Many photographers, videographers, and filmmakers believe that manual focus is superior to autofocus and should be used at all times. However, with recent improvements in autofocus technology, this may no longer be the case. Autofocus can be used effectively in certain situations, and it can even be an important part of video production.
Autofocus can be important for video depending on when and what you’re shooting. It’s especially helpful for beginner or solo videographers. However, manual focus is typically better for video and is generally considered more important.
If you have questions about using autofocus for videography and filmmaking, keep reading this article. We’ll answer all your questions about when to use autofocus versus manual focus, the advantages and disadvantages of doing so, and the difference between the two systems. We’ll also recommend some great cameras with continuous autofocus, so you’ll be prepared for your next video shoot!
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Is Autofocus Good for Video?
Autofocus is good for shooting video in some situations, especially for beginner videographers and filmmakers. However, manual focus typically delivers a more usable shot than autofocus when it comes to filming a video.
Manual focus may be the favorite mode for getting high-quality video, but there are plenty of scenarios in which autofocus is important for video. Here are some situations where it may even be better to use autofocus instead of manual focus:
- You’re shooting a vlog.
- You’re using a gimbal for stabilization.
- Your subject is moving closer to the camera.
- You’re the only one working on the video.
- You’re making a documentary.
- Fast-moving objects or subjects are involved.
Below, we will describe each of these scenarios in detail and explain why autofocus might be the preferred setting for each of them.
You’re Shooting a Vlog
Suppose you are the subject of the shot, such as when you’re filming yourself for a vlog. In that case, you can’t fully control the camera, making using manual focus extremely challenging (unless you are completely stationary). If you’re moving, a camera with good autofocus should be able to keep you in focus so you can focus on the content that you’re presenting.
You’re Using a Gimbal for Stabilization
A gimbal is a miniature stabilizer that uses motion-detecting to differentiate between intentional and accidental movements. It isn’t recommended to touch your camera once it is stabilized on the gimbal, so if you try to manually focus the lens on the gimbal, you risk throwing the camera off and ruining your shot. Autofocus refocuses for you, so you don’t have to risk jostling your camera.
Your Subject Is Moving Closer to the Camera
If the subject of your video is moving towards you, it can be difficult to keep them in focus manually, especially if they’re moving at an inconsistent speed. The downside to using autofocus in this situation is that if the camera loses track of its target, it can be difficult to find it again. However, autofocus is still superior to manual focus in this situation.
You’re the Only One Working on the Video
If you’re the sole videographer or filmmaker, it’s best to minimize the amount of work you have to do manually because you’ll be so busy! If you don’t have a DP, camera operator, focus operator, and more, you can use autofocus to help you out and be your assistant for the day.
You’re Making a Documentary
Videographers involved in documentary production typically use autofocus more than other kinds of filmmakers. This is especially true when it comes to filming B-roll footage, which can be chaotic and involve lots of movement. In this case, autofocus works well to keep your shot as clear as possible, despite the chaos.
Fast-Moving Objects or Subjects Are Involved
If there’s no way of knowing where a subject will go or how quickly they will move, tracking them manually can be almost impossible. Because of this, it is best to use autofocus in these situations. Examples of this are if you’re filming your children playing, birds flying, wildlife, a sporting event, or a party.
Even though many videographers and filmmakers look down on autofocus, there are many situations, as seen here, where it may actually be better to opt for this mode! In this way, autofocus is important for video but not necessarily essential.
What Is the Difference Between Autofocus and Manual Focus?
Autofocus requires that the camera chooses the point of focus in the shot, whereas manual focus requires you to determine the point of focus. Autofocus makes the job of the photographer or videographer a little easier at the risk of losing quality.
Active and Passive Autofocus Use Different Mechanisms
There are two kinds of autofocus systems: active and passive. Active autofocus systems measure the distance to the subject in the camera’s view and adjust the focus according to that distance. Passive autofocus systems synchronize an image produced in auxiliary sensors and use these images to instruct the motor of the lens accordingly.
Manual Focus Gives More Control to the User
Unlike autofocus, manual focus relies on the user to get it to work. If you look at the barrel of your camera lens, you’ll probably see distance markers. You can adjust the focus by turning the ring around the front part of your lens. A clockwise turn makes the camera focus on objects closer to it, and a counterclockwise turn makes the camera focus further away.
It may seem like using autofocus is a no-brainer: why work harder instead of smarter, right? However, many photographers and filmmakers prefer using manual focus lenses. Manual focus allows the person behind the camera to choose what they want to highlight in the shot, which allows for more creative freedom.
Another reason some filmmakers prefer using manual focus is that autofocus is not 100% accurate. Sometimes, the camera can lose sight of what it was focusing on, or the facial recognition fails, and the shot is ruined.
In short, some filmmakers view autofocus as an amateur tool. However, autofocus is extremely useful in some scenarios and shouldn’t be disregarded entirely.
Pros and Cons of Using Autofocus for Video
Let’s look at some of the advantages of using autofocus:
- Autofocus is fast. This depends on the type of camera and lens you’re using, but autofocus tends to be extremely fast, which allows you to capture high-quality video of quick-moving subjects.
