Modern camcorders come with lenses that would have made the pioneers of film cry with joy. Even camcorders that fit in your hand have incredible zoom abilities, allowing you to take video from wide-angle to close-up in one shot.
This is both a good and a bad thing. I can't count the number of home movies I've seen that have been ruined by bad use of the zoom. I've been made vaguely nauseated by quick zooms; gotten headaches from blurry, bouncy video from a shaky handheld shot; and have confused Auntie Doris with Uncle Bob because the videographer used the digital zoom, which reduced them to blurry blobs. And, frankly, I'm sick of it. So here are my tips for making better use of the zoom.
To show you what I mean, I took two sample videos of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco from the Embarcadero waterfront using a handheld camcorder (a Sony DCR-PC109 for all you detail freaks). Both videos are hosted by YouTube. If you don't already have Macromedia Flash, you'll need to install the player to view the clips. The first, Bad Zoom Video, shows how not to do it, while the second, Good Zoom Video, shows a much nicer zoom. Here's what I did right and wrong in each video.
1. Zoom sparingly: Even though your camcorder has a fancy zoom, that's no reason to use it all the time. Zooms should be used only when they actually add something to your video. Generally speaking, people don't care that you've got a fancy camcorder; they just want to see what you saw.
2. Zoom slowly: Few things are more disorienting to a viewer than a quick zoom from wide-angle to close-in on the subject. It's unnatural and occasionally -inducing. A good zoom is a slow, gentle experience that either reveals more of the scene when zooming out or focuses in on the subject while zooming in. Either way, it should be a gradual thing, not a sudden, disorienting movement that feels like falling off a cliff. A slow zoom lets the camcorder refocus. As the zoom changes, the lens needs to constantly adjust itself. In the Bad Zoom video, it can't keep up, so the video goes blurry as the camcorder desperately tries to refocus.
3. Keep it steady: Using a zoom exaggerates the camera movement caused by shaky hands. So try to keep the camera as steady as possible. In my Good Zoom video, I leaned my elbows on the waterfront rail, keeping the camcorder relatively steady. A tripod would have been preferable, but I didn't have one with me. A compact tripod is a great addition to a camcorder equipment bag, but leaning against a wall or other large object can help if you don't have one handy.
4. Avoid the digital zoom: In Bad Zoom, I used the camcorder's digital zoom (which goes up to 120X) to zoom right in on the end of the bridge. It looks awful: The video is shaky and blurry, and it adds nothing to the atmosphere. Unless you really need to zoom in all the way, avoid the digital zoom; I usually turn it off before shooting to avoid accidentally using it.
5. Pick a zoom point: One technique that can help keep your zooms smooth is to pick an object and, as you zoom in or out, keep this object at the same position on the screen. In Good Zoom, I used the end of the bridge. Keeping this point at the same location helped me to smooth out the zoom.
Those are my tips for good zooming. A few final things, however: Remember that videotape is cheap, and retaking a shot that you don't think worked takes only a couple of minutes. A well-executed shot can make all the difference for a video documenting that once-in-a-lifetime trip.