We all know that using a tripod is the established way to get a steady shot, but sometimes static shots from a tripod can be quite restricting and not very dynamic OR you may not own a tripod/have the time to set one up.
Hand Held shooting is a skill that all camera operators need to develop, and for all the film directors out there, this is also useful stuff to know because it’s always good to appreciate the camera operator’s challenges when shooting.
Hand Held shooting originated in TV news and documentaries. TV situations often dictate that there isn’t enough time to set the camera up on a tripod. The immediacy of urgent and demanding situations often means you’ll miss the sequence before you even get your eye to the viewfinder if you take too long to set up. News and Current Affairs programmes are where I started out in the industry and I can honestly say that if you dawdle around too much you’ll miss the shot and won’t get a second chance to shoot something again, it’s one chance and one chance only! (Incidentally working in this area of TV is fantastic training, because you have to assess things very quickly, make instant decisions and get on with it!)
When filming in demanding situations such as war zones or riots, speed and flexibility will always take priority over the ‘perfect shot’. Regardless of how demanding the circumstances are, the ability to shoot good Hand Held work is an essential skill for any camera operator, drama or documentary.
Many ‘Reality TV Shows’ use Hand Held techniques not only because it’s quick and adaptable, but it adds a certain immediacy and realism to the shooting style.
Finally, the use of Hand Held is now extremely common in the movies. Hand Held shooting in feature films adds a tremendous dynamic to the film narrative and instantly creates a sense of urgency to sequences – especially action sequences. However, this list focuses mainly on how to get steady shots, as opposed to the shaky, frantic handheld seen in some recent movies… no Paul Greengrass here! (watch this space for a future article)
Regardless, whatever you’re shooting – drama/documentary/action -you need to master the basics.
Here Are My Top 10 Tips For Static & Moving Hand Held Shooting…
1. Use a Wide Angle Lens
If you are using a zoom lens, whenever possible use the wide end of the zoom. The longer the focal length the harder it will be to keep the shot steady. If you are on the long end of the lens even your breathing will create unacceptable camera shake (for broadcast). If shooting on 35mm film and using Prime Lenses opt for a wide angle whenever possible – a 16mm or 24mm. Remember the longer the focal length the harder it will be to achieve a steady shot.
2. Place The Camera Firmly On Your Shoulders
This applies to the conventional camera body designs such as the Sony PDW-F335K/2.
For shooting with lighter cameras such as a DSLR or Z1/Z7 keep your arms as tight into your body as possible (as demonstrated perfectly in the header for this post). Bracing them against your shoulder and using the viewfinder to stabilise can also help. The further the camera is away from your upper body (the further away from your center of gravity) and the harder it will be to keep steady.
3. Develop The Right Stance.
For static shots stance is really important; Spread your legs apart, this provides great stability. Standing with your legs and feet too close together makes you unstable and your body can sway and wobble.
4. Breath Steadily
Don’t try and hold your breath throughout a shot, just breath steadily and smoothly. If you hold your breath too long you will eventually turn blue and that can be quite off putting for the rest of the crew! If you do hold your breath eventually you’ll have to come up for air and the resulting gasp will cause even more camera shake than if you breathed normally in the first place. (If you are the consummate professional and stop breathing altogether, you’d better make sure that it’s the best shot you have ever done because it will undoubtedly be your last!
5. Brace yourself!
For static shots lean against a lamppost, tree, door frame or anything that you can brace your body against, use as much body weight as possible by leaning on the object. This will really help to stabilize the shot.
6. Shelter from the wind.
If you are filming outside on a windy day, if possible find a sheltered spot to shoot from, in a doorway or between buildings, anywhere that can protect you from a blustering wind.
7. Watch Horizontals and Verticals
Pay attention to keeping horizontal and vertical aspects of the frame upright and level.
Particularly when you are moving or walking backwards with the camera, with everything else going on it’s easy to let the shot drift off kilter. If this happens the resulting footage will look second-rate and unprofessional.
8. Pan Using Your Hips
To achieve an effective Hand Held panning shot, hold the camera close to your body with your arms steady. Keep your legs firm and still, don’t bend your knees. Then use only your hips to make the panning movement. You can easily achieve a 180 degree pan using this method.
9. Work With An Assistant
If you are walking backwards with the camera always make sure you have someone, preferably a camera assistant, to guide you back. You’ll be looking down the lens and have no idea of obstacles behind you that you need to avoid. A camera assistant can guide you by lightly touching your shoulder and gently pulling you in a certain direction or by holding your belt. (I personally prefer the shoulder method because it doesn’t interfere with the balance of the shot. Pulling on your belt can cause the shot to waver)
10. Be Flexible
As opposed to static Hand Held where you need to brace your legs, if you are walking with the camera bend your knees a little and take long strides. This will smooth out and absorb any lumps and bumps that you will get from moving across rough ground.
Finally… Practice Makes Perfect.
Perfecting Hand Held takes time. Apply these rules every time, and remember your aim is to constantly improve your technique. You can only do this with constant practice which will also build your body strength and stamina which is another key part of it.
So there you go my top ten tips for great Hand Held camera work. Alternatively you could ignore all of this stuff and get hold of a steadicam! I run a course on camera operating – check it out if you want to get some hands on experience and talk face to face.
Oh and here’s a great video from a super-awesome guy who shows you a few tips on how to make do without a tripod… (the super-awesome guy is my son… swell)
Cheers for now.
Free Spirit Film & TV
Film, TV & Online Video Production.