Today I am starting a feature on this blog called The Frugal DP, in which I will be doing gear reviews specifically aimed at the filmmaker who is trying to obtain great production value on a shoestring budget. I won't necessarily be looking for the best gear available, but the gear that provides the most bang for the buck.
An affordable follow focus has been a dream of mine for a long time. At one point I thought of trying to build one myself for my old Krasnogorsk K-3 windup Russian 16mm camera, but I never had access to the right tools or the mechanical engineering know-how to do it. Frankly, it would have been wasted on that camera anyway, but it would have looked cool. Now that there are finally some affordable follow focus-worthy cameras out there, equipment manufacturers have responded to the demand for them, and there are lots of follow focus options on the market. Most of them, however, remain extremely expensive (maybe not relative to traditional film equipment prices, but at least relative to a camera like the Canon 7D). Zacuto's follow focus units start at $1300. To me it doesn't make any sense to spend almost as much or more on an accessory like a follow focus than on your camera itself.
Some people agree with me apparently, and one of those people, David Aldrich, decided to do something about it and designed the DFocus. Its website bills the DFocus as "the world’s first truly affordable follow focus system" and I would have to agree. At $134.99, the DFocus is far and away the most affordable follow focus I have come across, so when I first heard about it, I was extremely excited that a follow focus that appealed to my frugal sensibilities was finally within my reach. But would such an affordable piece of gear also satisfy my demanding needs as a DP?
Unfortunately, it took a long time for that question to be answered. The DFocus units are built one at a time, and there is a constant backlog of orders, which means it takes about 4-5 weeks from the time you order the unit until it gets shipped.
They say that good things come to those that wait, and the DFocus is no exception. I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I ordered it, but for a tenth the price of other follow focuses on the market, I figured it was easily worth the risk. When it finally arrived, I was very pleasantly surprised that the design and build quality easily exceeded my expectations.
Before I bought the DFocus, I read all the opinions of it I could find online, and there weren't that many, but the reviews I did find implied that it was very good "for the price" or that it was a great as a kind of "introductory" follow focus. I would go further than that and say that it is a good follow focus, period.
The DFocus does have more of a homemade look to it than most follow focuses, due to the exposed hardware and gears, but while some people may see this as a disadvantage, I actually see it as an advantage. I have worked with many professional follow focus units from manufacturers such as Arri, Chrosziel, and Panavision, both as a DP and as an AC (focus puller). They always have some amount of play (or backlash) somewhere between the knob you turn and the barrel of the lens. This can be a problem for focus pulling accuracy, especially if you are relying on marks on the marking disc as your guides (not usually the best idea, but sometimes a necessity). I have seen units where the focus knob turned a quarter of an inch or more before the lens barrel actually started to turn. Often, despite tightening up every user-accessible screw and connection, it is impossible to get rid of, or even lessen the amount of play. Granted, sometimes these units are years or even decades old and have been subjected to all kinds of harsh working conditions, but that doesn't make it any less annoying. As soon as I took it out of the box, I was impressed that the DFocus exhibited virtually no backlash. (I was present when a friend of mine received his Red Rock Micro follow focus for his Red camera, and that unit had a considerable amount of play in it, even brand new.) How well the DFocus will hold up over years of use remains to be seen, but the simple mechanics of it, as well as the fact that pretty much all its parts are readily accessible, gives me hope that if it does start to develop significant backlash, it will be easy to find which parts are causing the problem, and either tighten or replace them as needed.
The fact that many of the parts are plastic did worry me somewhat before I got it, but upon close inspection, the plastic parts seem quite solid. The plastic gears are held in place on the shafts with small metal set screws, and it does seem that the potential is there to possibly over-tighten the set screws and strip the threads in the plastic. I don't expect this to be a problem under normal usage however, and if the threads ever do get stripped, I imagine those gears would be very cheap and easy to replace. The build quality might not be quite up to rental house standards, where items are abused day in and day out by people whose knowledge and experience levels are all over the map, but given that this piece of gear is for my own camera package and I don't anticipate it seeing much use without me present, I would have no hesitation in using the DFocus at any inhospitable location, or under whatever harsh shooting conditions are required.
There is a little more friction in the DFocus than I'd like. On many follow focus units, if you disengage them from the lens and spin the knob, it will spin freely for a second or two before coming to a stop. Not so with the DFocus (at least the one that I have). It takes a little bit of force to turn the knob, even when it is not attached to a lens. However, it is still a very smooth motion, and given a choice between a little extra friction and a little bit of backlash, I would choose the extra friction without hesitation.
