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When to zoom, when to move closer

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  • When to zoom, when to move closer

    I remember learning about this and for newer filmmakers this is an important thing to learn.

    Lots of cameras have great zooming features, and some cameras are chosen specifically because of a good zoom. But when you are making a film that you want to have a cinematic look a zoom is not so important.

    Watch movies specifically to see how many times a zoom shot is done. I am not talking about a long shot followed by a closer shot but rather an actual zoom shot that starts wide and zooms in, or starts tight and zooms out. Spoiler alert.........rarely will you see this in a movie. It would be a gimmick shot, or a comedic element.

    In most every cinematic shot where the camera moves from wide to tight, or tight to wide, the camera is actually moved instead of zoomed.

    What's the difference? When you zoom in on a shot the spacial distance between the objects at various distances from the lens will change. In other words, that tree behind your actor, and the bird bath in front of your actor (whom you are focused on) will get closer to each other. The tree will move up closer to the actor and the actor will get closer to the bird bath. At the end of the shot all the objects appear closer together and your scene looks totally different.

    You guessed it. When you are zoomed in to start and zoom out the distance between everything increases.

    This is why we use different lenses for different scenes with different "feels" to them. In a scene where someone is hiding from a killer you want the audience to feel uncomfortable and tense, so you use a short lens, like 80mm or 100mm. This will close up the space between things in your shot and make your character appear, and your audience feel, trapped and closed in.

    When you are shooting a scenic shot you want it to feel majestic so you use a wide lens. This takes in a greater field of vision than normal vision and makes the space between everything look farther apart and as if there is a more grand expanse in front of you. An 18mm or 24mm lens would be good for this.

    Normal human perspective is done with a 50mm lens. All of the lens sizes I gave for a full frame (35mm) camera.

    So in order to keep the same feel for a scene, or to keep it from looking weird, you need to move in with the camera, or move out, when that kind of shot is done. This makes things look more natural as the relative distance between things remains the same, like in real life.

    You're still thinking there has to be more zoom shots in movies you've seen. I thought the same thing. Go ahead and watch several movies. It only takes about 3 to 5 to be convinced.

    I hope this provides some perspective about this for new filmmakers. For the longest time, before I got into filmmaking, I didn't really understand why it would make a difference. Once I got this info I found it invaluable.


  • #2
    We were able to use a steadicam for some scenes in my new feature "Detours," and that was great for camera movement.
    Screenwriter and script consultant:


    • #3
      I have a knock-off of a Steadicam and use it regularly. I made my own first stabilizer for a video camera I shot my first film on (I am a Toolmaker) and it gave great results. When I moved up to a DSLR I needed to get a stabilizer that could handle more weight so I did a LOT of research (can't afford a real Steadicam) and found one of the quality I was looking for at a price I could afford. I usually don't need to wear the vest and arm, and can just use the stabilizer part, but if I have anything on there more than just the camera I absolutely must have it on the arm.

      I am not a fan of shoulder rigs. I am not saying they suck, I am just saying I prefer a Glidecam style of stabilizer. I am more a fan of the "floating" look.

      But to your point, Mara, yes, definitely best to have some kind of stabilizer to make these moves. Either that or a slider or dolly of some kind. A neat trick is to use only 2 legs of a tripod, and with your camera on it have it lean towards you but pointed towards your subject and level. Then you can raise the tripod to a vertical position and continue forward until it is leaning forward, closer to your subject, keeping the camera level the whole time. It gives a really smooth movement and looks like you have a dolly.



      • #4
        Yeah, zoom shots have been relegated to the pile of antiquated tools no longer really used. They were popular when zoom lenses were fairly new--early 1960's? It was used a lot in the New Wave stuff overseas. But since the 80's at least, zoom shots aren't used that much. A zoom lens is handy in composing shots, but more often than not the camera is moved---and it looks much better. I, too, build my own gear--such as a body rig. I won't pretend it's a steadicam, but it does allow me to get some very smooth moves that I couldn't get without it.


        Kurt Hathaway
        VikingDream7 Productions
        Video • Production & Editing