Need advice on tripod pan/tilt technique
Hello everyone....I am a videography hobbyist who would like to improve her tripod game. For the past year, I've been filming a college choir regularly. However, despite filming about seven concerts now, I feel my technique is only getting worse. I need some advice on how I can improve.
I am using a Canon G40 camcorder with Rode shotgun mic and a Manfrotto tripod. The Manfrotto head is a 504HD, a fluid head with adjustable drag for the tilt and pan. I usually film the choir from the back of the auditorium. So most of my camera movements involve zooming slowly into one side of the choir, panning across slowly to get faces, and then zooming back out to a wide shot.
It sounds simple, but all my trouble lies in that camera movement. My two main problems:
- When I decide to zoom, I first have to release the tilt lock on the left side of the tripod and the pan lock on the back. Next, I have to switch my grip on the pan handle (which is on the right side) from my right hand to my left hand. That way, my right hand is freed up to access the camcorder's zoom rocker (on the right side, top). Inevitably, unintended movement on both the tilt and pan axises result from that hand switch. Then I slowly zoom in while the tilt and pan are loose. That works fine until I reach my ending shot. Then I have to change hands again in order to lock the tilt on the left side. So I take my right hand from the zoom rocker to grab the pan handle, and reach my left hand back around to tighten the tilt lock on the left. Again, because of the hand switch, I always end up bumping the pan axis and sometimes the tilt too before it's locked - movement that is exaggerated because now it's zoomed in.
No matter what camera movement I try, I wind up with unprofessional "bounces" that look terrible as a result of switching hands, tightening/loosening the tilt/pan locks, etc. I feel like a real klutz! (Needless to say, the same trouble occurs on the zoom back out to the wide shot.)
- My second problem is panning. As I mentioned, I am filming from a good distance. I try to pan as steadily, consistently, and slowly across the choir as I can. But EVERY tiny inconsistency shows up, and if I shift too quickly a TINY bit - forget it. I never seem to have smooth motion but only tiny jerks across the choir. I have the pan tension very loose (as I read that advice online) but it doesn't seem to help.
No matter how many concerts I film, these issues never seem to get better for me. Can anyone give me advice on what I am doing wrong? Is it possible to get a tutorial from a local professional videographer? (Does anyone ever do that?) I'm just embarrassed by my unprofessional-looking video and want to know what I can do to improve. Thanks for any help you can give me.
I avoid panning and zooming while the camera is rolling because of the same issues you've mentioned. Whenever possible, I pause the camera whenever I reframe. Of course, that's not possible when shooting a live performance. So, there are two different approaches that have proven helpful to me.
The first approach depends upon having the funds. I always shoot performances with a matched pair of cameras, and I move from camera to camera. That works really well, especially when shooting from a balcony. That way, I can leave both cameras rolling. If the pan, tilt, or zoom looks crappy, I switch to the other camera during the edit. It helps having an editing program that does multicam.
The second approach, that works with even a single camera, is "faux pans, zooms, and tilts." A lot of people are familiar with the "Ken Burns effect", where you pan, zoom, etc. across still images in your video edit. But many people don't realize those same effects can be done on moving video too, depending upon which editing program you use. Many programs have this capability. Some of the professional programs I've used that can do this are Avid Media Composer, and even the old discontinued Avid Liquid (formerly Pinnacle Edition). A consumer program I've personally used that can do it is Pinnacle Studio, but probably not the basic version.
Other programs that I haven't used, but KNOW have the capability are Edius, Lightroom, and Adobe Premiere. Several consumer programs advertise having the capability as well. But as consumer programs go, I haven't used many of them. I do most of my work in Avid Media Composer, with occasional jobs I use Pinnacle Studio when I don't need all the media management, timecode overlays etc. that Media Composer offer.
So, don't feel bad about having difficulties with tripod technique. I do too. So I fake those smooth moves, and hide my own not so smooth moves. The main thing I am careful to do is maintain sharp focus while shooting wide. That allows a certain amount of zooming in without sacrificing much image quality.
Hope this helps.
Doing the pans and zooms in post can work - it works better, obviously, if your base shot is 4k. I do this in my ukulele concert gigs for my unattended cameras: shoot an HD wide shot, manipulate the pans and zooms in post with keyframes. It works best when the camera is super-close to begin with. Your "high up in the cheap seats" distant shot will not look as clean because even in HD, you have a limited number of pixels to blow up. A 4K recording would help.
There's a number of things you could try regarding the tripod and technique. Some involve expense. Moving your hands off and locking/unlocking are issues. You want more spring tension and more fluid drag to start with, so you can hold the shot without using the locks. Be sure the camera is balanced to naturally return to the right level, hands-off, and you won't spend all your muscle energy holding the shot. With a well-balanced camera and head, you only need fingertip pressures to hold a shot or initiate a move.
