Do You Make Marks on the Lens or Follow Focus?

Do You Make Marks on the Lens or Follow Focus?

When pulling focus, clear and quick visual access to your marks is vital. If the marks are off, even by a little bit, you'll find yourself with a take full of soft footage. That's the last thing you want.

Marks are something every camera assistant talks about a lot. Marking closeups. Marking on dollys. But it’s rarely discussed where to put those marks.

Marking on the Lens

You can make marks directly on the lens itself using a grease pencil — like these Stabilo ones — or with a thin strip of tape placed around the barrel.

Either way is acceptable, but the main idea is to place your marks next to the engraved distance markings.

Let’s look at pros and cons of this method.

Pros:

  • Consistency in Marks: No matter how many times you unmount or re-mount a lens, the mark will be there. Great when you are measuring by distance and add your own intermittent markings.
  • Best Accuracy: By far the most accurate, unless the lens housing comes undone, in which case you have bigger problems to deal with. A more accurate mark makes pulling focus a much easier job to do because, when you mark on the lens at 8 ft. 5″, you know everytime you pull to that distance it will be exactly right.
  • Less Confusing on Long Focus Pulls: A long focus pull may involve one, two, possibly even three, successive rotations of the follow focus wheel causing the marks you make on it to have no context — a mark you made for 35 feet could end up as a mark for 4 feet as well. This is a non-issue when marking on the lens.

Cons:

  • Can be Hard to See: Small lenses, like Zeiss Superspeeds, have a tendency to get overwhelmed by accessories around them. The result of all this crowding in front of the camera its that it can make it hard to see the marks on the lenses themselves.
  • Precision is an Issue on Short Throw: A major gripe I’ve had with lens markings is grease pencils get dulled down and get tough to be precise with. With a focus pull where the pull itself doesn’t cover much room on the lens, two marks next to each other can look like one big mark.
  • Lack of Color Variety: Another gripe I have with grease pencils is the relative lack of color variety. With colors you can assign them to associate with certain characters, subjects, or conditions. In practice, the only colors that show up enough to be worthwhile are yellow and white. I’ve worked with red, but it is too faded in low light conditions.

Marking on the lens is great if you can see it. It is by far the most accurate way to mark and it’s a nice bonus that the marks don’t ever get misaligned.

What I don’t like about marking on the lens is it gets crowded between all of the engravings. If you’re making more than a few marks (say for a complicated dolly move) then it becomes difficult to differentiate between them all.

Marking on the Follow Focus

Around the wheel of a follow focus is a white dry-erase disc that can be written on with special pens, like the Staedtler Lumocolors I use.

This disc is removable from the follow focus, so, if desired, you could pre-mark them and swap certain ones out. I do not advise doing this — but that’s for another article in the future!

For now, let’s look at some pros and cons of placing your marks on the follow focus.

Pros:

  • Better Visibility on Marks: Because the follow focus sticks out from the camera, it is much easier to see than the lens which, like mentioned above, can become buried in accessories.
  • Ability to Use More Colors: Since the disc is white, you can use more colors than on the lens. This is great if you have three characters in a scene hitting multiple marks and you want to use one color for each.
  • Simple and Less Clutter: While some will argue having the engraved distance markings on the lens is an advantage, at times it creates clutter and distracts you from seeing your true mark. That split second distraction is enough to miss your mark completely. With a clean follow focus disc, if all you want to have is one mark, then that’s all you’ll see.

Cons:

  • Changes with Each Lens: Each time you change a lens, you will have to remark the follow focus. This gets frustrating if you are constantly swapping lenses at the last minute. It also adds a bit of time to clean the disc.
  • Increased Play and Decreased Accuracy: “Play” is when the follow focus will turn without actually moving the focus ring on the lens. It’s a factor of how the follow focus is built and how it is attached to the lens. Play diminishes accuracy as you could nail the mark on the follow focus, but not on the lens itself.
  • Delayed Reaction Times: While staring down the side of the camera, it takes an extra bit of time to glance over at the follow focus. This extra time is all it takes for the subject to move off the mark you just compensated for and, after that, you’ll constantly be playing catch up.

Situations I’ve preferred to use the follow focus to mark on have been shoots where it’s hard to see the lens from the side of the camera. Having the ability to make multiple colored marks is also important for the way I work.

If you choose to go this route, it is imperative to use a follow focus with as little play as possible. ARRI and O’Connor follow focuses are some of the best I’ve used while the cheaper options like Red Rock microFollowFocus tend to have much more play.

Which Do You Use?

There are shoots where I’ve gone the entire time marking on the lens and others where I have marked only on the follow focus. In each case, the camera setup dictated which was more practical, and though I have a preference, I’m interested in what you think.

Do you prefer the accuracy and speed of marking on the lens or the visibility and simplicity of the follow focus disc? When you grab a mark are you reaching for a grease pencil or dry-erase pen?

