Canon C100 MkII autofocus is a game-changer for documentary

Canon-C100-Mark-II-Cinema-CameraWhen I was a young photojournalist in the early 90s, I remember the disdain that old-salt photographers had for autofocus. “Forget autofocus,” they told me. “It’s not for pros.” The technology was still in its infancy in those days, but today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a photojournalist who doesn’t routinely depend on it.

Motion picture is another story. Most cinematographers feel the same way about autofocus today as still photographers did 20 years ago. But change is coming, and it’s has a name:  Canon Dual Pixel CMOS AF. First introduced on Canon’s EOS 70D digital SLR camera in 2013, Canon has for the first time made autofocus a standard feature in their Cinema series cameras with the introduction of the C100 MkII. But does it really work?

I spent last weekend in Boston shooting a wedding that will be the climax of a forthcoming documentary film by Heather McHugh. I chose the Canon C100 MkII to shoot with because I wanted to put the camera in a situation where I could really push its autofocus capabilities to the limit, and see if it could perform as well or better than my manual focusing ability.

But first, a word about manual focus. When shooting video, it’s actually quite difficult to tell whether a shot is actually in focus. Especially when shooting wide or when stopped down, you can’t trust what you see on the screen. Tools like peaking that sharpens the image to better reveal focus, and peaking that places a color outline around in-focus areas, help. But nothing substitutes for actually SEEING that the image is sharp, and for me this means punching in, or digitally expanding the image to check focus. Canon DSLRs have a button that magnifies focus up to 5x for this purpose. But it only works prior to rolling – if the subject moves during the shot, you’re on your own. The C100 and other C-series Canon cameras have a 2x magnifier that works while rolling. This helps, but having to constantly punch in while rolling to check focus is distracting, and takes me out of the moment when following a subject.

When my C100 MkII arrived from, I spent a day getting comfortable with the menus and controls. And it became immediately clear that the autofocus button is in the wrong place – at the front of the camera in the same spot where the white-balance button is on many other video cameras. This makes grabbing focus a two-handed operation, no good. Luckily, Canon makes it possible to re-map the buttons to your heart’s content. I found that mapping the one-shot autofocus to the #7 button makes it an ergonomic dream to use.

Using this approach, I quickly fell into a one-handed shooting rhythm: Center the subject, press one-shot autofocus with my right thumb, and as soon as the green confirmation square lights up, roll camera with my right index finger.

What I have hated in the past about video autofocus is the dreaded “hunting and seeking” that happens unpredictably. With the C100, this is a thing of the past (except in very low light or on very low-contrast subjects, which I’ll address in a moment).

In fact, in my own manually focusing, I find myself hunting and seeking all the time: I focus, then punch in to check, then slightly overcorrect focus to see where the sharpest point is, then come back to it. Then punch out, and roll. So when I realized that Canon’s autofocus just goes to the sharpest point and locks there, I was very impressed. In that way, it focuses better (faster) than my human eye.

Canon provides two autofocus modes: one-shot and continuous. Unfortunately you can’t map the buttons to continuous – just to one-shot. This means if you want to switch between continuous and one-shot, you have to drill into the camera menu, a cumbersome process. I hope Canon makes continuous focus a mappable option in a future firmware update.

Continuous autofocus will attempt to keep whatever is in the center of the frame in focus. One-shot focuses to the point you’ve selected, and stays put regardless of where your subject moves after that. In practice I almost never used continuous focus. But it is very handy when a subject is coming toward you, such as a push-in shot. It’s also great for those times when you can’t touch the focus ring – such as when the camera is mounted in a Movi.

And here’s my first gripe: it’s only possible to focus in the dead center of the frame. In practice this isn’t so bad, because you can focus, reframe, and roll. But it would be very nice to be able to (as you already can with the Canon 70D) assign the autofocus area to another part of the screen. I found myself favoring the center of the screen for my compositions more than I normal would have done.

While shooting at the wedding, I loved the confidence that having autofocus gave me. It speeded up my work. Instead of squinting intently into the frame, I could center the subject, press one-shot, get focus confirmation, and roll without wondering whether my shot was focus. If the person moved, I could again press one-shot and get focus confirmation without interrupting my shot. Because there is so much to cover so quickly during a wedding, I found myself simply letting the camera roll, reframing a new shot, focusing, and repeat as needed.

