Know Your Camera – Part 3: Focus and Zoom

We’ve all been in the situation where we are waiting around for the auto mode to focus in on something. This is not only frustrating, it can be scary. If you’re getting paid to produce a video you can’t afford to have out of focus shots. Letting your camera autofocus is one solution, but knowing how to access manual focus controls is another.

Just pick a location zoom in to get your desired framing, hope the camera focuses on what you want and hit record.


  • In auto mode your camera will continually search for something to focus on.
  • Most camcorders and cameras have a manual focus feature. Most webcams and phones do not. Consult your operating manual or the web to find out if you do, then learn how to access that feature.
  • Being able to focus manually gives you complete control. If your subject turns their head, your camera will not automatically start searching for something else to focus on.
  • Knowing how to access your camera’s manual focus mode is essential.
  • Begin by letting your camera auto focus, then switch to manual focus and “lock it down”.
  • In static situations setting focus is critical. If you’re filming a presentation or anything without a lot of movement having your autofocus go crazy in the middle of an event will make your work seem amateurish.
  • Manual focus is especially critical when zooming in on a subject.
  • Try enabling focus peaking or similar options on your camera. This will provide visual cues on your monitor about what’s in focus.

In cinema there are three types of zooms; optical zooms, digital cropping done in post-production, and dolly movement. The first is done within your lens, the second is done within your editing software and the third, which is the most cinematic, is done on a small trolley.

Optical Zoom

  • Zooming in and out can be a useful cinematic device.
  • Too much zooming can be disorienting to your viewer and can make your video less enjoyable.
  • Zooming in and out creates several optical phenomena.
  • Zooming out produces an image that is rounder. Faces appear slightly distorted.
  • Zooming in creates a flatter image.
  • Zooming in will also create a shallower depth of field. Object in the background will appear blurry. This can be a useful cinematic technique.
  • Zooming in and focusing between objects in the background and foreground is referred to as “rack focusing and can be useful to guide viewers’ attention to various things in the frame.


  • Digital cropping and panning can be added to video and stills within editing software.
  • A quick crop in on a subject can emphasize something they are doing or saying.
  • Too much digital cropping and panning can also seem amateurish.

Dolly Movement

  • This is the most cinematic technique.
  • Requires a dolly or track.
  • May require several camera operators.

While dolly movement in film used to be exclusively the domain of high budget Hollywood features, today a plethora of DIY and consumer level dollies are available. Dolly movement can add extraordinary production value to your videos, but it can also be over used. My advice is to use sparingly and concentrate more on storytelling and framing.


Shirley Lewis

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