Manual Focus Lenses for Video: Which Work Best for You and Why?

I love manual focus lenses, mostly because of the tactile grip on the lens and the clicks of the aperture that envelops you thinking about its mechanics and what it's doing for you to get the shot you want. I've mostly used an old Nikon 50mm f/1.4 lens which is similar to an 85mm on my X-T20. It's great for portraits. I've always thought that you'd need some super skill to shoot video with manual lenses until you realize most videographers and filmmakers worth their salt shoot with no focus assistance and they do it manually. In this video, Brandon Li takes us through the manual focus lenses he uses and why.

I agree with Li that older lenses have different glass and different characteristics. It can almost be called imperfections if you compare it to today's lenses with automatic image stabilization and lens correction built in to the firmware of the camera. But it's these imperfections that make the footage you capture with it unique and like Li would call it, more cinematic. 

I've been curious to try out the Russian Helios 44-2 lens for a while now. The bokeh creates a dreamscape for the viewer. The footage he shares of the Laowa 15mm f/2 lens made me curious because I have never actually seen this lens in action until this video. It's got almost no distortion, it's full frame, and it's a 15mm which means it shoots nice and wide. 

He showcases a Nikon 35mm f/2 lens, but doesn't have anything other than the weight reduction to mention as a reason for using it. When shooting with this lens on my Fujifilm X-T20, I won't have the possibility of changing the aperture on the len, due to it needing electronic communication from a Nikon camera to do so, so I'll have to set it on a digital camera beforehand.

The Rokinon 85mm T1.5 Cine Lens gets a mention, but it's a telephoto lens which he doesn't use for video that much, and it's heavy. But, for the times he wants to get some footage of faces and people, the look this lens produces works perfectly, especially when he uses the Anamorfaux anamorphic filter on it.

Li is really providing such valuable information like how he keeps his subjects in focus when shooting with a manual lens on a gimbal. Shooting video with manual focus for the win.

[via Brandon Li]

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Hi, Kartick here,
I am a photographer at and have been using Canon for a long time. I don't have much complain from Nikon at least they came up with a great product Nikon D850. Over past few years, I have come to appreciate Sony as they are trying to innovate and push boundaries with their new cameras. I am slightly disappointed with Nikon and hugely disappointed as a Canon fanboy.
I can manage the camera with bad screen protector with great innovations.

Mark Holtze's picture

I’ve always found shooting video with manual focus was the best method. Unless you’re shooting yourself with no operator I never have auto focus set. Just better to leave it to the eye to determine what you want to have in focus. Last thing you want is to have auto focus go searching in the middle of a take.

Good tips, glad to see the craft element is starting to come back into the picture.

Manual focus for video always ;). Vintage lenses bonus! So many great things you can do with them for pennies on their modern counterparts.

I tested a Pentax Takumar vintage $100 100mmMacro vs a $600 canon 100mm Macro and the results were surprising.

Nice post, good exposure.

Dr. Dominik Muench's picture

Never had anything else for video, except for fast- low budget gimbal work where a focus puller isn't feasible we work with auto focus lenses. I own a set of Mamiya seccor-c and my absolute favorites...leica-r series.....wonderful glass.