Most consumer camcorders, point and shoot cameras, and smartphones not only rely on auto focus, but don’t even have the option of manual focus.
On the other hand, most professional film and video cameras don’t have an auto focus option. Therefore, if we as educators want to help prepare our students for the industry we should be teaching them how to develop the skill of achieving sharp focus quickly and efficiently. In fact, with enough practice this should become an automatic habit that our students leave our program with.
The first step is to find the switch on the side of your lens that allows you to change from Auto Focus (AF) to Manual Focus (MF). If you don’t have one, your lens might only have manual focus like the older prime Nikon lenses I have been picking up on Craigslist lately. Now that you have your lens on manual focus you should find the focus ring and twist it until you have a rough focus. Next you will need to find your cameras Image Magnification Buttons. Use the navigation buttons to move the little white box onto your subject. Then press the + image magnification button twice to zoom in 5 and then 10 times. Now when you twist the focus ring you will be able to see the details that will help you to dial in sharp focus. Just press the magnification button one last time and you will return to normal view.
Basic Focusing Lesson
● Set up your DSLR on a tripod and connect it to your TV or Projector using your HDMI cable.
● Photocopy the handout. Here is a Word version and Acrobat (pdf) version.
● Group your students and distribute your cameras. Have the student put the cameras on tripods to make this easier.
● Demonstrate the process while the students watch.
● Demonstrate again while they follow along.
● Give them time to practice with a variety of lenses at a variety of distances. Circulate to ensure they are doing it properly and answer questions.
Gather the students back and ask them to review the process and discuss what they learned.
Take a few minutes the following week to review the process and give students more practice time. Of course, when you introduce lessons on exposure, white balance, composition and advanced focusing techniques students will get additional practice. You can also use this for a filler activity when students finish another activity early.
Once your students have mastered the basics of manual focus you can help them further develop their skills by showing them how to perform a smooth rack focus or follow focus using something like the Follow Focus by FocusShifter.
● A rack focus is when you record a little video with one subject in sharp focus and then shift your focus to another subject.
○ Rack Focus example from “The Time Machine”
○ “How to Rack Focus” from YouTube.
● A follow focus is when you change your focus to follow your subject, usually moving toward or away from the camera.
These techniques take practice to perfect. Start by going out to the lunch tables in the cafeteria and setting up two objects at different distances from your camera. Then practice shifting the focus from one object to the other. This is a great lesson to do right after you teach your students about how to shoot using a shallow depth of field.
When you're shooting out in the bright sunlight it can be really difficult to see the LCD screen on the back of your camera well enough to set focus so an external viewfinder can be a great tool. The Zacuto Z-Finder also includes a lens that magnifies your LCD screen making it even easier to set focus. Some external monitors offer a peaking function that highlights areas of the image that are in sharp focus with a colored outline. You can add a peaking function to your Canon DSLR by installing the Magic Lantern firmware as well.
So now that you know how to manually focus here are a couple reasons that you should use manual focus, even when you have the option for auto:
1 If you are shooting your subject in a crowded location where someone or something might pass in front of your subject, effectively stealing the focus.
2 Low light situations make finding your subject with auto focus on extremely difficult, so it will often shift in and out of focus trying to find it.
3 When you are shooting macro with a narrow depth of field you need the control to choose what part of the subject is in sharp focus.
4 Shooting through glass or fences can confuse your camera so you will need to tell the camera what to focus on.
Shooting in manual focus is a skill that you and your students will need to practice to master. Set aside time to practice with a variety of lenses, lighting situations, with and without movement, and shifting between subjects.
Joe Dockery teaches digital media courses at Mount Si High School in the Snoqualmie Valley School District, just east of Seattle, Washington. He weaves service learning into all aspects of his curriculum to ensure his students receive an authentic learning experiences. Dockery also consults and trains nationwide as an Adobe Education Leader. He has taught courses for Washington State University, Seattle Pacific University, The Puget Sound Educational Service District, and a variety of other school districts.
The Washington State Golden Apple Award
Radio Shack National Technology Teacher of the Year Award
Educator of the Year Award from the Snoqualmie Valley Schools Foundation ISTE’s “Best of the Best”
ISTE “Making IT Happen”
Adobe Education Leader "Impact" Award
Pacific Northwest Key Club Advisor of the Year