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Establishing Focus

Changing focus during a shot is a routine operation on a major motion picture or commercial shoot. Distances are measured and “marks” are affixed to both the floor and the lens or remote focusing control so the first-assistant cameraperson (positioned next to the camera) has ready points of reference to adjust focus as the actors move about the set.

Pulling focus is more of a challenge for videographers who work alone. Working without the benefit of additional crew members, the solo-shooter already has his hands full maintaining composition, operating the zoom, and occasionally tweaking the iris. But there are a couple of sneaky ways to manage a simple focus change without growing a third hand.

Make Your Mark: Factory-engraved footage markings are all but impossible to see when you’re behind the lens. Create marks that you can see while shooting by folding a piece of gray gaffer’s tape lengthwise in two places so the upper third of the tape sticks to the middle section and the lower third forms a 90 degree angle with the top, sticky side down. Press the tape into place on the focusing ring, uncap your Sharpie, and, after pre-focusing on each critical distance, mark the tape so that you can readily return to each position when operating the camera

On the Level: An elegant variation of the gaffer’s tape solution requires that your Sharpie marker remain capped. Pre-focus on the second distance, the one you want to pull to, and tape the Sharpie (or any similarly-size device) to the lens focusing ring so it is perfectly horizontal. When it’s time to pull focus you need only rotate the ring until the Sharpie is level with the floor. If fastened securely, the Sharpie also becomes an excellent, if inelegant, focus-pulling lever.

At Your Fingertips: Precise focus-pulls can even be accomplished on the fly or when there’s no gaffer’s tape at hand by using the tip of your left index finger or thumb as a pointer and the zoom servo housing as a mark. Preset focus to the distance you want to hit. Now grasp the focus ring tightly with either your thumb or index finger firmly in contact with the housing and, without loosening your grip, find focus for the beginning of the shot. Rotating the ring until your fingertip regains contact with the servo housing will automatically return you to the preset focus.

Macro Pull(o): Our final focusing tip works best when you need to quickly and precisely shift from near to far and requires a lens with a macro focusing lever that can be accessed while shooting. Focus on the distant subject and then use the macro lever to find focus on the nearer one. Returning to the distant focus is as simple as snapping the macro back to its detent position.