Home Video Hints: Camera Moves

Unless you run a surveillance camera in a convenience store, you move your camcorder constantly. Most casual shooters hand-hold every shot, often walking around as they blaze away. To avoid the jerks and jiggles that often result, you can learn how to move your camcorder just like the pros.

Let’s examine some good reasons for moving shots, some techniques for pulling them off and some tips for delivering results an editor can work with. But first, we’ll do a quick rundown of the four basic types of camcorder moves.

Types of Camera Moves

The easiest moves are simply pivots, arcs of movement around a fixed center, like a tripod head. (Though technically not pivots, hand-held pans and tilts have the same visual effect.) Viewers usually don’t notice pivot moves, which have a neutral, disengaged feeling, like that of a spectator following events from the sidelines. Horizontal pivots are called "pans;" up-and-down swings are "tilts." In a slightly more complex move, the camcorder may actually change position as well as angle of view.

Vertical moves include pedestals and booms. A pedestal (named for the center-column rolling dollies of TV studios) raises or lowers the camcorder in place, while a boom swings the camera up and down in an arc as wide as the boom arm. Thus, a pedestal move doesn’t change the camera’s distance from the subject, while a boom swings the camera closer as it arcs downward.

Though you can’t do a hand-held boom, you can pedestal your rig by holding your camera high or low and then moving it to the other extreme.

As for horizontal moves, some people differentiate between back-and-forth motion (tracking) and in-and-out moves (dollying), but many pros speak of trucking, tracking and dollying indiscriminately.

Horizontal moves made on wheeled dollies are somewhat restricted (though professional units can use four-wheel steering to "crab" sideways). With hand-held and Steadicam shots, the sky is literally the limit. In one recent blue-jeans commercial, the opening was obviously a Steadicam shot, which then rolled away and boomed up from the subjects as if the operator had stepped onto a crane platform. (Incidentally, a Steadicam is a proprietary system from Steadicam/Tiffen, but the name is often used informally for any hand-held stabilizing apparatus, like those from Glidecam.)

Last (and, yes, least), a word about zooming. A zoom is not really a move because, well, the camcorder doesn’t move; it just sits there while its lens changes focal length. But since zooming roughly approximates the effect of dollying in or out, many of our upcoming tips for good moving technique apply equally to zooming.

Move Motivations

In the very earliest movies, video cameras seldom moved at all, but simply aimed at a fixed area in which the action of the shot took place. Today, in some commercials and music videos, the cameras are so hyper that they really should be medicated. How much movement is justified? It all depends on the style of the program and, even more, the reason and the motivation, for each move. Well-motivated moves are made for one or both of two reasons: information and/or drama.

The simplest informational use is merely to follow action. If the subject shifts, the camcorder must follow to hold it in the frame. The camera can also move to show more information (dollying out to show the room in which a painting is hanging) or different information (panning away from a painting to frame the viewer admiring it).

In both these examples, the director could use two separate shots instead of a move, but the effect would be different. Dollying out to show the museum reveals the environment progressively. Panning to the viewer confirms that painting and viewer are actually there together.

Nevertheless, movements are not absolutely necessary for delivering information in either example; and many fine movies have been made without any camera motion beyond panning and tilting.

Even when not essential for presenting information, camera moves can contribute powerfully to the overall feel of a program. First, they strengthen the viewer’s sense of continuity. A cut creates a break in the continuous flow of material. By revealing new information through movement instead of through separate shots, you enhance the sense that the action is really unfolding before the viewer’s eyes.

Remaining still is static, while moving is dynamic, so a roving camera imparts a feeling of energy as it ranges all around the action. Many films feature shots in which the camera revolves 360 degrees around its subjects or zigs and zags from one action spot to another. (For this kind of camera movement, watch The West Wing on NBC.) This in and out and around and through style of movement helps involve viewers by bringing them into the middle of the action, as if the roving camera were their eyes.

Moving and Editing

We keep insisting that directing to edit is the key to professional-looking programs, and this is certainly true of camera moves. How you set up and execute each shot will determine the quality and usefulness of your footage.

First, think about coverage, delivering the editor enough material to work with. Whenever possible, provide extra footage. Roll the camera at least five seconds before the essential action begins. Hold the opening composition before you start the move and the ending composition after the camcorder comes to rest. Then roll another five seconds or so after the action ends.

Next, remember that you may not want to use the move, after all. Maybe it’s a little shaky or maybe the ending composition isn’t framed quite right or maybe the camera didn’t quite keep up with the subject. But if you simply snip the movement out, you may lose some of the action or at least get an obviously mismatched cut with the next shot. To cover your southern exposure, shoot a protection shot. Catch the action at the end of the move a second time, from a new setup that will edit well with the pre-movement opening of the previous shot.

Moving Techniques

Finally, here’s a grab bag of good techniques for physically executing camcorder moves.

Above all, use the external LCD screen to keep your eye from bumping the viewfinder and to let you move the camcorder away from your face. By holding the screen lightly with your left hand, you can adjust its angle as you move the camera so you can always see it.

To minimize camera-shake during moves, try to work at the wide-angle end of your zoom and always enable lens stabilization if you have it. In fact, stabilization and an external screen are so useful that I’d trade-in my camcorder if it didn’t have both.

When working on a tripod, make sure it’s really level. If not, a shot that starts parallel to the horizon may fall way off-axis by the end of a move. Try it, you’ll see. To stay limber during wide pans, stand behind the tripod, facing the middle of the pan. Then twist just your upper body to aim at the start of the pan, make the move with your feet planted, and finish with your upper body twisted toward the end of the pan. (This rule applies equally to hand-holding.)

When you do hand-hold, use your entire body as a shock absorber. Keep your bent elbows relaxed and away from your body. Walk with your knees flexed slightly. I like to face moving action and glide sideways to follow it. If you don’t have an external viewscreen, at least keep your forehead from bonking the viewfinder tube.

When shooting from a moving car, hold the camcorder out the window or sunroof, but keep yourself belted safely inside, while using the external screen. Don’t rest the camcorder on a window sill or dashboard, to avoid transferring vibrations from the car to the camera.

Finally, let’s include zooming. For a spiffier effect, choose an ending composition that is not just a larger or smaller section of the opener. For example, in zooming in, pan/tilt as you go to achieve a final frame to one side of the center of the original image.

[Sidebar: Savvy Moves]
To prevent poorly executed moves, follow a few simple techniques:

  • Pre-frame both the opening and the ending compositions so the shot has a visually satisfying start and finish.
  • If possible, make the ending composition the stronger and more interesting of the two. This enhances the audience’s feeling that the move was well-motivated.
  • Never correct the ending composition when you end up a bit off the mark. Either use it as is or retake the shot.

  • Start the move slowly, accelerate toward the center of the move, then decelerate to a stop on your final composition. This technique adds a satisfying swoop to the action of the camera.

    (Obviously, some of these tips are impractical when the move is solely to follow action and keep a subject in the frame.)
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