Zoom, zoom, zoom - How to be a good zoomer
How to Use Zoom to Capture Great Video
By Mark Shapiro - February 2, 2008
How to Make Zoom Your Friend
Camcorder zoom looks easy, You just press a button in one direction and the picture inside your camcorder gets bigger, You press it the other way and the picture gets smaller and wider. Sounds simple. However, there is a lot more to using zoom than just pressing the zoom button
Zoom may be the most overused and most wrongly used control on a camcorder – aside of course, from pressing the record button when there is nothing to record or not pressing the record button when there is something wonderful going on.
So lets take a short look at zoom. Lets begin with the various control types. My favorite is the rocker lever with the zoom action in line with the camera. You press the zoom lever forward and it engages telephoto, enlarging the image. You press the rear end and the zoom reduces telephoto and shows more of a wide angle. Most professional and higher end camcorders offer this type of zoom control.
On most, you will also find that you can adjust the speed of the zoom. The harder you push, the faster the zoom and vice versa. A really fast zoom or crash zoom is great when you really want to emphasize of point or image. Slow gentle zooms, especially when teamed with a slow, gentle camera move, are very effective for beauty and nature shots. Slow or creep zooms are also helpful when you want to correct the composition of the image – live – without your audience noticing.
On the top echelon of camcorders, you will find a choice of three or more variable zoom speeds.
More Zoom Control Options
In addition to the standard rocker lever, you may find other types of zoom control. Sometime you have a rocker lever that is perpendicular to the camera lens. Not as intuitive as a control in line with the lens, it can provide a nice smooth zoom move. Other camcorders use dials, wheels, sliders or what I like the least, a set of push buttons – one for zooming in and one for zooming out. I have found it is almost impossible to get a smooth live zoom with zoom buttons so it is best to reserve your zooms for when you are not recording. Shoot a scene, hit stop and then zoom to a new composition and then start recording again.
Optical versus digital zoom
This is no secret. Optical zoom is much more important then digital zoom. By now, most consumers and users of video gear have learned that digital zoom is relatively useless. Instead of zooming, all digital zoom does is magnify the size of the captured image. This means that the pixels get bigger and fuzzier, and the video noise gets bigger and more noticeable. Once you get past two or three times digital zoom, the image becomes essentially unusable. I’ll admit, there might be a time when you want to take a close-up shot of a bird on building across town and the combined optical/digital zoom is the only way you will see it at all. Sure its fuzzy and ugly, but at least you see something.
When you are shopping for a camcorder, ignore the digital zoom claims and just look at optical zoom.
Optical Zoom – My Zoom is bigger than yours
Nowadays, some camcorders are offering amazing optical zoom ranges. Panasonic and Hitachi are offering a bunch of consumer camcorders with 30x zoom. Canon’s new family of small DV camcorders come with 35x zooms. Sony’s new digital camcorders now offer an amazing 40x optical zoom. It’s the new zoom wars.
Should you get the camcorder with the biggest zoom? Maybe not.
There are three challenges to using an optical zoom with a ratio of 20x or more. First, what compromises did the manufacturers have to make to squeeze so much magnification power into that small lens designed to sell cheaply on an affordable camcorder for the home market? In other words, how good is that incredible zoom lens?
If you read some of the reviews of these new camcorders with incredible zoom ratios, you will note complaints that toward the extreme end of the zoom range, the edges of the images often look fuzzy and unfocused. It is not easy to design a 40x optical zoom into a small and affordable hand held camcorder.
The second issue is with that much zoom range – how much control do you have? Earlier, I discussed variable zoom speeds but the point is that you want to be able to SMOOTHLY zoom in at various speeds. Whether you are doing a crash zoom or a gentle and slow inch in, it has to be smooth. Will a budget zoom lens provide that?
Finally and most importantly, how the heck are you going to hold that zoom steady? Once you get past 10x or so, it is almost impossible to hold a camcorder steady using just your hands. Even with the best optical and digital image stabilization technologies working together, almost no one can hold the camcorder steady once you get 15-20x or so. You got to use a tripod.
And once you get past 25-30x or so, you start to need a VERY good tripod that is heavy and sturdy. And once you get into the zoom range stratosphere, you may find that no tripod will work because the tiny vibrations inside the camcorder itself start to become noticed – especially the grinding of the zoom motors themselves and the motors and gears pulling the tape through the camcorder.
So what is the point? Don’t let the big zoom ratios dictate your choice of camcorder. Before you purchase, try out the camcorder at different ratios and see if it is possible to get a still image at 25x, at 30x, at 40x and beyond.
Tricks to Using Big Zoom Ratios
In addition to using a tripod, turn on both optical/mechanical and digital image stabilization. Image stabilization has greatly improved in the last few years. Some camcorders, especially the higher end camcorders, offer both optical/mechanical and digital/electronic image stabilization. Use it. If you have a choice between the two, go for the optical/mechanical flavor as it does not distort your captured video as much as digital/electronic stabilization.
Another tip for using big zooms is to camouflage the shakiness by movement. People notice the jiggle around a still object a lot more than they notice it around a moving image or a moving camera.
Here’s yet another tip if you insist on using extreme zoom. After mounting your camcorder on a tripod, and locking it down so it won’t shake, use the camcorder’s remote control to activate the zoom instead of your finger on the camcorder’s zoom control. Just your touch on the camcorder, can make it shake.
