Focus on Focus

Like any beginner I made numerous mistakes when I was shooting my first short film last year. If I could go back and redo some of the scenes, there are two main things I would make amends for. First thing is I would use ND filters to fight off daylight in order to get a shallower depth of field in some of the footage. Even though I realized too many details in some scenes were in focus at the time of shooting, the idea of using filters simply didn’t cross my mind. I guess we all learn as we go along. This issue of keeping the right things in focus is related to the second thing I wish I could go back and do better: I would work more with manual focus and rely less on the camera’s auto focus. 

Now, given the fact that this was my first production and that I am totally new to filmmaking, I shouldn’t beat myself up too much. A significant portion of the footage was done using a small gimbal too, which meant I sometimes actually had to use the auto focus. (No, a follow focus system wasn’t part of the gear and certainly not motivated from an economic standpoint since it was a zero-budget production. I’m not even sure I would have been able to use it since I did all the practical bits as a one-man-band.) But had I taken my time, and practiced and rehearsed more, there are several scenes where I could have used manual focus even when using the gimbal. I could also have done more handheld shooting, which would also have demanded more preparations in the form of practice.

Shooting “Difference/Indifference”
(photo by Jonna Trygg)

When filming my second short film in January this year, my plan was to use the opportunity to learn from past mistakes and begin my explorations in learning to focus manually while shooting handheld.

Part of the Craft; Part of the Storytelling

To pull focus manually in action while shooting video is certainly a central skill in the craftsmanship of cinematography, and so it is one of the main things I should focus getting better at (no pun intended). The way focus is pulled is also an important part of telling a story, as is allows you to direct the viewer’s attention in a deliberate way.

Four Useful Tips

As I’m getting to the end of this post I want to leave you with a recommendation. Canadian director and cinematographer Mark Bone has a useful video on YouTube where he gives four quick tips on how to improve your manual focusing skills. The advice is hands-on and, in my mind, inspiring! In the video Bone talks about the following points: Rehearse, Find focus reference, Use small movements, Practice. You can find his video here.

I wish I’d come across this video before I started to work on my film last year, but I guess better late than never! But as we all know, making mistakes can be an important part of any learning process.

One super fun practice tip Bone recommends is to try and keep focus on a swing going towards and away from you. The other day I went out to try this out myself, and I captured part of the practice session in the video below. It was difficult and I had to adjust the speed of turning the lens focus as the swing changed speed. As you can see, the result is not the best, but here and there I managed to follow the swinging kettlebell! (I don’t know why there is a jittery movement (or warp) of the image in the video, but it might have something to do with the image stabilizer being on.)

Thanks for reading!

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