Top 5 Ways to Ensure You’re Getting a Shot in Focus

by Barry Andersson13 Comments

One of the number one things that I get asked about and I hear discussed regularly is the issue of getting a shot in focus when shooting video.

Many videographers are used to having autofocus on their ENG cameras and still photographers by and large rely on auto focus rather than manual focus.  So there seems to be a natural fear of how to make sure a shot is in focus without the assist of auto focus.

Let me start by saying many times your shots will be out of focus even with the best planning. How many times when you were shooting stills did you have to delete images because they weren't in focus? It is just part of the creative process. This is especially true when you are shooting run and gun style and your client is having you to everything and more on the set.  So there is no fool proof way to get your focus right all the time. With that said there are ways to set yourself up for success.

Just remember you do have ways to assist in making sure your focus is a best possible. I thought I would share some with you here.

How to Make Sure You Have Your Shot in Focus

#1- Zoom in before recording.

Might sound simple enough but I still train people who aren't aware that you can digitally zoom in (x5 and x10) and check your focus before you start recording. The reason this is helpful as many people are focusing off the back of their LCD monitor on the camera. It can be hard to judge focus off the back of the camera for a couple of reasons. First, for older shooters or those of us who were corrective glasses/contacts it can be difficult to find the happy balance of seeing the LCD itself in focus before dealing with whether or not the shot is in focus.

shot in focus

Secondly, the main reason it is difficult to judge if your shot is in focus is because you are looking at a tiny screen. The smaller the image you are looking at the more masked the effects of soft focus. This results in many people thinking the shot is in focus but when they look at a larger screen they realize the focal point is not where they wanted or the overall image is slightly soft and renders the shot unusable.  Zoom in and you will set yourself up for the best possibility for your footage to be in focus. The fact the image is so small masks if the image is slightly soft and you won't notice until you are look at your footage after the shoot. By that time you are too late and now you have footage you need that isn't in focus.

#2- Don't shoot in Low Light.

I know that currently it is very popular to shoot in little to no light situations. We have become spoiled by being able to shoot practically in the dark. However, the darker you shoot more likely you are to have a low f-stop. The lower your f-stop the narrower your depth of field. The shallower your depth of field the bigger chance you will have something out of focus. Simple solution is to add a little bit of light. The difference of 2-3 stops makes a huge difference in your depth of field and gives you some wiggle room to keep things in focus easier.

Depth_of_field

#3- Use a Smaller Sensor Camera

For most of the last 100 years both film and still cameras were shooting 35mm film. This meant the lenses were engineered for the camera they were supposed to be used on and it was more or less an industry standard. If you did shoot an odd format like 8mm or 16mm film you used camera bodies and lenses designed for those formats.

3-Cameras
Today it is like we can use any film size we want and attach any lens to any camera that can have any size film. It is chaos. So the simple answer for focus is choose a smaller sensor camera. The smaller the sensor the deeper depth of field you get. So if you are worried about getting focus choosing an APS-C will make it easier to focus than a full frame sensor camera.

#4- Use a Wide Angle Lens

If you have low light and you have a large sensor camera then you can use this trick to help you get your footage in focus. The wider your lens the deeper the depth of field. If you don't believe me take one of your telephoto lenses and shoot the same subject as a wide angle (35mm or wider). You will see how much greater your depth of field is. I use this trick all the time when I am forced into a tough spot to get focus. You should use this trick too.

Zeiss-15mm-f2 image 2

 

#5- Have the action in your shot move from side to side and not at or away from the camera.

The most difficult thing to keep in focus is any object moving toward or away from the camera. That means the objects are traveling through the focus plane and you need to follow that action.

walking_toward_camera_Mission_Impossible
If you instead frame your shot so the action moves from side to side then regardless of how narrow your depth of field is you subjects will always be in focus. I know you will say “but that limits my ability to create the shot I want.” I urge you instead to use it as a limitation and figure out a new way to frame your shot that may be out of the ordinary and be even better yet.

walking in focal plane from Reservoir Dogs
The best way to get a shot in focus is to just make sure you always are shooting with a lot of light. But I know that isn't the world in which we shoot these days.

Hope this tip on getting your shot in focus helps you out of a jam someday. Happy Shooting.

