The Camera Bag: Lens/Focus Shifter Designed to Help You “Pull Focus” When Shooting Video with Your DSLR


posted Tuesday, May 22, 2012 at 6:58 PM EDT

Lens-focus-shifter-logo"High Ice" was the first of many movies I shot stills for and on my first day on the set I met Marvin Greenberg, the focus puller. Focus pullers are the unsung heroes of movie making. Their job is to sit next to the big 35mm Panavision movie camera and hold onto the lens focusing ring. Then, in a pre-rehearsed dance, they slowly shift the lens' focus as the cameraman keeps the actors in the frame following the action.

Before shooting a scene, Marvin would measure the distance between the camera and the actors and mark the lens accordingly. When the action began, his job was to "pull" the focus between the players as marked on the lens. It was a difficult job, to say the least, and he was a master at it.

Today, while it's easy to shoot videos, simple things like changing focus within a scene while recording video remains tricky. In even a simple two-shot, trying to shift focus between the speakers can be a scene jittering experience that is next to impossible to do smoothly with the narrow focusing rings on most digital SLR lenses.

A new device from Microfacturing, however, seeks to solve this problem for the would-be Wes Andersons or James Camerons of the world. The Lens/Focus Shifter is a lens gripping lever that its designers claim will give DSLR users a professional solution on an amateur budget.

As shown in the pictures included with this story, the Lens/Focus Shifter is a big lever that attaches around the lens focus by way of a toothed rubber gasket strap. By moving the lever, the leverage creates better, smoother control of focus than you can do with your fingers.

Taking a cue from movie focus pullers, the Lens/Focus Shifter comes with a marker board that mounts on the lens and can be marked with significant focus points in advance of shooting. Once the points are marked on the board, small clips can be attached to the marker board to provide physical stopping points. 

Microfacturing says the Lens/Focus Shifter would work with any DSLR lens that has a diameter (not the filter ring size) of 56mm (2.20 inches) to 98 mm (3.86 inches). They suggest the lever can be used in standard still photography too as an assist for quick focus.

While I don’t shoot that many videos, I like the idea of a focus assist lever. I remember there was something like this made long ago for film camera lenses.

My only problem with the Lens/Focus Shifter is that the thing looks a bit big and silly. After all the effort to make cameras inconspicuous, it just don’t feel right strapping a whopping big lever on my lenses. Not to mention, none of my lenses are that wide across to even let the Lens/Focus Shifter get a grip.

As seems to be the usual case, the developers of the Lens/Focus Shifter are hoping to raise funds ($19,000) for initial production costs through the Kickstarter crowd-funding site and are offering donors who pledge more than $45 a focus shifter, two focus marker boards, and a fine tip dry-erase marker, although focus point clips are evidently not included. Additionally donors will get a vote on the devices final name.

If I donated to this product and had an opportunity to suggest a name for this big lever, I would call it a "Marvin." Seems appropriate.

Check out a Kickstarter pitch video about the Lens/Focus Shifter below.