Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Steady, steady.....

One of the characteristics of "real movies" is a rock-solid camera. It just doesn't move around much. And when it does move, the movements are smooth and flowing. Contrast that with most home-video movies where the camera is in constant motion - jerkily panning from side-to-side, tilting up and down, and often zooming in and out.

It makes sense - at least a little. Our home videos are usually shot with light-weight, autofocus, hand-held cameras that can be operated while standing, sitting, walking, riding, or even skateboarding. Zoom controls are right at our fingertips. When we're not shooting video, we don't keep our eyes fixed on any one item for very long; we constantly glance around the area, taking in thousands of details about our surroundings and deciding where to concentrate our attention. We start out shooting video a little bit like we use our eyes, constantly scanning the room for details. Is that something important? Zoom in to check, zoom back out when you want to see more. Tilt the camera to the side and you tilted the viewfinder at the same time. So the camera viewfinders show us an image that looks level, even though the camera is not. The awkward manner that we hold cameras scrunched up against our face quickly tires your muscles adding a tiny bit of tremor if you shoot for a long period of time. Mega-zoom lens on camcorders make matters worse because when we zoom to extreme telephoto to catch distant action, the narrow-angle of the lens makes even tiny motions large on the screen. Larger swing-out viewfinder screens can make matters even worse because we can now hold the camera out from our face, dangling it on the end of our arm.

When you are shooting video, you become part of the action. You are there with the camera held up to your face; you have the full context of whatever is occurring. Viewers of your video, on the other hand, are usually sitting in a chair, watching a screen. They can only see what you choose to show them. If you swing them around wildly, jerkily panning from side-to-side, tilting up and down, and zooming in and out, they'll just get dizzy and won't want to watch.

I have seen very few home videos that wouldn't benefit from less camera motion. (That includes my videos!) But you probably aren't going to buy a heavy-duty tripod, firmly attach your camera, and carefully level it whenever you set it up. Besides... that would negate many of the benefits of a lightweight hand-held camcorder.

So how do we stabilize our footage to keep the viewer from getting dizzy, and still remain hand-held and portable?

There are a number of things you can do to stabilize your video without toting a 12-pound tripod around Disneyland. First, get a good, comfortable grip on your camera. Spread your feet about shoulder-width apart; hold the viewfinder up to your eye, with your elbows bent. Find a comfortable way to look at the viewfinder - if your face is all "frowned-up," your video will also look unhappy. If your muscles are strained into an uncomfortable position, you will quickly tire and the minor muscle tremors will shake the video a lot. Only in rare circumstances does it make sense to hold the camera at arm's length with the view screen open - something guaranteed to tire your muscles very quickly. Adjust the diopter adjustment on the viewfinder so you can see the full image confortably. This is particularly important if your wear glasses or contacts. Decide to adjust the diopter on the viewfinder either for your corrected vision with glasses or your uncorrected vision - then always shoot the same way. This may require you to push your glasses up on your forehead to see the whole viewfinder, but your footage will look much better.

Now, are you comfortable with your camera in your hands? Are your muscles generally relaxed and not strained? Good! Now look for a place to lean against or to prop your elbows on. Even the most experienced shooters try to use some stationary object to help them steady the camera. Put your elbows on a table or railing, or lean against the wall, car or a street-sign. I have even rested the back of my right hand (the hand holding my camcorder) against the corner of two walls to help stabilize the picture.

Now that you've reduced much of the accidental shakiness, its time to decide what you want in each shot. Seems obvious, but most home video that I watch has the camera aimlessly wandering around the scene trying to follow often overlapping action. It pans to catch images of Katie feeding the ducks, jerks in a different direction when baby Mike crawls into the scene, then crash-zooms to cover the 6-year-old in the background swinging maybe just a bit too high, then zooms back out when a quacking duck gains the attention - and all in the space of ten seconds!

I'd probably like to see all of those things, but instead I get to see a tiny, shakey piece of each of those things. If you edit your videos, maybe you could edit out the junk, but then there's probably not enough of each shot remaining to keep my interest. It may be better to choose to tape 20-seconds of "Katie feeding ducks," even if it means that any images of baby Mike has to be video'd at a different time.

I once had an old camcorder that wouldn't let you zoom once you started recording - not sure it was designed that way or just so underpowered that there wasn't enough current to run the zoom motor while the tape transport was running. In any case, treat your video the same way. Frame the shot with the zoom lens, start recording, stop recording, then use the zoom to adjust framing for the next shot. As far as zooming while recording - Just Say NO!

OK - maybe you're weak and can't resist the siren-call of the zoom lever - then at least vow to use only one zoom in any shot. Zoom-in or zoom-out, but leave the tromboning for the sound track. Same goes for panning or tilting up or down - just say NO. Or at least pan only in one direction in any shot. And if you absolutely must pan to follow some action, be sure to lead. That is, stay ahead of the action, not behind it. Then at some point, stop, and let the person walk out of the frame - it looks much better than trying to follow them forever. If you pan back-and-forth, or pan to barely keep up with someone walking, you'll convince me you are still looking for something to shoot. Maybe you just didn't realize the camera was running.

Is the ultimate answer to use a steadicam or perhaps a 12-pound tripod? Maybe, but even if you can afford Steadicam prices, there is still a learning curve. Until then, relaxing, steadying against a stationary object, and carefully choosing your shots will go a long way to making your home video more appealing.

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