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Six Tips for Shooting Handheld

By June 3, 2013Movement

Shooting handheld is a very effective storytelling technique when you want your footage to look raw, real, and less produced. It also offers speed and convenience in the clutch — so it’s good for any filmmaker to know some solid handheld techniques, should you every find yourself short on equipment (hint: you will).

How do you want it to feel?

Before your hand even holds the camera, you need to take a minute and think about why you’re shooting handheld. Yes, this seem rather obvious, but it’s important to make the distinction before you go into your shoot — because you’ll have some decisions to make!

Are you going handheld because you want it to feel gritty and less produced?

Or is it because you are all up in a tight space and need to ditch the extra equipment?

If you’re not careful and precise about your camera work, you can easily land yourself in Blair Witch Project territory, and everyone will want to vomit after watching your movie.

Whether you’re shooting handheld because you want it to look raw, or because it’s most convenient for you in the moment, you’re going to want to follow Patrick’s tips in this SMAPP tutorial…

1. Use an IS (image stabilized) lens.

We like the Canon 24-105. Nikon calls it the Vibration Reduction lens, they’re the same thing. The point is that they reduce some of that jiggle factor.

2. You’ve got two hands… use them both!

Catching a baseball, shooting a basketball, holding a baby…. and shooting handheld all definitely work best when you use two hands. Make sure they’re spread across your body and you keep your elbows bent and your arms in.

3. Keep the camera close to your body.

Often my mother will hold her outdated digital camera almost a full arm’s length from her body as she snaps 10 photos with the flash on. This system of mom’s doesn’t produce quality work in the end, and it won’t work for you either. Keep your cam in close and tight whenever possible, and move your body toward the subject.

4. Increase the number of contact points..

Increasing your number of contact points is going to play a huge role in reducing the amount of shake in your footage. It’s painfully easy to create more movement than you really want, and you can easily go from one contact point to three with a camera strap or or a Zacuto z-finder.

5. Avoid changing focus.

Any time you move your hands, your camera is going to shake. For this reason, it’s always best to get in focus before you begin your shot, and do everything you can to keep from changing focus so that your hands aren’t all over the place. That being said, by increasing your number of contact points, you’re going to improve that level of shake if you must change focus.

6. Use wider lenses.

The shaking of the camera is going to be much more noticeable and annoying at the longer end of your lens. The solution here is to stay at the wider end of the lens and move closer to the talent.

But what if you want it to look handheld and raw, with a little shake?…

Follow the 6 tips above, and add some movement as you’re filming.

DO NOT simply hold your camera farther away from your body or only use one hand, it can quickly get too sloppy. Make it a choice to add movement as you go, so you won’t be guessing as to how your footage will turn out.

You’ve got the power…

Shooting handheld is a beautiful thing: just you and your camera, out there taking on the world. You have a loving partnership, but make no mistake: you’re the boss. If you’re not careful and focused on when to add the movement, you can easily end up with footage that is too shaky to watch — and then you’ll have to convince people “that’s what you were going for…”

Above all else, shooting handheld is all about control. BE the tripod, and make it a choice to add movement or not. 

Do you have any tips of your own? Share ’em with us!


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  • Kelly Kend says:

    Another thing that really works for me is taking deep breaths, like in yoga or another meditation practice, especially when moving to keep things smooth. Also, when standing still, being aware of how you are holding your back and finding good, centered balance can make you a more effective human tripod.

  • Rick says:

    Love all the advice you guys always dispense! Thank you so much and I hope you all keep it up and knock the documentary out of the park!

    One tip I have is for people who might not be using these nice Canon lenses and instead are opting for off brand models like Tamron or Sigma. Tamron lenses have what image stabilization that they refer to as Vibration Compensation. I own one of their lenses and so have tested this myself, and there’s tons of test videos online, but Tamron’s VC really does a lot better job than Canon’s IS. Used in conjunction with the tips about multiple contact points, etc, you can get shots that do really, really well and barely shake at all.

  • Nigel says:

    Great little blog and video. These are pro techniques. A further tip I’ve picked up and used successfully is this – when panning handheld, ‘wind’ yourself up at the starting position, and ‘unwind’ as you reach your pan destination. In other words, be at your most relaxed stance at the end of the pan, not the beginning. If you start relaxed, and end with your body and limbs twisted, chances are there will be a little to a lot of extra stabilising going on in your system, and therefore, unsteadiness.

    Nice work, Stillmotion team!

  • Mono says:

    Ehm, you’ve just demonstrate here to NOT held camera. See your left hand – all the time in studio is your thumb below lense and you’re holding camera as your mom.

  • It was great to meet your crew in Austin Texas this past year and I’m so glad you are continuing to post these videos. You make us better storytellers and getting a new posting just keeps us going.

    Kelly, you are right breathing is a big part of keeping it steady.

    Thanks for the great info and keep being awesome!
    -Derrick Perrin

  • Matthew says:

    Thanks for these tips. Keep them coming! One request – why do you hide the vimeo fullscreen controls? I have a nice 27” monitor that I’d like to sit back and watch your videos on.