Like many video DSLR news shooters I find getting smooth, accurate manual focus with an autofocus 35mm stills lens to be a little tricky at times. Unlike proper Cine or video camera lenses the focussing rings of autofocus lenses often do not rotate very far when going from minimum focus to infinity. In contrast a good ENG camera lens often rotate as much as 180 degrees when going from minimum to infinity focus, whilst a proper Cine lens may rotate almost a full 360 degrees for the same focus travel.
To get smoother, more controllable manual focus on a Canon stills lens I’ve found the best solution be to add a follow focus unit like those from Genus, Redrockmicro, Zacuto, Cinevate Chroziel or the budget D-focus. All these follow focus units work in pretty much the same way but with varying degrees of accuracy (backlash) and smoothness. I currently shoot with a Redrockmicro V2 follow focus but I’m testing out newer ones right now so hopefully I can review more of them in the future. One thing I do like about the Redrock and the Genus follow focus is the quick release capability which I regard as essential for news where you may want to re-rig in a hurry.
Follow focus units also require some kind of rig to attach them to your camera. Most of these rigs are quite big but for news shooting there are now some quite interesting lightweight options. The two that I own are the Jag35 DSLR cage and the Redrockmicro Captain Stubling rig. Both of these are designed for handheld shooting and can also be put on a tripod as well (The Captain Stubling needs you to purchase additional parts to do this).
One thing all these follow focus units require is a gear to be added to the lens. I find that even when used without a follow focus attached the extra circumference and grip they give to a lens aids accurate focussing a lot.
Up till recently I’ve been exclusively using the $44.50 Redrockmicro lens gears which come in different sizes and increase the diameter of the lens a fair amount to give greater focus travel. These are fine if you plan to leave one attached to each lens you own but I find them hard to move around between lenses in a hurry on a shoot, they also take up a lot of room in your camera bag when fitted to a lens. If you have a lot of lenses like me then you basically need a whole set of four in sizes A through D, luckily they do a discount on a pack of 3. Really large diameter super telephoto lenses are not catered for with this system. Cinevate has a similar system with a wider gear and a clever add on Durus focus lever option but I’ve not had a chance to test it.
Next I moved on to the $68 Zacuto Zipgears which are much lower profile and a nice simple design. I like these as they hardly add any bulk to the lens which is really good on news assignments when trying to pack a bag tight full of gear. They also supply long enough gear strips to fit larger telephoto lenses easily. The downside is that it’s designed to be left on a lens semi permanantly because each gear needs to be cut to size and you can’t change them in a hurry – again if you have a lot of lenses this can be pricey. British company Shoot35 has some similar concept gears but I’ve not had a chance to test these yet either.
Which brings me to the newest lens gear on the market from Genus. This one is $69 and also low profile like the Zacuto except that it is bright blue and the same gear can be moved between many different lenses quickly and attaching using a simple thumbscrew adjustable rack. It is very quick to put it on and take it off. Cut at the right length it turns out I can cover 3 or 4 different lenses with the same gear. It will also accomodate a large telephoto lenses like my big Leica 280mm f2.8 with ease. If you are on a budget or simply don’t want a follow focus gear on your lens the whole time this seems like a good choice. Genus tell me that they will also offer a permanent fixed option in the future.
Finally the costliest, most professional and most robust option is to have custom made lens gear made for each lens. These are made either of Aluminium or Delrin and are custom fitted, usually they are not to be removed. They can be made to be reasonably close fitting to the lens barrel but are not as low profile as the Zacuto or Genus gears. Reputable manufacturers of these include Matt Duclos in the US and TLS Services in the UK. I have not had any of these made for myself yet but have seen some in action and was very impressed.
Even with a Follow focus and good gear added manual focussing with an autofocus lens can be tricky. In the next part we’ll look at how to use manual focus still lenses and make them more Cine like.