The first 80 videos on my YouTube channel were shot on either the Canon 5D Mark III or the Sony A7S II.
The Canon had no autofocus for video. The Sony had a form of autofocus, but it was dreadful.
So, for those first, incredibly important steps into the world of YouTube, I had to manually focus myself. Often, I got it spot on; my eyeballs were as pin-sharp as I’d hoped they’d be when the footage was eventually loaded into Final Cut Pro. Sometimes, that wasn’t the case; my face would be as soft as a cushion.
Did it matter? No. Some armchair YouTube commentators helpfully pointed out that I wasn’t quite in focus. But that didn’t stop me from building an audience of over 30,000 after my first year on the platform.
Thankfully, most cameras and smartphones have brilliant autofocus for video these days. But you may not have one of those devices. Like me, you might have a camera that needs manually focusing before you hit the ‘record’ button.
Here’s how to manually focus your vlogs and a-roll sessions.
Learning from the best
A quick point of reference, which I always used to keep in the back of my mind while fiddling with the focus ring.
YouTube superstar MKBHD doesn’t have an autofocus camera. He uses RED camera bodies, which are only marginally less expensive than my house but are also, resolutely, manual focus.
Sure, he has a sizeable team now, but for many years, that guy manually focused his a-roll.
So, if he can do it…
Focus peaking and the importance of a monitor
Unless you’ve got an amazing eye and a massive monitor, gaining pin-sharp focus without some form of digital assistance is practically impossible.
This is why focus peaking exists. It’s a technique used by camera and monitor manufacturers to highlight the areas of an image that are in sharp focus. It’s usually represented by a strong colour (typically red or white) outlining the area in question.
If you’re lucky, your camera may have it. But if it doesn’t, you’ll need to dip into your bank account, I’m afraid.
The same goes if your camera doesn’t have a flip-out screen. Trust me – attempting to focus yourself and frame the image correctly without being able to monitor what’s going on from in front of the camera is a recipe for disaster and lots of swearing.
The solution is to get yourself an external monitor. Budget for around $100, and you can pick one up that will not only provide a great way of monitoring yourself but also the perfect solution for finding focus (just double-check it has focus peaking).
It was the best investment I made during the early days of my channel.
There’s only really one camera setting to take into consideration if you’re having to manually focus yourself, which is the aperture.
Put simply, the larger the aperture (confusingly, this is a lower number, i.e. f1.8 is a larger aperture than f11), the more background and foreground blur you’re going to see in your image.
That means you have a much smaller focus area in which to place yourself. For instance, if you set your aperture to f1.8, any small movements towards or away the lens will immediately render your face out of focus. This isn’t a big deal, and you’ll spot it happening in high-end TV interviews, but if you forget to return to your original position, you won’t have anyone to refocus the image.
This can be exacerbated if you’re using a relatively long focal length (say, 85mm), or having to zoom in with your lens. Combined with a large aperture, that will reduce the depth of the focus area even further.
The trick, therefore, is to set the position of the camera, the aperture, and the focal length so that you increase the focus area as much as possible. I always found that an aperture of f4 and focal length of around 24mm worked pretty well for me (the camera was only an arm’s length away). That gave me a little bit of bokeh (blur) behind to add depth but didn’t leave me frozen ridged to retain focus.
It’s all about trial and error; you’ll find the best settings for your location, camera, and taste after a few videos.
Before grabbing the focus ring, get comfortable. Whether you’re sitting or standing, place yourself where you’ll be during the recording.
If your camera is an arm’s length away, you can now lean forward and adjust the focus, keeping a close eye on your monitor. Twist the focus ring from one extreme to the other, and watch as the focus peaking moves across the image. Take a guess at where it’ll land when you lean back to your original position.
You won’t nail it the first time, but don’t give up. What you’re looking for is that focus peaking colour appearing directly on your eyeballs. Once you’ve got that, you’ve nailed it – time to hit record.
If the camera is further away, place something where you’ll be standing (a mannequin would be amazing, but I appreciate few people have those to hand). Anything with a large enough surface area and your height will do. Focus on that object, then replace it with yourself. Double-check the focus peaking on your monitor; if your eyes light up, you’re good to go.
While filming, don’t let focus cloud your thoughts, but promise yourself that you’ll remain within that focus area. You can still wave your arms about, lean back, and lean forwards, but just remember to return to your original position. It’ll become natural after a while.
There’s a lot of trial and error involved here, but you’ll quickly get into the rhythm of manually focusing yourself for a-roll and vlogs.
I found it took me around ten or so videos to get over the whole “this is such a pain” phase. After a while, it becomes second nature and achievable in seconds.
And don’t forget, as your channel grows and begins to bring in some revenue, you can invest in a camera that does have autofocus!
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