If the camera has LANC connection ability you want to add an aftermarket zoom controller to the arm of the pan head. Vari-Zoom controllers have a useful speed adjustment knob that can really slow down the zoom speed to a crawl. If your zoom rocker has enough sensitivity, you can use the "pinch technique" on the rocker switch instead of just pressing on it with the finger or thumb. Over the years, that's my main technique for smooth zooms: you pinch the front and back of the rocker, the finger tips acting as drags and stoppers, and roll the entire wrist, to make the rocker move the very tiniest fraction.
Pan moves will improve with added mass on the camera and head to dampen shake, as well as with using longer arms. You may consider getting a heavier tripod and head than the camera needs, just for the stability.
I would recommend an inexpensive gopro knockoff, the iconntech, around $50 or less,
that you locate somewhere to get a cut-away shot, and this lets you eliminate showing the beginnings and endings of your live camera moves in the edit. You could also mount it on top of the current camera, if there's no better place. This one ugrade will seriously improve the overall professionalism of your work. If you can put a gopro or iconntech on a mic stand and get it up near the stage, ...maybe hook it to the conductor's music stand, digital pans in post from that will be amazing.
Finally, the Rode shotgun is nice, but if there's a PA system, you should look into connecting to it with an inexpensive digital audio recorder, (used around 50 bucks for a Tascam DR-05 or similar unit) and mixing the board audio with the live "wild" sound from the shotgun. Or put the audio recorder up closer to the stage, if you can't tap into the PA system. Poor video is more tolerable if the audio is really good. And nobody watches good video for long, if the sound sucks.
Dittos to above posts. When you are forced into a pan, a rubber band can be your best friend. Tie a rubber band to the pan arm and pull the rubber band with your hand instead of moving the pan head directly. Longer ones are easier to grasp and you can loop multiples together if you do not have large bands. The rubber band will dampen the any jerks and provide very smooth slow movement.
My $.02 worth.
Thanks so much for all the replies!
Unfortunately, a second camera and/or a 4K camera are not possible right now. (Also, since this is gratis work, I generally avoid most advanced editing.) As for the mic, that's the least of my worries right now - the Rode does seem to get the job done - but I do think a separate audio recorder on the stage will be possible in the future for some concerts. And I will try out the rubber band trick, which I have tried in practice but haven't had the nerve to do at a live event.
[Mark Suszko] "You want more spring tension and more fluid drag to start with, so you can hold the shot without using the locks."
Can you elaborate on this? Right now I have the tilt tension set about medium and the pan tension very loose. Should these be set differently? I'm just not sure what you mean. When I had the pan tension tighter, it seemed like my movements were even more stuttered.
[Mark Suszko] "Be sure the camera is balanced to naturally return to the right level, hands-off, and you won't spend all your muscle energy holding the shot. With a well-balanced camera and head, you only need fingertip pressures to hold a shot or initiate a move."
Clearly this is an area I need to work on. I thought I set the balance correctly when I first got the tripod, but I confess to only minimally understanding how to do. it. If you can give me any reference or links to help with this, I'd definitely appreciate it.
[Mark Suszko] "Pan moves will improve with added mass on the camera and head to dampen shake, as well as with using longer arms. You may consider getting a heavier tripod and head than the camera needs, just for the stability."
How would I obtain more mass on the camera? I'm not sure a heavier tripod would help - the camera is already pretty small (about 3 pounds with the Rode) and the tripod is rated to hold up to 16.5 pounds.
[Mark Suszko] "If the camera has LANC connection ability you want to add an aftermarket zoom controller to the arm of the pan head. "
I will look into the zoom controller immediately - I didn't know that kind of thing existed! - because I have thought if I could just move that zoom rocker to a better location, things might improve! Is there a particular controller that you recommend?
Again, thank you so much for all your help! Obviously I have areas to work on. :-)
" the camera is already pretty small (about 3 pounds with the Rode) and the tripod is rated to hold up to 16.5 pounds."
That's very light - no wonder you have problems. My camera alone weighs more than your camera and tripod, combined. I think a heavier-duty tripod and pan head could be beneficial, for the inertial damping. It's also not clear to me that you have an actual fluid-head pan head, or just a spring-tension/friction head - that's kind of important.
As to checking the balance on the rig, it's not complicated: you loosen the locks and let go and see if it wants to tip up or down. There should be an adjustment on the camera plate/pan head interface for positioning forward and back. In some systems, this is a knob that, when loosened, allows the entire assembly to slide a bit forwards or backwards on the plate, until everything balances. Less-sophisticated/cheaper systems offer a row of screw mounting holes on the underside of the plate, where the "wedge" attaches to the quick-release on the pan head. You can do a gross adjustment there, by picking the next screw hole forwards or backwards and re-locating the wedge. If you can get close to perfect balance, you can theoretically let the thing go and it will stay put, even with the locks off. That's the ideal. You might need to add a heavier battery pack on the back, or attach a little bean-bag or lead weight of some kind under the front, to get to "perfect". In some cases, one might get a piece of sheet metal from a home center, drill the appropriate screw holes in it, and sandwich that in-between the wedge and the plate, to both add some mass, and a place to attach accessories.
