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Frames Per Second: Create Smooth Video and Tracking Shots on the Fly (And On a Budget)

By Aimee Baldridge


Steadicam, Garrett Brown, stabilizer, football
© Brad Horn
Steadicam shooting by multimedia journalist Brad Horn.

Tracking shots of moving subjects reached a new level of smooth when cameraman Garrett Brown invented the Steadicam in 1975. The body-mounted stabilizer isolates the camera from the movement of the operator, allowing motion shooters to capture shake-free footage while walking, running and riding along with fast-moving subjects. 

But in an era of tight budgets and schedules, multimedia journalism and on-the-fly video production, using such a costly and cumbersome device isn’t always practical. Operating a full-size Steadicam requires practice and time to rig up and balance the camera, and even modestly priced and sized stabilization devices can sometimes be too much for today’s shoestring budgets and fast-paced shoots. 

We asked six photographer-directors who are veterans at video production how they achieve smooth tracking shots without using commercial stabilization gear.

Physical Techniques

The cheapest and lightest stabilization gear is no gear at all. Some shooters develop techniques for holding the camera and moving with it to eliminate much of the shakiness associated with handheld footage. “The best thing I would do is to practice smoothing out your walk,” recommends multimedia journalist and producer Tim Matsui. “Hold the camera a little out from your body, be kind of flowing in your arm motions and realize that you’re going to translate your body motion into the shot.” 

Eric Seals, a multimedia journalist at the Detroit Free Press, compares his walking technique to the footwork of a marching band: “You have to put one foot in front of the other, but do it in a smooth, fluid, gentle way. You just kind of roll. And when I’m walking, I’m also controlling my breathing.” 

While smooth footwork eliminates larger movements, the upper body can buffer the camera from more subtle shakiness. “I think of my body as a shock absorption tool,” says multimedia producer Darren Durlach. He absorbs minor vibrations by holding his arms away from his body and keeping his grip on the camera loose. “That keeps it from those tiny jerky movements,” he says. 

Stephen Keller, a photographer for Southwest Airlines, finds using a shoulder rig a happy medium between the stability of a Steadicam shot and the shakiness of a standard handheld shot, but when he’s shooting without a rig and wants a similarly smooth effect for a tracking shot, he relies on physical technique and one little accessory: his camera strap. Holding his elbows down next to his body, he pushes the camera out so that the strap is taut. “You just push it so that it creates a natural resistance,” he explains. “That will keep the camera much steadier than if you’re just handholding it.”

Settings and Composition

Selecting the right camera settings and composition is also vital to achieving a smooth handheld tracking shot, mainly because it’s virtually impossible to adjust focus while shooting. Instead, the camera operator locks focus on the subject at the beginning of the shot, then maintains a constant distance from the subject while in motion to keep the focus sharp. Because it’s hard to maintain the distance precisely, having enough depth of field to allow for a little play is key. All of the shooters we spoke with stop down to at least f/5.6 for tracking shots when consistent focus is important. 

In some cases, it can be a stylistic choice to open up to f/4 or even wider, and let the subject slip in and out of focus slightly. While that’s not usually a desirable effect for journalism, it can work well in commercial and editorial pieces. “I use that kind of thing in my work quite a lot,” says Rhea Anna, who video shoots for commercial clients. “It’s something I tend to like the look of.”

Shooting wide and maintaining a good amount of space around the subject can also help with both focus and steadiness by allowing camera operators to see the space they’re moving through without looking away from the viewfinder. It minimizes errors as well. “You don’t shoot tight when you’re walking with somebody,” says Seals. “The tighter you shoot, the more magnified your mistakes in walking become.” 

Seals also cites another benefit of leaving some room around the subject during tracking shots: Software stabilization tools such as SmoothCam in Apple’s Final Cut Pro and Warp Stabilizer in Adobe’s Premiere Pro can reduce minor camera shake in post-production, but using the software results in a little cropping around the margins. 

One camera setting that might seem more useful than it really is for tracking shots is built-in stabilization. “You can’t really use it for tracking shots,” says Durlach. “As you move, it’s trying to stabilize [the image] and then it jerks back. It’s kind of a strange phenomenon.” 

Lenses and Viewfinders

A wide lens is the obvious choice for tracking shots, since longer lenses amplify the effects of movement and vibrations. Canon’s 24-105mm zoom is a favorite among many of the shooters we spoke with. “For anyone doing video storytelling for newspapers, that’s the lens you want,” says Seals. 

Having a clear view even when holding the camera at a low angle is vital for maintaining focus during a tracking shot, so many shooters use external camera-mounted monitors such as Marshall Electronics’ 5- and 7-inch models. For eye-level tracking shots, Matsui uses a Zacuto eyepiece to improve his view. 

