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Zone Focussing


Steven West
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I'm fairly new to the world of filmmaking and have a question about focussing that I was hoping someone could help me out on.

I come from a commercial stills background but used to use zone focussing to shoot street photography as a hobby years ago. 

I understand Hyperfocal is used sometimes, but I was wondering if zone focussing is something that is used/factored into in some shots, particularly follow shots or leading shots for example.

On a shoot recently pulling focus myself I found I lost focus sometimes on the moving subject and there were times it was a bit too soft. I got to wondering if zone focussing was a thing in filmmaking since it seems it would lend itself perfectly to moving shots like follow, orbit or leading type shots on say a Steadicam or gimbal. I understand that for most productions there is a focus puller, but in the case of working alone, could it make sense to use zone focussing?

Say you have a follow shot and you decide on walking behind the subject a few feet using a 35mm lens and f 2.8. The DOF is not going to be great and if you are pulling focus yourself there is most likely going to be a lot of drifting in and out of critical focus, so in cases like that, do cinematographers grab a DOF calculator and decide on a lens, distance and aperture in the cases they can't use a focus puller and roll with an acceptable level of sharpness by just keeping the subject(s) within the depth of field, instead of constantly trying to track the subject and keep them as sharp as possible? 

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2 hours ago, Steven West said:

I'm fairly new to the world of filmmaking and have a question about focussing that I was hoping someone could help me out on.

I come from a commercial stills background but used to use zone focussing to shoot street photography as a hobby years ago. 

I understand Hyperfocal is used sometimes, but I was wondering if zone focussing is something that is used/factored into in some shots, particularly follow shots or leading shots for example.

On a shoot recently pulling focus myself I found I lost focus sometimes on the moving subject and there were times it was a bit too soft. I got to wondering if zone focussing was a thing in filmmaking since it seems it would lend itself perfectly to moving shots like follow, orbit or leading type shots on say a Steadicam or gimbal. I understand that for most productions there is a focus puller, but in the case of working alone, could it make sense to use zone focussing?

Say you have a follow shot and you decide on walking behind the subject a few feet using a 35mm lens and f 2.8. The DOF is not going to be great and if you are pulling focus yourself there is most likely going to be a lot of drifting in and out of critical focus, so in cases like that, do cinematographers grab a DOF calculator and decide on a lens, distance and aperture in the cases they can't use a focus puller and roll with an acceptable level of sharpness by just keeping the subject(s) within the depth of field, instead of constantly trying to track the subject and keep them as sharp as possible? 

Drifting focus issues are the exact reason why cinematographers hire people like me, called “Focus Pullers”, who specialize in keeping shots in focus. We pull focus manually via skill, judgment and experience. In motion pictures, we don’t use any form of auto focus because it takes away from the story telling objectivity that is required during the course of a shot to where and how focus is played on the subject. We may also elect to shift focus from foreground to background (or elsewhere in the frame) at a moment the story demands to continue to tell the story cinematically. Auto focus simply chooses to focus on what’s predominantly in the foreground and that may or may not be the correct choice. With the camera moving as well as the subject moving, it’s too difficult for the operator to frame and keep the subject in focus. Unlike television, sports camera operators who do both, they are primarily following focus on one subject from start to finish instead of playing multiple focus cues based on framing, the action or dialogue.

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Hi Gregory,

Many thanks for your detailed reply.

I think I am just overthinking stuff. I do want to say that zone focussing in stills is not auto focus; it's actually fixed. We set a distance and use the DOF determined by that to set up a zone wherein subjects in that zone would fall into what's called 'acceptable' focus, but nothing in the shot would be in critical focus unless they were at the exact distance set on the lens.

Thinking of the Copacabana Steadicam shot in Goodfellas where it looks like the operator is keeping distance with the couple and keeping them in the DOF is maybe the way the shot that one? Or would you say they used a focus puller on that shot?

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I don't know what the pros do, but amateurs when shooting movie film generally only use hyperfocal  settings in combination with what you call zone focusing. The amateurs, in general, only pull focus as a rack-focus on a carefully set up static shot. They also don't move the camera much.

I'm pretty sure about all this and I would think it should hold true for shooting video also.

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11 hours ago, Steven West said:

Hi Gregory,

Many thanks for your detailed reply.

I think I am just overthinking stuff. I do want to say that zone focussing in stills is not auto focus; it's actually fixed. We set a distance and use the DOF determined by that to set up a zone wherein subjects in that zone would fall into what's called 'acceptable' focus, but nothing in the shot would be in critical focus unless they were at the exact distance set on the lens.

Thinking of the Copacabana Steadicam shot in Goodfellas where it looks like the operator is keeping distance with the couple and keeping them in the DOF is maybe the way the shot that one? Or would you say they used a focus puller on that shot?

Gotcha about zone focus. As for the Goodfellas shot you referenced, my friend Larry McConkey was the steadicam operator. He did it brilliantly! But know that there was also a focus puller who did a magnificent job keeping the shot in focus by eye, a dolly grip guiding Larry through the maze and a sound boom man waving the mic overhead. If you watch carefully, you can see a couple of camera and boom shadows in the shot (just to show how hard they were working ☺️). They did great!

G

Edited by Gregory Irwin
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11 hours ago, Gregory Irwin said:

Gotcha about zone focus. As for the Goodfellas shot you referenced, my friend Larry McConkey was the steadicam operator. He did it brilliantly! But know that there was also a focus puller who did a magnificent job keeping the shot in focus by eye, a dolly grip guiding Larry through the maze and a sound boom man waving the mic overhead. If you watch carefully, you can see a couple of camera and boom shadows in the shot (just to show how hard they were working ☺️). They did great!

G

Wow, that's incredible! You just don't notice any focussing going on at all, I assumed it was fixed. 

I have seen some BTS on that actual shot and I think they ran it 3 times or something and got the choreography down, but the guy (host) in the final part of the shot kept missing his lines and so they had to do it again and again... I'm going to go back and look for the shadows now!

Thanks again for all your insights I really appreciate it.

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i think it's a big compliment to the focus puller that we didn't notice anything. similar to an airline pilot 🙂 - if the flight was smooth, then he did his job perfectly.

larry also kept the distance and pace with the characters extremely consistent, and that would have been crucial help to the focus puller.

you would notice far more detail on the big screen of course, plus i think it is very humbling to know he was pulling without monitors, and larry was probably framing off those old-school green-only steadi monitors.

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I'd think zone focus would produce poor results for film work. I do a tremendous amount of zone focus work, but it is with candid still photos and not with filmmaking. With still work, I don't use hyperfocal distance; I use the best guestimate of the distance the image will be shot at. If I think the subject is at 3-1/2 feet, why should I use an 8 or 10 foot hyperfocal setting?? If they are actually at 4 feet , then 3-1/2 feet is closer than 10 feet to the right distance.

With infrared flash still photography is all zone focused. You can't see anything on the screen in the dark with an IR still cam shooting with flash. Weegee used to talk about press photogs doing the standard 10 foot shot. They would keep their press camera set for 10 feet and be ready for anything...kinda!

 

 

Edited by Daniel D. Teoli Jr.
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