Wednesday, 22 February 2012


This is a basic overview of focus for the amateur. It is deliberately unscientific and not meant to be definitive, more of a rough guide, or a starter on the subject. I'm no expert. It's written by me, based on my own experience and things I have picked up along the way so it's going to be pretty basic, but I hope at least a little useful. This is intended for a videographer but pretty much everything here relates to photography as well, so if you like taking photos, maybe you might find something useful. Unless you're already pretty good at it.


Keeping your subject in focus can be more difficult than you expect. What looks sharp in the tiny viewfinder is often blurry once transferred to the computer. Sometimes you can't be sure if the footage is any good until you can watch it back on a big screen which is often too late.

One solution is to have some kind of monitor hooked up to the camera, either for use during taping or for playback while still on location. A decent sized modern television will often do the trick, which is great if you're filming in someone's home. But this isn't always a realistic option.

Speaking from personal experience, trying to control all the variables by yourself on a shoot can be a little overwhelming, especially when time is short. Focus is one of those little things that can be fatally (for your footage, not for you!) overlooked.


Autofocus can be a good thing if you're on the move or filming something as it happens, such as an event or documentary footage. Most modern video cameras have a pretty good and reliable autofocus which you can safely trust in most situations. However, if you want total image control  you really must use manual focus. Autofocus can change it's mind about what the key element of the scene is (usually not what you want it to be), and can struggle for focus bringing your image unexpectedly in and out of sharpness. It will also struggle in low light or on moving objects. Autofocus also means you can't fully compose your own visuals and control what you want the center of the scene to be.
Unfortunately, the small viewfinder on many cameras (such as my Canon XL1-s) means that it can be very difficult to know when your manual focus is perfectly sharp. So what can you do?

Push Autofocus

Many cameras or lenses that give you the option of manual and automatic focus also have a little button on the lens titled "PUSH AF" (see it in the image above?). While in manual focus mode, when you hold this button down the camera will enter autofocus mode until you release the button, at which point the focus will return to manual mode. This means you can point your camera at whatever you want to center your focus on, hold the PUSH AF button down and let the autofocus function perfectly bring the image into sharp focus, which is sharper than you could manually manage using only a focus wheel and the small viewfinder. When you release the button, autofocus will be switched off and the image will remain sharp. This trick works best when paired with...

Zoom in, focus, pull out

Say for example that you want to make sure that the face of your main character remains sharp while they are in a wide shot of a dense forest or a crowded street. Because it is a wide shot, the camera autofocus probably won't be sharpest where you want it to be sharpest. So in order to make sure that the focus is how you want it, you should make sure your camera is in manual focus mode, keep the camera where you will be shooting from, zoom in as far as possible until the very thing you want in sharpest focus (for example, the face) fills the viewfinder. Press the PUSH AF button for a few seconds until the face is perfectly sharp. Release the button and the lens will remain at that focus setting. You can now zoom out, all the way if needed, and the face will remain the sharpest portion of the image. Be aware that the focus will hold as you zoom out, but it will shift if you zoom in and will no longer be sharp. This is because of the way the optics move inside the lens.

Depth of field

This is one of the most important aspects of focus and image quality. The depth of field in your image is basically how much of it is in focus. It all depends on the distance from the camera. Some objects will be too close to the camera and will appear blurry, others may be too far away and will also be blurry. The area within which objects are at the right distance to appear acceptably sharp is called the depth of field. With manual control of your camera, you can alter the size of the depth of field, make it long or short. If you want everything to appear in focus in a scene, you can. If you want a dramatic, cinematic look with the subject in focus but the background out of focus, you can. Not everything can be shot to your specifications, environmental aspects can also have an effect, for example, the size of your shooting location and the lighting can play a big role.

Without going into too much detail or jibber jabber, I will explain how to play with the size of your depth of field (DOF). A deep DOF means that much of the image is sharp, both things up close and things far away. A shallow DOF means that only a certain plane is in focus, the rest is out of focus. Once you have this control over the sharpness of your image, you can compose better and more interesting shots.

DOF is controlled largely (but not solely) by focal length and f-number.

