I am trying to work out what additional camera related gear I might want to get. I currently use a reasonably basic setup, which I have uploaded a photo of below. I am quite happy with my current setup, but I would also like to be able to try out some more adventurous shots. I am part way though a long project, so will probably avoid changing the camera or lens for now. I am purely a hobbyist animatior filming in my flat, so space is always an issue.

I have an idea for an upcoming scene that could work really well with a rack focus shot. However, everything I have looked at so far to help me do focus control seems to be quite complex and/or expensive. Are there any good options for cheap manual focus control that isn't just moving the lens blind? In general, what gear do you use regually or really value in addition to the basic tripod, head and camera setup?

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The easiest way, and quite accurate really, is to wrap a bit of armature wire around the focus ring on the lens and tape it in place, then bend the end of it out like a pointer. You can see this even when you're behind the camera, and you can visualize a clock face, then just turn it '5 minutes' or '10 minutes' each turn (being sure to ramp up and down, starting and ending with 1 minute or so). I've seen people get even more involved with it and actually make a cardboard disc to put behind the pointer with marks and numbers on it for more precision, but I find I get a lot of accuracy with just the pointer. 

In fact, sometimes I don't even look at it - after doing it for a while you get a feel for it and you can feel how far you're turning the ring. It helps if you always place your finger and thumb at the same points and pay attention to where they are. It would depend on where you're able to grab the focus ring - you might find your natural finger/thumb positions are 10 and 2 o'clock (like on a steering wheel) or maybe it's 11 and 1 or something. But get used to where it is and be sure to visualize the clock face. Muscle memory works to help you remember exactly where you grabbed the ring last time and how far you turned it, as long as you're not doing really involved animation that takes a few minutes per frame. I'll also draw up a quick exposure sheet just for the focus pull  or camera move (see next paragraph) and tape it up where I can see it.

You can do the same with the knobs on the Manfrotto geared head, though for that I find with my poor memory I needed to draw up a chart showing me exactly which way to turn each knob for the shot, otherwise sometimes I'd turn one the wrong way at first and then lose all accuracy. I'd draw the chart from my viewing position and tape it on or near the camera. 

Do you understand how depth of field works? That would be a great place to start. Once you've got a feel for focal depth you'll start getting a nice look to your shots. I would advise getting some software like dragonframe which is about 200 quid. It has a camera focusing screen so one can maintain a focal point or shift it accurately, for example if you've a character walking towards the camera you could perhaps keep the eyes as the focal point and pull the focus through the shot.

One of the wonderful things about animating is it goes so slowly, you have a much larger control on the image than if it were live action. 

Don't get too caught up in what the lens is doing, just read up a bit on depth of field, and experiment with some stills and then apply that knowledge to animation. 

Strider, thank you for the suggestion about armature wire as a dial. I had read something before about glueing a stick to the lens as a dial, but I was worried about possible damage. Wire sounds like a safer and easier option.

Anthony, thanks for the info about dragonframe. I didn't know it had a feature like that, I will look into it. I am reasonably happy working with DoF and the concepts behind it, but I have only really been setting up static camera shots up to this point. I guess I just need to get my confidence up and try some things, it all gets a bit harder when the camera start moving!

I don't pull focus during a shot very often, I prefer to stop down (f-11, f-16 usually) and have a greater depth of field (which could be more accurately called depth of focus) so I don't need to re-focus.  But occasionally you really do want to change the focus to shift the viewer's attention from the background to the foreground, or to follow a puppet walking towards or away from the camera.  But as I said, I don't do it often, and don't have one to show at the moment.

I make a half or 3/4 circle from foamcore, as big as possible, like 300mm (1 ft) diameter, so I can put many small (1mm) marks along the outside edge.  In the centre it is cut out in a U shape so it will slide snugly onto the focussing ring of the lens. Usually it stays put, but a little gaffer tape can make sure.  A piece of wire attached to the tripod head somewhere acts as a pointer.  When I change focus the half-circle rotates, but the wire stays fixed in one place, the opposite way round to how Strider does it, but serves the same purpose.

With that 410 geared head, you can also do a kind of combined pan and tracking motion by offsetting the camera.  I have a length of timber with some 6mm thick aluminium plate on one end, with a thread tapped into it to take the mounting screw on the  head.  On the other end, a long screw goes through a hole in the wood and fits into the mounting hole on the bottom of the camera.   Often I set it so that when you pan the head, the camera pulls back as it pans slightly to one side, revealing more of the situation the puppet is in.  Because it is a real move, you get a perspective shift and a sense of depth.  You could just do a zoom out and pan to one side in post production, since your DSLR images are bigger than you need, but that looks flatter.

I also put discs on my 410 head so I can measure the pan more accurately, but much smaller the one I make for focus or zoom on the lens.  The knob is already geared down so the moves don't have to be broken down so fine.  (This was a Nikon D70 from before they put live view into DSLRs, that's why the video camera perched behind the viewfinder.)

I think I will give the foam shape and wire idea a go. The lens I have is quite short so there isn't much room to work with before I would end up hitting the overhanging plastic bit for the flash. However, I think a moving circle and fixed dial might work better with the space that I have.

I can't quite picture the contraption you are describing Nick, it sounds nice and simple though. Over Christmas with some help I attempted to make an attachement for geared linear movement. Hoping to be able to use it for the sort of thing you were describing. It is essentailly an old PCB vice with two hand made aluminium attachements to on the top and bottom to make it attachable to my tripod head and body. Unfortunatly I haven't had great results with it yet, I think the main threaded bolt might be slightly bent and probably needs to be supported from underneath as my test video had a bit of a wobble to it. It probably just needs a bit of tweaking.


Attachments:

The idea with my foam shape is, it can push onto the camera lens from the side.  So the hole in the middle is not completely surrounded, it is a U shape, a round hole but cut through to the outside on one side.  That means the disk is not a full circle, it is a letter C rather than an O.  But it doesn't need to be, you aren't turning the focus ring anywhere near a full turn.

The vice looks like a good linear mover!  Nice work on the aluminium fittings.

I realise this is an old thread now, but I thought I would follow up with some results in case anyone else is looking up this topic... This is the focus dial I eventually made: I have just finished filming with it, and it worked really well. It didn't take very long to make and did exactly what I needed it to do. I probably should have used slightly thicker card to make it a bit more durable as I will probably end up re-using it.

Nice!! I think I'd have the wire a little longer and have marks on the back of the cardboard too, so you can work it from behind the camera. I usually can't see the front of mine. 

That looks effective!  Thanks for following this up, it's good to see how things turn out.  

In one respect it's the opposite of what I make - my disc sits on the focus ring and turns with it, and the wire is attached to the tripod head and stays fixed. I think your wire is the part that moves?  But that doesn't matter at all.  

The only thing I would change here is to put the marks right on the outer edge of the cardboard disc, to get the maximum scale possible with a given size of disc.  But if it works, that's all that matters.

Love this.

I'm going to use this idea myself for a very very minor focus pull I need to do in a dolly shot. The more scale I get the better.

Unfortunately I'm a bit stuck using a Nikon 28-105mm lens, which is a lovely lens, but the image tends to jump around a little if I so much as look at the focus ring ; ) I think it's an issue with zoom lenses. I'm getting a couple of Nikon primes to combat this issue but I'll be using this cardboard/wire system either way.

Thanks guys!!

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