Whether you're out for a quick shoot, or are lugging your gear a long distance, you can't always take a tripod along. Here are some tips for hand-held shooting when you don't have your trusty stable 'pod around.
Let's face it, as much as we tout the use of tripods in Videomaker, we can't always use one every time. Sometimes a tripod isn't convenient, other times the shoot is very casual. Then the economics get in the way: you might not have the funds for a good one, so you use your cheapo 'pod, which is fine for long non-moving shots, but the pan and tilt on it isn't exactly smooth when you want to follow the action. Here are a few quick tips for those times when all you have is a camcorder... and you.
1. Steady as She Goes
Think of yourself as the Human Tripod except instead of three legs, you have two. You have to keep your balance and ballast just as a tripod would. S-T-E-A-D-Y is the name of the game. If you're just going to stand there for any length of time shooting medium to wide shots that don't include any movement on your part, then you want to position yourself accordingly. Lean against a tree, a wall or a pole, and relax your upper body. A tense body will cause muscle shake if you're holding a camera too long.
2. Plan the End of the Shot First
Pan, tilt, boom and truck shots require movement, and if you rely on just your wrists to make the camera move, you won't have much muscle control and won't have a smooth shot.
For Pan shots: position your entire body pointing directly at the point you wish to end the shot, then twist your upper torso to where you want to begin the shot. Why the contortion act? Because you're exerting energy by executing the move while also trying to stay smooth and steady, so ending the move in a relaxed position is better then ending it contorted and breathing heavily. Starting with your feet facing the end of the shot and your upper body facing the beginning of the shot, unwind your upper body as you move through the shot until you settle into a comfortable position at the end.
For truck shots: spread your legs about shoulder-width apart, and position one foot where your upper body will end the shot, and the other foot where it begins, so your upper body has some leg foundation, and you aren't hanging unsupported.
For dolly shots: position one foot slightly forward, the other behind you. Start by leaning back over the back foot and "dolly" in until your upper body is over the front foot.
For boom, crane or tilt shots: Pre-check the beginning of the shot in the LCD monitor, then tilt the monitor to the end position so you can see the shot as the movement ends. This is more important than where you begin the shot.
3. Hug Yourself.
If you're standing and holding the camcorder for any length of time, the worst position to shoot is holding the camcorder away from your face - all the support is done using just your wrists. Ouch! So tuck your arms into your body, and either hold the camcorder with both hands, one on top and one on the bottom of the cam, or wrap one arm across your belly and cup the elbow of the other arm, the one holding the camcorder, for added support.
4. Sit on It
If you are planning a lot of time shooting in one spot, sit down in a chair, or cross-legged on the ground, get the camera away from your face and support it in your lap, using the LCD screen to watch your shot. You can also execute some smooth tilts and pans from this position. Or, get down on both knees, not one, for added support, and squat your rear on top of your feet. Note - don't squat on your heels with only your toes on the ground supporting you. Like your wrists, the toes aren't strong enough to support all that weight. Lay those feet all the way down. Also, don't try to balance halfway, this will kill your calves and cause you to have upper-body shake.
5. Be a Hipster
Larger camcorders are heavy, and holding them handheld can be cumbersome. Small cams are awkward with no handles for support. Consider how you'd hold a small child locked into your waist above your hipbone, and try to cradle the camcorder this way. It makes for some nice low-angle shots, is safely tucked in, and you can twist your torso, as mentioned in item number two, to get some smooth pans. The real beauty of this shot, and why I use it a lot, is your subjects don't often realize you're actually shooting, they think you're relaxing so they are more relaxed, spontaneous and natural.
Jennifer O'Rourke is an Emmy award winning video editor and shooter and is Videomaker's managing editor.