  • The focal length is the distance from the lens to the film, or in the case of digital, the lens to the sensor - this distance can change when using zoom lenses, as you zoom in, the lens moves further from the sensor. 
  • The f-number is the setting of the iris (commonly knows as the aperture) in the lens that controls how much light gets in. How far the iris closes is indicated by the f-number. A wide open iris has a very low f-number such as f/2 whereas an iris that only lets a pinhole of light has a very high f-number such as f/16. F-number are confusing and I have to stop and engage my brain before I make a decision while using them, so don't worry if they confuse you too. Just remember that f/16 stands for focal length ÷ 16. Once you understand the division element, it's easy to understand why a higher number equals less light getting in.

The focal length and the f-number control the amount and direction of the rays of the light as they come through the lens.

Here is the deal, in a nutshell. The angle of the light entering the camera is key to adjusting the depth of field. Without getting scientific....

For very deep DOF, you should have a high f-number and a short focal length. This means you should be zoomed out and have the iris closed quite tightly (but not all the way of course). For this, you will need more light as the lens will be letting a very restricted amount of light in.

For a shallow DOF, you will need a low f-number and a long focal length. This means the iris should be wide open, letting in a large amount of light, and that you should be zoomed in with your lens. 

As you can see, you might hit certain problems. You need a lot of light in the first example, and in the second, you need a lot of space to sit far away from your subject. You can play with shutter speed and also gain (beware of grainy imagery) to make up for any lack/abundance of light while keeping your f-number and focal length optimal. But sometimes you just won't be able to get the control you need.

I was filming a stage rehearsal of Sofia The Show a while ago, and I could never keep Sofia in focus as she moved across the stage. I was using autofocus, but the real problem was that I needed to be so far away to take in the whole stage, and the lighting inside the theatre was so dim, that I had accidentally created a very shallow depth of field as I had the iris all the way open and was using a long zoom. I had my shutterspeed down as low as it would go without losing quality and it was still too dark, which meant I was unable to increase the f-number so I was stuck with an extremely shallow DOF that I don't think Sofia could even fit into! I've had similar problems when filming a scene for Surviving The Toilet Circuit, where all it took was for Brian to lean forward slightly in his chair for his face to fall out of focus. Again, I wasn't trying to get a shallow DOF, I was hampered by poor lighting.

Sometimes, it can be really useful to know exactly how big the depth of field will be. Will I have metres of space where my actors can move and stay in focus? Or will it be only centimetres deep and impossible for all but the stillest actors to perform within? Here is a good online calculator you can use, they even have a smartphone app so you can download it and use it on the move. Very useful.

If like me you are using a digital video camera, you can open the drop down box on the main page and scroll to "cinematography" where you can enter the size of your sensor. A quick spec check/google search should tell you how big your camera's sensor is. As for focal length, check your lens. If it is a fixed lens the focal length will probably be in the lens name. Mine is a standard Canon zoom 18-55mm, which means at the wide angle (zoomed out) it is 18mm, at the telephoto end (zoomed all the way in) it is 55mm.

One last thing, You will notice that most cheap cameras or consumer level camcorders have a very deep DOF in order to keep as much in focus as possible and to enable infinite sharpness for landscapes and the like. However, even a consumer level camcorder can still have it's settings tweaked for interesting visuals, provided it has manual control hidden somewhere in it's menus. I have managed to do it with my trusty Panasonic GS330.

I hope this has proved at least a little useful to someone!

Thanks for reading.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Shower seals, DIY vids and an editor upgrade...?

The New Video

I took Friday off work last week to do my first piece of official comissioned filming, shooting a basic how-to video for a company that sells shower seals. We filmed two simple videos, 3-4 minutes each, detailing DIY installation of the seals. I've done videos before, but mostly music videos or ones I have made purely for myself. So this project is a real first!

