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Video Production Zoom Lens Techniques

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Zoom Lens Techniques
Zoom Lens Advantages
Zoom lenses allow you to shift magnification smoothly and continuously, usually from normal or wide angle to telephoto, while maintaining focus and f stop. Magnification is altered by either rotating the zoom collar of the lens or by pushing a button which produces a motorized zoom. Most modern video camcorders come equipped with a zoom lens. Camcorders with interchangeable lens mounts readily accept both zoom lenses and fixed focus lenses.

The quality of zoom lenses has improved over the years to rival the quality of fixed focus lenses and offer videographers great flexibility. This is of particular advantage for videographers who must shoot on the fly. If you are shooting documentaries, weddings, public events or anything else where you may have only one chance to get a shot, knowing how to make the best use of your camcorder zoom lens will be indispensable.

Whip Zoom
One of the best examples is using what I call the whip zoom. The object of the whip zoom is to zoom as quickly as possible so that the zoom portion of the shot can be later removed in editing to produce what looks like a cut from one shot to another, a cut from a long shot to a close up or a close up to a long shot. You need the zoom to be quick to reduce the chance of a bad cut due to elapsed time. And you need to zoom at a moment when you will not be zooming over critical audio, which would be cut out when you cut out the zoom. However, even when such an audio glitch occurs, you may be surprised at how well the edit seems to work anyway. Cuts in the middle of a sentence often just work fine. Other times it's a disaster. You never know for sure until you get to the video editing bench. This is why the zoom needs to be quick and preferably at a pause in the dialogue.

To execute the zoom be sure to set focus while in telephoto (zoomed in) on your subject. This way if you are in wide angle (zoomed out) and zoom in, you will be in sharp focus. This is because the depth of field in telephoto is shallower than in wide angle.

Also check to be sure that you can handhold the camcorder well enough in telephoto to get a steady shot or put the camcorder on a tripod or brace yourself on a wall or table.

If uninterrupted coverage of the scene is not needed, you can zoom in and out at will and later cut out all the zooms. This is a technique that can be used for fast moving or short lasting events. When you have more time, you'll still probably get better shots by physically moving yourself and your camcorder around to get a variety of shots and angles. Even if you are shooting and zooming, you should try to move around even though the camcorder may be shooting video continuously.

If you are going to use these techniques, practice them first, including editing the shots. You need to have a feel for how this works before you can use it with confidence. You also need to get over the initial period of "enthusiasm" so that you can settle down to using the technique sparingly.

Always keep in mind that, if you have the time, you can probably get a better cut by cutting away to another shot or by cutting to a different angle of the same subject. If, for example it is just a shot of a bride and groom dancing, you can move to a different angle and to a closer or wider shot, and get a shot that will cut (or that you can throw out, since it is not essential to have two angles of them dancing). However, if you are shooting the bride and groom cutting the first piece of the wedding cake, you may wish to use the whip zoom. Whip in for a close shot of the couple, and/or whip out from a close shot to a broader shot of the reception. Later, you might also grab a cutaway shot of the guests from the reverse angle to cover yourself in case the zoom doesn't cut. This way you can cut from say bride and groom long shot to reverse angle of guests to close shot of bride and groom.

Why Not Do Slow Zooms and leave Them In?
You can just do a slow zoom in or out and leave in the continuous shot, but there are drawbacks. A zoom is an artificial optical effect. It is something the human eye never experiences on its own. Your eyes do not zoom in and out, and when you see a zoom on the screen, it draws attention to the camera and away from the subject. It is the opposite of a camera dolly, which through physical movement of the camera, brings depth to the two dimensional image. A zoom "flattens", degrading the viewing experience. Avoid them where possible, and when not possible, try to hide them.

How to Disguise a Zoom
You can minimize the effect of a zoom by disguising it, usually by adding movement. Combine a zoom with a pan or dolly or crane movement. If you do this very carefully, no one will know you zoomed, although the viewer may sense some distortion of perspective. The tinier the zoom, the better.

Using a Zoom Controller for Tripod and Remote Shots
Using the zoom controls on your camcorder can sometimes be tricky. It is not always easy to get exactly the zoom speed you want pressing on the rocker switch. When the camcorder is on a tripod, it would be nice if you didn't have to handle the camcorder itself, because you might jostle it or produce hand noise that would get picked up by the camcorder microphone. It would also be nice for some shots to control the camcorder from a distance. A good Zoom Controller is the answer, here. This is a wired remote that clamps to your tripod handle, shoulder brace, jib arm or elsewhere. At minimum, it gives you control over your zoom, and has a record button, but may have many other features such as zoom speed preset, extra zoom controls, focus control, selectable auto restart, manual power up/down, auto focus on/off, VTR controls. Putting a zoom controller on your tripod handle allows you to control the tripod handle and zoom and focus with one hand, and keeps your hand off the camcorder. Extension cables allow you to control a camcorder from a distance, such as from the bottom of your jib arm, when the camcorder is up top and out of reach. Use two zoom controllers and you can control two cameras at the same time placed in different positions if you use a separate video monitor to view the second camcorder picture. For a complete rundown on the possibilites, take a look at the various Sign Video Zoom Commander® models.

Use a Zoom Lens to Frame
When you are in a situation where you can't move the video camcorder forward or back to frame a shot, you can adjust the zoom to get the framing you want. Just zoom in or out until you have the picture framed, then start shooting. It easy to forget that you can do this when you have been walking around getting most of the shots framed the way you want, simply by putting the camera any where you want.

The best use of your camcorder zoom lens is to help you get the shots you want, not to distort perspective and distract the viewer from the subject by showing a zoom during a shot. Generally speaking, don't show a zoom in your final product, unless absolutely necessary.

© 2000, 2002 Garry Hood

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