You can get a 4K go-pro knockoff these days for between $45 and $70. Once you get this for your b-roll and wide shot covers, you'll wonder how you ever got along without it.
[Mark Suszko] " It's also not clear to me that you have an actual fluid-head pan head, or just a spring-tension/friction head - that's kind of important."
As far as I know it is a fluid head. This is it:
The plate attaches to the camera with a screw. The plate is fairly long compared to the camera and I have it positioned somewhat forward so that the battery release on the bottom is accessible. You slide the plate from the back straight onto the head until it clicks, and at that point it can only slide backwards and forwards. There is another lock that locks it in place after that.
If you have a tripod head you recommend, please let me know.
I have purchased the Varizoom VZ Rock. Next concert is Thursday so I will practice with it as soon as it comes.
Thank you so much for the tips on balancing - I will do my best.
And I found some long rubber bands. I'm hopeful that even if I can't figure out the balancing issue, the advantages of the Varizoom and the rubber band may provide some improvement at least. Fingers crossed!
That Vari-zoom looks pretty good - be sure to read up on how to adjust the overall speed - there's usually a knob or screw pot somewhere...
If your pan head came with the telescoping arm, telescope that bad boy to make it as long as possible. If you don't have one of those, put it on your wish list, along with the longer version of the mounting plate from Manfrotto.
Best of luck and do let us know your progress!
Got the Varizoom - Wow! This little device is going to make my life much easier. Thank you so much for recommending it! And I got a long rubber band that probably will help a LOT.
Spent a good hour today trying to adjust the balance. Hopefully someone experienced can address the issues I ran into:
First, the tripod instructions say to align the camcorder lens with the "LENS" mark that is on the underside of the mounting plate. Do they mean the actual lens or the front of the lens hood? (The plate can't go far enough to align with the front of the hood.)
Then I followed the directions for balancing the camcorder on the head - it says to loosen the tilt drag and lock and then slide the camcorder back and forth until you find the balance point where the head remains level under the load of the camcorder. This is impossible. The entire apparatus just wants to tilt backwards, even though I have the plate slid forwards as far as it will go. I figure I'm obviously doing something wrong here.
Then there is also a separate dial for the counterbalance system. Manual says: "To balance the off-centre weight of your equipment (the weight is off-centre when you tilt the camcorder), the head is provided with a spring-loaded counterbalance system." There are three settings that correspond to different equipment weights. Nevertheless, the instructions don't work: it says to tilt the camcorder forward, and if it stays put, that's the right setting. But the camcorder tips backwards on all three settings. And I should probably be using the setting for 5.5 lbs, but the setting for 11 lbs actually works better. I can only get the camcorder to stay level by using the 11 lb setting.
Even with all these problems, I can get the tilt to stay put without the lock if I use a very strong drag. But whenever I zoom in, the camcorder always tips up a tiny bit before holding (without the lock). I have tried moving the plate back and forth on the camcorder base but I can't get rid of that popup (and I know it's probably tied to the problems above).
Sigh! What I am missing here? Do I need a longer plate? Is that the problem? Please forgive the long post. I'm just super excited about the zoom controller and rubber band, and I really want to get the balance thing right too. I can see how the camera could potentially hold the position without the tilt lock but I can't quite "lock" this down (pun intended). Thanks to anyone who has insight.
Manfrotto DOES make a longer plate for that head. It might help, if only to add mass and make a shelf to hold balance weight (slightly joking here; I have used rolls of gaffer tape as balance weights before)
If you need that much spring tension, for a camera that light, it suggests to me you're too far out of balance. The "lens" mark might refer to the imaginary vertical plane where the lens attaches to the camera, I can't really tell from my limited perspective. Does your plate or the "wedge" for the quick release have a row of screw holes along the underside? If so, that's a rough way to set the balance point, by moving the attach point forwards or back, then the part that slides to adjust may not need as much of a range.... think of it like those old fashioned weighing scales in the doctor's office, with the weights that slide along a long bar until it balances.. .
If you are using any attached cables, make sure their weight isn't dragging the camera up or down.
Do you have mounting holes on the top of the camera or the top carrying handle, for things like adding a light or mic mount? Those might be places to sling a small counter-weight, usually we try to use something that has some utility to it, like a mic bracket, a light bracket, a holder for a wireless mic receiver, a breakout monitor... if you have to add weight, it should at least do some kind of work for the free ride. :-)
And it seems that the camera is too on the light side for that tripod head. That is a very good tripod head.
The longer plate would help, and then an even longer plate that weights a few pounds could really help smooth out the pans and tilts.
FCP X 10.2.3 - user since FCP 1.25
iMac mid 2011, MBA mid 2012
HVX-200, Shure wireless mic
Miller Solo tripod
Don't keep us in suspense, Jen! How did it go?