The Camera Pan in Film in Theory and Practice (Part 2): Types and Application

The camera pan in film in theory and practice (Part 2) Types and application
How are camera pans used correctly in film and video? | Image: Cinematographer Alan Caso, ASC

The camera is to the cinematographer what the brush is to the painter. The movement and the way it is used have a decisive effect on the work. This also applies to the camera panning, one of the most important means of film language.

In the early years of cinema, movement always took place in front of the camera lens. The recording device itself rested stably and immovably on a pedestal, while in front of the lens the actors bounced, tumbled and jumped through the scenes. It was only when the recording devices began to move themselves that new universes opened up in the language of film. The camera panning also has a big part to play in this.

You need to know

  • Camera pans are divided into four basic types: Slow Pan, Fast, Pan, Searching Pan, and Tear Pan.
  • Camera pans are used for different reasons: The camera provides the viewer with an overview, guides the viewer’s gaze, it follows something that changes its position in front of the camera, or it uses the movement to facilitate or imitate a cut.
  • Similarly, panning shots can also give a rhythm to the action in a video.
  • A camera pan usually results in a longer take and places greater demands on a film set.

The camera pan

Movements of the camera around its horizontal axis or around its vertical axis are called camera panning.

Technically, there is a wide range of highly specialized equipment for performing vertical or horizontal panning, which enables all conceivable camera movements.

Panning of the camera with simultaneous crane travel

Kameraschwenk mit gleichzeitiger Kranfahrt - filmpuls

Handheld camera panning is also possible with handheld cameras, indeed has become almost commonplace in the age of smartphone video recording.

The ability to pan is as important a design tool as the lighting of the image and the ability to influence perspective in order to control the viewer’s subjective perception, at least to a certain extent.

An unusual form of representation that is created without camera movement is bullet time. FILMPULS has a separate article on this effect.

6 reasons for a camera pan

A camera pan can occur for 6 reasons:

  1. Providing an overview
  2. Guiding the viewer’s gaze
  3. Tracking of moving objects
  4. Organic transition of two settings
  5. As a cut replacement (by changing the object)
  6. For film rhythmic reasons, whereby movement and panning speed occur as partial elements of a larger, dramaturgical whole.

If the picture elements of two consecutive elements are in motion, they must be aligned with each other under all circumstances when the camera is panned.

The panning of the camera must be motivated by plot and dramaturgy. Therefore, the panning speed, as well as the frequency of the panning and the duration, must harmonize with the movement of the film image, but also with the montage.

However, the movement of the picture elements must not only be designed in relation to each other, but also in combination with the camera panning in such a way that the transitions can flow into each other. Not all camera pans are the same.

Whether a pan is perceived as natural by the viewer, in connection with the film plot, depends not only on the type of pan, but also on the cultural background of the audience.

If the audience reads from right to left instead of left to right, a clockwise camera pan is considered special and exceptional. In cultures where reading is from left to right, a counterclockwise sweep is considered unusual.

Basically, there are four types into which a camera pan can be classified:

1 Slow pan

The slow panning of the camera allows you to notice changes and look closely. They take away the viewer’s sense of the real passage of time and thus create an appropriate mood.

The best known type is the panorama. Here the camera slowly pans across an atmospheric landscape. From a dramaturgical point of view, the slow panning of the camera is usually also retarding, that is, they delay. Not only by its duration, but also in terms of content, the continuation of the plot eagerly awaited by the audience. Where this is the case, slow pans may not be used as often as desired.

2 Fast pan

The fast panning of the camera naturally resolves surprises through its speed. This is also why it has a high dramaturgical importance in the montage. Sudden reactions of the protagonist or antagonist or the confrontation of contradictions, dramatic dialogue passages or sudden turns in the plot of a film or video are typical applications of the fast camera pan.

Fast movements must be motivated by content even more than slow movements. Likewise, they must be consistent with the movement of the object in front of the lens and the editing rhythm.

Fast panning of the camera, which deliberately violates these guidelines, can also be deliberately used to evoke special moods. So in scenes where tension is paramount.

3 Searching pan

The searching camera pan feels its way towards something. He searches, selects, informs. Mostly he follows moving objects. These can be people, animals, but also cars or airplanes. The speed of the camera movement in this type always depends on the movement of the object that is accompanied by the camera.

However, the searching pan can also be used without following an object in a shot. Then the panning has to be chosen all the more carefully. In this case, you usually pan more slowly than when you are tracking an object.

The larger the focal length or the smaller the shooting angle, the smoother the camera moves.

4 Tear swivel

The rip pan is one of the more spectacular uses of the camera pan. It is created by a sudden, unexpected movement of the camera. The camera pans so abruptly that no details can be perceived in the image.

This is why the tearing panning can also be described as a “wiping aperture” generated in the camera. They are calls for increased attention. From a rip pan, you can cut hard to the next frame without the cut being distracting or appearing to be visible.

Shutter effect (strobe effect)

One important commonality that unites every type of camera panning is the fear of the shutter effect (German: Stroboskop-Effekt ). This occurs when the frequency of a movement overlaps with the frequency of film or video images. This is independent of the playback medium on which the film or video is later loaded or from which video platform the calls to view the video are later made.

Depending on the image resolution and the speed of the panning movement, vertical lines can cause severe disturbances in the image, making it completely impossible to use the recordings later.

As a rule of thumb, the lower the resolution of the movement, the lower the speed of the camera pan.

Digression: Film format and storyboard

Indirectly related to the camera pan is the question of film format. For an overview of the subject, check out the Film Pulse article, “The Ultimate Introduction to Film and Video Formats.”

A good storyboard helps to plan camera pans and other kind of camera movement and thus to execute them well prepared.

Impact on production

A camera shift not only has consequences in terms of content, but also has an impact on the production of the film, the deadlines and the costs. Every time the recording unit has to be repositioned (set up) for a shot, this has a whole series of consequences for the sequence of events on the film set. The film image has to be set up again, the position of the actors has to be checked and the lighting has to be reset. But it’s not just tripods, spotlights and cables that are frantically moved between takes.

As with panning, the change in position changes the angle of view. But unlike panning, the camera does not rotate around its own axis, but changes its location, which usually means a change of focal length or lenses. That, too, takes time.

From a production point of view, the camera pan can speed up the shooting. It combines what would otherwise be recorded piecemeal in different settings. In return, it places increased demands on the direction.

Camera panning: overview of the series

  • Part 1 of the four-part article series therefore contains basic thoughts on camera movement .
  • This second post in the series deals exclusively with panning.
  • Part 3 takes on the camera movement ,
  • while part 4 explains why and when to move the camera in the first place. These questions are answered independently of camera types and settings. They do not concern the technique, but the camera work.

For more on lighting, see Lighting for Film and Video: Introduction to Spotlights and Film Lighting.

This article was automatically translated into English using AI. If you would like to help us improve the quality, we would be happy to hear from you.

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