Optional Audio Introduction


Updated: 02/06/2017

Module 12







F-Stops and Creative

Focus Techniques


Cats and owls can see in dim light better than we can, in part, because the lenses of their eyes allow in more light. We could say the "speed" of the lenses in their eyes is greater or better than ours.

We define lens speed as the maximum amount of light that can pass through the lens to end up on the target.

However, it's generally not desirable to always transmit the maximum amount of light through the lens (things can get technically overloaded), so we need a way of governing the amount.

Like the pupil of an eye automatically adjusting to varying light levels, the iris of the camera lens controls the amount of light passing through the lens.

Under very low light conditions the pupils of our eyes open up almost completely to allow in maximum light. Conversely, in bright sunlight the pupil contracts in an effort to avoid overloading the light-sensitive rods and cones in the back of the eye.

In the same way, the amount of light falling on the light-sensitive target of a TV camera must be controlled with the aid of an iris in the middle of the lens (shown above on the left).

Too much light will overexpose and wash out the picture; too little will cause the loss of detail in the darker areas.

Fortunately, with camera lenses we can smoothly adjust an iris from a very small to a large opening.   

F-Stops and T-Stops

We refer to the specific numerical points throughout this range as f-stops. The f-stop designation is often replaced by T-stops for transmission stops, especially in professional circles. (Because they stand for different things, the "f" in f-stops is in lower case, the "T" in T-stops is not.)

T-stops are technically more accurate because they are based on the actual light that ends up going through the lens and not on a predictive formula.

The difference is normally not significant. For these modules we'll continue with the more traditional f-stop designation.

The "f" stands for factor. An f-stop is the ratio between the lens opening and the lens focal length.

More specifically, the f-stop equals the focal length divided by the size of the lens opening.

Unlike T-stops, f-stops do not take into consideration the light absorption properties of different lenses. As we've noted, the f-stop, T-stop difference is generally not significant. 

f-stop = focal length / lens opening

This math explains the strange set of numbers used for f-stop designations, as well as the fact that the smaller the f-stop number the more light the lens transmits.

That's worth repeating: the smaller the f-stop number the more light the lens transmits.

>> Thus:

 1.4,  2.0,  2.8,  4.0,  5.6,  8,  11,  16,  22

 <== more light      less light ==>

Occasionally, we see other f-stops, such as f/1.2, f/3.5, and f/4.5. These are mid-point settings between whole f-stops, and on some lenses they represent the maximum aperture (speed) of the lens.

The figure at the right compares f-stop sizes.

We've noted that the speed of a lens is equal to its maximum (wide-open) f-stop. Here, f/l.4 is the speed of the lens.

Opening the iris one f-stop (from f/22 to f/16, for example) represents a 100 percent increase in the light passing through the lens.

Conversely, "stopping down" the lens one stop (from f/16 to f/22, for example) cuts the light by 50 percent.

Put another way, when you open up one stop, you double the light going through the lens; when you stop down one stop, you cut the amount of light going through the lens in half.

>>So how will you use this knowledge?

" Once you understand this f-stop range, you'll know which way to adjust a lens iris to compensate for a picture that is either too light or too dark -- a major issue in video quality."

Cameras with automatic exposure controls use a small electric motor to automatically open or close the iris in response to varying light conditions.

Makers of professional cameras print f-stop settings on the lens barrels and sometimes in viewfinder displays. (Note the f-stop settings in this photo.) It's important for professionals to understand and be able to work with the f-stop concept.

>>Not wanting to trouble unsophisticated consumers with such things as f-stops, manufacturers of consumer cameras don't show the numbers, and exposure adjustments are automatic.

However, depending on circumstances, the camera's automatic exposure adjustment may not set the iris at the best setting.

In this photo, automatic exposure adjustment has obviously not provided the best video.

In a scene that contains areas brighter than the main subject matter -- in this case, the window -- automatic circuitry will generally result in dark (underexposed) video and muted colors.

As we will see, savvy videographers who are stuck with this automatic feature on a camera need to know how to override the automatic exposure.

Not only can that result in better image exposure, but it can also provide control over such things as depth of field (discussed below).

This problem repeatedly shows up in amateur videos and the work of beginning videography students. In future modules we'll cover different approaches to solving this problem.

Depth of Field

We define depth of field as the range of distance in front of and behind the point of focus that's clearly defined, or sharp.

Theoretically, if we focus a camera at a specific distance, only objects at that exact distance will be what we might consider completely sharp, and objects in front of and behind that point will be, to varying degrees, blurry.

In actuality, areas in front of and behind the point of focus may be acceptably sharp. But acceptably sharp is subjective.

