Follow-focus units have been around for a long time. Over the last few years, we’ve seen many of them pop up from quite a few companies. Particularly manual follow-focus units. You’d think that by now, it’d be pretty difficult to innovate and do something a little different, right? Well, SmallRig’s taken up that gauntlet and run with it for the new Small F60 (buy here) modular follow-focus unit. And despite the buzz over last year’s SmallRig MagicFiz, this one’s all manual.
What makes the new one so special then? Well, it dispenses with the lens gears. Sort of. It does come with a gear for those using cinema lenses, but it also includes a friction wheel for those who want to use photography lenses without the hassle of fitting gears each time. We spoke with David Zhuo on the SmallRig stand at NAB 2023 to learn more.
SmallRig F60 – What, no gears?
To say that this follow focus is completely gearless wouldn’t quite be an accurate description. Naturally, there are still gears inside the unit to convert the rotational movement of the main control wheel and rotate it 90 degrees to have it turn the lens. But where the unit meets the lens, you can now go either geared or gearless.
A friction wheel like this isn’t something I’ve seen in a follow focus unit before, but it makes a lot of sense, especially now. Every time a company releases a new mirrorless lens, they all boast of its video uses as much as the stills. So, a lot of people buy them and use them for video. As they start to get more serious and shift over to manual focus, if they want to use a follow focus, they have to strap a gear around the lens to mesh with the follow focus.
This can get quite tedious, especially if you’re swapping lenses often. I have this issue sometimes with gimbals where I might use five or six different lenses on a shoot. Constantly having to swap gears between lenses is a pain. So, you end up stockpiling a lot of gear straps and then just applying them to all the lenses you’re going to use in advance so you can work more efficiently. Now, though, with the new SmallRig follow focus, you don’t have to use gears at all.
No backlash, either
In mechanical geared designs, there’s this thing called backlash – otherwise known as “play” or “slop”. It’s essentially the wiggle room between gear teeth hitting one surface and the opposite surface. It’s why, when you turn a follow focus wheel one way, and then go to turn it the opposite way, you might see a very slight bit of movement in the wheel before your focus ring starts moving. You can read the Wikipedia definition here, but it’s a problem that potentially plagues all mechanical gear systems. It can be minimised to a degree, but it can be difficult to eliminate without completely seizing up the gears.
The friction wheel on the new SmallRig modular follow focus is made from silicone and keeps constant contact and pressure with the lens, regardless of which way it’s turning. This means there should be no backlash at all – at least, in theory.
It goes both ways
The SmallRig F60 mounts to a standard 15mm rail, and as it’s a manual wheel, it’s typically mounted on the left-hand side of the camera. While not an issue for cinema lenses, this can potentially cause problems for photography lenses. Why? Well, with photography lenses, there’s no real consistency in which way the focus ring turns. That is to say; on one lens, you might be turning the ring clockwise to rack it from far to near. You might turn the ring counter-clockwise on other lenses for the same focus move.
With many follow-focus units, this can cause issues. When you’re used to using lenses that go a particular way, and you’re used to turning the wheel on your follow focus in a certain direction, you expect them all to do that. Switching to a lens with a focus ring that rotates the other way can be disorienting and cause a lot of missed focus shots. No problem here, though, as the SmallRig F60 lets you flip the wheel to compensate for lenses that move in the opposite of the expected direction.
This lets you use the same focus wheel rotation with all lenses to get predictable focus movements, regardless of which direction the focus ring on the lens needs to turn to make that happen.
As well as letting you rotate the focus ring in either direction, there’s also pressure control for the focus wheel. If you’re doing some run and gun documentary work and need to respond quickly to the scene, you can have an almost freely spinning wheel. This lets you easily adjust your focus distance to roughly where you need it to be, where you can fine-tune and tweak to get the shot.
In more controlled environments that are perhaps under less of a time constraint, you’re able to increase the pressure on the mechanism. This lets you get slower, smoother and more consistent adjustments in focus when you need to rack from one subject to another or follow a moving subject. It also features both a standard marker plate for jotting down your focus marks, as well as two screw-down hard stops to make sure you never miss your mark.
Price and Availability
The SmallRig F60 modular follow focus is available to pre-order now for $159 and is expected to begin shipping in the coming days.