How to use zoom to compose shots
The first rule of zooming is to not overdo it. Almost everyone, when they get their first camcorder, ends up zooming in, zooming out, and zooming sideways. It’s a giant chaotic zoom circus that tends to make viewers nauseous and seasick. Luckily, most of quickly graduate past that initial zoom addiction phase and then want to learn how to correctly use zoom to improve our productions.
In film school, I leaned a couple rules about zoom. Basically you want to zoom IN to spotlight and punctuate an item or plot point. IE – the burglar enters the house. You zoom into the safe. Or maybe you have a scene where two poker players are playing a high stakes game and they are looking for tells. From a medium shot of one nervous player’s face, you zoom into a tiny twitch below his left eye.
The second rule - zoom out to reveal.
Zoom OUT to show something extra or special about the scene and surprise and delight the audience. In a film, you might start with a close-up of a flower and then slowly zoom out to show the incredible waterfall behind it.
You might have two nervous lovers kissing. Then you zoom out to show that they are being held prisoner at gunpoint by a bunch of thugs. Pull out some more to show that the lovers and thugs are perched on a flimsy bridge high about that waterfall. Each zoom added more to the shot and took the video to a new and more dramatic direction.
However, the most important lesson I learned in film school and working in the industry was to NOT ZOOM AT ALL. Or at least, not zoom live. In most Hollywood films, you will see very few zooms. The zoom control is basically used only when the camera is off in order to compose a new angle or shot. That is the big difference between feature films and TV shows like soap operas and reality TV where they don’t have time to reset the cameras and create unique compositions. In a soap opera, reality show, or sitcom, they continually use zooms to recompose a shot or to follow action.
How to get sharp focus when zooming
There is a trick to getting sharp focus on an object during a zoom. Auto focus does not always do the trick. Sometimes it is too dark or there are too many objects in the way of the shot that confuse the auto focus’s brain.
Always start by zooming all the way in and using maximum telephoto to manually set the initial focus. Get it as sharp as you can. If your camcorder does not offer an optical viewfinder, you may find to easier to use the SET FOCUS button instead of relying on the manual focus button and the image you see in the LCD screen. Once your focus is set, as long as the distance between the camcorder and the subject does not change, you can zoom in and out as much as you want and the subject will stay in focus. Remember, zoom in, focus, set up your shot and then hit record.
Creative Zoom Techniques
One of the coolest effects of using zoom is to combine it with changing focus. In a wide-angle shot almost everything is in focus. In a telephoto shot, the range of sharp focus shrinks. For example, when shooting outdoors on a bright day, extreme wide angle focus probably starts about two or three feet in front of your camcorder and then goes off to infinity. However, when using extreme zoom, the range of focus shrinks to just a few feet. That is why it is so hard to maintain focus on moving objects when using extreme focus.
However, you can use this to your advantage. Here are two options. First, assuming you have a manual focus control on your camcorder, start by turning off auto focus.
Using extreme telephoto, the scene starts focused on a butterfly close to the camcorder. Maybe the butterfly fills the bottom third of the screen. Then, by changing the focus only, you take the butterfly out of focus and instead focus on the cat in the background that is hungrily eyeing that fluttering tidbit. As you shift focus, the foreground butterfly will go soft and almost disappear while the cat’s feral eyes become sharp.
What if your camcorder does not offer manual focus or it is too difficult to use easily? We can use zoom with a little camera movement to get a similar effect. This time we start with the camcorder up close to the butterfly, wide angle. Then we hit the zoom lever, and zoom in and pan a bit to the hungry cat in the background, eagerly licking his chops waiting for you to go away so that he can finally snatch that juicy butterfly.
Zoom to Start Your Movie
I like combining zoom with motion, especially at the beginning of a video. This is especially effective for shooting travel or event movies. For example, when you are on a trip and you want to shoot a segment showing a new destination, start off with a close-up or medium zoom shot of a sign and then pan left or right, while zooming out to a wide shot to show the entire location.
For example, see this sequence I shot at an event in San Diego. I started with a close-up of the flower and then ended up with a wide-angle shot of the stilt walker. As I zoomed out, the viewer got to see more and more until he or she finally figured out what they were seeing.
You can do the same thing for a birthday party. Start with zoomed in close-up of the birthday cake and then tilt up, pan left or right while zooming out to show the entire party crowd having fun. Then zoom out some more to show the location where the party is held. Using zoom, in combination with movement, is great way to introduce a scene or a home movie.
Using Zoom to Make People Look Better
Even though wide-angle shots are more dramatic, if you want to make someone look better, you should try using a telephoto shot. Get further back away from them and then zoom in. For most people, using a telephoto shot flattens out the face’s angles and gives them more of a “model” look. Also, by being further away, and using telephoto, you make them stand out from the background. A busy background, especially if it is full of color and detail, takes the viewer’s eye away from your subject’s face. This goes for all kinds of images and compositions. If you want to separate your subject from the background, move your camcorder and tripod back away from them and use your telephoto. If you want a more dramatic shot, get up close and shoot wide angle so that your subject and the background are in focus.
Zoom is your friend
By correctly using zoom – avoiding digital zoom, not zooming too much, and using zoom to accentuate your videos, you can take the next step towards making your videos look as interesting and as professional as possible.
Also read this -
My Zoom is Bigger than Your Zoom - The Zoom Wars