Have you ever been watching a movie or TV show and noticed a subtle change in depth of field that revealed some new detail in a scene? That’s a rack focus. 

Today we’re going to go over the rack focus. We’ll cover how to do it, how to use it, and why this camera move should be on your next shot list.

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Rack focus definition

So, what is a rack focus shot? A rack focus is the filmmaking technique of changing the focus of the lens during a continuous shot. The term can refer to small or large changes of focus. If the focus is shallow, then the technique becomes more noticeable. When a shot “racks” it changes the depth of field from one object in the frame to another.

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Note: Rack focuses require a "focus puller" to help the cinematographer accomplish this camera movement because it's such an ordeal to turn the focus ring and be precise. 

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Basic rack focus definition and example. 

What’s a focus puller?

Because racking focus is an art-form, on a professional set there’s a job called “focus puller.”

That person works in tandem with the Cinematographer and Camera Operator to pull the focus ring for certain shots.

They “pull focus” from one part of the frame to the other because the DP needs to keep the camera steady, and/or complete the camera move. 

The first AC is in charge of this rack focus example

The rack focus is usually done by the First Assistant Camera and they turn the lens’ focus ring to pre-marked positions on the camera. 

Most importantly, the first AC has lots of responsibility on set, so if you’re shooting a film, it’s extremely important to have a great camera crew that comes prepared.

Racking focus takes lots of patience and practice.

Are you ready to learn focus pulling? 

How to rack focus

Let’s think back to the rack focus definition and plan it out. In order to rack focus, you first have to determine which objects you’ll move between. If your camera has a manual focus, mark on the lens where the focus should be between each shot.

Then do your camera move and slowly pull focus at the same time. 

Focus pulling is an art form. Let your rack focusing shine. 

Racking focus is not easy, but it’s a skill anyone can master. Therefore, you better get practicing! The better it looks the more professional the outcome. It can be the calling card for you as a director.

Why rack focus?

The reason to rack focus is simple; you want to help direct the audience’s attention to something in the scene. Therefore, the rack focus shot can be crucial to pointing out details to the audience.

Downtown Abbey. Pull focus! 

Unlike other camera moves, the rack focus is able to be incredibly specific. Therefore, it's like directing a spotlight onto a detail you want to highlight. 

So, how do you add the rack focus to your next shot list?

How to shot list a rack focus shot

So, you’ve set up a neat scene where you want to rack focus between two crucial objects in a scene? What do you do now? You need to put it in a shot list so your DP can anticipate and prep. Therefore, you may want to get coverage of each shot, in case the rack focus doesn’t work out in the edit.

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Basic rack focus definition and example. 

Specific camera movements matter too. Are you going to rack focus while completing a dolly move? Or maybe it’s just a traditional pan-and-rack?  

You want to capture all these crucial details in your shot list. With StudioBinder, these details are already listed as options, so you only need to check their boxes. This allows you to create creative combinations that make your movie come to life.

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Basic rack focus definition and example. 

Collaboration is fast and efficient. Send your shot list to the DP with the click of a button. The best part? We let you start shot listing for free. This gives you more time to think about the intangibles.

For example, what can you learn from some of the most poignant rack focus examples?  

Rack focus examples

The rack focus is super useful because of its ability to quickly show what your characters are going to face in the immediate future.

In this clip from Tron: Legacy, the rack is used to emphasize the danger ahead and the showdown in the arena.

Film Jeopardy: The answer is, “What Is rack focus?”

Casino Royale uses the rack focus in a number of ways. Sometimes its a quick rack shot to tell you a poker hand is a loser. Other times it’s a seamless transition between Bond’s signature martini. It can even help us identify James’ next love interest. 

Focus shot, rack focus shot.

The Host uses this long hallway to rack focus back and forth between the main character and the world he’s trying to inhabit. We follow his eyes and the rack focus lets us know who we should watch as they saunter down the hallway.

It’s a measured, nuanced, way to direct us without the labor of cutting back and forth between different camera angles. 

This rack focus shot is brilliantly executed. 

Jean-Marc Vallee crushes the rack focus in Young Victoria. Check out this video compilation of the rack focus shots in this film.

Directors lean on the rack focus because of how it illuminates information. 

We’re rack focusing all over the place here. 

Rack focus shots are used to highlight the opulence of Victoria’s kingdom. And we’re able to dissect the relationships of who’s who at the table.

We can tell who’s eavesdropping, plotting, and gossiping because we can seamlessly shift perspectives. And one busy person rack focusing all over the place.

Because the rack focus shot is exploited here, we can tell the director has total control over the tension in this story.

Up Next: The Medium Shot

So now you know how to rack focus, but what camera angle will you use to capture your change in the depth of field? We have seven eye-popping uses of the medium shot for you to check out.

You’ll definitely want to try them out with our shot list software so you can plan all your rack focuses out in advance.

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