Andy from Syncrovise picked me up in the morning and drove me to the plumbing showroom where we would film the video, with a quick stop-off for breakfast (thanks Andy!). The showroom itself was fairly spacious so we were able to set up my new video lights and a mic near the shower where the quick installation would take place. Despite some noise from the car workshop next door which we managed to film around (more through luck than judgement, although Andy correctly identified the lunch hour lull that would be our prime time to tape) and a few people browsing the showroom, the whole thing went off pretty much without a hitch. Our video star and the man who commissioned the vid is (also called) Andy, owner of the Plumb-Fix plumbing/heating showroom and a most agreeable star (for clarity, Andy the plumber will be Andy C and Andy from Syncrovise will just appear as Andy). Andy C worked really hard to make sure we had what we needed, saved the day by finding a replacement power lead for a battery charger at short notice and did an assured performance in front of the camera, despite being nervous. He was great.

Quick screencap of the man at work

Being an instructional video, the shoot itself was dead simple. We captured Andy from a single angle as he ran through the entire seal fitting, then we took some close up footage to capture important parts in detail. Filming in the showroom gave us the room we needed try different lighting setups and to change camera location for the closeups. Andy was also able to get a good deal of still shots on his Nikon too. We shot a second video back at Andy C's house in the much smaller location of his upstairs bathroom, detailing the installation of a different kind of shower seal. The room was small but we were able to get all the gear in there. We set the camera up on a tripod at a low angle with the legs at minimum spread so that we could get the camera as far back as possible from Andy C so we could capture everything. It meant the camera was a little precarious as the tripod had a smaller base but I was standing over it watching through the viewfinder and my entire body was primed to catch it if anything happened. Oh boy was I primed. Andy C was up against the tub fitting the shower screen seal and our other Andy was outside monitoring the audio mix on his laptop - we captured a separate audio mix using a podcasting condensor mic to give us more options during the editing stage. Plus it was nice practice capturing un-synced sound.

As before we captured a single angle and then used close ups for the detail. This shoot was far quicker than the first. We wrapped up for the day once we captured everything and we discussed plans to get back together for one more instructional taping and possibly some more work -  just a small video of his plumbing and heating showroom for Andy C's website. It was a good day, I can honestly say I was never bored or nervous and I enjoyed every minute of it.

After the shoot Andy drove me home to pick up Dee and we went back to Andy's to meet his lovely wife Ellen, their cat Otis and to enjoy a slap up meal involving lots of white wine and many fajitas tacos and nachos, as well as some impromptu bass guitar and a visit to Andy's studio, to see where the man spends his working days. Being your own boss and working from home... I know it's got it's downsides, and I know anyone that does it can give me a long list of bad things about it, but speaking to Andy, and imagining it for myself, I think this is something I could do. I really do. Maybe in a year or two I could actually begin to dream about it. Spending my days taping, drinking tea and editing footage, it feels like a dream.

Anyway, back to reality for a bit...

Over the weekend I edited the basics of the videos together and sent them to Andy to see about inserting a decent title page for the product before the video. The edit so far is pretty good, the close-up inserts work well, even when we haven't quite captured everything perfectly (my own mistakes, sometimes in the close ups I have Andy C holding things in the wrong hands) but I've been able to use what we got right and it all gels together. The videos aren't live yet, I'll put a link up here when they are, purely for the curious, or for those needing to get a seal for their shower screen door!

Final Cut Pro X

I've been using Final Cut Express for a while now. I'm comfortable with it and although I've certainly not mastered anything I can use it with relative ease and speed. I enjoy FCE. It's great! If you're not familiar with editing systems, Final Cut Express is the consumer program, Final Cut Pro is the professional program. Final Cut Pro and several add-ons are sold in one package, called Final Cut Studio. These are prohibitively expensive for someone like me. But Final Cut Express has everything I need in a video editing program and more.

But there are problems. One of the biggest bugbears I have with the program is a long-standing bug whereby it exports your video at an increased brightness because of a flaw with the way the program understands your display gamma. This has gone unfixed, by either Apple or by clever third party coders for a long time. It even gave me grief when putting together the shower seal videos, I had to finalise the video, change the gamma settings to all clips to make the whole video darker, then export it and let the gamma bug brighten everything up again. It's not an ideal way to work and it could be costing me a little video quality.

Last summer Apple released a brand new rebuilt Final Cut Pro. It's a biggie. It's not an update but a complete rebuild. In fact, they have rebuilt it in the image of iMovie, the free video editor that comes with your Mac OS. This caused big ripples and a lot of concern. The new Final Cut Pro is very swish, very functional, and possibly a bit more user friendly than previous Final Cuts. But many people had spent years with the previous incarnation of Final Cut and they feel that they are being sold out to the consumer market. But Apple are listening, at least a little, and are adding new features with each update, bringing this new Final Cut Pro more in line with what people want or need.

