The son of the acclaimed 19th-century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron once described his mother’s workflow this way: “When focusing, she came to that which was beautiful to her, she stopped there, instead of screwing the lens to the more clearly defined focus, which at that time all photographers aimed to secure.”In a letter to English mathematician and experimental photographer/inventor, Sir John Herschel, Cameron herself posed the question, “What is focus, and who has a right to say what focus is the legitimate focus?”
This would be a pertinent statement for today, but the fact that it was made sometime in the 1850s tells us that the art and craft of photography have been assessed on these deeper levels since the very dawn of the medium.
In fact, looking back even further in time, in the art of painting, it is clear how attention was drawn to specific areas of the frame through the use of focus and point-of-view. It has always been so: the luxury of specificity is on the artist/creator; he or she knows best where the focus should be directed when the image is made.
Down through the years, we’ve heard discussion about auto-focus and scientifically derived methods of focusing in our industry. But the reality is that the art of focusing in a motion picture is something that is planned from the outset. So when we praise and hype up new technologies, like the computational photography of the Light Field Camera (which allows the focus to be determined long after capture), we are undermining the artistic intent of the filmmakers.
Moving the focus is an emotional quotient for telling the story. When you move the focus, where you move it to and how fast or slow you start or stop the focus are important story-telling elements that are present at the moment of creation and cannot be truly reproduced by digital software.
Of course it would be nice, if you miss a shot, to change or clean up the focus later on. But the creative use of focus, at the point of origination, has been a part of visual storytelling for hundreds of years, and will always remain that way.
Every month I talk about the rapid development of new technologies, and I honestly believe we are still in the Dark Age when it comes to workflow. But what has become irrefutable is the importance of intelligent and trained practitioners to fully exploit all of these exciting new systems and software roaring our way. Experienced professionals (like the membership of this Guild) are the only ones who can fully protect a director, producer, or studio from horrors like catastrophic data loss on set. They alone are trained to harness the mass of information, fed from multiple sources into a cascade of metadata, to ensure the image is consistent from capture to finish. They alone ensure systems are properly calibrated so the postproduction pipeline can deliver a digital release print to theaters that precisely reflects the director and cinematographer’s visions.
What is focus, and who has a right to say what is the legitimate focus?
A celebrated photographer asked herself that question 150 years ago, probably during one of her many portrait sittings, and filmmakers today continue to repeat that query on contemporary film and television sets around the world.
The answer, then and as it is now, is the storytellers behind the camera. The way it has been and always will be.
Steven Poster, ASC
International Cinematographers Guild
IATSE Local 600