5 Tips for Choosing an Autofocus Lens for Stills and Video

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5 Tips for Choosing an Autofocus Lens for Stills and Video

DSLRs and the video revolution resulted in a boom of people who previously shot photos exclusively to add video to their tool set and vice versa. Unfortunately, this meant that the previously split cinema lens and photo lens market didn't have the proper tools to appeal to both at once. What are you supposed to do if you want one lens that can work beautifully for stills and video and can deliver phenomenal autofocus performance for each? Well, if you look for these key features, you may be able to find something that will satisfy all your needs.

A Silent Focus System

It should go without saying that if you want to use an autofocus lens for stills and video, it needs to be quiet. Near-silent motors have been around for a while, but for stills it was generally only made available in high-end glass meant for professionals. Budget lenses generally rely on cheaper (read: noisier) mechanics.

Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 55-200mm f/4-5.6G ED VR II Lens
Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 55-200mm f/4-5.6G ED VR II Lens

This should be good for stills and video. You don't want the whir of a focus motor interrupting a wedding ceremony just as much as you don't want it ruining all your dialogue for a short film. Going for options that claim to be silent—or better yet, call out video—are going to provide the most versatility. Another benefit is that if you are trying to be discreet when shooting stills, the silent AF will help you remain unnoticed.

It's Gotta Go Fast

While video may be able to get away with slower focus pulls, stills cannot. Tracking moving subjects during sports or on safari requires speed. So, if you want a single lens for stills and video, you will want the faster option. The good news is that many modern cameras offer menu options for focus speed in video, allowing shooters to determine just how fast and responsive they need a lens to be. Having the option to go fast is useful for everyone.

Mechanically Linked Focus Ring

Focus by wire has become the new standard since mirrorless surged onto the scene. It's also terrible for video because you lose any tactile feel and repeatability. Some are especially bad because they aren't consistent, meaning that if you turn the focus ring slower, the focusing speed slows and, if you speed up, the focusing speed gets way faster. This is the worst thing for video, and arguably for photo, as well. Mechanically linked focusing rings are the best, since the true mechanical connections provide the best feel and repeatability.

An alternative is getting more popular these days, and that is a linear-response manual focus system. It is still focus by wire, but it now reacts in a similar manner to classic mechanical lenses. It's the best way to handle modern lenses, especially those for mirrorless, because completely electronically controlled lenses seem to be the future.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G7 Mirrorless Micro Four Thirds Digital Camera with 14-42mm Lens
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G7 Camera with 14-42mm Lens

As Close to Native as Possible

The best practice, when it comes to autofocus, is to use an OEM lens or as close to that as possible. Third-party glass can be great, but it's hard to beat the people who invented the communications system when it comes to autofocus performance and reliability. This is even more true with video autofocus systems. Simultaneous recording and maintaining a real-time AF system is tough for camera processors. So, reducing any obstacles is a benefit. Going native, and potentially with a first-party option, will provide the best speed, the most features, and reliable performance in stills and video modes.

Marshall Electronics 16mm f/2.0 Miniature Custom OEM Lens for 1/3" and 1/2" CCD
Marshall Electronics 16mm f/2.0 Miniature Custom OEM Lens for 1/3" and 1/2" CCD

Physical Aperture Rings are Nice

While not necessary, if you intend on doing a lot of video, having a physical aperture ring can be very beneficial. Arguably, physical aperture rings aren't quite necessary for photography since an abundance of dials on camera bodies has provided another more customizable point of control. This also does hold true for video, except for one key design point of these dials: they have distinct clicks. Many physical aperture rings also have these clicks; however, many newer lenses either come de-clicked or have fancy mechanisms that allow them to switch quickly between them. If you have the choice, opt for one that can be switched back and forth but, if you don't, the de-clicked option will work just fine. The importance of having a de-clicked ring is that it permits smooth exposure changes in the middle of recording, which is beneficial because it is much more difficult to make changes to ISO or shutter speed and make it look natural.

FUJIFILM XF 35mm f/2 R WR Lens
FUJIFILM XF 35mm f/2 R WR Lens

With photographers and videographers both looking to expand their own skill set, being able to have one set of tools to accomplish multiple tasks in now invaluable. If you have a heavy lens you want to stabilize, try reading about handheld gimbals here. Do you have any of your own requirements when picking out your lenses? Anything else you think needs to go on the list? Be sure to leave your thoughts and questions in the Comments section, below!

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