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.
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.
#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.
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.
#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.
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.
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)