We often admonish readers to use tripods to achieve steady shots. This is good advice and we stand by it, but sometimes you are required to shoot on the move. You’ve seen tons of camera movement on TV and the big screen. But why is it your video of your toddler’s first steps looks like it was shot during a magnitude nine temblor, while even the most nauseating camera moves in an Oliver Stone picture are smooth and fluid? There are several techniques for shooting home video that can get your footage closer to Hollywood smoothness. Best of all, these techniques don’t cost a dime.
1. Stand right. It may sound silly, but there really is a technique for standing that affects the steadiness of your shots. With your knees bent, position your feet slightly duck-like, with each foot at nearly a 45-degree angle outward from how you would normally stand. Also, stand with one foot slightly in front of the other. It may look a bit goofy, but it increases body support so you can stand steadier.
2. Hold both elbows near your chest. This helps create a solid platform for your camcorder, and helps prevent the accidental tilting of the camera that can occur with your arms extended away from your body.
3. Hold the camcorder with both hands, even if your camcorder is the tiniest model available. It’s much better to impress your viewing audience with smooth footage than trying to impress onlookers with acrobatic feats of single-handed camerawork. Put one hand through the grip (for the zoom and the record buttons) and use your free hand to help support the camera.
4. Lean on something. A tree, the side of a building, a car, anything will do, as long as the object is sturdy and isn’t itself moving, you’re good to go.
5. Kneel down. Simply lowering your center of gravity can do wonders for reducing camera shake. Kneel with one knee on the ground and place the elbow of your camcorder hand on the other knee to act as an anchor for the camcorder.
6. Lie down (shoot prone). Not only is this angle superb for capturing low subjects (like a baby crawling), but with both elbows on the floor, you’re guaranteed a rock-steady shot.
7. Use a wide-angle lens setting and get close. Telephoto lens settings increase the effect of minor camera shakes, wide angle settings hide them. It might be tempting to max out that 20x zoom lens, but you can spare your audience the jiggles by zooming out all the way to wide angle and moving close to your subject. A great side effect of this technique is that your subject’s audio will be much clearer.
If you have to walk during shooting, stay wide. When zoomed in, you’ll be lucky to even get the subject in the frame much less steady. Stay wide when walking.
8. Use a car for dolly shots. Have someone else do the driving and shoot out the window of a slowly moving car for dramatic dolly shots. Of course, the car’s driver will have to adjust speed relative to how fast your subject is moving. Next to laying dolly tracks and placing the camera on very expensive wheels, this is the smoothest approach to capturing smooth moving footage of a moving subject. Your car absorbs many of the shocks that the body would normally produce.
9. Use image stabilization. It does make a difference in reducing camera shake. Optical stabilization on more expensive cameras results in less image degradation, but electronic stabilization often produces excellent results
10. Put it down. Sometimes the best way to shoot handheld is to not hold your camcorder at all. Look for a solid surface that you can set your camera on while you shoot. The surface of a table, a bench or a brick wall can work wonders.
[Sidebar: Image Stabilization: Optical vs. Electronic]
Optical image stabilization (OIS) physically moves the lens system (and thus the light) around in the camera. Electronic image stabilization (EIS) moves digital information around to compensate for shakes. EIS tends to degrade the quality of the video image a bit because it works by slightly magnifying the image on the CCD so there is more room for movement on the edges and fewer pixels are used in the final image. Still, modern electronic image stabilization is very good and larger CCDs often make up for the lost edges, resulting in almost no loss of quality.
[Sidebar: Plan Your Moves]
When panning and/or tilting, plan a beginning and an ending before you shoot. Then, when you perform the move, begin at the pre-planned beginning spot and end at the ending spot. Don’t extend the move beyond these points. Nothing screams "Amateur!" more than a camera move that seems to be over and then suddenly isn’t.