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A follow focus system is a helpful tool for professional videographers to ensure accurate focus and smooth focus transitions while recording. The origins of follow focus systems go back decades and were first incorporated into film based cinematography.
What is a follow focus system for? Why would a current videographer using the latest in digital technology need a follow focus system when autofocus is so good? Do we really need to know how to use a follow focus system? Good questions. This follow focus system tutorial will provide some answers plus tips and ideas.
What Is a Follow Focus System?
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If we were on a set for a major motion picture, digitally captured or on film, there are job descriptions that sound foriegn to us. These jobs are usually something that we end up doing ourselves in our smaller or even one person professional videography operation.
For instance, listed in credits will be cinematographer, the person arranging the lighting, key grip, a person physically putting equipment (including lights) in place, and a camera operator, the person running the camera.
A credit you have wondered about is focus puller. This is the person that adjusts the focus of the lens. It’s an important job when focus has to change during the take. For instance, when the panning, dollying, or slider action changes camera to subject distance or the subject changes from one to another in the same take.
A follow focus system is a mechanical, electronic, or hybrid tool used to do the focus pulling for us. Depending on the size of your professional videography operation and the complexity of the shot, you could choose to operate the follow focus system yourself or assign it to a crew member.
Do You Need a Follow Focus System?
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In other words, what is a follow focus system for? Video and cinema is different from still imaging in that it shows motion as motion. Since things are in motion, the camera, the subject, or both, focusing distance will change.
We could try to rely on our camera AF system to keep up with all of this motion, but sometimes the subject distance changes in ways that fools even the best auto focus. Also, the demands of the scene may require changing from one subject or area of interest to another, oftentimes in very spots in the field of view.
Shooting in low light or for selective focus techniques also puts a strain on our focusing if relying on AF alone. You don’t want the AF to be hunting for focus when the action has already changed to another part of the field of view. So, a follow focus system allows focus to follow the action in a predictable and controlled manner.
How to Use a Follow Focus System
Let’s look at a commercially available follow focus system and see how we might incorporate it into our own productions. My favorite professional video accessories manufacturer Ikan makes a reasonably priced model, the PD Movie PD4-S3 Remote Air Pro.
This model provides a lot of usability. It is 4 pieces, 3 motor units and the controller. There are actually 3 different motors supplied with the kit so you can use the one controller to change focus, zoom, and lens iris control.
Part of what makes this follow focus system so useful is the small size of the motors and the fact you can control all at once. With a matte box, filters, and other things attached to our camera and camera cage, being able to smoothly operate these functions while filming is a huge advantage.
Just as we opened up our creativity and enhanced the viewability of our production with DMX lighting and a motorized slider, adding a follow focus system will enable our finished videos to look more professional and be more enjoyable to watch.
Remote Air Pro in Action
The PD Movie PD4-S3 Remote Air Pro from Ikan is a joy to use. Attach the motors as directed to the zoom, iris (lens aperture), and focus rings of the lens, and either mount the controller to the cage and wire it to the motors or use the controller wirelessly with or without a remote monitor. There is also a smartphone app that can be incorporated into your workflow.
The controller has a focus wheel that can be used for fine focus control as well as large quick actions. It is very intuitive since you simply turn or twist the wheel. The iris and zoom are controlled by rocker switches which also have adjustable speeds.
Below are a couple of short videos that show basic operation. Other videos are on the Ikan website for further explanation, hints, and tips.
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The goal of adding any equipment, programs, or new techniques to our professional videography operation is to maximize our results. The closer we can get our own productions to mimic the output of major motion picture studios or TV shows, the more professional looking our results are.
If our videos appear more professional, this pleases the clients, makes the videos more enjoyable to watch, and hopefully increases our good reputation and demand, which can be leveraged to a successful video production business.
A follow focus system is just one peice of the puzzle leading to superior results. Lots of hardware and software is involved in crafting a great video, whether it’s a wedding, a commercial, an in house training video, or pure entertainment.
Using these tools properly to transfer our creative vision into a superior product is the role of our creative minds and learning good practices and techniques.