Secrets of Fast Focusing while filming with the Canon 5d Mark III

by fletch murray14 Comments

planetMitch note: we welcome Fletcher Murray (also known as Fletch – but not the guy from the movie “Fletch”) from the Canon Boot Camp team as another planet5D blogger

You might be interested in a quicker way to focus while shooting films with your Canon HDSLRs.

You probably know by now that still camera lenses are mostly NOT parfocal. That means you can't zoom in and get focus and then pull out and stay in focus. That's how things are with cinema lenses, but not modern electronic focus lenses. I tested my “goddess” lens, the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II, and it doesn't hold focus zooming.

So, we “cinema people” have to find another way of focusing, especially when we're rolling. Most of us try the “magnify” feature to check focus and then pop back out to normal view. But you can't magnify when you're rolling.

(I call the magnify method the “stop, drop and roll” method. You have to STOP rolling so you can magnify. You risk DROPPING your camera while you press on the magnify button and squint at the LCD while you roll focus back and forth. Then, you finally get to ROLL again, hoping you haven't missed too much.)

So, how do you check focus if you don't want to stop the roll?  Fish for focus?  With a moving subject you might be fishing for a while.

Here's the answer. The Canon EOS 5D Mark III (and other Canon HDSLRs) have an AutoFocus button on the back of the camera that nearly instantly grabs focus for you with their AF lenses.

(Disclaimer-I've been a DP for years both on the street and in the studio. I won an Emmy with a focus puller pulling focus for me. But if you don't have a focus puller, the fast focus method is the fastest and most precise way of focusing, in my opinion, while you're rolling.)

step by step, fast focusing

Here's the step by step, fast-focus method (pictures are on the Canon EOS 5D Mark III):

1. Press your Auto Focus selection to just one dot in the center (see page 212 of the 5D Mark III manual). First, press the “window pane” button (also known as the AF point selection button).


2. Second, press the “M-Fn button” to select “Manual Selection: 1 pt AF”

M-FnButton  AFPointWindow

3. Press the AF-Drive button on top of camera to select “AF Quick.”

AF-Drive_Button    AFQuick_Display

4. Turn on the “AF” feature on your lens.

5. Press the AF-ON button on the back of the camera and HOLD until the rectangle turns green on the Mark III, indicating you have focus (the rectangle is RED on some Canon HDSLRs).

6. Now you can get focus while you are filming, like a sharp-shooter. Never taking your eye off the ball. Just wait for the rectangle to turn green and keep shooting.

Really? That easy?

Now, some of you will immediately say “NO WAY! If I use the AF button, the camera will automatically brighten the shot to help it focus, and that ruins my shot.” But your shot is already ruined….you're out of focus! The faster you can get back into focus, the more usable footage you'll have.

And while the Canon is brightening the shot to find autofocus, it does not lose sync with the audio playback track-a key part of music video shooting. When shooting music videos, you want to stay in sync with the song. With my fast-focus method, everything stays in sync.

If you keep starting and stopping to get focus the “STOP-DROP-AND ROLL” way, the editor will want to kill you. Try the AF button method. You don't have to stop rolling and it's at least twice as fast as the magnify-roll-focus-unmagnify-roll-again method.

(Fletcher Murray is an Emmy Award-winning director of photography who produces a two-day Boot Camp, which has trained over 300 filmmakers in digital filmmaking using the Canon DSLRs, Canon's C300, and other digital cameras. Fletch and his team have trained filmmakers in Prague, for the Brooks Institute of Photography Workshops, and at the Palm Springs Photo Festival. Boot camps are held regularly at The Association's home-base studio next to Warner Brothers in Burbank, California.)

(cover photo credit: snap from Fletch)


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  2. thank you. just starting to do some video and appreciate the tip!

  3. This is super helpful… my Mark II was super fast and I was having a hard time on recent shoots with the Mark III… You’re the best!

  4. Okay, I feel stupid.  Page 212 of my EOS 5D MIII manual has nothing about single select points, and I’m trying to figure out the steps here.  Maybe the newer firmware changed things, but this method isn’t working for me.

  5. And, like bringing a technician to your house, I figured it out.  Thank you for the tip — works beautifully now.

  6. Great info, thank you. Quick question about why you prefer “AF Quick” mode. When you are rolling it seems that there is no difference between AF Live and AF Quick, correct? The advantage for “AF Quick” is for when you’re not rolling? Thank you!

  7. I don’t know what happened but now when I take videos of trains (moving objects) and pause the video when displaying it the train is blurry but the rest of the image crisp. before when I took videos of trucks etc. the moving object was crisp. any idea what I do wrong?

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