Hitching a Ride

No matter how much you practice walking like a human Steadicam, you’re no match for a set of wheels. Resourceful shooters are adept at rigging up whatever vehicle they find at hand, from skateboards to pallet loaders to makeshift dollies that can hold both the camera and the operator. “If you have an assistant or someone with you who can push you along, a wheelchair works really well,” says Keller. “It’s almost like you’re getting a dolly shot.”

When Anna wanted to fit a tracking shot of ice skaters into an already packed production schedule, she rigged up a “sleddy-cam” even though she had a Steadicam operator standing by on set. Waiting for the operator to strap on and balance the ARRI Alexa being used for the shoot would have taken too much time. “We just didn’t have 20 minutes to spare at that point in the day,” Anna explains. Instead, she had an operator hold the camera and sit on a sled while an assistant pulled it. Not only was the footage smooth, but the camera operator was able to change shooting angles from high to low without having to make time-consuming adjustments to a Steadicam rig. 

To be prepared to take advantage of whatever is handy with wheels or runners, Anna carries a Manfrotto Magic Arm and clamps. “Even for simple little shoots I always want one of those in my bag with a clip clamp on one end,” she says. “I’ll take a kit with a Super Clamp, a clip clamp and a knuckle. You can pretty much rig anything with that.” She points out that finding a smooth surface to roll your makeshift dolly on is also key to getting glitch-free tracking shots. 

Cars are also frequently used to achieve tracking shots, especially when the subject is riding in another car. Multimedia journalist Brad Horn looks for a ride with a sunroof so that he can stand up in the passenger’s seat and shoot, and many photographers find ways to mount a camera on the hood or side of the car. Seals created an inexpensive mount by attaching four suction cups to a metal mounting plate. He mounts both digital SLRs and small GoPro cameras with his system. He uses the GoPros to produce B-roll clips and uses his smartphone as a Wi-Fi-enabled viewfinder inside the car.

DIY and Makeshift Stabilization Gear 

Seals also uses low-budget, DIY versions of commercial stabilization tools when he knows in advance that a shoot will require smooth tracking shots. For under $10, he made a rudimentary PVC pipe version of Manfrotto’s circular Fig Rig stabilizer. With his camera mounted in the center of the PVC ring, Seals holds the ring away from his body with both hands while walking to stabilize his shot. “I work at a newspaper, so we don’t have a big budget to buy something like that,” he explains. “A lot of things I use, I build and expense.” Seals points out that instructions for building homemade versions of many commercial video tools are available online, notably on YouTube.

Another makeshift stabilization tool that many photographers already have in their kit is a monopod. “You just collapse the monopod, and it becomes almost like a Steadicam,” Horn explains. “It’s got a handle on it, if you’ve got a video head.” Horn uses a monopod with a panning head and a stabilizing foot that allows him to brace the pod securely against his body. “You can use your left hand to hold the panning handle and your right hand to hold the feet,” he says. He likes the flexibility of being able to switch quickly from using the monopod as a tracking shot stabilizer to extending it to the ground for static shots and panning. 

Still, even a monopod can be too much of an encumbrance during fast-moving journalistic shoots. As Seals explains: “If the person I’m doing a story on is doing something and all of a sudden does something else that requires a different view, I can’t tell him or her to stop and wait for me to take my monopod off and get on the ground, because then I’m influencing the situation. In journalism we have ethics, so we can’t do that.”

At the end of the day, whether you’re a journalist or a commercial motion artist, one of the best reasons to become adept at improvising and using physical stabilization techniques has to do with another kind of stability—financial stability. As Matsui observes, “A lot of younger photographers are prone to investing in equipment, and then they carry it as a liability for a long time.” His advice? “Do not go into debt over gear unless you can pay it off in a short amount of time, with the job that you have or are in the process of finishing. I can’t emphasize that enough.”

Videos: Below are examples of the work done by five of the photographers featured in this story:

CRI: Rowing For All from Darren Durlach on Vimeo.

BlueCross BlueShield - Stability from Rhea Anna on Vimeo.

Running from Addiction from Brad Horn on Vimeo.

Marcus Buggs Part 1; Growing up fast, determined to succeed! from Eric Seals on Vimeo.

Recovering from #Sandy: Bigger, Better, Stronger from Stephen M. Keller on Vimeo.

Related:
Frames Per Second: How Storyboarding Can Make Your Video More Cinematic
Frames Per Second: A Love Story Inside a Fashion Film
Frames Per Second: A Corporate Story, Told By a Journalist
Frames Per Second: Pitching Video Storytelling

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