But why is this important? I use the (relatively) cheap Final Cut Express. Well, Apple have also retired any future editions of Final Cut Express. It's Pro, or it's back to iMovie. Or of course stick with Express but without support.

Luckily for me, this new, fancy edition of Final Cut Pro is a slice of the price of previous editions at £200. It's digital download only, you cannot buy it at a physical store. Some purists are up in arms about it, but to be honest, I've been reading up on it, and it still does everything I need, even if I just need to learn to do it in a slightly different way. Plus I'm sincerely hoping that this gamma shift problem has finally been fixed by a complete rebuild. From what I have read online, I am hopeful.

I think I might have to take the plunge. If doing some more videos with Andy for his clients leads to a little bit of money, then I can consider it an investment. Final Cut Express is going to fade into obscurity and if I can finally get a fix to this goddamned gamma shift.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Boppy the Cat Actor, The New Project and Looking Forward.

Last Friday

The day started ominously with a derailed train cancelling all trains to Watford, but one scandalously expensive cab ride later, Mark and I arrived at Frazer's with a car full of gear. After a slow start the ball was soon rolling and we managed to film half the entire film. We got pretty much everything in the bag that we planned to.

It was one of the better filming sessions I've ever had, it was relaxed, we had the house to ourselves, the street was quiet and we took our time with everything. It was a very collaborative day, with Mark Frazer and myself all pitching in ideas and coming up with new angles and ideas. Filming Frazer's cat Boppy was a lot of fun, he's a gorgeous, friendly ginger tom who enjoyed strutting his stuff around the house. It was nigh on impossible to get him to do specific things, but hey -  that's cats! We knew he wouldn't be learning any lines!

Line! Meow?

The whole shoot went smoothly but slowly, and was a very relaxed affair. We wrapped up as the evening was beginning to arrive in earnest, and arranged transport home. It wasn't until I got home that I realised we never actually stopped for food (a perfect opportunity was present when we watched back the footage but I was so focussed on the filming I wasn't thinking about stomachs) and we had subsisted the whole day on biscuits and jaffa cakes. I got home, nauseous as hell from the long car ride (which was unusual as I never get car sick) and I literally collapsed, mentally and physically exhausted. I hadn't felt the torpor hit me until I stopped moving. Dee had made a great curry which I gratefully devoured and then I went straight to bed, leaving lighting bags and suitcases where they fell (gently).

I've since got the footage on to the computer and I've started to put the pieces together. It certainly looks better than average, although of course I'm already seeing improvements I could have made on the day. This should help inform me when we shoot the second half of the short.. I've got the basic scene together from my current footage, it's quite underwhelming but I haven't really chopped away at it yet or tried to edit it into shape, so of course it will feel flabby and lacking any drive at the moment. I've got some background audio to add too, as well as some basic foley work which could be fun!


So, Friday was the big debut of my new lights and it went great. It's been a long time since I've had control of powerful lighting and we were able to use a combination of the new lamps, natural light and household lighting to bring the scenes to life. Good lighting makes a world of difference, I look forward to getting more practice. At the moment I'm still a beginner, and I've noticed that it is very easy to overpower the camera with the lighting which can lead to scenes looking like they are taking place under floodlights. You can dial it back a little in the editing stage, but you can't perform miracles. I've picked up a great book called Painting With Light, by a famous cinematographer called John Alton who worked on a number of classic noir movies and was a pioneer of cinematic lighting.

 It is written from a different era, so there is a lot of information about studio lighting of old (olde?), but it's highly informative so far, I haven't felt the need to skip anything. The link above will take you to the amazon UK page if you want a look for yourself. I'm hoping the book will teach me a thing or two and I'm already excited to apply what I will learn. While I enjoy my cycle commute (most days!) I am sad that I no longer get to read on the train to work. My books are all going unread!