Camera assistants are notorious for having a “my way is the right way” attitude, so whose way is the right way? Let me know in the comments!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=7717548 Lawrence Marshall

    To mention: If the shoot for the day will be with a dynamic camera, I think you’d benefit from a follow focus + whip?  To me, racking on a dynamic camera that could have un-rehearsed tilts and pans is more difficult as your hand can get in the way, and thereby, influence the tilt or pan.  A whip solves this, but it will require a follow focus ring of some sort.  

    If the camera is on sticks, dolly, or less franticly moving, marking on the lens will be more viable to me.  Is this correct?  I’m still awaiting a real 1st AC job as I do work as a 2nd, but that seems correct.

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Hey Lawrence, I think you are confusing the difference between marking on the lens/FF and pulling off of it.

      I almost always pull off a follow focus, but may mark on either the lens or the follow focus.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=7717548 Lawrence Marshall

    Ok, So this entire article, you’re saying that you always have a follow focus ring?  I guess I work on some low budget stuff that can’t even afford that.  I’m use to seeing AC’s pull entirely off the lens.

    With regard to “play”.  If you’re pulling off a FF, won’t there be “play” whether you’re marking on the FF or the lens?  

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      No, you only will have a follow focus ring if you have a follow focus. If you don’t have a follow focus, then yes you must pull off of the lens and mark on the lens as well.

      What I am talking about is actually marking the lens — that is using a pencil or pen to make a line, or a dot — and not pulling focus.

      So, you may very well have a follow focus, but use a pencil to make a mark on the lens that informs you where the focus should be when the actor lands on their T-mark. You still use the follow focus to do the act of pulling focus, but you are using the lens to place your marks.

      Does that make sense?

      There will be always be play in a follow focus, but unless you are making your reference marks on the follow focus itself, it will not diminish accuracy.

    • DrewDutton

      I agree with LM. Furthermore, I don’t use dry erase or grease pencils, a hand full of #2′s and a pencil sharpener has worked just fine for me for a very long time. Marks are more precise, and if your follow focus has more than 1/16 of an inch of play in it, zen up and use the the “force”.

      • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

        Hey to each their own! I have a pencil sharpener for my grease pencils for times when I really need to be precise. You can get them pretty tiny.

  • http://twitter.com/joetrimmer Joe Trimmer

    I’ve always seen trouble and had trouble with the FF dry-erase discs, but maybe it’s because it’s a lower end FF and not Arri or O’connor like you mentioned. That last filmshoot I was on, I used a Bartec wireless follow-focus and it worked great. I had my own monitor w/ a Hoodman on my own c-stand!..except for the microforce cables that came with it. They kept shorting-out on me. The copper cables were touching on the inside :(

    I’ve yet to make marks on the lenses themselves. If we don’t have a wireless on our next shoot, I’ll try that out. It totally makes sense to use those marks instead of the white disc. I don’t want to be moving my head back and forth, just my eyes.

  • Steveo

    Ok, can I teach you a new trick to mark the lens ?

    chart tape. comes in white and yellow, 1/16th, 1/8″ and 1/4″ wide are the most useful. put a piece in the lens barrel, make your marks. since you strip it off after your done, you can use a new sharpie if you want. 

    its real old school, back from when I was shooting a lot of 16mm :)

    • DrewDutton

      In addition tO that, take two 4-8 inch strips of permacel and wrap them around barrel of lens to make a leash. I’ve used this method when production does not supply me with follow focus. You grab the leash to rotate the lens. It works.

  • FB

    I’ve rarely seen an assistant making marks on the lens itself, except when working without a follow focus or on “problematic” lenses, and I’ve been taught to rely on the ficus scale on the lens, maybe putting some gaffer tape arrows when needed, or make marks on the focus disc. I must say I’ve never pre-marked focus discs, in the end having 2 things telling you the same thing is quite pointless, IMHO. But, in the end, I use whatever works better for the situation at hand, with visibility of the marks being the priority.

    I too use the lumocolor pens for focus rings, the erasable ones (there’s one model that comes with a small rubber tip to erase the marks).

  • Goforjared

    I would suggest a few things here. Marking the lens via lens chart tape works well. This will also let you add marks that might not be there by the manufacture. Marking on the lens itself via a grease pen works well too. This was the gold standard in 35mm motion picture. Another suggestion would be to use small triangles of cloth tape on your follow focus disc rather than using a pen. This makes for fast changes and does not leave any marks on the disc. Best practice would be to use the force and know where you want to be on the lens without any marks at all. It’s not like the actor is actually going to hit the mark anyway.
    Thanks,
    Jared Abrams
    http://www.wideopencamera.com

    • FB

      yes, the small triangles of gaffer tape are the one I was referring to when I mentioned the “arrows” (sorry, Language Barrier here, I guess) :-)
      Today I was chatting with the DP of the gig I’m on, and he used to be a legendary camera assistant here. He said something very similar to your “use the force”. He said that if you want to be a good focus puller, your job is to learn to judge distance and then use that knowledge almost by instinct or second nature. He also dismissed assistants measuring everything and using laser rangefinders, and of course he’s totally against those who pull focus by watching a monitor, whether it’s a small one on the camera or a hd away from it. He said something like: “if you want to pull focus, your job is to learn how to judge distances and master it. Then you can be creative and you can get in the scene, and that’s the whole point. If you measure everything, you’re not a focus puller, you’re a guy who measure distances. And if you use one of those laser rangefinders all the time, it tells me only one thing about you; you’re lazy”.

