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Effectively Using the Digital Video Camera Pan Motion

written by: Shane Burley•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 6/27/2011

Panning motion is difficult, and here are a few principles to make it work.

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    Stay Still

    Most experienced digital video producers will tell you to keep your camera as stationary as possible, and they are right. The more stable shots you have the more the audience will focus on the action in the story instead of the motion of the camera. Controlling the motion of the camera is hard to do effectively, and usually results in an unusable image. This does not mean that you should never move the camera while filming, but use this technique sparingly. The most common type of camera movement for digital video producers using a tripod is the pan.

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    What is Panning?

    Panning the camera means moving the camera left or right on a pivot, where it actually rotates in a circular pattern. This way you can get a three hundred and sixty degree view of everything surrounding the camera’s stationary location. Using this type of pivot movement is difficult, but there are some principles that when followed help boost the rate of success.

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    One Direction

    Make sure to only pan in one consistent direction in your shot. Do not go to one side, and then back to the other. This back and forth motion will seem unnatural to the audience, so if you want to go back to the other direction from where you just panned, do it in a completely different angle and take.

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    Do the Twist

    If you will be using a consumer tripod you are going to have to pan the camera using your hand. Anytime you use your body you are going to disrupt the stability of the shot. Try to pan the camera with the tripod lever at your sternum, and make a complete motion with your body. This will cut down on the disruptive camera movement that happens when you just use your hands.

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    Limit The Range

    Try to not cover too much ground with the pan itself. This can be an easy motion, but if you try to do a complete one hundred and eighty-degree turn you will disorient the audience and it is almost impossible to keep it steady. Try doing no more than a ninety-degree pan.

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    Slow It Down Now

    Make sure the pan is done as slowly as you can do it or as the action allows. The quicker the pan, the more the audience will be aware of the camera movement instead of being focused on the story space. If you absolutely must do it quickly to maintain the energy of the scene make sure it is as steady and direct as possible. A quick pan will usually shake at the very end so try and brace it the best you can.

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    Walk It Out

    For many walking shots you are going to want to have the subject walk into the still frame before you even begin the pan. This will make it appear much smoother because the person in the image is actually driving the camera motion.

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    Freeze It

    No matter what kind of pan you are doing always start and stop at a still frame. Give a few seconds before and after the movement so you have more choices in the editing room. You may want to keep this beginning and ending still space in the final video.

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    Get a New Tripod

    The last thing to keep in mind is that most tripods simply cannot handle a real pivot. Their heads are not designed to do smooth enough turns so that you can film while they pivot. If you intend on doing a lot of panning you should invest in a hydraulic head tripod, which makes the turn more seamless.