The nagging feeling of “did I get that in focus?” that so often haunts me at the end of a good shot just melted away as I became more and more confident. Instead of concentrating on focus, I found myself concentrating on framing, on getting the right angle, on moving the camera to where it needed to be for the next shot. But of course, it wasn’t perfect.

I noticed that low-contrast or dimly lit subjects sometimes presented an autofocus challenge to this camera. In low light, I occasionally saw the hunting and seeking behavior that has plagued lesser video autofocus. But it doesn’t take long to figure out what situations I had to manually take over, and which I could trust the camera to handle. And, asserting focus is as simple as grabbing the focus ring. You don’t have to enable or disable autofocus first with Canon glass. You just leave autofocus enabled on the lens, and focus manually as needed. With one-shot, it won’t fight you.

On a few rare occasions, I noticed that the camera seemed to fasten onto a background object rather than focus into the foreground as I wanted it to. These were situations with a low-contrast object in foreground against a high-contrast object in background.

As the day went on, I wondered whether my near-constant use of autofocus would cause the battery to run out faster. It didn’t. I shot the entire event on a single Canon BP-955 battery. It had 25 percent of it’s life left at the end of the day. So the C100 does what it does without being a battery hog. Pretty incredible.

When I reviewed my footage afterward, I noticed something I haven’t seen in my footage before: shots that snapped into focus and stayed focused. Instead of my rocking back and forth to settle on focus, it just went straight to it with authority, meaning that I could react more quickly to a moment and nail it.

Before the C100, I could count on some percentage of my shots (maybe 10 percent?) being slightly soft. With the C100, virtually all of my shots are spot-on. Focus becomes a framing exercise, rather than a squinting exercise. And the result is renewed confidence. The C100’s autofocus isn’t perfect, but for covering events like a wedding, at least, it’s already better than my eyes. And that’s good enough for me.


32 thoughts on “Canon C100 MkII autofocus is a game-changer for documentary

  1. Gudgefilm

    Did you try a STM lens? Those lenses have focus face tracking on the mark II. It’s a documentary game changer if/when the tech moves into canon’s better lenses.

    1. Dan McComb Post author

      I didn’t try an STM lens. I needed a constant-aperture zoom for my shooting, and currently all of the STM zooms are variable (which means I’d have to adjust the aperture every time I zoom in to hold the exposure). And you’re absolutely right – once that technology makes its way into some nicer glass at Canon, it’ll be epic for autofocus.

  2. Aaron

    Hey great article. I’m curious to know if the C100 ii has the same feature as the C300 ii where if you’re in manual focus the square will still face track and turn green when it is in focus.

    1. Dan McComb Post author

      Unfortunately it’s not nearly as sexy as what the C300mkii will do. For example, the C300 will do face tracking with ANY canon lens – the C100 will only face track with STM lenses (mostly consumer zooms that lack fixed apertures at the moment). Another major selling point (to me) about the C300mkii: it has what looks to be a highly intuitive mode that lets you manually focus with on-screen focus prompts that show you when you’re in focus by closing pointers on a circle. And, it uses 80 percent of the screen to track focus – the c100 is only a tiny window in the dead center. Trust Canon to always save the best features for those who pay.

      1. Jose Ambrocio

        Hi, Greetings, I inquiring if you happen to know if the Canon EOS C300 mark I (the original c300) with Dual Pixel AF has the ability to face track if using an STM lens such as the 18-135 STM. The C100 Mark II and the C300 Mark II does face track but I cannot find any info on the Original C300 with Dual Pixel AF. I know it does continuous focus in the middle to the lens but I wonder about the face track capabilities?

        1. Dan McComb Post author

          I don’t think the original c300 with AF upgrade does face tracking even with the STM lenses. I tried it with the original C100 with AF upgrade and sim lenses, and it didn’t work. So my guess it that’s probably true for C300 as well, but don’t quote me on that.

      2. maz

        “the C300 will do face tracking with ANY canon lens”
        Not true. Only with certain lenses you get FACE Detection and Tracking. It is greyed out for many Ef and Ef-s lenses.

  3. Sotiris Tseles

    Hello there! If you are using continuous autofocus, AND and turn on the IS on the lens, will that drain the battery faster? Thank you very much for your help!