The unit is very easy to take apart and reconfigure to suit your specific needs, and two different sized Allen keys are provided to aid you in doing so. The main block with the gear system can be taken off its support and flipped upside down, and the bevel gear on the lens gear shaft can be switched to the other side of the shaft. Doing these things in various combinations allows you to move the lens gear to the camera body side or the matte box side of the unit (could be necessary depending on what type of rod support setup you are using and how close your lens's gear is to the camera body), flip the marking disc reference pin to the front or rear of the unit, and reverse the direction of the lens gear (useful if you have certain brands of lenses whose focus barrels turn the opposite way from standard "cinema style" lenses). These configuration options should allow you to use the follow focus on the opposite side ("dumb side") of the camera as well, although depending on your setup, it may or may not be as quick as simply flipping the unit around. You can make any one of these changes without the others, depending on the combination of ways you change the configuration. I personally changed the configuration several times before realizing that the way it was originally configured was actually best for me after all. I did notice in putting it back together that the bevel gears didn't mesh as well together as they had originally, and when I turned the knob, it didn't turn as smoothly in a 360 degree circle, but that there were parts of the rotation that had more friction than others. It took a few tries of taking the lens gear shaft off, rotating one of the bevel gears in relation to the other, and putting the shaft back on before I got them to mesh smoothly all the way around again.
The DFocus comes with a 15mm rail mount to mount the follow focus onto standard 15mm rods. It is made of plastic, and it does an acceptable job of holding the unit securely when it is well tightened. (An optional alternative is the $49.99 DSLR Mount V2, which allows you to mount the DFocus without a rod support system, but I haven't tried it.) A finger-tightening knob is used to tighten the mount to the rods. It works, but the knurled knob is not as easy to get a good grip on as I'd like, particularly if the rail mount is flush up against something like the baseplate that holds your rods into place. The same knob loosens both the connection of the mount to the rods, and the connection of the gear to the lens. This is convenient because not all lenses have their gears in the same place, so when you change lenses you may have to slide the follow focus forwards or backwards as well as moving the gear out of the way. Loosening just this one connection allows you to do both at once.
The focus knob of the DFocus is rubberized and easy to grip. It also includes a square hole to fit standard follow focus accessories such as a focus whip or a speed crank. I currently don't own either one of those, so I have yet to try it out, but I am really glad it has this feature, so I can add those accessories in the future. DFocus sells its own speed crank, the DCrank, for $29.99.
My only real complaints with the DFocus are with the marking disc system. First of all, the reference pin is on the side of the focus knob. Like I said, it can be flipped to either the camera side or the matte box side, but neither is ideal. Some follow focuses have rotatable reference marks that can be moved to any position around the edge of the disc. Of course this is ideal but I would certainly not expect a high end feature like that on such an affordable follow focus. Most follow focuses, however, have their reference marks at the top of the focus knob, which is absolutely where it should be if it can only be in one place. Having the reference mark at the top allows you to see the marks on the disc, as well as marks on the lens itself at the same time without having to look away from one or the other. It also gives you a better eyeline to the action that you are focusing on in front of the camera than having it on either side does.
I'm guessing it's not on the top because that would impede the ability to flip the main gear block upside down, making the unit less configurable, but I think there should be holes on the top and bottom (the sides too, for that matter) that would allow you to take the pin out and put it back in on whichever side is best for the specific setup. Four pin placement options would make it almost as versatile as a rotatable one. As it is, I think I'm going to have to build some kind of additional reference pin that I can position at the top of the wheel. I haven't figured out how I'm going to attach it yet.
My second complaint about the marking disc is that I don't like the material it's made of. Most marking discs I've used on other follow focuses have more of a matte surface, whereas this one is very glossy. Different people prefer different writing implements for marking these discs, but my preference has always been mechanical pencil. It's very easy to erase, either with an eraser or with water, it makes very thin and therefore precise marks, and unlike felt tip pens or markers, the marks don't get wider as it gets used more and more. Pencil will not write on the glossy surface of the DFocus however, so I am out of luck. The DFocus website recommends a wet-erase type marker for using on the acrylic disc, so I guess I will have to get some of those, but I think it will be less convenient to have to wash the disc off with water or some kind of cleaning solution every time I need to put down some new marks.
Lastly, the marking disc is not easily removable. Most follow focus marking discs are held in place by magnets or some other means that allows them to pop off and back on very easily. This is nice as it makes them easier to clean, and also allows the possibility of having separate, pre-marked discs for each lens. This is not possible with the DFocus. All of these gripes with the marking disc system are minor and easy to work around, however.
All in all, I think the DFocus is a great follow focus. In my opinion, it is comparable in quality to follow focus units that cost several times as much. At $135, not only is it a great value, but quality aside, to my knowledge it is also the cheapest follow focus on the market. I honestly don't see any reason for any DSLR shooter, amateur or pro, to spend any more on a follow focus when they can buy the excellent DFocus for just $135. I give the DFocus The Frugal DP's highest rating: five out of five bangs for the buck.
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