(cover photo credit: snap from Barry Andersson)


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Comments

  1. TomDowler

    …except number 3 is incorrect.
    A smaller sensor will give deeper depth of field **for the same field of view** – because you need to use a lens with a shorter focal length (ie point number 4).

    If you put an 85mm lens on a full-frame and a m43 you will get precisely the same depth of field, just a massively different field of view.

  2. Toskian

    Hum, ok for #1 and #5 but the other points are basically “of you get everything in focus, nothing will be out of focus”. Shallow DoF is one of the main reasons people use DSLRs so it’s not going to help them a lot…
    Still fully agree on #5, it’s amazing how many people don’t even think of that.

  3. zulusafari

    #1 is only true for video cameras and cinema lenses. If you are using photo SLR lenses (pretty much any interchangeable lens photo camera) they tend to change focus at different focal lengths. Some much more noticeably than others.

  4. barryandersson

    zulusafari You are correct that #1 is a tip for video shooters and not still photographers. If you happen to buy an old cinema zoom lens for still photography then you could zoom in with your lens and zoom out and hold focus.  However, with modern still zoom lenses you are right that the focus will change.  Great point.

  5. barryandersson

    Toskian If taken to the extreme you are correct.  However, #2- “Don’t shoot in low light” doesn’t mean you can’t still have a shallower depth of field.  By adding light you might take your DOP from 2 inches and increase that to a foot and a half.  This allows you to keep your subject in focus but still maintain a shallow depth of field look.  

    #3- “Use a smaller sensor camera” might mean for a certain shoot using a 1.6 crop sensor vs a full frame.  A 1.6 crop sensor gives you the same depth of field of most of the great movies in history since they were shot on the same sensor size.  I am not saying go to a 1/2″ sensor and give up on the current look we like with DSLR cameras. Just advocating using the correct tools where they work for your needs.

    #4- “Using a Wide Angle Lens” means you can shoot in low light on a full frame sensor camera and just by using say a 24mm lens vs a 50mm lens you will increase your DOP and help you keep focus.  

    Glad you like #5 as well. I use that all the time:)

  6. barryandersson

    TomDowler Sort of.  You are correct that if I take a crop sensor camera and full frame and put the same lens on both and shoot a shot that the depth of field is the same only the field of view changes.  However, by doing this you are forced to move the camera to frame the way you would want on a larger sensor camera and thereby changing your DOP as you change your field of view to match.  That is why this one is on the list.

  7. rsellars

    I’d like to add a couple of suggestions.  Research and see if your camera offers peaking.  Peaking is my favorite tool for getting focus and maintaining it.  One has a much better chance of following focus when a subject changes distance planes.  Experiment with using different colors and intensity if offered.  If your DSLR style camera doesn’t offer peaking, consider buying or renting an external monitor that is at least 6 – 7 inches.  Not only will it be much easier to focus, but it will enable you to better judge composition and lighting (with limitations).  Also, most external monitors now offer peaking as a feature.

  8. zulusafari

    barryandersson I’m not sure you understand what I am saying since you are using different terminology than I did. I just want to make sure we’re on the same page. It doesn’t matter what kind of shooter you are or how you are using the equipment. I was not referring to still photography, only the use of photo equipment, which this site covers primarily. if it’s photography equipment (like a 5D) and you are using photo lenses, which the massive majority of SLR video shooters are, then your focus will breath as you change your focal length, unlike dedicated video cameras and cinema lenses which hold their focus as they are zoomed in and out.

  9. barryandersson

    zulusafari Clarity is king. You are correct on still camera lenses (whether being used for stills or video) do not hold focus if you zoom in to get your focus and then zoom out.  I was referring in the post to the digital zoom feature on the camera to check your focus and not zooming in with the lens.  I think that is where we were differing.  If not let me know:)

  10. barryandersson

    rsellars You are correct. That is another great way to get focus.  I was trying in the article to give people options with their cameras, lenses and techniques which is why I limited it to 5 tips.  With that said some cameras now are offering peaking (and you have the option with Magic Lantern as well) so you make a great point.  Thanks.

  11. zulusafari

    barryandersson ah! indeed, either I forgot that or completely overlooked it to begin with. The old school method was just to zoom the lens in on a subject and focus, then pull out to the desired focal length. Gone are those days with many of us shooting on SLRs or with the digital zoom feature you referred to.

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