- Some cameras have a “tracking” feature when in autofocus mode. Tracking enables you to set a focus point on a subject and follow it through the frame so that object is always in focus. This can be extremely helpful when filming a crowd or a sports event.
- Autofocus has facial recognition. If the subject of your video is a person, autofocus will automatically focus on their face.
There are some disadvantages of using autofocus, though. Here are some cons to consider:
- Autofocus relies on contrast to identify subjects—if the contrast is lost, so is the system’s ability to grab focus. If there’s heavy backlight and contrast is lost, you most likely won’t be able to film usable video.
- Autofocus typically fails in low light. Your camera needs light to determine where to focus. If you don’t have a lot of light, the lens will fail to focus.
- Autofocus follows foreground objects. This could be an advantage if the subject you want to focus on is in the foreground. However, if you want the focus to be on something or someone in the background or midground, you’ll likely struggle with your autofocus system.
- Autofocus doesn’t work well shooting at high magnifications. If you want to take a close-up video of a subject, the autofocus will be hunting for a long time for a focus point and may never focus on what you want it to.
Ultimately, whether or not autofocus is important for your video depends on what, when, and where you’re filming.
When To Use Manual Focus for Video
There are some scenarios in which manual focus is the superior option for video making. Here are some situations when manual focus is your best bet:
- The subject or subjects of your video are mostly stationary. When the distance between the object and the camera remains mostly the same and the subject isn’t moving much, manual focus is easier to use and will provide better video.
- Your camera has slow autofocus. The camera you’re using must have a quick, high-functioning autofocus system when using autofocus. Without it, the camera will spend too much time looking for a subject, and you’ll end up with a blurry and unusable video.
- You’re making a macro video. When you’re dealing with a narrow depth of field, focusing is of utmost importance. In this case, it is far better to use manual focus to get the shot you want.
- You have a specific vision of what you want. If you want to completely control your work, you’ll have to use manual focus. Autofocus lets the camera decide the focal point, and you may or may not agree with the camera’s choices. Manual focus is superior if you want to be precise and specific about your focus.
- You’re shooting in low-light conditions. Autofocus will spend too much time finding a subject in low light. It’s easier and more time-efficient to use manual focus and select the focal point yourself.
- You’re shooting a low-contrast scene. Manual focus can produce crisp video even in low-contrast scenes because you’re focusing on the subjects yourself. You don’t have to rely on the autofocus system, which struggles in low-contrast conditions.
- You want to pull focus. Pulling focus takes some time to master, but it can greatly increase the quality of a film or video and add artistry and meaning when done right. Autofocus isn’t able to perform this function.
It’s clear why professional videographers and filmmakers prefer manual focus: if you want complete control and artistic freedom, manual focus is better than autofocus.
Video Cameras With Great Autofocus
If you want to use autofocus for your next video, you’ll need a high-quality camera. Lucky for you, autofocus technology has made some major strides recently, so you have plenty of solid options for cameras with dependable autofocusing technology.
When you’re shooting for video, you must have a camera with continuous autofocus capabilities. A camera may claim to have great autofocus, but this may only be true when it comes to filming still subjects.
You’d also keep in mind that there are three main types of autofocus technology: laser, contrast-based, and phase detection. Let’s look at each of these types in greater detail:
- Laser: This is the type of technology that is used in phone cameras. The camera releases a beam of light that then reflects off the subject, and then the technology detects the distance to the subject using the amount of time it takes the light to return.
- Contrast-based: This type analyzes the contrast along the edges of the subject. If there is high contrast, the subject is closer to being completely in focus, and if there’s low contrast, the subject isn’t in focus.
- Phase detection: This system splits incoming light and redirects it to autofocusing photodiodes. Which direction to move the lens is determined by comparing the phase of each signal.
With these types in mind, refer to the following table for some great camera options! All links are to Amazon.
|Canon EOS M50||Small and portable Capable of photography and video shooting in UHD up to 24fps Dual pixel autofocus technology and improved eye detection autofocusLive streaming capabilities||Very low battery life, so you’ll need to invest in a battery pack No USB charging, which is not ideal for vloggers|
|Sony Alpha a7R III||Fast phase-detection and contrast-based autofocus Dependable eye detection autofocus Internal image stabilization Good battery life Double memory card slots||No good weatherproofing in the casing, so it is not safe to use in poor weather conditions|
|Canon EOS 5D Mark IV||Powerful high-resolution Dual pixel autofocus with smooth and responsive autofocus Up to 7.0 fps continuous shooting speed||No eye detection autofocus Low battery life, so you’ll need a battery pack|
With these cameras in hand, you’ll be making professional-level videos in no time, even if you’re using autofocus!
Autofocus can be important for video if you’re filming a shot with many moving subjects, making a documentary, or you’re the only videographer or filmmaker on the project and you need to minimize the amount of work you’re doing manually.
However, manual focus is more important if you want complete artistic freedom and control in your video.