Unlike Panasonic, Sony and Canon who can leverage their decades of camera development across multiple product lines, Blackmagic’s cameras don’t have continuous autofocus. They don’t consider it a priority for the Cinema range, as you don’t really need autofocus in a TV/movie setting and for the Studio range aimed at live production, they expect you to have a camera operator at all times ready to handle focus.
This sucks for small single person operators who are also managing camera switching, monitoring audio levels and possibly even moderating a livestream chat and researching stuff for the on-air talent at the same time. Worrying about focus just another task a solo operator can do without when a camera has face or eye detection autofocus. It’s a shame as Blackmagic’s cameras are at a perfect pricepoint for this type of low budget work and still provide awesome results.
Why not just buy a camera with those features? Sony, Canon and Panasonic cameras are not cheap, often twice as expensive and lower quality than Blackmagic’s, with crappier features and don’t play as nice in Blackmagic’s ATEM video production ecosystem.
People have made various hacks, accessories and workarounds to try and get continuous autofocus (CAF) on Blackmagic Cameras. I’ve done a bit of digging to see what’s out there - most of it random YouTube videos as surprise, people into video like making videos instead of blog posts - and tried to collect it all in the one spot here, it might help you find something appropriate.
I’m coming at this from a single operator setup, with multiple cameras, of people talking in a live production environment - think a podcast, game streamers, conferences, corporate presentations, interviews etc - not cinema/film/movies.
The Studio cameras can actually get autofocus commands from the Blackmagic ATEM switchers either via HDMI or an SDI return path (so 2x SDI cables per camera). The downside of this is that the command is sent to all cameras at once, so if a camera is in focus it’ll hunt and go out of focus for a little until it finds focus again.
It’s also not continuous autofocus, it’ll just focus when you push the button. I haven’t used it in person so maybe it’s fine like this in the real world , but I know I’d have way more peace of mind with face/eye CAF.
The PDMovie Live Air 3 Smart is effectively a litle motor you attach to your lens, which has a Lidar sensor on it and will focus on whatever is closest to the lens - no face/eye detection. Costs $450 and doesn’t seem that hard to get going. Lots of YouTube videos explaining how it works:
Only disappointing bits is that it only has a 4m range and will cover a 28-degree field of view (not the entire image). For what I want to use it for, this might be an issue as the talent could be much further away, like at a conference or an event. But for recording a video of a podcast, could just be enough.
Unfortunatley the none of the Studio cameras have Bluetooth, so that’s a bit of a show stopper for me, plus the iPhone’s Lidar range is kinda limited and if all you’re using the iPhone for is this Lidar setup, it’s gonna be more expensive than a PDMovie Live Air 3 Smart anyways.
DJI have a $750 Lidar Range Finder that has a 14m operational distance, much better than other options.
It can also work in tandem with their Focus Motor ($179) to add autofocus to manual lenses. DJI even have an “ActiveTrack Pro” feature it’s borrowed from their drones to track an object you set. It’s pretty bloody good:
And this guy uses it to review tech gear:
The only problem is to get that all going you also need a DJI gimbal and in particular, the DJI RS 3 Pro (which is a pretty bloody good gimbal if you need one). You can use it without the gimbal once you’ve got it all calibrated to your lens. You need the RS 3 Pro to set the ActiveTrack Pro area/object too.
All up cost is $2,227:
- DJI RS 3 Pro - $1299
- DJI LiDAR range finder - $749
- DJI Focus Motor - $179
This is little box costs around $950 and lets you turn a DJI gimbal into a full PTZ setup that can be controlled with a USB joystick! This video is a good explainer of how it works with the Micro Studio Camera:
and with the Studio Camera Pro
Combine a DJI Focus Motor, Lidar Range Finder, RS3 Pro Gimbal ($2,200) with a Blackmagic Micro Studio Camera 4K G2 ($1,500) and a nice lens ($1,000?) with the APC-R ($950) and you’ve got a full PTZ camera, that’ll do 4K60, with a large sensor and a cinema quality lens for under $6,000 - something that would cost more than double if you got it from Panasonic, Sony or Canon, like the Sony ILME-FR7, which is around $14,000 and you still need a lens.
How good this setup is in practice, with PTZ and autofocus, I don’t know. The demo videos look good, but Middle Things wants to sell you their little box. There’s a fair bit of jank and 3rd party interoperability going on which has a high probability of fucking up when you need it the most.
This video from someone that isn’t Middle Things (a fellow Aussie!) reckons it’s awesome, particularly when paired with Middle Thing’s joystick.:
A $350 unit similar to the PDMovie Live Air 3 Smart, but uses the DJI 3D Focus module ($239, approx 5m range) to gauge distances. There’s no need for a motor attached to the lens as it talks directly to the camera to adjust the lens focus - obviously you need a lens with autofocus for this, which many Panasonic/Olympus camera lenses do have.
Unfortunately it uses Bluetooth, which the Studio cameras don’t have, which sucks, and there’s no USB version at themoment. They also have the AXC-BM3DF G2, which can talk to a Tilta Nucleus Nano wireless follow focus system and control the focus on manual lenses.
If AxonCine made a USB version that plugs into the Studio cameras and controls an autofocus lens, that would be very handy. Bonus points if it could use the DJI LiDAR range finder instead of the older and lower range 3D focus module.
I could have three wireless follow focus kits at my control desk, one for each camera. These are motors that attach to the lens and are wirelessly moved by a knob/dial. The MagicFIZ Wireless Follow Focus ($400) by SmallRig is a good example:
Theoretically I could be sitting a few meters away from the camera and simply twist the dial to adjust the manual focus as needed. Basically the same as what the ATEM camera control can do, but without the need for an autofocus lens (so you can get a cheaper, higher quality cinema lens).
So not quite face detection autofocus, or even continual autofocus, but it’s cheap and reliable - but it’s one more thing you gotta pay attention to.
CDA-TEK AFX - this is one of the top results when you look up “autofocus blackmagic” but appears to be a kickstarter project that got up, made a few units, then pissed off. I can’t see anywhere to buy it. It’s basically the PDMovie Live Air 3 Smart, but with direct comms to the camera so you don’t need the motor attached to the lens when using an autofocus lens.
Moon Smart Focus - looks absolutely dope, but is $37,000, so, umm, yeah, not for me.