    1. Dan McComb Post author

      Yes, it will drain the battery faster. No doubt. I’ve never used continuous AF for very long, so I can’t tell you exactly, but using one-shot with the BP-955 battery, I can shoot for hours. Like almost all day.

    1. Dan McComb Post author

      Hi Michael, yes it was a Canon 17-55mm f/2.8 IS EFS lens. It’s a great little lens for the C100. I also used a Canon 100mm macro IS f/2.8 lens. The IS on that lens is killer, allowing me to handhold it, even, pretty amazing for a lens that is that long.

  4. Michael Schafer

    Thanks Dan. I’ll look into those two lenses.

    I know some DPs who are changing their minds on the Canon STM kit lenses. I’ve used one as part of a client’s kit and was impressed with its follow capability. Once it locks onto a face it stays put on most occasions. Understandably they have trouble with low light and low contrast scenes due to the slower f-stops. What’s you opinion of the STM lenses? They’re significantly cheaper than the higher quality primes like you list above but they’re pretty effective on a crane and steadycam shoots.


    1. Jonny Pedersen

      I owe the C100 mkii, and are using 40mm STM and the 18-135mm STM, but also a lot of old manual lenses with adapters. Just got a 28mm Pentax, 50mm Pentax and a 135mm Pentax that I use with adapters…
      IT ROCKS… And now that Canon are releasing many new STM lenses, it will be great. But also the other older EF-s and EF lenses are performing well.. This camera is just amazing… I also have a Panasonic GH4, and together this rocks, because I have adapter for them, and adapter for using PL-lenses… Cinema Prime

      1. Dan McComb Post author

        I have the 40mm STM lens as well, but it won’t work with face-detect autofocus on the C100mkii. I thought all STM lenses were supposed to be enabled for face-detect, but apparently not.

        1. DebG.

          Darn! My 40mm STM is currently my favorite lens! I was really counting on using face detection with the C100 MKII I received today. I chose the 24-105mm IS USM L kit lens insteadof the 18-135mm STM kit lens because I thought I could use the 40mm STM for face detection. Buyer’s remorse at the moment. 🙁

          1. Dan McComb Post author

            I have a 40mm STM, and I really like that lens too. But not so much for face detect. In terms of how it looks, though, it’s a truly fine piece of glass when used with a speed booster on a Sony FS5, giving it a full-frame look.

  5. Binoculars

    When I originally commented I clicked the -Notify me when new feedback are added- checkbox and now every time a remark is added I get 4 emails with the same comment. Is there any means you possibly can take away me from that service? Thanks!

  6. eric

    I cannot believe this is suppose to be a pro camera, but phase detection only works for the cheaper STM lens? WTH?????? This is so stupid and I almost pulled the trigger on this bc nowhere clearly do they state this, you have to do a deep research to find that out…Can some one correct me if I am wrong????

  7. Andreas Lindeke

    The AF in the C100 mkII is really great! Good review!

    Since I do a lot of run n gun at nightclubs where dj’s and guests are in constant movement, I use continous autofocus a lot, but I found out that I can map button number 7 to turn the AF on or off. I can then point the middle square to where I want my focus, turn on the AF to get it in focus and then turn it off. This way I have fast acess to the AF function if needed without having to dig into the menus.

  8. Jermaine

    Thank you for the amazing post Dan, I am saving up for a C100 mark ii. You have answered a lot of questions that I had about the camera, and I am now sold on one.

  9. Rob Smith

    Hi Dan, I have a EFS 18-135 USM lens I use on my 80d, it’s the upgrade from the STM. Do you know if the c100 mk2 supports this lens for face rec?


  10. Josh

    Hi Dan,

    Which face-detect AF compatible lenses would you personally recommend?

    I usually shoot with a Canon 24-105mm, but the temptation to use face-detect AF is overwhelming.

    Have you used it much?

    1. Dan McComb Post author

      Hi Josh,
      I havne’t used it much, actually. I’m shooting primarily with a Sony FS5 these days. But I would LOVE to use it more, and I do look forward to using it more as opportunities arise. I like that Canon has made face-detect possible with any of their glass on the C300 MKII. That’s where it gets really interesting, hey?

      1. Josh

        I’d love to have the C300, but sadly it’s out of scope for me.

        Do you know of a list anywhere that contains the lenses that work with Face Detect AF?

        Thanks, Josh


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.