Lesson Seven: Visual Storytelling // How to Tell a Story Using Camera Movements and Shots

When filming a story, observe your environment, subjects showing their character, subjects connecting, and think deliberately about how to best draw the viewer in and how to use your camera to most effectively and captivatingly document each given moment. This is the essence of storytelling.

Along the same line of thinking is determining when to shoot stills vs video. Consider whether a moment would be best captured as a still photo (if the emotional weight is contained to stillness and quiet) or in video (if the moment features inspiring or important movement, interesting audio, changing light, or some other visual shift that would be best highlighted in a video clip). 

Documentary filmmaking requires keen observation and split-second decisions...make them wisely! 

Read about how we use the following movements, shot types, and angles with intention to create a story in motion.

Some Common Camera Movements: How will I move my camera to tell this story?

Remember to do these slowly and steadily. Aim to create 3-10 second clips comprised of meaningful moments and details. Try to start filming before the critical moment as well as continuing to film for 2 seconds longer than you think you need so you will have some padding for editing later with audio and video. 

Pan: Rotating the camera horizontally (swivel movement) to bring the viewer to another point in the scene. (If doing a long, sweeping pan, either go extremely slowly or use 30fps/60fps frame rate to avoid strobing/“judder”)

Tilt: Rotating camera upward and downward to bring change the vertical perspective. 

Pedestal: Physically moving the camera up and down as if lowering and raising a pedestal. Rather than tilting upwards, the camera physically moves.

Dolly/ Trucking/Tracking: Moving closer to or further away from the action (dolly), and moving parallel to the subject/object without rotating camera (trucking). Tracking is moving alongside action while the subject/object is moving. Try a tabletop slide for fun perspective (a trucking movement where you slide the camera along on its strap, sticky side up and smooth side sliding along the table, parallel to subject/object).

Following: Follow the action while walking. Hard to stabilize, but very interesting movement.

 Zooming (not a camera movement but a lens movement): Changing the focal length of the lens to give the illusion of moving closer to or further away from the action. The camera itself stays still. Zooming out is used to show the viewer more of the scene or to bring other characters into the scene. Zooming in is used to focus on an object or person. The speed of the zoom is also very important, zooming in fast can be used to shock, whereas a slow zoom is normally used to draw attention. A rare camera movement.

Some Common Shot Types: What will I show viewers in my video frame? 

Remember to square up with the horizon or other flat surface to keep your frame straight. Composition is still important, just as it is in photography. 

Establishing shot: Wide angle showing the setting of the story.

Wide Shot: The subject takes up the full frame, or at least as much as comfortably possible.

Mid Shot: Shows some part of the subject in more detail while still giving an impression of the whole subject.

Close-up: A certain detail or part of the subject takes up the whole frame. Very impactful when used with intention.

Bird’s Eye Arc Shot: Standing over subjects or scene, combining a trucking movement with birds-eye view to survey the scene from above. You can also get up on a stool or chair for a wider/higher view. 

Point-of-View Shot (POV): Shows a view from the subject's perspective. You can also get up on a stool to raise yourself to the subject’s height or shoot from behind the subject’s shoulder. 

Reveal Shot: This shot can engage the audience and give the sense that the viewer is watching a moment or scene unfold. Stay close to object in foreground and pull focus before recording so subject is in focus when revealed. Film slowly to draw your viewer into the scene.

Example of a reveal shot in the opening scene of this film:


Consider Angles: What perspectives will be most helpful to tell this story?

Eye-level: Our most natural view as humans

Birds-eye-view: Surveying perspective from directly overhead

Low angle: Shooting from below eye-level to make something appear larger

High angle: Shooting from subject eye-level to give the appearance of staring down or minimizing surroundings

Composition and Putting it All Together

Understanding the purpose of various camera movements and shots will help prevent you from overshooting (and therefore reduce your editing time). When you are confident with the technical aspects and settings discussed, begin to use creative composition strategies (rule of thirds, leading lines, center composition, symmetry, negative space, etc) to hone in on the moments that make you feel something.  

The role of feeling is extremely important in filmmaking. Ask yourself: What is it like to be there in that space? How does it look and how does it feel? What moves you, and what stirs in your subjects during those moments? Shoot to convey that. The bottom line: to create compelling, fulfilling work, we should challenge ourselves to move beyond ‘cute’ and 'fun.'

Some reminders: Try not to repeat the same movement or shot type twice in a row (avoid panning two clips in the same direction back-to-back). Remember to tell the story from wide angles and also up close. Be still and don’t forget to include shots that allow the movement to occur within the frame instead of always generating movement with your camera. For an action spanning across your frame, attempt to begin filming before it enters the frame and wait until it leaves the frame to end the clip (ie a child running across). There are no hard rules to follow with regard to storytelling and composition, so do your thing and be creative. Remember that you do not have to show your subject's whole body to show what is happening in a scene. By keeping your camera stationary, you will observe movement in and out of your frame, and it can be quite a nice and unexpected technique. 

Watch this

Take a few minutes to watch this film and note the incorporation of a wide variety of camera movements, shot types, and shooting angles described above. Also observe compositions featuring reflection, and framing of the subjects. This adds visual interest.

I also want to point out that there is some repetition, which is not ideal, but it is also not a deal-breaker. This film is packed with meaningful family moments, which is our #1 priority as storytellers. It doesn't matter how technically perfect a film is, if it lacks meaning and heart, it will fall flat for us and our clients. Likewise, a film could be incredibly emotional and impactful yet rough around the edges with missed focus, shaky footage, unrefined sound. It really is all about feeling. If you walk away from this course remembering only one thing, it should be to make FEELING your absolute priority with making films. I always strive to make my viewers--this mama and her family--feel something. It's what sets my work apart, and also what fulfills me most.