Camera movements are a versatile tool in story-telling. The right camera movement can set the pace of a scene, put the viewer in the shoes of the character as they experience different things, or even add humour to a scene.
What are camera movements and why are they important?
A camera movement is the shift in view, frame, or perspective of a scene, created by movement of the camera or it’s lens. A camera movement alters the relationship between the character and camera, shaping the viewer’s perception of space and time.
Types of camera movements:
This is the most common camera movement. A zoom can include zooming in, zooming out or the famous ‘Dolly Zoom’ popularised by Alfred Hitchcock – using a dolly to move one direction as the camera lens zooms in the opposite direction (this is explored further down this list).
Zooming can be used to magnify certain objects in a frame or to move attention to the objects relative vastness. Using the quick zoom (also called ‘punch in’) adds a sense of drama to the scene, while a slow zoom allows the viewers to observe the character’s sense of focus. Be careful not to overuse zoom effects throughout a video.
A sudden zoom into a character can be used as a scare factor or as a humour effect, as used stereotypically in sitcoms.
Slow zoom into the character gives the perception that the character is being hyper-focused and is often used in emotional or intense scenes.
Zooming out on a performer can show their contextual relation to the giant stage they are performing on.
Take a look at this example to see how the energy changes with zoom effects:
When panning, the camera remains in the same position but it changes the direction it faces. The camera rotates on a central axis from one side to another or slides to the side. This is used to follow a character in a large space, or to simply fit a large landscape in one shot. You can execute this with a handheld shot if you don’t have much equipment by turning your body (not just your hands) in the direction you want the camera to face.
You might pan from a character to the sand dunes of a dessert to give a sense of what the character is facing. The pan can also be used to follow a character moving about in a large space without allowing the audience to lose interest in the story.
Look at this example to see how a character moves in a space with a pan movement:
Similar to panning, tilting fits more in a single shot while the camera remains in mostly the same position. However, in a tilt movement, the camera rotates on a vertical axis in an upward and downward motion. This has a similar effect on the viewers as the low high camera angle. However, tilt can also be used for physical spaces. You can use your wrist motion to get a smooth tilt movement with a handheld camera. A slow upward camera movement is used to elevate the significance of a character or a space, while the downward movement has the opposite effect.
You might focus on a bloody knife and tilt up to reveal a killer, elevating the significance of the character. Or, you could tilt down from the character to the knife if you prefer the significance to be on the murder. Tilts can be used to connect an object to a character or, if panning from ground upwards, a grand city or expansive plains in a ‘reveal’.
This scene from Captain America uses a tilt:
4. Dolly Zoom
In a dolly movement, the camera is mounted on a track and is moved in one direction (forwards or backwards) while the camera lens zooms in the opposite direction. With in-device stabilisation in many modern cameras and phones, you can walk (the industry term is ninja walk) towards or away from your character while zooming to create the effect.
The dolly zoom is often used when a character has just had an earth-shattering revelation or are about to face something significant. It creates a sense of vertigo for the viewer, to help them understand what the character may be facing.
Using a dolly zoom slowly towards a character allows the viewer to understand something is about to happen with the character or their mind.
Here are some of the best dolly zoom shots:
Similar to a dolly movement, in the truck movement the camera is mounted on a track and moved side to side. This is used to follow a character to show the interaction and movement in the environment while keeping the viewer at a constant distance – close or far. In films, for example, you see truck shots of characters walking down a street in a neighbourhood. The nature of dolly and truck camera movements following a character is the reason why these are also known as ‘tracking shots’.
A truck movement can be used to provide contrast in the story by following a character from one space to another, indicating to the viewer there is a change in story pace or mood.
In this montage, there are some forward, vertical and backwards tracking movements from classic movies. These are variations of dolly and truck camera movements:
In the pedestal, the camera moves up and down. Unlike in tilt, in this case, the whole camera moves up and down to frame a tall character, while keeping the frame at eye level for the viewers. The industry term is boom, jib up or jib down the camera. This movement allows the viewer to observe the space or the character more intimately than the tilt movement would allow. You can recreate a similar effect with a handheld camera – tuck your elbows in and keep the camera on your hip level, moving from a squat to a standing position, then raising your hands from your hips to above your head.
A frame of a boy standing against a wall smoking and the camera booms up to show the mother looking down from a balcony above. The eye-level frame allows the viewers to feel close to both the characters without breaking the story flow.
This scene from Inglorious Basterds captures the emotions of character, both above the floor and below, with eye level pedestal camera movement:
Bonus: Rack Focus
Rack focus is debated as to whether it falls under the camera movement or camera technique category. By adjusting the camera lens you can bring the camera from out of focus, to in focus. This is a simple but effective technique to shift the viewer’s focus from one character to another, or from a foreground to a background. If you don’t want to move the camera, you can get creative with this static shot. You can see this technique used here:
Notes from the author, Suhaib Kawish:
With this new-found knowledge of camera movements, I direct your attention to this captivating funeral scene from the 1964 film Soy Cuba. This funeral scene has a combination of different camera movements. Pay attention to the dolly movement that follows the characters, the pedestal movements and how it impacts your perception of the scene, and finally the tracking movement of the flag being passed around. You can explore this scene further and understand it in more detail if you read my previous articles about camera framing and camera angles.
The next time you work on a product promotional video or even a short personal project, look at ways you can incorporate these camera movements.
Some personal notes
These camera movements allow me to capture the emotions of the places I visit during my travels. Sometimes, I include my travel companions in the frame to increase layers to the story. I use a simple camera gimbal to carry out these movements, however, I have also got a similar effect with just my phone camera thanks to the in-built stabilisation and other features of modern cameras and phones.