Zooming, panning, and tilting…

These are sometimes the most effective tools in the VJ’s shooting toolbox and should be the least used too. But all too often beginners can’t hold still and just let the action happen. They just HAVE to tweek things a bit – usually a bit too much. So if we’re able to make these moves, when should we and why shouldn’t we?

Each of these moves has a purpose in the language of video. First – and get through through your skull. Memorize this. A zoom is not a zoom 99.9% of the time. It is an infinite variety of fixed lenses. It allows you to perfectly frame your shot without moving. It allows you to compress and throw backgrounds out of focus…or go wide and have front to back focus. And that’s what I used my zoom for….the rare times I deviated were if I had a breaker or some action I couldn’t wait for and I’d do a flash zoom (get there as quickly as I could) and then stabilize and get my shot. Of course I edited that zoom out.

When did I use a zoom intentionally? For a specific effect. To gradually draw the viewer into a story by moving slowly closer to a subject or object. To close out a story by slowly zooming out. To shock the audience with sudden moves, edited before the zoom ended (rarely).

Pans and tilts. Side to side or up and down. The latter I almost never used for some reason. It just didn’t feel right…but if you have to, tilts are meant to exaggerate heighth or to show something that is too tall to fit in the 3:4 TV screen ratio.

Pans were probably my most common camera move. Most commonly I would use what is called a “motivated” pan…to follow something. If you watch the Wyoming Cattle Drive video below you will see some camera moves – but most of the shots are stable with no movement. I counted 37 shots in the story. Because this is a moving story…animals and people…it probably has more camera moves than most stories I’ve shot. Two tilts (the interview with the boy on the horse and cattle in the water). Three zooms – one nearly not there. The most noticable is the slow zoom out at the end. Eight (ouch) pans…mostly motivated and following action like cowboys on horses. And one dastardly shot when the cattle dog took off after an errant calf…yet even that worked. Gave a feel of reality to the story – stuff is happening here folks.


So the lesson is – don’t use pans, tilts, zooms because they’re there. Use them when you have to – when it makes sense. As Willie Kee gently told me once (after I’d zoomed in on the face of a blind interview subject who was struggling to tell his story) – do that again and I’ll break every finger in your hands.

Coupla days later…ya know, I forgot to mention why not to zoom, pan, tilt. It’s for your audience’s sake. You want them to focus on the story and not get the heaves from watching bad video. Too much movement makes folks seasick (or whatever the visual equivalent is)…I know I get seasick if I lose sight of land and if I watch bad video. The truth? The Blair Witch Project nearly had me on the floor. It was that bad.


4 thoughts on “Zooming, panning, and tilting…

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