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Hey Jared, Thanks for commenting. Been a fan of Wide Open Camera for awhile now, so I appreciate you stopping by and lending your voice…

      Have seen the arrows before, but never put it into practice myself. Definitely gone the grease pencil route and always enjoyed that over the chart tape on the lens — mostly used tape on the lens when I was working with ENG lenses that left out a lot of marks.

      Of course, marks should never be a substitute for knowing the distance and feeling out the scene. Using the force is option number 1. By the second or third take, you should be able to hit the mark without trying to hard to look at it.

      Am always impressed when actors hit their mark, but always assume they won’t. Keeps you on your toes!

      Thanks again, Jared.

  • Michael

    I’ve never made markings on the lens itself, but may try it esp. to avoid the successive rotations. thanks for the hint.

    During preparation I usually transfer the distances from the barrel to a follow focus disc for every single lens, and cover it up with adhesive transparent dc-fix film. Then I use the Staedtler Lumocolors for markings. After the shot is done, I can wipe it away without erasing the “original” lens index. The only thing that bothers me is a red or green thumb at the end of a day ;-)  I do the same with remote focus units and also use the arrows/triangle mothod. 

    What I don’t agree with, is that people still oppose watching a monitor. In times of 4K HD productions being able to judge focus is crucial. I’m not talking about pulling focus only by watching a monitor, that’s nearly impossible and you’ll always be “to late”. But it’s nice to have a reference and sometimes being able to readjust focus especially when you have very shallow depth of field. 

    cheers

    Michael

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  • Coast

    The profession of focus puller is certainly to learn to judge distance and use the knowledge as second nature. After all, this is how it all started – assistants didn’t have monitors or laser meters or whatever technical gadgets to somehow help them. A man had/have the power of vision and we should all train this ability to be true professionals because in end of the day we can and should only trust ourselves and not the technology. Ofcouse we should always measure what we think is true to be more accurate in the job, no question about it! I’m not an oldschool guy (I’m just a student and not even a AC) and not trying to protect their views just discussing aloudly what could be the universal truth. So we should always know the basics and trust ourselves first and simultaneously use the technology because there is great quality stuff out there to help AC in there work. So no one should oppose to watch a monitor for reference because finally all it matters is the image not the focus marks, so if you have good sharp monitor, shallow DOF and not so wide angle to work with, watching visual reference could be the best option. But from the moment you can’t distinguish an acceptable sharpness by eye from the monitor then you should work with your own judgement on distance and with numbers you have measured. It’s all about making right decision at that moment. Respect to all FP’s!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=515840252 Andrew Bradley

    I work as a 2nd AC, and I have been on some jobs where in the prep, the focus puller will pre-mark ff discs for all lenses. And use back and front for both dumb side and operators side. That would be in black permenant and then on top of that fablon.
    Then on the shoot I would hand them a lens with the corresponding ring, and if needed they would add their extra marks, and it wipes off much easier with fablon, and ofcouse leaves the underneath marks nice and clear.
    Although play is common in follow focuses, this is I have found can be corrected in the prep also at the rental house by a technician, and can also be adjusted on set, depending on the ACs experience. Really depends on the gear you get given on the job I guess, and how beat up it is. But I always in prep swap out any item with play.

    Totally agree with use of chinagraphs (steadtler only;) for total accuracy and have seen lots of 1st use them.

    Great site Evan.
    Andrew

  • http://www.diyfilmschool.net/ DIYFilmSchool.net

    I haven’t used a follow focus in any of the projects I’ve done myself, but this is insightful if and when that actually occurs and also gives yet another perspective of the job of the AC which I had overlooked. Thanks, Evan.

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  • Chris

    I’ve never been a fan of marking on FF rings simply because it only adds another thing to have to pay attention to. Personally I’ll put marks on the lens (either in grease pencil or with tape triangles) if I put any marks at all. If it’s not too difficult of a pull or there aren’t a lot of marks I’ll usually just remember them (this helps keep you more focused on the task at hand). If it’s a particularly hectic day or there are a lot of marks I’ll write the measurements on the side-flags, eyebrow, or lens barrel (if it has the real-estate to write on) then reference them right before rolling to double check my memory. Since I’ve purchased a Preston I tend to just mark up all my lenses on separate disks then place two layers of clear tape over the marks; this way the first layer protects my marks transferred from the lens in prep and I can draw additional marks on the second layer with a Staedtler and wipe it off afterwards. I use the second layer so that, in case it does need to be replaced, it won’t compromise any of my original transferred witness marks. I like this method the best because it gives me all the options in one location; I can make individual focus marks, pull off witnesses with only measurements with no pen/tape marks, or “use the force” as it’s been called here. Plus if there’s absolutely no time, you won’t get to get any marks at all and you’re far away on a very long/ very close on a macro lens you can easily go to a monitor to grab some marks by eye. Just my two cents. Great blog Evan and fantastic job on the pocket guides!