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5 Reasons to Stop Zooming Now

close up of a camera on a tripod

The zoom control is probably one of the first buttons you pushed when you picked up your brand new camcorder. After all, it’s mounted in a prominent spot on the camera, right there where your finger rests. It wants to be pushed. So, we hit record and we start zooming. We zoom in to get closer to the action where we can see distant details. We zoom out to show more of the scene, then we zoom in again to show something else. And we do all of this zooming without ever stopping to consider that the habit might be making our videos worse, not better.

I for one, believe that if you want to produce videos that look more like the high end productions you see on TV, it’s time to stop zooming. Not convinced? Here are 5 reasons you should stop zooming and never start again.

1. Zooms are yesterday’s news.

One of the most compelling reasons to stop zooming is that serious television producers stopped doing it years ago. Here’s an exercise to try. Next time you turn on your TV, watch closely and count the number of zooms you see. Unless you are watching reruns from the 60s, 70s or 80s, (or poorly produced local programs), you could watch for a week without seeing one. Why? One reason is that many of today’s television shows are shot like films, using cameras with fixed focal length prime lenses that do not zoom. The result is a cinematic aesthetic that sets the stuff we see in movies and on upscale television series apart from most video productions. In the 70s there were zooms all over television, but they went out of vogue with sideburns and bell bottoms. If the best producers in the business aren’t zooming, you shouldn’t either.

2. Zooms do not exist in the natural world.

From a scientific and psychological point of view, the act of zooming is unnatural, and therefore, awkward. If you want to see an object more closely in real life, you have two options. You could choose to look through a magnifying lens (like a telescope, or a pair of binoculars), and sometimes we do this to see things that are at a great distance, but 99.9% of the time, when you want to see something up close, you simply get up and move physically closer to the object. Close ups in the real world aren’t about zooming your eyes, they’re about moving your feet. This necessitates a change in perspective, which adds interest. The sensation of moving through an environment feels very natural, whereas zooming from a fixed position feels odd.

3. Zooms draw undue attention to themselves.

One of the central rules of video says that anything that draws the viewer’s attention away from the content and onto the production is a mistake. In order to maintain the illusion of reality, our cameras need to stay candid. Zooms are highly conspicuous. You can’t miss them. As soon as the camera starts zooming, the viewer begins wondering where the zoom is going to go. Some camcorders add an additional level of disruption because they have noisy zoom motors whose telltale whirring becomes embedded in the soundtrack. Zooms demand attention, and that makes them a poor production choice.

4. Zooms can be tricky and sticky.

If you are going to perform any camera move it is absolutely essential that you make it super subtle and as smooth as silk. While many camcorders offer variable speed zoom controls, actually facilitating a good zoom can be tricky. It takes a steady finger to create a zoom with smooth starts and stops, and without jerky speed changes or unintended sticks and stops mid way through the move. If you can’t do it perfect, cut it out.

5. Zooms are the hallmark of bad home video.

Stereotypical home videos are chaotic and messy and nauseating. They are notoriously horrible, and this is true at least partially because they are chock full of haphazard zooms. As a producer who is committed to quality, home video is the very last thing that you ever want anyone to think of when they watch your work. As such, you should make every effort to make your edits the absolute antithesis of amateur.

The good news is that there is an incredibly inexpensive technique that you can employ immediately that is guaranteed to make your productions look more like the big budget pieces the pros produce: simply stop zooming. That doesn’t mean you should never use your zoom control, just that you should not record your zooms and showcase them in your edits. Instead, use your zoom as a tool to adjust framing and compose a scene, then take your finger off the toggle, and record the shot. After you stop recording, use the zoom to help compose your next shot before you roll again. Instead of shooting one long shot that zooms from wide angle to telephoto, shoot the scene as a two-shot sequence; first showing the wide shot, then cutting to the carefully composed close up. The scene will play much more professionally without taking the time required to show the whole zoom.

When you commit to shooting your videos without zooming, you will become a far more active shooter, positioning and repositioning your camera for each shot, and you’ll find that your footage immediately looks much more interesting. So take your finger off that zoom control and lace up your sneakers. Who knows, you might discover that less is more after all.


Chuck Peters is a 3-time Emmy award winning writer, producer and host. He is an independent producer and media consultant in Nashville, TN.

