If shallow depth of field was the first milestone in the acceptance of DSLRs and eventually mirrorless in the realm of movie-making, racking focus must have been right behind it, vying with 24fps for runner-up. Amazing how the landscape for follow focus tools has evolved to the point of touch focus on hybrid mirrorless cameras and smartphones to full metal jacket high torque, high precision wireless follow focus controllers for geared cine lenses costing thousands. We look at very different wireless follow focus controllers from Cinegears and Aputure plus my own personal standby (the very manual but elegant Edelkrone, recently updated), all in the name of truly understanding the full context in which this kind of kit is being offered.
I understand why the best focus pullers are still people: technology simply has not yet evolved to the point that follow focus controllers can anticipate movement.
And I understand why racking focus is such a powerful tool: like depth of field and lighting, it serves to isolate what's important in the frame.
Back in January I reviewed CAME-TV's Wireless Focus Controller for planet5D. I called it "a stellar value if it gives you what you need and you're comfortable with the trade-offs." It was a limited review given my limited experience with follow focus -- attributable first to an absence of projects that required it, then fact that I really didn't have the right camera or lens to use one.
I was therefore delighted to find a package on my door one day from the good folks at Cinegears with their wireless follow focus controller in nice Pelican Style case along with their Espresso Wireless Mini Controller.
Fortunately, I happened to have a Sony FS5 on long-term loan, a perfect platform to test follow focus. While it's not an FS7, the FS5 tied its bigger brother in my 2015 Gear of the Year - and with a new-found respect for what it can do and the upcoming RAW firmware upgrade, it is my favorite dedicated video camera.
While I like the Sony 18-105mm f/4 kit lens that comes with it, this test demanded a real cine lens. A quick conversation with Ryan and Cole over at Veydra, and a couple of days later I had a lens worthy to test with the Cinegears kit -- the new Veydra 85mm T/2.2 Mini-Prime.
But then I thought to myself (in true Three Blind Men and an Elephant fashion), "if I want to understand follow focus controllers in mid-2016, don't I need to include Aputure's DEC -- or even better, their new DEC Lens Regain, a combination wireless focus and aperture controller and focal length reducer, specifically designed to take advantage of modern Canon glass on E-mount and MFT cameras?
Oh, yeah: I did.
The irrepressible Ted Sim sent one out straightaway.
But I needed an MFT camera to mount to it.
Enter the Panasonic GX8, which I only had long enough for this test. This is a really neat camera and definitely a competitor to my favorite camera these days, the Sony a6300. I need more time with one.
I had precisely one Canon lens left after my migration to Sony, the plastic fantastic Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II, but since that's kind of old (discontinued, in fact), I got my hands on the new STM version to complete the package.
I already had my edelkrone manual follow focus, but edelkrone had announced a newer version called the FocusONE for $199. It arrived a few days later, and we were all set.
I didn't have models handy (well, not living ones, anyway), but I did have 1/43 scale cars.
I'll cut straight to the punch line: there are good reasons why the Cinegears costs so much more (or conversely, that the DEC Lens Regain and Edelkrone FocusONE cost so much less), but in any case, this is now the second time in recent memory where the trade-offs across all of them make perfect sense. You really do get what you pay for.
Except for the Veydra 85mm T2.2: I think you actually get more than you pay for, especially when compared to the industry's workhorse full-frame cine primes from companies like Canon, Zeiss and Schneider.
There is no substitute for long-throw, beautifully weighted, manually focused geared cine lenses for movies. Full stop.
When you're working with them, you must have high torque, high precision motors run through a controller with large control surfaces and excellent tactile feedback.
And long-lasting batteries.
This is where the Cinegears kit shines.
The Cinegears is Zohan-level silky-smooth, beautifully weighted and precise in operation - both in terms of feel when turning the control knob and in terms of the motor actually turning the lens.
And there's no slop in the gear motor to lens gear interface, critical to repeatability.
There are three ways to use the controller for focusing:
- setting two focus points manually with adjustable hard stops on the big control wheel (these can also be used to set the lens end points);
- using a grease pencil or dry marker to note multiple focus points on the replaceable white ring around the control know; or
- setting two focus points ahead of time by assigning them to any one of the four small A-D buttons on the controller, selecting the speed, and simply pushing one button or the other to move back and forth between them.
Once I got over my reluctance to use combination button push programming (I'd still like to see something more intuitive, otherwise I fear that as infrequently as I use a follow focus I'd have to look at the instructions every time), the ability to program start and stop points was excellent. The focus pulls in both manual and programmed mode were smooth as glass and perfectly repeatable, and the unit itself is quiet.
The auto calibration to find the lens focusing end points was quick and painless (you can also set them manually, useful when working with fly-by-wire lenses and add-on gear rings -- but that opens up another can of worms, so hold that thought). The option of turning on a small light so that you can see your marks in the dark is a very nice touch.
