Home Video Hints: Steady as She Goes!

At the Grand Canyon last spring, I shot a slow, careful pan across the magnificence in front of me, confident that my wide-angle lens setting and camcorder lens stabilization circuits would deliver a creamy-smooth panorama. No such luck. Camera shake was indeed zero, but the panning speed was erratic and the image oscillated up and down as if shot from a small rowboat. As Popeye used to say, "I was humiligrated!"

My shooting tactics usually work well, so let’s run through the drill for steady hand-held shots and then see why my shot failed this time. Before we’re through, we’ll look at better ways to control image "hulas," including the casual shooter’s least-used tool, the tripod.

Steady Hand-Holding

Even without image stabilization (an absolute must for your next camcorder – but see Sidebar 1 for a caution) you can usually get solid shots by observing a few classic rules:

  •   Avoid telephoto lens settings. Long lenses magnify the shakes right along with the image, so stick with wide-angle settings and, if you do zoom in, go just far enough to get a different composition.
  •   Roll tape well before the intended start of your shot. This will let you settle down, correct your initial composition and get comfortable.
  •   Zoom fast, with the idea of editing out both the zoom and the framing bobble that often happens when you don’t end up with exactly the composition you intended. Most on-screen zooms are dead program time anyway.

    Now the physical part. First, if you can brace yourself against a wall, tree, light pole or something, do so. Next, use your external LCD view screen whenever you can. This takes the camera out of contact with your head, which often transmits body jiggles. Unless the shot is a long one, take a deep breath, let about half of it out and then don’t breathe while you’re shooting.

    With an external screen, you can hold the camcorder in both hands at chest level. Do not clamp your elbows to your sides as some people advise. Hold them out from your body a little to create your very own shock absorbers.

    Of course you’ll pan and tilt, so here’s the best way to do it. Before you pan (pivot horizontally), pre-select your start and finish compositions and plant your feet facing exactly midway between them. Twist only your upper body to frame the opening of the shot and then swivel smoothly to the end position. Using the external finder, I’ll often keep my whole body still, swinging just my arms and the camcorder through the arc from start to end. The same trick is useful for tilting up or down. Instead of doing all the work with your neck, let your extended arms rise or drop in a sort of micro crane shot.

    Since I did follow my own rules, why was my panorama shot was so mediocre? For two reasons: first, the Grand Canyon doesn’t move. Motion within a shot attracts viewers’ eyes away from the image borders that reveal unwanted camera wobbles. Unless you can’t help it, never make a hand-held shot of a motionless subject.

    The second culprit was the length (distance) of the panning movement. It’s physically possible to rotate the camera about 180-degrees from a fixed position; but half that sweep is about all you can sustain before the twisting ruins the shot. To avoid the problem, I should have stopped after pausing at a composition about halfway along, repositioned my body for the second half of the panorama, then finished the job with a second pan. To conceal the cut between the two halves of the panorama, I could insert a cutaway, such as my wife looking at the view.

    However you solve the problem, reverse the clich: don’t just do something, stand there. There’s no way this side of an expensive floating camera support system to get perfectly smooth footage while you’re walking.

    Steady Moving Shots

    You’re going to walk anyway, aren’t you? (I confess: for casual home movies, I do too.) OK, then here’s how to minimize the joggles. First, hold the unit as if it were a flimsy foam cup excessively full of scalding coffee. It does wonders to steady your hands.

    Next, walk smoothly, utilizing the Groucho Marx memorial lope. The immortal Grouch oozed along in a partial squat, with his knees flexed so that his head stayed perfectly level. You’ll be surprised at how much jolting your leg muscles can absorb. (Wearing horn rims and a greasepaint moustache are optional.) It’s doubly important to use your external LCD finder when moving, so that your peripheral vision can see rocks, walls and incidentals, like cliff edges.

    That finder will also let you get effective shots from moving vehicles. The trick here is to keep the camcorder from touching any part of the car so that your arms soak up vibrations. Incidentally, make sure your car’s moving far more slowly than you think you need to, or the results will look too fast and jerky. Alternately, locking the camera down with a clamp to a window or even sitting with a tripod on the trunk of the car can offer steady motion shots. Most cars absorb movement very well and can be used for some very impressive dolly shots when circumstances allow, but only speeds of less than five miles per hour should be used. Either way, this is definitely a two-person shoot: never shoot and drive.

    Unless you have a helmet camera, forget about skis, bikes, snow and skateboards, roller blades and scooters. Videotaping takes too much attention away from keeping safe and the resulting shots will be unwatchable anyhow.

    Instead, look for ready-made sources of motion. Moving walkways (in airports and malls) are great for following walking actors, and escalators make dandy studio cranes. When shooting an actor moving down an escalator, frame the talent at the top from the bottom of the up-side and ride up as you continue to frame the descending subject. The complex double motion can look great on screen.

    I taped a splendid establishing shot of our local county fair by riding the Ferris wheel until it stopped with me at the top. I rolled tape as the wheel started up again and craned me down to the bottom. For the best effect, I waited until twilight when all the carnival lights were blazing, but enough daylight remained to reveal the whole fairgrounds.

    The Dreaded Tripod

    Nobody likes tripods. They’re bulky and ungainly and they slow shooting down. The problem is, you cannot get perfectly steady shots without one, so why not give in and get one?

    Models for casual home shooters are light, cheap and available at X-Mart. You’ll find that they’re quite light and compact, and modern leg-lock designs let you deploy them in seconds. (The Vivitar model I use with my ultra-small Mini DV camcorder cost $39.95.)

    If tripods did nothing but stop camera shake they would be worth it; but they do so much more! With a tripod, you can tape a long performance, lecture or other event. You can use your camcorder at full telephoto for sports videography. You can make a quick copy stand for photos, artwork and titles. And you can hold reflectors with a simple spring clamp for lighting.

    So, here’s a quick guide to aid you in buying a tripod:

  •   Avoid ultra-compact models. They achieve their short folded length by building up legs from many small pieces. Even then, they don’t expand far enough to raise the camera more than five feet or so. Of course if you really need to cut weight while travelling or doing backcountry camping, an ultra-compact is better than nothing at all. Even the tiny inches-tall pocket tripods have their uses.
  •   Make sure the tripod is not designed for still cameras (here’s an easy tip-off: a still tripod head flips 90 degrees to make vertical shots).
  •   Look for a long panhandle. The longer the grip, the easier it is to achieve smoother movement.
  •   Check for a ring, clip or strap to help you carry the unit.

    Insist on a quick-release model with a locking plate that attaches to your camcorder. Test the release for rigidity.

    These tripods are often fragile (mine sheds pop rivets) because they are purposely so light. For under $100, you could get a tank of a tripod if you wanted to shlep all the weight involved, or you could buy a flyweight Titan built like a Stealth fighter and from the same materials, if you have $2,000 to spare.

    Shaky shots are the mark of amateur-looking video. And you don’t want to be accused of being amateurish. Apply these tips to shoot steady footage and, believe me, your viewers will thank you.

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