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Roundup: Back to Basics with Essential Camera Movements

Logan Baker

Looking to master the essentials of filmmaking? Get back to basics with this short overview of key camera movements and their uses.

Top image via gnepphoto.

Camera movements are a crucial part of any video. They add context, build suspense, and shape stories, all with a few simple motions. From smooth tracking shots and sweeping crane shots to the simpler pan, tilt, and zoom camera movements, any production should use a variety of camera movements combined with static shots. Maybe you’re just starting out in video, or maybe you just want to review the basics. Either way, knowing these fundamentals will give you a strong foundational knowledge to build your craft upon. In this article, we cover the basics of camera movements to sharpen your skills.

Crane Shots

Crane shots move the camera vertically with the help of a (you guessed it!) crane. Big productions will use big, expensive cranes, but there are jibs available at a manageable size and price to help you achieve the same effect. With the camera on one end and a counterweight on the other, you can get full arc shots that sweep the camera up and down with fluid, easy movements. While the jib moves up and down, the camera always stays level, capturing totally smooth footage. Crane shots are great for establishing sequences, which usually require full shots of a whole setting. They’re also useful for top-down shots when you can’t otherwise get your camera in an aerial position.

Tracking Shots

In a tracking shot, the camera moves alongside the subject or in and out of a scene. It’s a great way to follow the action in the scene with a smooth, continuous shot. These are the bread and butter of Hollywood cinematography. Hollywood achieves these shots with steadicams or glidecams, but you don’t need a big budget to make them happen. Make your own rig with short rails made from PVC pipes and a DIY dolly made from plywood and wheels, or go super basic and use a wheelchair or skateboard. Not all videos need the look of a tracking shot, but when you need it mastering this shot will add production value to your projects.

Pan, Tilt, and Zoom

There are three camera principles you absolutely need to know when you’re working with a basic tripod setup: tilt, pan, and zoom. A pan shot moves horizontally from point A to point B, while a tilt shot moves vertically from point A to point B, all this on a swivel. The key to smooth pan and tilt shots is a delicate touch. Try using just one finger to push or pull the handle. A zoom shot moves in from point A to point B and can be a bit trickier to master than the pan and tilt — try marking your focal point with gaffer tape before you shoot. These three movements can enhance a scene, adding interest and letting you cover more in a single shot.

These camera movements all offer creative and effective ways to tell your story, but don’t abandon the still shot once you have these down. There’s always room for a simple, static shot in any production.