It's in the Lens

With some of the new inexpensive digital video effects technologies available today, it’s possible for a home videographer to create visual sequences that were unthinkable in most Hollywood post-production studios just a generation ago. Yet fancy computer programs often do not create the most effective examples of video artistry; they’re pulled off using tools that have been available ever since the early days of still photography. What we’re talking about here is the type of effect that you can do simply by noodling around with the camcorder’s lens to subtly yet powerfully alter visual reality–optical effects.

Optical effects are easy to learn, but like most other visual arts, they can take a lifetime to master. The key to mastering these and other camcorder skills is to practice, practice, practice. What follows is a guide to creating a number of different types of optical effects that professionals regularly use in video and film production, along with suggestions for putting these effects into practice immediately. Even if your camcorder doesn’t let you take control of anything but the zoom lens, you’ll still find a few useful optical hints in the pages that follow. All it takes is some time, a blank tape or two and a willingness to experiment.

Fun with Focal Length

Okay, so every camcorder owner knows, or soon discovers, that the function of the zoom toggle is to make subjects on the screen look closer and further away, right? Well, that’s certainly true, but that’s not the only thing that the zoom lens is capable of. A zoom lens can make large spaces seem larger, compress distances and make moving objects appear to stand still. These and other optical effects all work on the premise that scenes shot at wide-angle settings appear to have more depth than scenes shot at telephoto.


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  • Compressing or Expanding Distance

    If you shoot some video of your buddy Dave in the park, with your camcorder just five feet away from him, you’ll have to use a wide-angle setting to fit him in the frame. At this lens setting, the park will seem huge, and the tree behind him will seem far away. But if you move the camera back ten or fifteen yards–and zoom in to the point where Dave looks like he’s about the same size as when the camera was closer, you’ll notice that the park no longer looks so big, and the tree is right behind him.

    Why the discrepancy? When you shoot at wide-angle settings, the world appears deeper because you’re using a greater portion of the surface of the lens, which introduces more curvature into the scene. When you shoot at telephoto, you use such a small portion of the curved lens face, you introduce very little curvature, causing everything to look flatter.

  • The Hitchcock Effect

    When you zoom and move the camcorder at the same time, you can create what we’ll call the Hitchcock effect.

  • Forced Perspective

    One more type of optical illusion we might mention here is the forced-perspective effect. It’s easy to achieve, even with a camcorder without manual controls. The idea is to make a person look smaller by placing him farther away from the camera, then frame him so that he look like he’s standing right next to an object closer to the camera. This effect doesn’t work well if you shoot at wide-angle, so be sure to move your camcorder at least ten yards or so away from the subject to get the flattened effect of the telephoto lens.


    • Shoot wide-angle shots to make a small room look like a big one.
    • Move the camera back and shoot at telephoto to collapse distances; this is handy for making it look like someone who’s running toward the camera isn’t covering any distance at all.
    • Use a wide-angle adapter to fit an entire room in the frame.
    • Use the Hitchcock effect to add an unworldly tension to a shot.
    • Place someone in the palm of your hand using forced perspective.

    Soft and Sharp

    Manipulating depth of field–the area in front of the camera that appears in sharp focus–provides another tried-and-true optical effect.

  • Increasing Depth of Field

    Shoot outdoors on a bright day, and the whole world appears in sharp focus. That’s because at lens settings normally used outdoors on a bright day (the iris stopped down to a tiny pinhole), the depth of field is maximized. This is an itself, useful for achieving an expansive Ansel Adams look in a stunning landscape, for example. Shooting with maximized depth of field is very simple, because even an all-automatic camcorder will default to this setting when your subject is brightly lit indoors, or when you’re shooting outdoors in open sunlight. When shooting this way, it’s not unusual to get a contrasty, washed-out look in your videos; this occurs when the lighting is a little too bright. To avoid this problem indoors, just reduce the power of the illumination by moving your lighting instruments away from the subjects a pace or two. Outdoors, you may need to wait for the evening or morning on a bright day to take the edge off the glare and provide a more flattering picture.

  • Decreasing Depth of Field

    Conversely, you may wish to decrease the depth of field and throw the entire background out of focus. This effect is used when you want something to appear dramatic or “artsy,” like a closeup of a daisy in a field, or a portrait-style shot of a person. There are two ways this is done: by opening up the camcorder’s iris, and by moving the camera closer to the subject. If your camcorder has manual iris control, you can simply open up the iris to decrease the depth of field, but you may have to compensate for the increased light that will enter the lens. Increasing the shutter speed or using an ND (neutral density) filter will do the trick. If your camcorder has no manual iris control, simply increase the shutter speed or attach an ND filter to fool the camera into opening up its iris a stop or two.

    Moving the camera closer to the subject will create the same effect, as evidenced by the paper-thin depth of field that results when shooting macro.


    • Shoot an expansive, stunning landscape at mid-morning or late afternoon.
    • Create a portrait-style shot of someone with the background out of focus.
    • Get close to some flowers, and create a “rack-focus” effect by shifting the focal point from one flower to another using the manual focus control.

    Mirror, Mirror

    Not all optical effects are achieved solely through the camcorder’s lens. Often, you can use objects in front of the lens to create optical effects.

  • Reflections

    Mirrors are an excellent example. They are useful in a number of situations, as harsh reflectors to bounce light into the scene or as a simple effect. A mirror can flip-flop everything in the entire scene 180 degrees; just zoom in on it far enough to fill the scene, and position the camcorder where it won’t be seen in the reflection. Larger mirrors can create a range of effects, including the floating man and the funhouse mirror, if you have a bendable surface such as Mylar.

  • Matte Paintings

    Shooting through glass can provide interesting effects. A matte painting on a glass surface provides a Hollywood-proven false landscape when positioned carefully in front of the lens. The trick with matte paintings (besides getting a really good artist to paint them) is to make the painted, false background match the real background. An aquarium filled with water can make a great playground for stormy-weather effects. Just frame up your shot through the aquarium, inject some dye into the water with a turkey baster, and watch the colorful clouds billow into your scene.


    • Start a shot zoomed in on a mirror in a room, then pull back slowly and pan to reveal the actual, unreflected subject.
    • Paint a castle on a pane of glass, then shoot through the glass so that the castle appears on a real hilltop nearby.

    The Next Step

    Now that you’ve got a good grounding in optical effects, the next step is to use your newfound knowledge. Think about tricks you can play on your viewer using the properties of light and lenses. In no time at all, you’ll be creating effects with your camcorder that will even impress your friend Dave.

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