While “handheld” sounds like holding a camera in your hands out in front of you to get shots, the truth is it’s a shoulder based system. Getting the camera up on the operator’s shoulder has always been, and will continue to be, the simplest and most versatile way to introduce steady camera movement into a scene. When done properly, the camera becomes an extension of the operator, and can be just as effective as any steadicam or gimbal system.
Here are 7 steps to shooting handheld like a pro:
1) Warm Up and Stretch Your Muscles
Handheld shooting may seem like a walk in the park but it really is a physical activity that deserves your respect. Putting a camera system up on your shoulder introduces a lot of stress on your neck, back, hips, knees and ankles so warm up and stretch these muscles to prevent injuries. At the beginning of the day, before a long or even short day of shooting, take the time to warm up and stretch. Sure you might look like a maniac running in place, doing arm circles, twists and various stretches but stick with this routine and over time your body will thank you.
2) Protect Yourself with Braces and Pads
Wear boots or high tops. An ankle sprain may be a minor injury but it can shut a production down if it happens to the only operator on set. Don’t take the risk.
Wear compression braces on your back and knees. A compression brace on your back is probably the best possible thing you can wear to prevent a career ending injury. Back problems never fully go away. Prevent them by always wearing a back brace. Your knees are also prone to injury, considering the all the backward walking and twisting, keep them safe by strapping on the knee braces.
Wear knee pads and even elbow pads. Knee pads are a no brainer. While they may make you look like a cyborg, they are great protection for dropping to a knee to get a solid low angle shot. You may not need them all the time but not wearing them may limit the shots you are willing to get. Don’t limit yourself; wear the pads. Elbow pads are more of an option. If you are doing a lot of walking through doorways backwards or resting your elbows on things, you’ll definitely want them.
3) Don’t Fight the Camera
Make sure your system is balanced. A front or side heavy camera setup is going to transfer the weight to your arms and cause fatigue or even worse, lead to a work related injury. The “cat on the shoulder” feel is what you’re going for. The camera should sit on your shoulder comfortably and be held in place with a very light touch. If this isn’t the case you should reevaluate your setup and make adjustments if you can.
Don’t shoulder the camera when you don’t have to. Down time is called down time for a reason. If you can have an assistant put the camera on and off your shoulder for you, by all means do it! It’s a lot easier for someone else to get the camera up and on your shoulder with two hands than for you to do it with one.
Try to avoid holding the camera off axis. When on your shoulder, the camera is in a very stable, safe operating position. Holding the camera down low and hunching over is not an ideal position. If you have to get low, take a knee or get into a sitting position if possible. If a particular shot is better suited for a steadicam or gimbal due to a low angle or other reasons, don’t strain your body to try to get the shot, use the right tool for the move.
4) Block Out Your Moves
Come up with a plan. Where will the actors be and how will you be moving the camera? What are your cues? are they based on motion or dialog? Discuss these decisions with the DP or director if you have to.
Pace out the moves and count each step. You are essentially doing a dance and each step must be deliberate. The angle and positions of your feet are critical to your next step or camera move so make sure you take the appropriate time to think out each and every step.
Rehearse. The first take is not a rehearsal. Actors will oftentimes give their best performances on the first take. Ruining it with a mistake that could have easily been avoided is a very amateur thing to do. As you rehearse the steps, without the camera, look around and become aware of potential hazards. Touch these hazards as you go through your routine so you remember where they are. After a few run throughs, your body will be on autopilot so you’ll be free to focus your attention on capturing all the action on the very first take.
Lean on things for extra stability. Shooting handheld offers a great deal of flexibility in terms of camera movement, but you do lose a certain degree of stability compared to shooting on a tripod or dolly. To win back some of that stability you may need to cheat by leaning on things. If you know you’re going to make a move and then be stationary for a while before making another move, its ok to end the first move so you are leaning against a wall or piece of furniture. You can even strategically place a foreign object on set to rest against as long as it won’t be seen in the shot. Get creative. Just make sure your transitions are smooth so your moves look seamless.
Move things out of your way. Remember when you were pacing your steps and touching potential hazards? If you come across a hazard and it won’t be seen or doesn’t need to be in the shot, get rid of it! There’s no sense making the maze you have to traverse any harder than it needs to be.
Have an assistant guide you. If there is a certain obstacle that is really going to hurt if you run into it or could shatter to pieces or if you just like to be extra careful, have an assistant help you out by alerting you when you are close or about to hit something. The assistant can lightly touch you as you get close to the object and really give you the stiff-arm right before you're about to hit something. Just make sure he or she knows where to stand so as not to get in the way and ruin a take.
6) Be Invisible
Actors must be 100% in the moment of a scene but the handheld camera operator is a potential distraction in their environment. It is the actor’s job to pretend that the camera isn’t there but doing these few simple things can help you disappear.
Introduce yourself. Before any of the shooting begins, introduce yourself to the talent and tell them what you do. Pick a small talk topic to engage in, sports, food, etc., then be on your way. Later when they see you on set they’ll remember who you are and what you do and that you like food, sports or etc. and you seem like a regular decent person. Once people know who you are they can ignore you much easier.
Treat people like dangerous wild animals. You only need to do this while on set. Your goal is to never draw attention to yourself and the best way to achieve this is to pretend you will be attacked if you do. Avoid direct eye contact, move quietly and slowly, avoid any sudden movements. If you feel tension or discomfort from someone or that they are looking at you, stop what you are doing, move away and then after some time, slowly come back. If you can follow the steps above you will essentially become invisible.
Don’t get between a light source and the talent. Doing this will cast a shadow and you will become very visible to the viewing audience. There are specific lighting schemes that are more friendly to handheld shooting. Limit the amount of low angle, directional light sources you have to deal with if you can. Overhead lighting is your friend.
7) Hone Your Craft
Every shooter will have his or her particular style. It’s up to you to develop yours over time. That‘s the creative part. Below are some very basic fundamentals that every shooter should practice if the goal is to get clean fluid shots.
Develop a solid foundation. Your stance while shooting is very critical to getting steady pro level shots time after time. Feet should be shoulder width apart with one foot slightly in front of the other, knees bent. It sounds sounds very simple and it is if you practice enough to make it automatic.
Take calculated steps. This is where the bent knees come into play. If you are starting from a straight legged position, your first step is going to show up on camera. Bent knees allow for your upper body to be relatively still as your legs move to propel you in any direction. Steps should be quick but deliberate, heel to toe if you are walking forward and toe to heel if you are walking backward. Sideways and diagonal steps are a little more complicated... The goal is to create a disconnect between your upper and lower body so the camera seems as though it is floating. Practice this religiously.
Stay in step with the actor. If you are following an actor or he is following you as you move backward, sync your steps to his. This will keep the space between actor and camera the same as well as mask some of the motion. When doing this technique pay very close attention to the headroom in the frame. You want it to look as if it were locked in place.
Control your breath. Its very important to get the proper amount of oxygen to your muscles. Take one or two deep breaths before you start a take and then continue with shallow controlled breaths as you make your moves. Shooting with a camera is like shooting a gun. If you aren’t controlling your breath, you won’t be able to hold steady on your target. Controlled breathing is something you’ll need to master to become an exceptional handheld shooter.
Practice. Becoming good at anything takes a lot of practice and handheld shooting is no exception. Luckily, a lot of these techniques can be done without even having a camera. You’re basically just learning a new way to walk and glide at the same time: forward, backward, sideways, up, down and in between. Focus on the disconnect between your legs and shoulders, always make smooth moves and above all, JUST GET OUT AND SHOOT MORE HANDHELD!
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