This is article #20 in the DSLR Video Weekly series.  If you’d like the whole thing in one shot, check out the book Creating DSLR Video: From Snapshots to Great Shots.

Once you get the hang of video, be sure to monetize it by becoming a contributor to Adobe Stock.

Knowing that you appreciate the role of focus (as well as the challenges associated with it), it’s time to get practical. Making sure your shot is in focus is a critical step. Ideally, you’ll check focus before you record. Trying to adjust focus in the middle of a shot can leave portions of your footage unusable.

Take a Picture

One of the easiest ways to make sure your footage is in focus is to let the camera do it for you. Most lenses support the ability to autofocus while still being manually adjusted. Hold down the camera’s shutter release halfway to engage the autofocus ability. Doing this before you turn on your LCD’s LiveView feature is usually fastest, but you can typically still do this once the LCD is active.

When you have focus, you can start recording. Better yet, shoot a still photo first. The image will be a much higher resolution, which can come in handy if you need to make physical prints. Additionally, the photo will capture useful metadata about the camera and lens settings that the video will not. A photo provides information about exposure, f-stop, aperture, ISO, shutter speed, and more. This is a great way to learn from your mistakes as well as successes.

Zooming in on your LCD can help you check focus before you roll a video shot.

Zoom, Zoom, and Check

If want to check focus, you need to take a few extra steps. Just turning on the LCD and glancing at it won’t cut it. The small screen makes everything look more in focus because it can’t show you all the pixels at once. The reduced image size creates the illusion of a sharper image.

If you want to really see what is in focus, you’ll need to zoom, and then zoom some more. If you’re using a zoom lens, zoom in as tight as possible on your subject. Zooming in on an area like the eyes works well; a button on a shirt works well too. You’ll then need to digitally zoom.

Typically, you’ll find a Zoom button (look for a magnifying glass with a plus symbol in it) on your camera. Pressing it will enlarge the image on your screen and only show you part of the image. You may need to use the command dial to navigate around the zoomed in pixels. Find the detail area that you want to focus on.

You can then use the focus ring on your camera to tweak the focus. Make minor turns to find the ideal focus. If needed, adjust the aperture and ISO settings of your camera to refine the depth of field. When you’re satisfied, you can either press the Zoom Out button or just press the Record button to roll the camera.

Maintaining Focus

If you’re shooting a stationary subject from a stationary camera, focus is pretty dang easy. But when one object starts to move, it gets a bit more difficult. If both the subject and camera are set in motion, you begin playing a game of chase that often leaves the shot slightly soft with rack focuses as you try to find the subject clearly.

The Myth of Autofocus

If you read the marketing materials that accompany most DSLR cameras, they promise useful autofocus features. Just turn on the intelligent tracking in your camera and the camera will lock on a face, follow your subject, and keep the subject in focus. Sounds great, right? In theory, yes.

Unfortunately, these controls often useless in practice. Relying on autofocus will result in the camera making continuous adjustments. Chances are it will latch onto the wrong subject. Pan or tilt the camera just a little and suddenly the camera may start searching for focus.

Film and video professionals do not use autofocus when shooting video. Sure, it’s fine to engage autofocus to lock in a clear shot before rolling, but don’t expect the camera to maintain focus for you. It just doesn’t work; even the best systems make your video look amateurish and jarring.

Practicing Focus

So how do you get shots that are in focus? The same way that you get great composition—practice, practice, practice. With time, you’ll get the hang of things. Turning your focus ring will get easier with time. You’ll master the small adjustments needed to smoothly transition between focus points.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with practicing a tough shot either. A film or video pro will often rehearse a complex shot, having the subject stand on certain marks or move through a location slowly. Additionally, don’t be afraid to repeat a shot a few times. Getting multiple “takes” improves your chances of getting the right footage and gives you choices when you sit down to edit.

Change Your f-stop

The more you open your aperture, the more light you allow into the camera. That’s good news when shooting in low light except that the depth of field gets shallower. If you’re having a hard time focusing, close down the aperture. Switching to f/8 is immensely easier to focus than f/1.4.

Of course, making a change in aperture will dramatically change your exposure. To compensate, you can make these changes (which are in order of preference):

  • Add more light to the scene. Use video or available lights, change locations, open the blinds, and so on. All of these actions will give you more light to work with.
  • Change your ISO to increase the sensitivity of your camera. Many modern DSLR cameras can shoot at ISO 1200 or even 1600 without introducing too much noise.
  • Lower your shutter speed to allow more light to reach your camera sensor. If you don’t have a lot of action in the scene, switching from 1/50 or 1/60 to 1/30 will dramatically increase the light without much impact on image quality.
Here I’m using a Zacuto Z-Finder to better judge exposure and focus when shooting. The bright sun at the beach caused a lot of light pollution, which made seeing the camera’s LCD unassisted more difficult.

Using a Loupe

As a still photographer, you’re probably used to squinting into the small viewfinder for hours on end. The proper use of a viewfinder let’s you accurately compose a shot. Most viewfinders also offer useful overlays to judge exposure and provide other technical information about the shot you’re about to take.

Unfortunately, when shooting video on your DSLR, the viewfinder stops working because the camera’s mirror must stay up when capturing video. I discussed the importance of the camera’s LCD earlier. A good LCD can go a long way, but the addition of one critical piece of gear—a loupe—can dramatically improve your ability to judge focus and exposure.

Several manufacturers sell loupes that magnify the image on the back of the LCD panel. The loupes typically enlarge the image two to three times, making it much easier to see critical focus. A loupe helps you see just how much of your shot is (or is not) in focus. Some viewfinders attach using a series of bands, whereas some attach to a snap on the frame. Others attach to the bottom of your camera or to the hot shoe plate on top (where an external flash would go). Each manufacturer takes its own approach and offers several compelling reasons to explain why its loupe is the best.

Here are a few additional benefits to using a loupe:

  • A loupe can block out light pollution, making it easier to judge exposure and contrast.
  • A loupe can make the camera more stable by creating an additional point of contact with your eye. This can lead to less camera shake, especially for handheld shooting.
  • Some viewfinders even contain a diopter, which can help adjust for minor vision issues or when an eyeglass wearing shooter takes off his glasses.

A good loupe costs between $100 and $400. The addition of a loupe can be thought of as investing in a lens for the back of your camera. Here are a few recommended manufacturers:

A Swivel LCD

Your DSLR may offer a swivel LCD, which can be very useful when you’re not holding the camera at eye level. For example, you can angle it downward when holding the camera over your head to shoot a concert or an event. When shopping for a camera, make sure the LCD has proper contrast and color fidelity when you hold the camera at an irregular angle.

Join us each Saturday for the next installment of this weekly series.

Once you get the hang of video, be sure to monetize it by becoming a contributor to Adobe Stock.