A picture doesn't abruptly become unacceptably blurry at a certain point. The transition from sharp to out of focus is gradual.

For practical purposes, we've reached the limits of sharpness when details become objectionably indistinct. This will vary with the medium.

The range of what is acceptably sharp in standard NTSC television (SDTV) is greater than that of HDTV. In the latter case, the superior clarity of the medium more readily reveals issues with sharpness.


Depth of Field and F-stops  

The larger the f-stop number (that is, the smaller the iris opening and the less light let in), the greater the depth of field.

Therefore, the depth of field of a lens we set at f/11 will be illustration ofgreater than the same lens set at f/5.6, and depth of field at f/5.6 will be greater than at f/2.8.

Except for extreme close-ups, depth of field extends about one-third of the way in front of the point of focus and two-thirds behind it. The drawing above illustrates this range.    

Depth of Field

and Focal Length

Although it's commonly stated that depth of field depends on lens focal length, this is not true.

The reason was most recently explained in a January, 2009 article in Videography. As we've noted, you can find more information in  Focal Length and F-Stop Myths.

>>Although depth of field appears to be related to lens focal length, it's only an apparent relationship.

As long as the same image size is maintained on the target, all lenses of similar design set at a specific f-stop will have the same depth of field, regardless of focal length.

A wide-angle lens appears to have a greater depth of field than a telephoto lens because sharpness problems in the image created by the wide-angle lens are compressed and therefore not as apparent.

If you enlarge a section of image area from the wide-angle shot -- a section exactly equal to the image area created by the telephoto lens -- you'll find that the depth of field is the same.

" ...all things being equal, focal length does NOT affect depth of field. (emphasis in original). "

-Jay Holben, Videography, January 2009.

Earlier, a Popular Photography magazine test had concluded the same thing: "If the same subject size on the film is maintained, depth of field is relatively unchanged no matter what the [lens] focal length."

Wide-angle lenses (or zoom lenses used at wide-angle positions) are good at hiding a lack of sharpness, so they're a good choice when accurate focus is an issue.

>>Of course, when you use a wide-angle lens setting, you may need to move much closer to the subject to keep the same size image. But by moving in, you've lost the sharpness advantage you seemingly gained by using the wide-angle lens in the first place.

With a telephoto lens (or zoom lens used at a telephoto setting), focus must be much more precise.

In fact, when zoomed in fully at maximum focal length, the area of acceptable sharpness may be less than a few inches (20mm or so), especially with a wide aperture (low f-stop number).

This can represent either a major problem or a creative tool. long

In the latter case, it can force the viewer to concentrate on a specific object or area of a scene. (Our eyes tend to avoid unclear areas of a picture, and they're drawn to sharply focused areas.)

In the case of the picture above the photographer backed up and used a telephoto lens setting so that the foreground and background areas were thrown out of focus.

This is also called selective focus.  We'll talk more about this creative tool later.

Focusing a Lens

The following discussion assumes you are using a camera with a manual focus control, or, in the case of a camera with automatic focus, that you can turn off this feature.

It might seem that focusing a lens is a simple process of just "getting things clear." True, but a few things complicate the issue.

It's probably obvious at this point that you should focus the zoom lens after first zooming into a close shot (using maximum focal length).

Since focusing errors will be the most obvious at this point, focusing will be easier and more accurate. Once focused, you can zoom back to whatever focal length you need.

If the scene includes a person, you'll want to focus on the catch light or gleam in one eye for two reasons: a person's eyes are normally the first place we look, and this small, bright spot is easy to focus on.

Note the extreme close-up of the woman's eye in the camera viewfinder shown in upper left of the photo above.

If you don't first zoom in to focus, but try to focus while holding a wide shot, you'll inevitably find when you later zoom in the picture will seemingly go out of focus. (This will suddenly greatly magnify the focus error was wasn't noticeable before.)

Focusing HDTV Cameras

Complicating the focus issue is the fact that HDTV (hi-def) cameras will readily reveal focus errors. But the level of focal accuracy needed for high-resolution video isn't easy to evaluate in most camera viewfinders -- especially camcorders with small viewfinders.

One solution to this is to loop the video output of the HDTV camera through a high-resolution TV monitor and use this image to focus. 

Another is to use some type of electro-mechanical focus assist. We'll discuss this when we talk about auto-focus lenses.    

Selective Focus or Bokeh

One of the important creative tools available to a videographer or cinematographer is a technique we touched on earlier: selective focus -- making certain some things are in focus in a shot and others aren't. This technique is also referred to as bokeh. 

This is a Japanese term, pronounced bow, as in bow and arrow, followed by keh the initial sound in kettle.

