activate AF and lock on a subject after which you can use the focus ring to fine tune focus as if you were in MF mode for as long as you keep the shutter half pressed. For a true manual focus lens we can refer back to the "turn ring" instructions at the beginning of the paragraph.

Some of the following settings affect both types of lenses but others only affect AF lenses being focused manually when in MF or DMF mode. None of these settings have any effect on AF-A, AF-C or AF-A focusing modes.

Menu diving

First stop: MF Assist
 This setting determines the behavior of the image magnification when using an autofocus lens in manual or DMF mode. When set to OFF, the MF Assist can only be triggered by  a button (customizable). When set to ON, MF Assist will automatically trigger the focus magnification whenever the camera detects the focus ring being turned on an AF lens. The viewfinder will zoom to the set focus point in MF mode or wherever the current focus is locked in DMF mode. This can sometimes be disconcerting when using wide area focus but under most circumstances, it makes nailing a focus point when using DMF with a wide lens like the 16-50 very easy.

Next up: Focus Magnif. Time
 This determines how long the image stays magnified after MF Assist is triggered by pressing the button or otherwise. My personal setting when using DMF is 2 Sec which usually allows me time to make a fine adjustment before it reverts. If I am in poor light, I will set it to 5 Sec to allow a bit more time and If I am using a full manual lens, I set it to No Limit and control it manually with the button.

Peaking: Level and Color
 Peaking can be set to High, Mid, Low and Off. I usually have it set to Mid. To me, it seems to strike a good balance between being visible in a flat scene or so-so light and not obscuring the image too much when it's bright and there's a lot of contrast. As for the color, you can choose Red, Yellow or White. I have tried them all and found Yellow to be the best compromise. White gets lost in brighter scenes scenes too easily and red suffers the same when it's dim. Your mileage may vary.

Fully manual lens?: Don't forget this!

Fully manual lenses like an adapted unit or Rokinon lenses for E-mount have no support for any electronic contacts to communicate with the camera. Unless Release w/o Lens is set to ENABLE, the shutter cannot be released because the camera can't detect whether a lens is attached or not. I have questioned this even being an option and have determined the default of Disable is so with a normal AF lens, you get a positive confirmation that the lens to mount connection is properly locked.

Make it easier: Custom Key Settings
The A6000 offers a lot of options for customizing the physical user interface. Following are two that I have found particularly useful in controlling MF Assist.
Control Button 1 (C1) is located next to the shutter release and Control Button 2 is on the back in the lower right corner.
Setting C1 to Focus Magnifier and C2 to AF/MF Ctrl Toggle lets me quickly switch to MF when an AF lens is attached without having to access the menu and control the MF assist magnifier with my shutter finger even with the camera at eye level.

Now I'll describe how I use these settings in the real world.

Life After Autofocus

Manual autofocus

This sounds a little odd but the most basic manual focusing tool uses autofocus.  Half-pressing the shutter release in AF-S or DMF mode will lock focus on the subject in whatever focus zone you have chosen and allow you to recompose with the in-focus subject located outside the focus zone. In the photo below, I wanted the unusual composition but the camera was obsessed with the shiny boats in the bay. I simply pointed the camera at the bush, focused and recomposed with the shutter half pressed. Bingo! Quasi-manual focus!

Manual focusing with AF (DMF)

I use DMF most of the time with AF lenses. It allows me to lock focus on the subject and get an immediate flash of peaking for confirmation and I have the option to give the focus ring a nudge if needed. Under general walkabout conditions, I'll have the MF Assist set to on so if I do nudge the focus, the magnification kicks in and shows me not only a clearer view to focus on but whether it locked on to what I was aiming at. If I am setting up a tripod shot where I need precise focus, I will tap the C2 button and focus 100% manually. If the jumping in and out of MF assist is too distracting, I'll disable it temporarily, set the time to No Limit and use the C1 button to control the magnification.

With a full manual lens like the Rokinon 12mm f/2.0, I will pay attention to my peaking and control the MF assist via the C1 button. Very easy to get used to. I also shoot the manual lenses in Aperture mode, set the ISO on auto or to a specific ISO depending on conditions and let the camera determine the shutter speed.

Closing Points

Autofocus with the A6000 is fast, smooth and except in worst light, very reliable. That said, I have found the options available for easing the use of manual focus and by that token the wide variety of both native and adaptable manual lenses greatly increases the value of this already impressive little camera.

Happy Shooting!