Have you ever been watching a TV show or film and suddenly noticed a subtle change in depth of field which reveals details or secrets in the scene?

That is what we call ‘rack focus’.

Read on to discover what rack focus is and why you should be using it in your own videos.

Also, check out our page on filmmaking to take a deep dive into all the aspects of creating a blockbuster movie.

rack focus cinematography

What is rack focus?

Rack focus, by its very nature, is subtle and indistinct. Chances are you’ve seen countless uses of it without even recognizing it.

But what exactly is rack focus?

It is a filmmaking technique of changing the focus of a lens while filming a continuous shot. It is also called ‘focus pull’ or ‘pulling focus’ and can include large or small changes of focus.

When a shot ‘racks’ the focal plane moves from one object to another. If you have a shallower depth of field, this transition between planes is even more noticeable.

Rack focus uses

Here are a few different uses of rack focus for your videography tool kit:

  • To transition between scenes.
  • To add some extra flourish to a shot.
  • To draw the viewer’s eye to specific detail.
  • To connect elements or characters within the plot.
  • To follow a character's train of thought.
  • To reveal something hidden within the frame.
pulling focus

3 reasons to use a rack focus shot

1. To convey a character’s mental state

Look at this scene from Road to Perdition, which shows Connor’s strained relationship with his father.

It shows how jealous Connor is of Michael’s relationship with his father. These connections and nuances in the relationships are effortlessly showcased by using rack focus.

2. To build tension and suspense

In The Host, there is a long hallway shot that shuttles back and forth between the protagonist and his siblings as they try to break out of quarantine.

Here we move from the foreground to the middle ground, to the background, and then forth to the front again.

This is an exemplary use of rack focus to connect 4 different perspectives and create tension around their casual escape.

When they are finally caught the final focus shot centers their panic, and the chase begins!

3. To establish a relationship

In Young Victoria, director Jean-Marc Vallee frequently uses rack focus to create and develop connections between characters.

The camera moves from conversation to conversation, which helps network the scene and heighten the tension.

This helps seamlessly shift perspectives, tying together plots and gossip. Due to the frivolous use of rack focus, we can tell how Vallee has total control here.

rack focus pull

How to shoot a rack focus shot

Before you even get started, you need to decide what objects/ subjects you want to focus rack between. You’ll also want to decipher the best method for adjusting the focus ring.

Here is a quick step-by-step guide on nailing rear-focusing like a pro.

1. Setup the necessary gear

You’ll need a camera lens with a manual focusing ring. Many popular consumer cameras come with autofocus settings- you don’t want this! Autofocus is ideal for other shots, but you’ll need total control for rack focusing.

Many productions use a mechanical device called a follow focus to adjust the focus ring. With some practice and patience, you’ll be able to adjust the focus ring with your hands like on some lower-budget cameras.

2. Stage your camera and subjects

When creating your shot list, you should decide which objects will be featured in the rack focus and their relative positions.

This is the time to work out the exact flow and combination of shots for your focus ring.

3. Adjust your depth of field

There is no rule of thumb here- make your depth of field deep or as shallow as the scene needs.

The distance between your object/subject and your depth of field will entail how noticeable the focus ring is.

4. Plan out your shot

Now you can measure out your distances- your method for this will be dictated by your budget.

If you’re on a tight budget, you may find it easiest to measure this by eye. Many lenses will have distances marked on them, but the best and most accurate way is to just measure it with a measuring tape.

Remember to start your measuring at the camera's sensor plane, not the front of the lens!

If you're using a follow focus, most of them have a white surface around the dial, so you can make marks for each focal position.

And you’re set and ready to shoot!

rack focus in movie

Explore 50+ camera shots

Ready to explore more camera angles and shots to use in your next cinema masterpiece?

Head on over to our page on camera angles and shots for all the know-how you need.

What is rack focus?

Rack focus is a filmmaking technique of changing the focus of a lens while filming a continuous shot.

What is a rack focus shot?

A rack focus shot is where focal planes subtly change during shooting to highlight particular objects, subjects, emotions, etc.

What does rack focus mean?

Rack focus means the focal plane racks: it shifts from one object in the frame to another.