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In 2022, with many cameras and visual creators relying on smartphones and autofocus cameras, a follow focus system can look like a rarity or something from the past. However, for certain kinds of content, a good follow focus system and an experienced focus puller will make the difference. They will create shots that just can’t be produced with automatic systems. Human touch, even with its imperfections, is something that breathes and can be perceived on the screen, even subconsciously.
When we use a lens with a wide aperture (f/1.4, for example), the depth of field is so tiny that even a slight movement from the camera operator or the subject in the frame will require a focus adjustment to keep things sharp. Big cinema lenses have big focusing rings with enough rotation to be precise, but at the same time, they require a high-end follow focus system because it is almost impossible to do it by hand.
On the other hand, photo lenses usually have small focusing rings that make it possible to focus by hand. However, the margin of error is so tiny that it’s almost impossible to be accurate and keep the shot steady since we are physically touching the lens with our fingers.
In scenarios like weddings, events, or low-budget movies where we want precise focus control, a follow focus system will be the perfect solution.
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What is a follow focus system?
A follow focus system is a mechanism that allows for precise focus pulling. We can mark the distances and the initial and final focal points to have an accurate focus in each shot. Aside from that, with a follow focus system, we don’t put our fingers on the lens directly, avoiding micro jitters and unwanted movements, especially with longer lenses.
Typically, a basic follow focus system will consist of the following parts:
- A rail clamp
- An arm
- The camera
- A focus knob
- A set of lens gear rings
- White disc to write the marks
With everything connected, we change the focus point (or rack focus) by moving the focus knob, affecting the rest of the mechanism until the lens gear ring moves the focus ring.
You have infinite options in the market, and each focus puller has its style. For example, a compact system without many moving parts could be more suitable for your camera. Still, at the same time, it won’t offer different configurations if you use a lot of lenses and cameras. On the other hand, a more complex system will work on different setups. However, be ready to spend money if you don’t want to deal with cheap materials or flimsy components that will affect the quality of your shots.
How a follow focus system can help you
The technique of changing focus from one point to another is called rack focus. Back in the days, when things were not digital and each take costed a fortune, a good focus puller was one of the most precious professionals in the industry. Imagine a horse race scene, a 200mm lens, and a close-up of the horse. Imagine pulling focus from the horse to the rider in the background. Then, imagine having to repeat that shot because the focus puller made a mistake and missed the take.
Nowadays, with a bit of practice, every filmmaker can get good results with a decent follow focus system. So if you are serious about your filmmaking, our tip is to avoid focusing directly with your fingers on the lens and develop a sense of anticipation.
Even though autofocus systems are closing the gap in recent years, there is nothing like human intention when trying to achieve a particular shot, especially in complex situations. Only you know when to start and finish the movement, which speed you want to change focus, etc.
In fiction works, where the camera acts like a pencil and establishes the artistry and the style of the take, a focus system is a must. And it will be more than welcome in events like weddings, where you don’t want to rely on electronics and can’t miss the shot. For documentary filmmaking, where things are unexpected and things are moving without any control, being able to focus accurately and anticipate the action with a reliable follow focus system will make the difference between getting the shot or losing it forever.
Types of Video Creators who would need a follow focus system:
DoPs and focus pullers working in complex environments
If you are shooting a high-end feature, there is nothing to discuss here. But even if you are filming a low-budget short film with many people involved, take it seriously. No one will hire you if you focus by hand. Bigger cameras and lenses will require more experience.
You could choose autofocus over manual focus if you produce content that can rely on autofocus, such as talking heads. However, if you create more crafted shots, like stock footage, mini-documentaries, travel films, etc., a follow focus system will raise the quality of your work.
If you have filmed events, you know how it works. It is usually chaos. Even the camera with the most accurate autofocus system will have to deal with hundreds of unexpected movements, moving faces, people blocking your shot, etc. We find it crucial to have a decent follow focus system for these kinds of shootings, such as weddings, parties, etc. The more control you have over your focus and shots, the more usable images you will find when you start the editing.
A system for each budget
Under 100$: Tiltaing FF-T06 Mini Follow Focus
This follow focus system can be an ideal solution if you use a compact setup with mirrorless or DSLR cameras and mainly still lenses. It is light, easy to mount and will work in run-and-gun situations where you are the filmmaker and the focus puller.
The quality of the materials is good, its performance is smooth with still lenses, and its price is something you can’t overlook.
Under 1,000$: Tilta Nucleus-M Wireless Lens Control System
If you are a solo filmmaker, this unit has everything you need. Perfect for narrative, documentary and gimbal work, it will also perform with bigger setups and lenses. It is also compatible with other accessories of the Nucleus line, making it a versatile option.
Under 3,000$: CINEGEARS Single Axis Wireless Follow Focus Express Plus Standard Kit
This piece of gear is for you if you get serious about focus pulling and want to make a career out of it (and you have the money). This wireless combo will allow you to face every production confidently and ensure your gear keeps up with the rest of the crew.
Whether you’re a solo filmmaker or a 1st camera assistant working in bigger productions, a follow focus system will take your work to the next level when using manual focus. So whether you need the perfect shot in a wedding or if you work in narrative productions where actors have to nail their marks, it’s time for you to put your fingers away from the lens.