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Roger Sherman

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Zooming Is Death... For Travel Videos

Posted: 02/24/2012 7:00 am

Whether you're on a ski trip, a cruise, at the beach or filming your kid's baseball game, there is one prominent button on your video camera that you're going to want to press and should avoid: the zoom control. Avoid it like the plague.

"But I need to get in real close," you say? Yes, except no one can hold the camera steady when zoomed in tight on those surfers ripping it out in the waves. Your viewers will become as seasick as I got whenever I tried surfing.

Look at a video you previously shot, or record a new one as a test. You'll see. Zooming is guaranteed to kill your video. With practice one can hold steady when slightly zoomed in. After 25 years working as a cinematographer, careful body positioning and Zen breathing (see my February 17 post, "Hold Steady"), I can hold the camera zoomed in about 30%. Nevertheless, I try to avoid it.

As I describe in my book Ready, Steady, Shoot: The Guide to Great Home Video, always shoot at full wide angle. Many video and still cameras have what's called "steady shot." It's a very cool compensation tool that smoothes out bumps and jitters. Some even have two levels of compensation. I leave mine engaged most of the time at the less extreme level.

When your camera is moving around a lot you'll see vignetting, black intrusions in the corners of the frame, especially in the stronger mode. To me that's very distracting. And, no matter how good the steady shot works, it won't get you a smooth handheld shot zoomed into the top of the volcano from a mile away. In those extreme situations there's only one solution: use a tripod. As I said in my holding steady post, if you're into shooting beautiful vistas, a tripod is crucial.

There is a simple solution to the zooming issue that will help in most circumstances: move closer to your subject. Let's say you're in Havana and spot a beautifully restored car across the street. Don't zoom in and grab a shot from where you're standing. Cross the street, get close, don't be lazy. You'll capture a much better shot which will make a stronger impression on your audience.


Remember, for pros shooting is fun, but it's also work. I'm always pushing myself: "How can I make this shot look special, not just make a record of something I happened past?" Is it the chrome grill or beautiful fender lines that speak to you? Walk around the subject to find exactly the right angles. How do you want to remember it? The people you show your vacation video to won't have the advantage of looking at the whole car; they'll only see what you show them.

Too often people say, "It looked really great" to compensate for a shot that falls short of what they originally saw. The purpose of making movies, whether they are Hollywood blockbusters or home videos, is to capture the attention of the audience. That's not going to happen if viewers can barely see the car because it's bouncing around in the frame.

There may be times when you wish to get a an even tighter shot when you can't get actually get closer physically. If you're sitting at an outdoor café, for example, and want to get a close up of a beautiful dish that's just been served, don't zoom. Extend your arms so the camera moves closer to the dish, create a nice frame and hit the record button. You could also begin shooting wide, a shot of your friends enjoying the place, let's say. After five or six seconds recording them, tilt down towards the plate and extend your arms slowly while recording. It's called "pushing in."


Perhaps you're filming street musicians in New Orleans. You've framed a shot of the whole band -- the drummer, bass player, guitarist and singer -- full wide, of course. Naturally, you want to capture a close up of the singer really getting into it. The tendency is to stay where you are and zoom. But don't, please. And, in order to avoid chopping up the song, you don't want to cut either.

While continuing to record, slowly walk in closer until you've framed a nice shot of the singer. The lens is still set to full wide angle but your shot is intimate. Hold and then slowly move to another player and so on. If you had zoomed to that same tight shot, the frame would have been moving every which way in playback. The emotion would be lost, along with your audience.

With some practice and care, you can shoot great home video. I hope my book helps. Happy shooting!