Camera tech for video has come a long way in recent years, with faster autofocus, subject tracking, eye tracking and smarter lenses that stabilize the frame. But in the rush to make hybrids why are aren't we giving video shooters the tools they need?

Video autofocus has improved dramatically in the past few years, making it truly useful for professionals as well as amateurs and hobbyists. However, there’s one interface fix that could make the experience so much better.

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Before we get to the solution though, let’s look at the problem: with photography, we always want the autofocus speed to be as fast as possible. Manufacturers have built super fast motors to be able to snap focus from the closeup to infinity almost instantly, because there’s no downside to the fastest possible focus when snapping a photo.

Video is another story.

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Watch movies or big budget television and you’ll see that most of the time, the focus will shift smoothly and slowly from one subject to another. This simulates the way eyes generally see the world, gradually drifting from one subject to another. The speed at which the focus transitions actually has emotional impact. When the focus is shifted nice and slowly in this manner, it implies calm and normalcy.

Snapping focus quickly in video has a completely different subconscious effect. This is often used to convey fear, paranoia or alarm. Think about it like your eyes darting around your environment when you are panicking. This is a technique that action and horror filmmakers have used since the earliest days of cinema.

The above video from Fandor has several excellent examples of focus pulls, with the clip from The Graduate at 3:26 being a great example of a very fast focus transition.

The problem is, when manufacturers take an autofocus system designed for stills and apply it to the video functionality of their camera, it will always try to switch focus as quickly as possible, and I don’t want every focus pull in my video to remind viewers of a horror film.

This is partly why professional cinematographers have always relied on manual focus, so they can control not just which subject is in focus, but the speed at which that focus is changed.

Camera makers have started to recognize this, and it's true that today some hybrid cameras will give you the option to adjust focus transition speed, from as fast as possible to a slow crawl. It's worth noting – because sometimes this option is misunderstood – that the speed control only applies when changing focus from one subject to another. It has no effect on subject tracking AF, in which the camera will continue to change focus as fast as possible to keep up with whatever speedy subject it's following.

There's still a problem, though, and it's this: the focus transition speed option is generally hidden in the menus. When shooting video, especially for unscripted, documentary style video, I often want to quickly access this setting, but the current interfaces are too slow to make this usable in the moment.

Panasonic has the ability to let your focus pull occur instantly, or gradually over several seconds. Unfortunately, this functionality is buried in the menus.

All seems lost, but I have a solution!

How to make this vital option more available? There’s one control point that is never in use when autofocus is enabled: the manual focus ring. With modern mirrorless lenses, the focus ring is very rarely mechanically coupled; even lenses with mechanical focus clutches can be used in digital, focus-by-wire mode.

I propose that camera makers give you the option to have the manual focus ring control focus transition speed when the camera is in video mode and autofocus is enabled.

This small change would let me adjust my focus transition speed for the requirements of the scene almost instantly, and it wouldn't involve adding any more control points or tying up a custom button.

Nikon Z cameras already allow you to customize the manual focus ring to other functions when autofocus is enabled; this would just be one more feature added to that list. Any other camera manufacturer could do the same thing.

There it is: my suggestion for one easy way to improve an annoying pain point when shooting video with hybrid cameras. Would you like to see this functionality, or do you have any better ideas to tackle this issue? Let me know in the comments!