The Hitchcock Zoom — its history and how to achieve it

First seen in Hitchcock’s masterpiece, “Vertigo” (1958), the Hitchcock Zoom is a very powerful tool that videographers can use in their films. Let’s take a look at its history and how you can practice it yourself.

The Hitchcock Zoom is also called the dolly zoom, or zolly. However, it was nicknamed the Hitchcock Zoom because he was both the creator of it and the master of using the technique. While the zoom itself can be hard to pull off, if you have the knowledge and the right equipment, you can achieve it.


As stated above, the Hitchcock Zoom was first seen in the classic “Vertigo.” Essentially, the technique is achieved by simultaneously zooming in while dollying out or vice versa. What you end up with is both a visual and psychological effect that really packs a huge punch. For instance, in the Hitchcock Zoom scene in “Vertigo”, the effect is used to demonstrate the sheer terror the protagonist is feeling as he climbs the church stairs. He has a fear of heights and the zolly visually demonstrates the stakes he’s feeling. It’s a masterful way to tell the story without using even a word.

Video courtesy: Paramount Pictures

The technique was invented by Alfred Hitchcock’s cameraman, Irmin Roberts. He wanted to visually convey the feeling and effects of acrophobia. It was first seen in 1958 and it’s been used in a countless number of movies since.

For instance, Steven Spielberg used the shot to great effect in Jaws when Police Chief Brody suddenly realizes the danger in the water.

The Hitchcock Zoom works best when it is tied to an emotion

The reason Hitchcock is the master of the technique is that he uses it to drive home the emotions his characters are feeling. Many films that used the technique once it was created used the zoom as a gimmick shot because it looks good. While using the technique as a gimmick won’t ruin the work, it will stick out like a sore thumb if it has no purpose being there.

The Hitchcock Zoom puts viewers into a character’s head to feel what they’re feeling. In “Vertigo,” you see the protagonist fight his fear of heights. It’s a visual way of conveying his disturbed and anxious emotions as he climbs.

How to achieve the Hitchcock Zoom

The end goal of the Hitchcock Zoom is to adjust the field of view while the camera moves towards or away from the subject. As you do this, the subject will stay the same size throughout the shot. The classic way to achieve the effect is to pull the camera away from the subject while you zoom in with the lens. You can also pull the camera closer and zoom the lens out. During the zoom, there is continuous perspective distortion. The background appears to change size relative to the subject. That perspective change without a corresponding size change in the subject causes a very strong emotional impact.

To achieve the effect, the camera has to be positioned at a certain distance from the object. The distance depends on how wide the scene is and on the field of view of the camera lens. If you want to get super technical, you can calculate the distance with this equation:

Additionally, the subject is supposed to remain still during the entire dolly zoom.

Achieving the effect

Now, let’s get into more details regarding the actual shoot. Here are all the steps you should take:

  • Make sure you have a zoom lens and a dolly you can use. Check out our lens and advanced camera support buyer’s guides if you need to purchase either of those.
  • Set the exposure with a medium to deep depth of field
  • Make sure the AF mode on your camera is set to Continuous
  • Set the AF point to center
  • Switch on Image Stabilization
  • Slide your camera 4-5m away from your subject and focus
  • For the opposite effect, slide your camera toward your subject and zoom out

It takes time to get the shot right, so practice a few times before trying to do it on set. Also, be sure to get a few takes in case you aren’t happy with how the effect looks.

The Hitchcock Zoom is a very powerful tool. When used correctly, it’ll visually show the strong emotions that the characters are feeling. While it’s a tricky technique, with practice and the right equipment, you can get it.

Image courtesy: Universal Pictures

Sean Berry
Sean Berry
Sean Berry is Videomaker's managing editor.

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