Finding the right camera movement for each scene is critical to creative video storytelling. Having no camera movement at all results in stale, amateurish production that can leave audiences bored.
The basic camera moves used by videographers are the tilt, pan, zoom, pedestal, dolly and truck. When used together in unique ways, these moves can create exciting elements to any video scene.
In the beginning of motion picture photography, film cameras were very large and heavy. This made them hard to move fluidly. To aid in the mobility of these massive cameras, they were often mounted on cranes or on train tracks and controlled by a camera operator and a focus puller.
On tripods, these huge cameras were typically moved up, down, left and right. When mounted on certain types of heads, they could also tilt and pan. When placed portable train tracks, they could move.
Today, cameras are tiny by comparison and there is a great variety of small tools to allow their smooth movement. Cameras now can move in virtually any direction. Most of these movement are done on a tripod or dolly.
The first basic move is the tilt. This involves moving the camera up and down while not changing its horizontal axis. A tilt is done when the videographer needs to show more than a single subject in the frame.
Panning is moving the camera from the left to right or vice versa. Pan across a scene to reveal all the people in the frame or to show the story’s landscape, which could be the rural hills of Montana or aerial scenes over New York City.
Another type of camera movement is the zoom, which involves adjusting the focal length of the lens to make the subject appear closer or further away in the frame. This technique is one of the most frequently used moves since it is one of easiest to accomplish.
However, it is also one of the most overused types of shots in video. Amateurs constantly zoom their cameras. In professional video, it is best to combine a zoom with some other camera movement.
For example, when panning from one figure to another and wanting to keep them the same size in the frame, zoom at the same time the camera is being panned. This way the audience is unaware a zoom is being used.
Another type of camera movement is the pedestal shot. This involves maneuvering the camera up or down without altering its vertical or horizontal axis. The entire camera moves by raising or lowering the tripod head.
When orchestrating a pedestal shot, the operator usually wants to maintain the camera at the same subject distance when doing the move. An example is a man climbing a tall building. The camera is raised up to the show the above window he is trying to reach
There is also the dolly shot — a shot in motion. The name comes from the dolly tracks that are laid down to support heavy cameras. Why is a dolly used? To create a sensation of motion and depth, or show the perspective of someone with mental illness.
Alfred Hitchcock brilliantly showed a dolly/zoom technique in his 1948 film, Rope. He made the background appear to be moving towards or away from the viewer.
This is why it’s often preferable to use a dolly rather than a zoom. Dolly shots can be used to draw the viewers’ attention; to reveal a location; to create depth; for character realization of the environment; to introduce obstacles and to produce phycological effects.
A camera dolly system makes it possible to achieve smooth camera movements and create effects that can bring a whole new layer to a video.
As an alternative, the Steadicam or Glidecam are shoulder-mounted devices that offer the freedom of shooting handheld while keeping the shot perfectly stable. A three-axis motorized gimbal also offers a more affordable alternative to larger stabilizing rigs.
A crane or jib can used to lift a camera, allowing it to shoot from low to high positions. Small, very portable jibs can support the weight of a camera and lift it several feet off of the ground. For an extreme version of an elevated angle, consider using a camera-equipped drone to capture an aerial perspective.
Cameras like a tiny GoPro are so small they allow operators to invent their own camera movements. Many great shots have been made from GoPros, — both on the ground and even from outer space.
Having learned the basic camera moves, it is time to put them in the back of your mind and use your own imagination create the best movements for each story. Experimentation and a creative mind generate the best camera moves — ones that leave the audience with breathtaking, compelling shots.
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