Chuck
Peters
October 04th, 2013

Comments

Stephen C.'s picture

I agree that a poor zoom is a terrible thing.  I disgree, however, that this requires doing away with zoom altogether.  I also disagree with some of the logic used to support the "no zoom" argument.  My points below mirror the five points in the article.

 

1.  Did TV producers stop zooming for the sake of stopping, or becaue they could no longer zoom, i.e., because of using prime lenses?  Just because you no longer have a tool in your toolbox, don't declare that no one else should use it either.  It is the inverse of "If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you?"  As VideoMaker often says, the "cinematic aesthetic" is not just one thing (or the absence of one thing such as zooming), but the thoughtful combination of many factors.

 

2. Zooms do not exist in the natural world, but neither do the shots created by trucking, a dolly, jib, steadicam, or even binoculars.  All of these approximately reproduce the way that humans see things while moving. 

 

3.  A bad zoom draws attention to itself, and a lot of zooming can even make a viewer nauseous.  But a good zoom can focus the viewers attention to where you want it or provide more detail (or expanse).  We use other techniques to manipulate the viewer's attention, such as racking the focus from one person to another in the conversation, so why not zooms, too?

 

4. You'll get no argument from me that the human-machine interface for zooming is difficult to use.  Even the professional, off-the-camera-body zoom controls can be touchy.  But we don't toss out things that are difficult.  Know your equipment and practice with it, and then you can use the tool successfully.  And as you get more serious about the craft, buy better equipment.

 

5. Just because an attribute is associated with bad things doesn't mean the attribute itself is bad.  Red is associated with sports cars and speeding, but that doesn't keep me from buying a red family sedan and driving it sensibly.  Instead of abandoning the zoom as a relic of bad home video, redeem it by using it well.  Break the mold by giving the world examples of how to use it correctly.

 

And I'll add #6.  Not all video productions have the option of stopping the recording to adjust the zoom. Live one camera events don't have the luxury of pausing the action.  Setting to the widest necessary zoom and the leaving it there can render your video essentially useless when the action gets tighter.

 

In summary, every tool has it inherent difficulties and historical abuses.  But that should not stop us from using it purposefully, creatively, artistically, and appropriately (even if that means sparingly).

Marc Miller's picture

You should have written the article on zooming. Your 6 points made more artistic sense than the officially published article postulates. As a 40 year cinematic veteran I will confirm that no tool is off limits to a storyteller. However not all tools are suitable for every job. If you need a hole typically a drill is the best tool for the job, but one can create a hole if necessary using a screw driver and a hammer. Not as elegant but it can work.

 

Keep shooting!!!

Marc Miller

www.marc-a-miller.com

runetic's picture

After returning from Africa which I had my first opportunity of comparing a Canon DSLR set-up with my JVC, I found I am going to stay committed with my video camera.  Particularly a zoom can be part of a shot, a correction so to speak.  I think there are a lot of DSLR's that have to sold and they can't zoom worth ,..

ccvid's picture

I disagree regarding one aspect... I think you want a lot of movement, zooming, panning and tilting when there is a musical performance going on.  Otherwise I would agree with this article.  

 I checked today's popular online sources to see if I'm in the right frame of mind... you can check these out too.  Look at video clips from musical performances during American Idol.  There is all sorts of movement going on: zooms, jibs moving, etc.  Even musical performances at America's Got Talent have zooming, though not as much.  However, a comedian's performance at America's Got Talent had no zooming... just cutting back and forth between cameras. That said, I feel like a happy camper because that's about the way I produce videos of people talking.  No zooming, just cutting back and forth between camera shots.  Though every once in a while I do like to cut to a far away shot that may have a very slow zoom. 

rjm002's picture

I do a lot of training videos for internet marketers. My goal is to make REALLY easy to follow training videos showing people how to do basic types of internet marketing. Most of my videos are screen capture and I do a lot of zooming/panning. suggestions?

Albert Maruggi's picture

Let's not confuse usefulness with technique and fads.   I shot news in the 80s and today's programs with jump cuts, shakey video, and overuse of movement is 100 times more distracting and self-attention getting compared to a simple zoom to draw the viewers attention to the details or context.  

 

I dont' quite get your rationale not to zoom as a shooter. While shooting elminating zoom can be done in the edit process, but shooting the zoom gives you editing options including not using zoom.   It also allows you to potentiall see the scene in a different way. 