On the other hand:
- I wish the controller synched as seamlessly as my wireless mic kits from RODE and Sony;
- as I wrote above, I'm not a fan of the combination button press approach to programming;
- I found the adjustable hard stop knobs were a bit fiddly;
- the combination receiver/motor cannot be as flexibly mounted as my old, manual Edelkrone FocusPRO, though this did not prove to be a problem with the FS5 and Veydra;
- because this combo unit is designed to draw power from a larger battery via cable to a P-Tap connection (like the Anton Bauer CINE 150), this is more suited to larger cameras rather than DSLR/mirrorless hybrids like the Sony a7x II series; and
- similarly, because it's sized and designed for commercial grade set-ups, everything needs to be commensurately robust (I learned that there is a good reason my 15mm rails were so cheap, and it shows up at the beginning and end of a focus pull - they just aren't up to snuff).
More good news, however, for those of you who work with suitably robust equipment: while the model I had was single axis only, Cinegears makes a multi-channel version of the controller so that you can run a second combo receiver/motor unit for aperture as well -- even a third if you want to use one with a zoom lens. Cinegears says they were the first ones to combine the receiver into the motor unit, and it makes a difference.
I didn't spend much time with the Espresso Mini-Controller they sent along, but it has the same beautiful damping, weight and precision of its larger controller. In fact, with the optional knob that can be attached, there's very little you give up (other than the adjustable hard stops). There is a caveat, however. If you intend to use this as a finger-tip controller with, say, a gimbal, you may find it more challenging to get pulls as smooth or precise as with the big guy: without the add-on control knob, you have a much smaller range of motion, and the smaller weighted knob conspires against easy finger-tip moves. Then again, if this is what you do for a living, I have a sneaking suspicion this won't matter that much to you and you will find it preferable to mounting the big guy on your gimbal.
Bottom line: the Cinegears wireless focus controller kit is a heavy duty, industrial grade controller that handles the business end beautifully, but it is neither inexpensive (just about $2,000 without the Espresso, which itself is another north of $1,000) nor intuitive on first blush. If you need what it can do, I don't think these two limitations will mean much to you.
Aputure DEC LensRegain
Ah! Aputure's DEC LensRegain is a stellar solution.
Think of the LensRegain as a mashup of a Metabones Speedbooster (.75x focal length reducer) and a wireless focus and aperture controller that takes advantage of the light weight motors and electronics already in the camera and lenses, and you've got it.
Except the Lens Regain is more elegantly designed than what you or I or even the Cinegears folks could imagine (the pistol grip controller is lovely and pragmatic, perfectly sized and suited as an ancillary grip on a gimbal with its built-in rosette connector).
This is what makes the LensRegain such a perfect counterpoint to the heavyweight class epitomized by the Cinegears: at $568 it's less than a third of the price because it doesn't need its own motors (and therefore only needs very small, built-in rechargeable batteries in the controller grip and adapter), and has a lightweight industrial design much more intuitive for occasional users.
Is there a downside?
Because it relies on photography autofocus lenses, even when used with the newest Canon STM lenses the DEC LensRegain is only as good as those lenses. While they can be beautifully sharp, the autofocus and the apertures move in visibly incremental steps. It's actually more noticeable when you're changing aperture than when you're changing focus, but you can see it in the focus, too.
What this also means is that -- in combination with its well-positioned but not nearly as beautifully weighted or damped rocker switch (and with a much shorter range of motion), the DEC LensRegain simply cannot exert the same smoothness, precision and languid pace as the Cinegears.
On the other hand, the setup of the DEC LensRegain is simpler and intuitive, with no need for synching - and it too sports A/B programmable set points. After some initial kerfuffle I was able to whip off multiple focus pulls with great consistency.
I just couldn't get them as smooth or languid. Yep, that's the word.
Bottom line: Aputure's DEC LensRegain borders on must-have status for Canon folks who have moved to Sony or MFT mirrorless cameras and want to preserve their investment in Canon glass. It extends the life and utility of that glass, and for not much more than a Metabones Speedbooster, you not only get more appropriate effective focal lengths and regain speed, you get added wireless functionality. Unless you have an audience of fellow pixel-peepers, they are unlikely to notice the trade-offs. Then again, you and I most likely will.
Edelkrone FocusONE PRO
What if you're a one man band and:
- you want to rack focus and you've got geared cine lenses but you don't need wireless focus pulls;
- you're using old school manual focus photography lenses but don't need wireless focus pulls;
- you aren't invested in Canon mount glass and don't need the focal reducer/adapter or wireless focus pulls; or
- you want all that but you don't have the money?
You go old school with a manual follow focus like the Edelkrone FocusONE and (if need be) add-on lens gears.
Frankly, a manual follow focus is all I need right now and all I want to spend right now. With geared lenses or manual focus lenses, your pulls can be every bit as smooth as the Cinegears. Then again, that's only true if you don't have your camera mounted on a gimbal, jib or crane!
If you've got fly-by-wire lenses, you've got a much greater challenge. Their greatest strength (fast autofocus) is their greatest weakness when trying to use them for this kind of work: when in manual mode (required for focus pulls), changes in speed at which you turn the focus ring will change the amount of focus -- you can't set hard stops or use markers and expect to have the same focus points if you change focus speed.
This is TERRIBLE.
