The Fine Art of Manual Focus

The Zeiss manual focus 50mm f1.4 Planar T* ZE has a long focus throw, helpful when shooting video.

Those of you who were shooters before auto focus or those of you who currently shoot with any of the Leica M series cameras or other older film cameras know what it is like to manually focus. It’s difficult and if you are like me and got spoiled by today’s auto focusing digital cameras, it’s frustrating to manually focus quickly on moving subjects, especially at wide open apertures.

I used to be good with my hand/eye coordination before autofocus technology came along. When shooting sports with long lenses at wide open apertures, you had to be good – or frustrated and out of focus all of the time. All that has changed however because we’ve been spoiled by the lightning fast, extremely accurate auto focus capability of today’s cameras. Who needs to manual focus when autofocus is so much better?  Well, if you like to shoot video like I do with a DSLR, you’ll need to learn the lost art of manual focus.

Although it’s true that some DSLRs will allow you to auto focus while in video mode, it’s never very good and is easily fooled. Pros never use auto focus because you can’t risk the chance that your auto focus will get fooled especially for those scenes where you get only one take. You need to focus manually, which takes a lot of practice. And to make it even worse, you can’t look through the viewfinder but rather, need to focus off the lcd in live view mode which presents a number of additional challenges.

How do you work with these challenges? I’ve already mentioned practice. On top of that, it helps to have some focusing aides. A magnifying loupe to place over your lcd helps, as does a follow focus, an external monitor or an electronic viewfinder. I use all of these and they all help you get sharp. Also using non-auto focusing lenses will make obtaining focus easier. Why? Longer focus throws. Today’s auto focusing lenses have a very short focus throw. Makes sense that the shorter the throw, the quicker the lens can lock focus. That short focus throw however makes manual focusing difficult. A short 1/4 inch turn of the lens barrel can shift focus 30 feet with some lenses. Try manually focusing a fast moving subject with such a short focus throw – you’ll see it’s next to impossible.

With my background in photojournalism and sports photography, I have a great assortment of auto focus zoom lenses. They are the perfect tools for fast moving scenes however for video, not so great. I’m now looking to manual focus primes for video work. Zeiss and Leica R primes have crisp optics and long focus throws. Zeiss lenses will also communicate distance and aperture values with the camera which can be helpful. Some budget minded DSLR video shooters are using old Nikon manual focus glass again for the long focus throws. Even Canon shooters are using the Nikon glass with a converter although I don’t really recommend this since the focus pull is opposite of Canon.

Here is a comparison of the focus throws of various 50mm f1.4 lenses.
3 Feet to Infinity Focus Throw Distance :
Zeiss 50mm f1.4 Planar T* ZE : 2.25 “
Nikon 50mm f1.4 AI : 2.0″
Canon EF 50mm f1.4 USM : 5/8 “

Now go out with your gear and practice, practice, practice!

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