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Cinematography 101: Why should you use Manual Focus?

As cameras keep getting better and better, we are seeing Auto Focus getting sharper, quicker and overall better. But is autofocus as good as manual focus when it comes to video?

AF might seem the obvious choice when it comes to shooting video. It sets itself automatically, can track moving subjects and should make your life easier as a filmmaker, right?

Well, yes and no. While AF can actually be helpful in specific scenarios, MF does a lot of things autofocus can’t. Most of the high-end cinema cameras don’t even have autofocus.

Why is that? Well because MF allows you to do a lot of things you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do with AF. These things might not be distinguished from a functionality perspective, but definitely make a difference from a storytelling point of view.

Also read: What is EXIF Data? Can it be removed from an image?

Why should you master Manual Focus?

To begin with, using MF lets you define the subject of your frame.

While you could do that with AF as well, keep in mind that AF isn’t perfect when jumping around subjects. If you’re shooting something like a dialogue and the focus keeps jumping between two characters, you need MF to be able to make that focus change sharp and on point.

Spanning focus between two subjects is easy when using manual focus

Moving on, even for moving subjects, AF sometimes tends to miss the subject. As a result, you get blurry footage where the focus is all over the place. In such cases, you should be able to control the focus of your camera yourself to get that perfect spot on focus that you need throughout the scene.

Also, if you’re going to use AF, you’ll be needing a camera with good enough AF technology. Most entry-level DSLRs offer good AF, but it’s still not quite there yet. Besides if you’re using something like Nikon, well, good luck trying to get that focus.

I might sound biased here, but from personal experience, I found Canon’s dual pixel AF way better than something like Nikon. Here you’ll also have to take into account the fact that it is available on the higher end cameras only.

The point is, if pulled off correctly, MF is going to give you the best results. Using MF opens up so many creative boundaries for you. The possibilities are endless, and you can push your skills to the next level. It helps you see your frame through an entirely different perspective.

Also read: Nikon vs Canon: A beginner’s perspective

How to master Manual Focus?

Oh boy, this one’s going to be difficult.

Mastering your focus is one of the toughest things you’ll have to learn during your career as a videographer. It’s going to take a lot of trial and error and a whole lot of practice to get down right.

You might also have to buy external equipment such as a bigger monitor and a focus puller to help yourself along the way.

AF, on the other hand, can help you get away with none of these things. While it may work on the type of shot that you’re trying to get, it’s always a good idea to understand every aspect of your shot under control. Keep in mind, at the highest level, none of this is automated.

Also read: What is a Gimbal? Do you need one?

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