The current almost beaten to death fad in cameras these days is trying to get a shallow depth of field, i.e. shallow focus look. Of course people are crazy about it because it looks great for portrait stuff or when run by a professional crew that can maintain the critical focus throughout the shot. But when budgets get tight, and someone whips out a Canon 5D instead of a true video or film camera, and isn’t properly staffed, you end up with constant hunting for focus and lots of blurry shots and lots of justification that “it’s a look.”
In controlled environments it is much less of an issue, or so I thought. I recently shot some last minute promos for PBS News hour. They were to be the various correspondents against black limbo delivering one line while standing. Budget was of course tight, but these were really just head shots, nothing too complicated. The director was interested in using primes, as they tend to be sharper and tend to be able to give you shallower depth of field due to faster f stops. Fine by me. Of course, since it is black limbo, any shallow depth of field look you are after will have to play out exclusively on their face as there is literally nothing else to see in the frame. Mainly I was interested in the sharpness that primes could provide. They were interested in both 4K acquisition, so we shot on my RED Epic camera using two RED Pro Primes, a 50mm and a 100mm. Again, nothing too complicated. We set up the lighting, and had the talent come in and do their bit to camera.
At 100mm at just under f2.8 focus was razor-thin. Even with the talent standing still, keeping it in focus was very hard. I did not have a First Assistant, partially because of budget and because I had not pushed for one, as everything was static, and I had not seen a need for one. I did have someone to deal with the data downloading, but no one skilled in pulling focus except me. I ended up staring at a 17″ monitor from as close as I could get, with my visual world shrinking down to the key side eyeball and trying to keep it sharp. One consistent thing I noticed is that even standing still people will lean forward ever so slightly upon delivering a line, as a sort of body language emphasis. It is something you don’t normally notice, unless you have less than a 1/4 inch of useable focus. About three people in we had Jeffrey Brown as talent.
In addition to being a good journalist he has very distinctively slate blue eyes. Everyone always looks to the eyes for focus, but with his eyes it seemed especially critical as they really “snapped” when in focus, which of course meant that they went soft, even for a moment everybody would notice. And he was a “rocker,” leaning just a bit more than some of the other talent, making focus an all-consuming job. At one point the director had to point out that the framing of the shot was going to hell, as I had ceased to be monitoring it, devoting all my time to keeping that damned eyeball in focus. I apologized for the poor framing saying, “I was distracted by the eyeball” which got a few laughs, especially since Jeffrey Brown thought it was because it was because of his blue eyes, which he is somewhat sensitive to as he (rightly so) considers himself a journalist not a “pretty face” for TV. We had to explain that it was mainly about keeping those eyes in focus on his slightly moving head that was the distraction. The still below is a crop from the 4K image.
Just look and you can see the focus fall off from the bridge of the nose to his sideburns. In fact it appears that I have the front of his eyeball in focus but the edge, being a sphere, was just that much further away that it was not in focus. and as I was shooting 4K or 4 times the resolution of HD there was nowhere to hide. you had it or you didn’t.
We got through the day, but boy, it was a wake-up call for how hard even the simplest job can bring unexpected challenges. No dolly shot no intentional talent movement, yet focus was the biggest challenge of the day. We weren’t even shooting wide open.
Moral to the story: be careful what you ask for. There can be a thing as too shallow a depth of field. Always ask for an assistant. And 4K, and beyond can be very, very unforgiving if you get it wrong. And maybe Victorian head clamps may come back in to style.