Focus is probably one of the biggest obstacles that the Canon 5D faces. So many of our colleagues have questions and wonder why it is absolutely essential to have a focus puller. They are the backbone of this amazing technology. Shooting with practical lights and minimal crew is one thing, but a focus puller is the anchor for the entire project.
Gauging exposure so that you have the necessary depth of field to give your focus puller a chance is as much your job as it is to light the scene, block it and compose it. I have found that a 4.0/5.6 is the lowest you want to go with the 5D.
When looking at a face, I prefer to have the nose, mouth, and especially the eyes in focus, the ears can gradually fall out. However, the nose and mouth being out of focus are very distracting. The photo above is a close-up of a face that I shot for the Terminator Webisodes. It was shot on a 28mm Nikon Prime at a 5.6 which is about a 19mm equivalent on a 35mm motion picture camera.
Look at his ears and the fur on his jacket, they are completely blown out of focus, the nose and mouth are slightly soft and this was at a 5.6. I might have 1.5 inches of depth of field here. With a Canon 85mm lens, at a 1.4 t-stop you have a 1/32” of focus. At a 4.0/5.6 you have 3/4-1” inch. So you can see how shallow it is.
These cameras are so compact and light, you can move a camera in new ways. You are not moving the mass that we used to have prior to the invention of the HDSLR technology. In the movie business, it was all about figuring out how to move the camera mass, whether it is with a crane, Steadicam, dolly, helicopter, cable cam, handheld, etc.
Moving an HDSLR camera wide open following action, pulling or pushing someone, or just shooting a scene that has simple blocking is a recipe for disaster. I can only speak from my experience shooting the beginning of the Navy SEALS film at an F-stop 2.0 and nothing looks sharp. There are bits that are sharp but because it is such a shallow plane of focus, it seems all out.
The 7D is a different animal because of the smaller sensor. You can shoot at a F-stop 2.8 and get the same feel as the 5D. So, you can roll with 2 times less light and have good odds that it will be in focus. Be careful about giving this camera too much. It will start to look like video quickly and you will have many more moiré’ and aliasing issues because of the increased depth of field. The background lines do not fall off like the 5D. The 1D camera has an anamorphic-sized sensor and this will deliver a focus footprint like the 5D at an F-stop 2.8/4.0 split.
The people that I have assembled on the Elite team have motion picture experience and have had to relearn the still platform. They have been so inspired by all of the still photographers and have immense respect for your contribution. The Elite Team members have pulled focus for years and understand how to Zen gauge distances and the mechanics of what it takes. My advice to all still photographers that are diving into motion would be to seek out these talented people. If you need help I can provide you with names of top-notch personnel in many cities across the United States, Mexico, South America, Europe, and Asia.
Manual Follow Focus
Manual follow focus is not an option at all unless you are on a fluid head of some sort. Anything that touches this camera while operating will throw you off because of its minimal weight. There are several remote follow focus systems available that are affordable.
Bartech Remote Follow Focus
Bartech remote follow focus will cost around $3,500.00 to buy. Their system uses 900 MHz data transmissions and 8 channels. It comes with an MDR, remote follow focus handset, cables, and Heden focus motor as well as the now M-one motor. It is a unit that has been tested in the film industry under extreme conditions and works well for single channel focus control.
View Factor Remote Follow Focus
View factor remote follow focus costs around $2,600.00 for the Indie model and about $9,500.00 for the Pro. Their system has Bluetooth technology. It comes with an MDR, cables, follow focus handset, and a focus motor. I have tested this system and it works very well. The people at View Factor are very accommodating and will custom-build equipment if need be. This kit is available now, with upgrades that are worth waiting for that should be ready in late February, or early March.
Preston III Remote Follow Focus System
Preston III Remote Follow focus system is the premiere industry follow focus. It costs anywhere between $25,000.00-$30,000.00. It is a 3 channel system so that you can do focus, zoom, and exposure. They are all hand-made and battle-tested on features since the 1980s. It also has a cine-link function where you can get wireless focal distances sent from a cine-tape sonar focus device that shows up on that screen at the top of the handset.
The hand grip is very important for your focus-puller. It gives them the ability to do very precise racks. It comes with rings that you can calibrate to every lens in your kit. So, put your lens on, hit calibrate and the motor goes through its rotations. Once that is complete you set infinity and all your focus marks on your handset sync with the lens. It is genius.
Cine-Tape Box with Sonar Focus Horns
Cinematography Electronics Cine-tape Sonar focus system will run about $8,000.00. It is a device that rides in the hot shoe or on the matte box that helps gauge focus through sonar waves. The Cine-Tape box is an essential tool to roll fast and gives the focus puller a digital readout of the distance of an object in front of your lens. It does not move the focus on the lens. This is a crucial solution since it’s the focus puller’s job to interpret what the device is saying and determine the distance.
IR Laser Range Finder
IR Laser range finder costs about $150.00-$250.00 for a good one. It is an IR device that allows you to aim at an object from where you are standing and get the distance. Leica makes one, but it does not work well in daylight. The Hilti Laser Range meter is the best and it works in the blazing sun. Head to your local Home Depot and pick one up.
Focus Magnifier on the Canon Cameras
Focus Magnifier on the Canon Cameras is a very powerful focus tool. It provides accurate focus checking by zooming in 5x and then another push of the button will get you 10x magnification. You cannot use this while you are recording but it is great to check before you start rolling. Make sure your focus box is in the center of your LCD screen, aim the box at what you want to check, and hit the magnifier. That little box bugs me, so once I use the magnifier I move the box down to the lower right-hand side of the screen.
The bottom line
All these are amazing tools to assist with focus during shooting and for you to move the camera in ways that we have only seen on a computer. Even with all of the tools, there is still a very talented technician, and co-collaborator delivering your images in searing sharpness.
Looking for mentorship in the film industry? Schedule a 1-on-1 meeting with Shane Hurlbut, ASC today! This is where you can get expert advice from an industry professional on your career or a particular project.
About Filmmakers Academy Cinematographer Mentor Shane Hurlbut, ASC
Director of photography Shane Hurlbut, ASC works at the forefront of cinema. He’s a storyteller, innovator, and discerning collaborator, who brings more than three decades of experience to his art. He is a member of the American Society of Cinematographers, the International Cinematographers Guild/Local 600, and The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Hurlbut frequently joins forces with great directors: McG’s Netflix Rim of the World and The Babysitter, plus Warner Bros. We Are Marshall and Terminator: Salvation; Scott Waugh’s Need for Speed and Act of Valor; and Gabriele Muccino’s There Is No Place Like Home and Fathers and Daughters. His additional film credits include Semi-Pro; The Greatest Game Ever Played; Into the Blue; Mr 3000; Drumline; 11:14, which earned Hurlbut a DVDX nomination; and The Skulls. Notably, his television credits include the first season of AMC’s Into the Badlands.