Things I wish I learned at Film School: Handheld Shooting & Subjectivity

Post by Alex Wu


Before you go out and shoot a film, music video, documentary, or really, any video of any kind, at some point you’ll have to ask yourself how you’ll shoot. You might have predetermined restrictions in time and/or budget, in which case, you might not have the funds to pay for a crew. You might not have the money to rent an Alexa. You might not have the money to rent any peripheral accessories whatsoever. The scale of your project might just be you and a camera.


And maybe a tripod.


This is the standard set-up for most freelance videographers, and even independent filmmakers. Not everyone can shell out $5k+ for a gimbal. If you can, then godspeed to you.


For the sake of this piece, regardless of your actual situation, we’re going to assume you just have the basic set-up. Which means that when you shoot, you’ll have the choice of either shooting handheld, or using a tripod.


But just because you might have one, you should still ask yourself:


Why am I using a tripod?


If you’re recording a live 2+ hour conference from a single point of view, then pragmatism suggests that you’ll probably be using a tripod. Unless you have incredible quads and disciplined control over your bladder.


If you’re moving locations frequently, or even trying to catch moments as they happen, you might be slowed down by having to set up and pack down the tripod each time you want to get a shot. They’re also heavy.


These are situations that might affect your decision from a practical perspective. If you don’t tire easily, and maybe you have a car, then sure, there’s nothing wrong with just bringing a tripod with you – just in case.


But again — if before you go out and shoot, you take the time and think about how you’re going to shoot, how you want the finished product to look and feel, then you might decide that you don’t need to bring the tripod with you on your shoot – or on any other shoot – ever again.

It’s all a matter of style.


Before you go shoot, you’ve most likely watched some references – either given to you by a client, or things you’ve just stumbled upon on YouTube or Vimeo. If you decide that you see something you like, and you want to reproduce the aesthetic of the video, then by all means, nothing is stopping you.


But if you want to develop as a visual storyteller, it’s important to know fundamentally what it means to shoot handheld, or on a tripod, as a form of visual language, and how these visual decisions affect the audience watching it.


Firstly, I just want to establish that I’m not talking about the differences between frantic POV handheld camerawork, and a camera that’s completely locked off. Visually, the contrast is obvious. What I want to discuss is the more subtle differences between the two modes of camera operating. In your shot you might just want to slowly pan from a subject’s face, to what they’re looking at. You can do this both with a tripod, and also handheld – so what’s the difference other than the time it takes to set up the shot?


It comes down to objectivity and subjectivity.


The following is a quote from Polish director of photography, Slawomir Idziak – long-time collaborator with director Krzysztof Kieslowski (Three Colours: Blue, The Double Life of Veronique) and also DP of such films as Black Hawk Down and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – talking about why he prefers to shoot handheld versus using a Steadicam:


“It’s something to do with a certain sense of rhythm, you adapt easily to the actors’ rhythm. The Steadicam dampens the rhythm between the actor walking and the cinematographer walking. So I am trying a different technique, I am trying to adapt my way of working to the actors. I am breathing with them, I am walking the same steps and in my opinion you are getting the identical effect, and much faster because you don’t need all the preparation, or a special operator.”

The key line here is Idziak saying that he is “breathing with them”. When you operate camera handheld, the camera is subject to the same small movements, ticks and faults that you are. If you hiccup, so does the camera. If something unexpected happens behind you and you pivot around, so does the camera. The camera becomes an extension of your body. Filmmakers with documentary backgrounds like the Maysles, the Dardennes and Kieslowski all utilise handheld camerawork because of the immediacy and the intimacy that handheld camerawork invokes when executed properly. It puts the audience in the shoes of the camera operator, experiencing things first hand as they happen. The question of where the camera operator is in relation to its subject, is another thing entirely (we’ll talk about focal lengths in another post).


On the other hand, the function of the tripod is to strip away the human aspect from the camera. The camera becomes an omniscient spectator on the action in front of the lens, like an audience watching a play. Good composition is rewarded with a static camera: each shot is more akin to a moving painting (Movie trivia: Martin Scorsese used to be a painter before he became a filmmaker. He still views his films as moving paintings – this is why his opening credits say “A Martin Scorsese Picture”). An objective camera emphasizes the image itself – the mise-en-scène – and opens the gate for a more expressive style of filmmaking. It’s another ballgame entirely when you add dollies and cranes – but you don’t need to have the budget of a Tarantino or Wes Anderson movie to elicit emotions from your audience. A slow pan from one hand to another can convey all the emotion in the world. So in essence, you’re removing the immediacy, and replacing it with expression.


It’s important to note that this isn’t an argument about realism or formalism, or which is better. There’s no reason why you can’t use both static and handheld camerawork in the same film/video if it makes sense to you. Stories are about emotions, and camera movement is simply a tool among many to service the story you’re telling and the emotions you’re trying to communicate. If you know the story you’re telling, you should be able to identify how it will look, sound and feel from the ground up.


One more quote from Slawomir Idziak:


If the visual side of a film is not conceived before shooting, then it will never come into being.