Selective focus or bokeh is commonly used today in TV drama. It directs attention toward things that are important -- generally the intended center of interest -- and away from things that can be distracting and that should be de-emphasized, downplayed, or even hidden.

sel_foc.jpg Consider the scene on the left. By throwing the building and the newspaper out of focus, the woman stands out in the photo and is not lost in a confusion of distracting elements.

If the scene is brightly lit, as this one is, you may have to use a high shutter speed or even a light-reducing neutral density filter -- both of which will enable you to open the iris without overexposing the video.  (More about these techniques later.)

Plus, as we mentioned earlier, backing up and using a telephoto lens or zoom lens setting can add to the selective focus effect.


Follow Focus

In video production, a moving subject may move outside the limits of depth of field unless the videographer can smoothly refocus the lens.

Professionals know which way to turn the focus control to keep a moving subject in sharp focus. Nonprofessionals often throw a slightly blurry image totally out of focus for a few seconds by first turning the focus adjustment the wrong way.

The technique of follow focus is used to refocus the camera to accommodate subject movement. Don't confuse this with --

Rack Focus

Rack focus is similar to selective focus, except the camera operator changes focus during the scene to shift viewer attention from one part to another.

bed1.jpg bed2.jpg

In the photo on the left above, the woman (in focus) is sleeping. When the phone rings, the focus shifts to the phone (on the right).bed3.jpg

As she picks up the phone and starts to talk, the focus shifts (racks) back again to bring her into focus.

To use this technique you need to rehearse your focus shifts so that you can manually rotate the lens focus control from one predetermined point to another.

Some videographers temporarily mark the points on the lens barrel with a grease pencil. After locking down the camera on a tripod, they can then then shift from one predetermined point to another as needed.

Auto-focus Lenses

With most camcorders, you can turn auto-focus on and off.

Auto-focus can help in following moving subjects. However, you will encounter problems unless you fully understand how it works.

Most auto-focus devices assume that the area you want in sharp focus is in the center of the picture. bed4.jpgThe auto-focus area (the area the camera will automatically focus on) is in the green rectangle in this photo.

Remember the rack focus sequence discussed above? Since the area you want to focus on does not remain in the center of the frame, auto-focus would not be useful.

Note in the photo below that the center area is correctly focused (thanks to auto-focus), but the main subject is blurry. Of course, the goal was the opposite.

To center focusmake this scene work with auto-focus, you could pan or tilt the camera to bring the main subject into the auto-focus area, but this would change the composition in a way that you may not want.

Some camcorders allow you to center the subject matter in the auto-focus zone and then lock the auto-focus on that area. Once that's done you can reframe the scene for the best composition.

One camcorder attempts to track the photographer's eye movement in the viewfinder and shift focus accordingly. When you (as the  photographer) look at the woman in this case, the camera would focus on her -- but then as soon as you looked at the building in the background, the camera would shift focus to that point.

Auto-Focus Problems

Auto-focus systems have other weaknesses.

Reflections and flat areas with no detail can fool most of them. Most also have trouble determining accurate focus when you're shooting through glass or wire fences.

Finally, auto-focus devices -- especially under low light -- can keep readjusting or searching for focus as you shoot, which can be distracting.

For all these reasons, professional videographers typically turn off auto-focus and rely on their own focusing ability. The only exception may be a chaotic situation in which there is no time to keep moving the subject matter into focus manually.

HDTV Focus-Assist Schemes  

As we've noted, focus errors not discernible in SDTV can be obvious in images from high-resolution digital (HDTV) cameras. As we've also noted, small HDTV camcorder viewfinders make critical focusing difficult.

Some lens manufacturers are experimenting with electronic "focus-assist approaches" for HDTV lenses. There are various approaches, and at this point it's too early to tell how practical they might be in day-to-day production.

The Macro Lens Setting

Most zoom lenses have a macro setting that enables the lens to attain sharp focus on an object only a few inches, or even a few millimeters from the front of the lens.

Although lenses differ, to reach the macro position on many zoom lenses, the photographer pushes a button or lever on the barrel of the lens to allow the zoom adjustment to travel beyond its normal stopping point.


>>Many newer lenses are continuous focus lenses. You can smoothly and continuously adjust these internal focus lenses from infinity to a few inches without manually shifting the lens into a macro mode.

Videographers often forget about the macro capability but it offers many dramatic possibilities. For example, a flower, stamp, or portion of a drawing or snapshot can fill the TV screen.

A tripod or camera mount is a must in using the macro setting. Not only is depth normally limited to just a few millimeters, but unintentional camera movement is greatly exaggerated.

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