But if you're one of the legion of folks who bought, say, a Sony a7S and has a set of old Canon, Nikon or Zeiss manual focus lenses adapted to it and are on a budget, the edelkrone is worth a close look.
- neither the original nor its successor has hard focus stops;
- the new FocusONE only has one focus marker (an improvement over the original), and lining up the disc with the reference point is tricky (you may end up moving the focus itself unless you hold it in place);
- if you're going to use a grease pencil it's going to have to be white or yellow on the black disk;
- the new FocusOne is not quite as positionable as the original Focus ONE PRO; and
- the edelkrone really seems designed for a one-man band, rather than a two-person operation.
Still, it's every bit as smooth in the original, with no slop in the gearing at all (to be fair, the original didn't have much, but it did have some).
Bottom line: the edelkrone FOCUSONE is one of the most unique, reasonably priced and beautifully smooth and weighted manual follow focuses out there, marred only by the absence of adjustable hard stops or easy marking of multiple focus points.
Of course, the market keeps throwing alternatives at us. While I didn't have time to check them out, two of the newest are DJI's own $1,999 Wireless Follow Focus System (which on first blush strikes me as a mashup of Cinegear's operational design with Aputure's industrial design aesthetic) and Redrock Micro's novel $2,199 ultraCage Scout HX, designed specifically as a combo cage, rig and motorized follow focus for small hybrid cameras.
Are they as robust as the Cinegears? I don't know - I haven't had either unit in hand. I suspect that as keenly targeted as they are, they were not designed or built to meet the day-in/day-out demands of professional focus pullers like the Cinegears has been. Hmmm...smells like another walk-off in the making.
About The Veydra
Veydra's 85mm T2.2 is the newest member of the Mini-Prime family, with all of the virtues of its siblings: beautiful bokeh; smooth, nicely weighted focus and aperture (the aperture ring is clickless and continuously variable); sharp yet cinematic optics; robust, compact and clearly marked lens body.
But in reviewing the opening scene I noticed minor but visible lateral chromatic aberration (purple fringing) as I pulled focus, visible without pixel peeping. I've seen worse with more expensive glass, and only people like you and me will notice it.
It's easier to fix this kind of thing in post when it's a photograph, more difficult to do with a clip. Magic Bullet does have a tool to correct chromatic lens aberration within FCPX (the software I use), but even then the issue was too subtle for me to correct given my modest skills.
This may be an isolated case (the Veydra team says this is the first they've heard of a problem). I'll let you know what I find out. In the meantime, I can tell you I did not see this issue with the Sony 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS.
If any of you want to chime in, please do in the comments section below!
As I wrote above, this is now the second time in recent memory where the trade-offs across all of the devices I tested make perfect sense. You really do get what you pay for, and each product is well done for its intended audience.
If you're running high-end cameras with external batteries and geared cine lenses looking for wireless control, the Cinegears does the business. Among these three, it is the right choice, full-stop, part of a larger product line dedicated to pros. Based on my time with it, I'd say it is a functional match to the best cameras and lenses out there, priced accordingly. Longevity and reliability? Immunity from interference? I couldn't say, but based on how sturdy and smooth it is in hand and my limited testing with it, I'd guess it would go the distance. It certainly feels that way.
Then again, if you have geared lenses but want a simple manual follow focus, the edelkrone does the business. Its industrial design borders on art, and it is both beautifully weighted and inexpensive. You can also use it with photography lenses and add-on gear rings, but then you are limited to what the lenses can do - I'd stay away from fly-by-wire lenses if you haven't already invested in them, and take a long hard look at the Veydras.
Aputure's DEC LensRegain is an absolutely lovely piece of kit, keenly priced, that creates the opportunity for mirrorless filmmakers with Canon glass to up their production values within the limits of the lenses themselves. It doesn't just give you wireless follow focus and aperture control. By being a focal length reducer as well, it takes your legacy glass and makes them faster and gives them something closer to their original field of view. Remember, though: "something" is relative, turning that 50mm f/1.8 into a 35mm f/1.35 full frame equivalent before the camera's crop factor -- as much as 2.4x on the GX8 in 4K -- for a full frame equivalent 84mm f/3.24).
Finally, like every other Veydra I've played with, I love the 85 with the one caveat about LCA. That's saying something, given that I've recently gone hands on with the Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8; Sony's 85mm f/1.4 G-Master; Sony's 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS (I actually bought one); and Zeiss' Milvus 100mm f/2 in E-mount (it suffered from LCA too -- worse, in fact). I'm not going to tell you that the Veydra out-resolves or outbokehs these incredible lenses - it doesn't. But if I were shooting a film requiring exquisite focus racking, I wouldn't hesitate for a second to mount the Veydra first. The other lenses can't touch it with the exception of the Milvus (a manual focus-only lens), but as the lens barrel moves forward and backward as it's being focused, it's not really suitable for this purpose.
Shout-out to Cinegears, Aputure, Sony, Veydra, and Anton-Bauer for supplying equipment for this comparo. As always, it was an eye-opening experience for me, and I hope valuable for you.
Stay tuned: if you like this gear, exciting news coming!