Author: Justin Woo
THISLEARNING® recently went back to JCFabLab for pickup coverage to record Kris' host intros for several JCFabLab episodes, and it was a good opportunity to try out going handheld with my cine rig. We primarily used my Canon 60D with a Rokinon Cine DS 24mm T1.5 lens – the camera body + kit lens (which I promptly started ignoring as soon as I got Cine lenses) cost me $750 at auction and the 24mm Rokinon cost me $800. My lens had no autofocus and I paid out the nose for it. All focusing was done by hand. That's $1550 to make my life HARDER as a videographer. Why would I do such a thing?
Depth of Field
I have three words for you: depth of field. What is depth of field, you ask? It's the area of your image that's currently in focus. You can see depth of field at work in the video above where Kris pulls focus between myself and Bucky, in the example frames below, and in almost every single mainstream Hollywood movie. Two characters are talking, and the camera has captured them in profile. When Character A is speaking, they're in focus, and Character B is out of focus. When Character B is speaking, they're in focus. Meanwhile the background is warm and blurry looking. The filmmaker is telling you where to look by focusing the camera on the most important subject.
This adds a dimensionality to your productions that looks great, feels professional, and helps you tell your story. Most often, when a cinematographer is talking about depth of field, they're hoping for a shallow depth of field (or a shallow focus). They only want their subject in focus. Anything closer or further away than the subject will be blurry.
Conversely, a deep depth of field (or deep focus) allows both the subject and the background to be in focus. You often see this in shots that establish location. Think those super wide cityscape shots that let you know, yes, the characters are in New York right now.
Shallow depth of field is very hard to achieve on camcorders, even expensive ones. In fact, we were using my Canon 60D that day instead of Kris's very professional Canon XA10 because we wanted to see how a shallow depth of field could enhance THISLEARNING®'s episode.
So how do you get a shallow depth of field? Set your aperture wide. Wait, what's aperture? Aperture is the lens opening through which light travels. All lenses allow you to set an aperture. It's often measured in odd increments like 22, 16, 12, 5.6, 4.5, 3.5, 2.8, 2.0, and 1.5. The lower the number, the wider the aperture (I know; it's kind of confusing.). The wider your aperture, the shallower your depth of field. Remember a few paragraphs back, when I referred to this lens as a "24mm T1.5" lens? The maximum t- or f-stop is often listed next to focal length when you talk about lenses. It's often harder to achieve a shallow depth of field in cheaper lenses that only open to 3.5.
On top of the cinematic benefits, DSLRs (particularly many Canon DSLRs) force you to do almost everything yourself. Sure, you can set everything to auto, but I don't suggest it. One of the most important things you can learn as a burgeoning filmmaker is how to get the most out of your equipment. Learning how to set the ISO, shutter speed, and aperture correctly will enable you to adapt to almost any situation and get beautiful, usable footage. And DSLRs are also capable of shooting fantastic photos! Learning how to compose and shoot great photos will help you become a better cinematographer.
My Rokinon Cine DS 24mm lens is great, even though it lacks autofocus. Learning how to pull focus (which is a fancy way of saying "keeping your subject in focus") is a valuable skill that will serve you well in the film world. As a filmmaker, focus is how you tell your audience "Look here."
Shooting with manual focus also means that I get to focus as fast or as slow as my skill allows me, while an autofocusing camcorder will focus as quickly (or slowly :( ) as it can. That's not always desirable for your production.
And while this might be obvious, this lens creates AWESOME images. While $800 is a lot of money, it still looks GREAT for the price, and in fact, far better than lenses that cost quite a bit more.
But I get it: most of you don't have $800 laying around that you can just trade in for a lens, no matter how great it is. So what do you do then? Well, if you already have a DSLR body, both Nikon and Canon have snazzy 50mm lenses that open to f/1.8. That's very wide, and will give you a lovely, shallow depth of field. And those lenses only run for about $100 to $125!
So what are you waiting for, young Spielberg? Get out there and start shooting!