 

I disagree with zooming not being part of the real world.  And it sure isn't true that the only way to zoom the human eye is to move your feet.  For example, if you play basketball as a shooter you can shoot by looking at rim and backboard, or just the rim, or a little part of the rim like the eye-hook on the back of the rim.  Your distance from the rim didn't move, but your focal point did.   I train players and this is a technique that is very effective in adjusting the player's shot.   So we do zoom our visual concentration on a topic to take in detail and context.   

 

My comments are not to defend bad zooms or overuse of zooms, on that we can agree.  If you want to be in "video fashion" then jump cut to your heart's content, cut in the middle of a camera move and twist your shots.  But the true learning from this post is that using what is appropriate to convey information and emotion, when done well in combination with all the elements of light and sound are characteristics of quality video. 

JJMcK's picture

The first widely used television cameras (RCA TK-10, 11, etc.) came with a turret of four fixed focal length (F/L) lenses. In order to change the shot the camera operator had to dolly the camera toward or away from the subject {"Dolly In" or "Dolly Out" were the director's commands}. If a longer or shorter lens was required to frame the best shot the operator had to rotate the correct lens into position, obviously this could not be done on the air. This was a problem for live sports production to follow a play or the flight of the ball. Directors needed to call a second shot tight on the action because the wide camera wasn't providing enough detail. This was solved by the invention of te variable-focal length lens by the Zoomar Company. This invention enabled sports cameramen to change the F/L of the lens while on-air to capture the desired frame without a lot of cutting, which tended to be jumpy and jarring to the viewer.

 

Soon variable focal length lenses started appearing in the studio. The main purpose of these installations was not to allow all kinds of silly zooms but to eliminate the turret of four fixed length lenses and give the camera operator the convenience of one lens that could rapidly be set to the correct F/L for each shot. Soon many TV camera operators (and directors) were zooming the lens where a dolly shot would have been the correct choice.

 

There is a distinct difference of the visual effect of a dolly versus a zoom. A zoom simply makes the picture in the frame become tighter or wider with no apparent spatial movement. Conversely there can be great deal of apparent spatial movement when a fixed length (or a zoom lens that is not being zoomed) is physically moved closer to, or away from, the subject. Your eyes don't zoom, you must walk closer to get a better look or back up to see a broader view and this is why you want to leave the zooming to the sports cameramen and practice your dollying and trucking.

drew@alzodigital.com's picture

I disagree with the statement that zooming is over for whatever reason.  Today subtle zooms are very common and important.  A subtle zoom is almost imperceptible (intentionally).  A subtle zoom is common on tight talent head shots.  A subtle zoom is used to emphasize the importance and emotion of the scene.  In many cases subtle zoom is likely added in post.

Look closley at the edge of the frame to see a subtle zoom.  Watch for this effect commonly used in The Good Wife for example.

ProPhotog1's picture

Look I like Videomaker and I applaud all they do! But this article is just crap and would only serve the purpose of subliminaly pushing shooting with DSLR's instead of dedicated Video Cams. Many.....many movies Tv shows and Commercials use zooming to help tell thier stories today! Not "yesterday" as the writer suggests. The real fact is, zooming has become more finessed in either much slower or faster zooms more relative to mood and subject. As one post stated, sure... bad zooming is going to make any production look bad, but great use of the zoom takes time and practice. And the comment about in the real world, zooming is unnatural, is actually quite....well I wont say that but...if I want to get close to the action if all I have is "me" I zoom in by walking closer! When I ride my bike its another visual experience, same in my car! Our visual situations change all the time! My belief is that an entity like Videomaker should never sugget to any Filmaker to ever stop using a technique for visual story telling, instead help Flmakers to explore new uses and techniques to exploit the many features of our lenses and equipment. (Quick zoom in tight) "Thats just my two cents!"  :)

HorseFlicks's picture

Zooming can bring subtle attention to something, put the viewer in the action instead of being a spectator, and a hundred other reasons zooming will be around for a long time.  If you want to focus on reasons for crap video turn the venom towards "shakey-cam" where the crappier the better seems to be the norm.  Why anyone thinks a constantly moving and jerky camera is some form of art needs to get past the third grade.  You can't watch more than 5 minutes of TMZ without getting a migraine.  Or maybe you wrote this just to evoke a response.  Nonetheless, I disagree on many counts.