Camera Work in Film and Video (Part 4): How to Guide the Camera Correctly

Camera work in film and video (part 4): the most important rules
You don't have to know everything, but it doesn't hurt either! | Image: Cinematographer Ed Lachman, ASC

The fourth and last part of the series on movement in film summarizes once again the most important rules for camera work. He explains the criteria according to which movement should be used.

In a four-part series, Filmpuls sheds light on movement in film. Their principles (part 1), pans (part 2) and tracking shots (part 3) are among the most important cinematic means of expression, together with montage and image lighting.

You need to know

  • The camera work is determined by the cameraman in consultation with the director.
  • Every movement of the camera has consequences. Firstly, with reference to the perception of content. Secondly, because the demands on the staging changes.
  • A camera movement that specifically uses movements of the camera thus increases the feeling of being close to life and thus authenticity. That’s why the cameras in Hollywood movies move almost without exception.
  • The most important rule for guiding the camera is the so-called 30 degree rule. It specifies the angle of view when the kamaera positioning is changed.

Rules for guiding the camera

As for mounting the use of camera settings, there are rules. But: Systematic, strictly scientific standards for the evaluation of camera movements do not exist. Independent of the available camera types, there is at least agreement on the fact that

  1. all movements dramaturgically motivated by the plot are always and fundamentally justified;
  2. Movements can be triggered by a dynamic element in front of the camera;
  3. the camera is also allowed to move around an object itself, representing the viewer’s eye.

Professional filmmakers follow these rules for camera work. This distinguishes them from narrow-track filmmakers, amateurs and semi-professional filmmakers. The top five rules for camera work are:

1Dramaturgical necessity is imperative

Changes of the image section WITHOUT dramaturgical necessity are reserved for experimental film and amateurs. The only widely accepted exception is motion triggered by an object in front of the camera.

Sequential storytelling requires “thinking around the corner”.

Connections are not only available at the station and in Continuity. The settings should also come together later in editing by the editor to form a rounded whole. This not only requires the cameraman to think ahead, but also to think as a whole.

If you’re directing a film or video for the first time, you’ll find that thinking ahead about a sequential order of images is less easy than you thought.

In order to create the impression of a seamless storyline from the recorded images in the edit, it is important for the cameraman to pay attention to more than just image composition, light, colour, perspectives, image focal points and movements in each shot.

With movement, the camera work creates a sense of space and authenticity

Tracking shots increase the viewer’s sense of space. Even without 3D recording technology, they give the viewer a stronger impression of being in a three-dimensional space.

However, the classic movement of the camera described in this series of articles can hardly keep up with the natural depth of space and also with virtual reality (VR).

2 Movement guides the view

Camera pans and tracking shots guide, direct and accompany the viewer’s gaze. The camera movement can be compared to the decision about the perspective, among other things by the choice of the focal length: pans and drives reveal new content to the viewer or withhold content from him.

The good camera work tries to guide the viewer’s subjective perception in terms of the plot. Movements startle or surprise the viewer, supported by quick cuts in the montage, or they set the pace for the viewer’s experience as a rhythmic element.

3 Movements have consequences

Camera movements always entail three consequences:

  1. The duration of a shot increases as the camera moves.
  2. The pace of the action slows down.
  3. The composition of the picture is more difficult.

Note: Movements in film have their price in every respect. A good storyboard helps with the planning and facilitates the shooting and helps to determine the axis of action, axis of view and camera axis (keyword: axis jump).

4 Observe the 30-degree rule when guiding the camera

Films and videos can only be mounted according to the rules of art if the angle of view is changed by at least 30 degrees while the subject remains the same and the camera position is changed. When this is the case, the phenomenon of invisible editing occurs, allowing the viewer to pay undivided attention to the content of the film.

The 30 degree rule

kameraarbeit für film und video: 30-grad-regel filmpuls

Compliance with the 30-degree rule for classical editing (French = “découpage classique”, English = “continuity editing”) also requires the avoidance of axial jumps.

5 Story, Story and Story

Cameraman Adrian Teijidowho is behind the camera for Netflix’s series Narcos, says when asked what advice he would give to a young cinematographer: “As a cinematographer, you have a shared responsibility when it comes to storytelling. Part of our job is to think deeply about the story and help the director right from the conception of the visuals. First comes the conceptual thinking. Then the technical thinking.”

No rule without exception

Purists and guardians of the pure doctrine of film craft insist that camera movements as a “technique of accompaniment” in camera work may only serve to maintain the emotional connection to actors moving in the frame. The camera may only be moved for this purpose.

Movements of the camera may only keep the image size and the distance of the camera to the actor constant as long as the emotions carry this.
François Truffaut

For more on this topic, see the article Good Movie Books.

Conclusion on camera work

Content and dramaturgy determine the camera work. The logic of a director who may only move the camera instead of the actors is not very popular in current filmmaking. It is hardly lived anymore. In contrast, the unleashed camera is becoming more and more common again.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, this too often turns the conceptlessness of camera work into a concept and completely misunderstands that merciless casualness cannot be a recipe for success for a medium that carries subjective perception in its DNA.

As part of the shooting process, camera work should also always follow the principle of effect equivalence. The cameraman also translates from one medium to the other.

Film format and video format

Decisive for the look and feel of a film or video are not only the camera work, but also the lighting (more here: Introduction to spotlights and film lighting as well as the question of film format and video format. These also determine the perception of moving images to a significant extent.

The article “Ultimate introduction to video technology” provides an introduction to the subject. FILMPULS also explains the bullet time effect in a separate article.

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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