This Friday

This Friday I'm going with Andy from Syncrovise to shoot a product information video, my first "offical" venture. We're going to be filming a how-to about fitting bathroom seals, a nice simple shoot that shouldn't prove too taxing (best not speak too soon) and will end with a slap-up dinner at Andy's place. Sounds like a plan!

Sell to Live

I've been selling some of my Xbox 360 games this week. I've been a gamer for years and I've owned many many games, but a few years ago I had to start cannibalising my own collection in order to afford new games, so I never have any more than a few games at any one time. Although it feels good to get rid of the clutter, I still feel a pang of sadness when I sell a game on. Especially these last few. I am genuinely sad to see them go. Sliding them into their bubble wrap envelope, having one last look at the artwork, remembering the good times. It's unpacking a new game but in reverse. They were games I had been following for months before their release, I only bought them a few months ago, had loved playing, but I need to sell them on just to stay afloat. To be honest, they are games I probably wouldn't be revisiting any time soon, I have Skyrim now and that is literally the only game a human being needs. After that I've got Arkham City, the new Batman smack'em'up. I'm set for a good long way and won't be needing to retread past conquests. Selling them on is logical, but knowing I'll never play Saints Row The Third again leaves me sad. I make no apology. I love video games. Always have.

But on to bigger brighter things. Roll on Friday, roll on the food, and roll on the weekend!

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Faster than a speeding bullet

It's all go this week. Sometimes I have trouble updating the blog because I have nothing to say, other times I just have no time to say everything.


Filming the "new project" finally on Friday. Don't know if we'll get it all done, but it would be nice to get halfway through! Heading straight out to Watford with Mark, where we'll meet Frazer and we'll get cracking with the filming. The day is falling fast upon us and I'm going over the script from lots of different angles trying to make sure I've got everything covered, that we'll have all the props, how each scene will be lit, where I will put the mic, the state of the house and the depth of beardyness we need Frazer to be rocking. I'm trying to make sure I really know it all inside out and that I can keep the whole thing feeling "together".  I'm glad we've already had the test run. We're in good stead. I've already made my inventory list for the day, so that we don't arrive at Watford only to discover we're missing our tapes or audio cables. I don't quite feel prepared, but then again, I don't think you ever feel ready. It's tough, combining the work required for these video shoots with a full time job, a long cycle commute (in the freezing fucking cold), spending quality time with Dee and the dog, not to mention a heavy compulsion to do nothing but play Skyrim and eat Shreddies for 72 hours in a row.


It's a busy weekend, filming Friday, back at work for Saturday, then finally home for some relaxation on Sunday.  Both myself and Dee have been so busy and pre-occupied lately that we have forgotten that Saturday is our 8 year anniversary! And I'll be at work! Terrible timing. I'm hoping we can out for a meal together on Sunday, we don't get to do that sort of thing enough, and times are hard financially, as I'm sure many of you reading this will attest.

Next Friday

Next Friday I'm meeting Andy from Syncrovise to shoot my first product information video. We're doing it for one of his Syncrovise clients, I imagine we should get all the taping done in 5 or 6 hours.
I've also got a paid gig coming up with Andy filming a website segment for a company that erects estate agent signs. I can't thank Andy enough for the support he's shown in getting me started up with proper work. If all goes well perhaps Syncrovise will be able to offer basic video work as part of their website creation package and Andy can keep the odd video job coming my way. I'd be happy with that! My major goal is to create a short film that I can be proud of. It's what I've wanted to do ever since I started. But if I can get paid while earning experience working with a camera in different environments and bossing people about, as well as drinking tea while editing (biscuits optional but risky for the keyboard), then HECK YES sign me up.

The Mayor is Outside (but he'll never find me)

I'm at my day job right now and as I type this Boris Johnson is just outside my building getting ready to officially cut the ribbon on Exhibition Road, which has recently been rebuilt into a shared traffic/pedestrian space, a (quite nice actually) open paved area that reaches from South Kensington station all the way up to Hyde Park. I'd go and check it out if I wasn't trying to squeeze every industrious minute out of my tea break before I go back to work. Realistically, I don't even have time to write this blog entry!

I wonder if there will be acrobats and toffee apple stands? That's what happens at these things, right? Ah well, back to the grind, and I'll have more for you soon!