Field Notes: Pulling Focus in the Canadian Arctic

Posted on Mar 19, 2012

 Field Notes: Pulling Focus in the Canadian Arctic Pull Focus 1 photo

There’s a lot of advice out there on how to keep your camera gear working the way you want it to in sub-zero temperatures, and before I left for the Arctic in February I scoured the web  for pointers on how to do my job well in very cold weather. Even for a winter-challenged BC boy, my findings were mostly common sense: keep your batteries warm, don’t let things fog up, don’t freeze your hands to your dSLR’s cold metal. One thing lacking from my findings, however, was a method for pulling focus when shooting video in the frigid air. This is the simple, inexpensive, and highly-portable solution I now use.

DSLRs are a godsend for those needing to shoot both stills and video on assignment with limited space in both the budget and the backpack. One of the drawbacks of shooting dSLR video, however, is the lack of full-time autofocus while recording. Focus must be pulled on the lens’ focus ring, or with a single-function, fragile, and expensive follow-focus system, neither of which is an easy task with clumsy gloved hands.

The challenges of working in the north are not limited to climate: the remoteness of Arctic communities makes for expensive freight, and any spare cargo room on the already spaced-starved Hawker-Siddeley 748 is quickly taken up with commercial shipments. As a result, luggage allowances for northern milk run flights are typically half what you might expect to take with you on your Mexican vacation. My photography philosophy is similar to my camping philosophy – do as much as you can with as little gear as possible – and lately has been influenced by these luggage limitations, and a desire to not overwhelm modest off-grid households with armfuls of equipment. With these points in mind, everything in my camera bag needs to be compact, and everything must serve at least two purposes. The first purpose of this solution is obviously to aid in pulling focus on a dSLR while wearing expedition-grade mittens. The second? Opening those stubborn jars of Arctic Cloudberry jam. I use this rig on my go-to video lens, the Canon 24-105mm f4 L, when I’m filming in the cold.

To make Jon’s Jammy Follow Focus you will need:

  • 2 cinch-type Jar Openers. I got mine at a local big-box supermarket, but you can get them online here for $2.99 apiece.
  • 1 small binder clip
  • 1 or 2 lanyards, pieces of rope or string (optional)
 Field Notes: Pulling Focus in the Canadian Arctic Pull Focus 2 photo

 

To assemble your follow focus:

 

  1. Move the cinches on the jar openers all the way towards the small “eye”, opposite the big grippy loop at the business end.
  2. Slide the jar openers over your lens, placing one over the zoom ring and one over the focus ring. It may take a bit of stretching to get them over the focus ring.
  3. Position the “arm” of the zoom ring jar opener so it’s in a place that makes sense to the way you use your zoom, considering where you want the arm to stick out at both the minimum and maximum zoom. I usually shoot video using a multi-purpose monopod, held in my right hand with my left hand free to move the focus arm between 7 o’clock (at a105mm) and 11 o’clock (at 24mm). This arm position also gives me a quick reference for knowing where my focus is if I don’t have my eye glued to the LCD screen. On Canon lenses the position of the jar opener arm in relation to the focus ring isn’t so important as this ring has no rotation limit; your lens might be different.
  4. Take the wire arms off your binder clip. This might take some squeezing.
  5. Move the cinches on the jar openers all the way back towards the lens. Hold them tight against the lens and pull the “eye” end of the opener away to make them tight.
  6. Slip the “U”-shaped end of the binder clip arms through the gap created in the gripping loop between the cinch and the “eye” end of the opener. Push through until the “U” comes out the other side – the splayed arms and large “U” shape will stop it from popping out, and the spring action in the arms will keep the cinch pushed tight against the lens.
  7. Loop your lanyard(s) through the small “eye” of the focus ring arm (optional). You can put a second lanyard through the zoom ring arm as well if you want, although I find that two strings can get a bit confusing. Having a lanyard on the focus ring makes it easier to grab quickly, and also gives you a smoother “ease” into and out of different planes of focus.

That’s it. I’m sure there are a few similar solutions out there, but you’ll find this one a lot easier to transport, not to mention quick to assemble or remove in changing shooting situations. It’s also bullet-proof at -40ºC, and easy to fix should you happen to lose those little binder clip arms. Remember to put your lens hood on: it’ll keep your gloved fingertips away from your lens’ front element (my fuzzy mittens show up in the corners of many discarded images shot while working on Salt & Earth). It’ll also help keep the snow off your glass.

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