How Shooting Handheld Can Improve Your Films and Videos

Even though there are plenty of powerful camera stabilizers on the market, sometimes just some good, old-fashioned handheld camera work is what your project needs.

From Steadicams to sliders, there are countless tools out there that you can use to stabilize your footage, and if you're like many filmmakers, you probably have a couple of them that you bring with you every time you shoot a project. But in situations in which simplicity and versatility trump smoothness, it'd be wise to know how to handle your camera without the aid of a stabilizer. In this video, Anders Øvergaard of Andyax not only shows you a few techniques that you can use to up your handheld game but also explains why going handheld is sometimes much better than using a fancy stabilization rig.

Every decision you make when shooting a film should be an intentional one and going handheld is no different. In other words, you don't shoot handheld because you're lazy or because you don't have a stabilizer—friggin' don't be lazy and make a DIY stabilizer—you shoot handheld because it's the best choice for the shot.

How do you know if it's the best? Well, you've gotta break it down and ask yourself some important questions, some practical, some creative:

  • Do you have enough time to set up one or more stabilization rigs?
  • Are you at risk of missing any important shots while you're busy fudging around with a stabilizer?
  • Can you handle shooting with a stabilizer for long periods of time or will you get too fatigued?
  • Is it practical to transport your stabilizer to your location? Will you be carrying it around?
  • Is butter smooth camera stabilization right for your shot or does messy, unpredictable handheld work better?
  • What are you trying to communicate in your scene?

If you decide that, yes, going handheld is the right decision for your shot/scene/film/etc., then the next step is learning how to shoot handheld. This, of course, depends on the aesthetic you're going for, but let's assume that you're saving the frenetic handheld camerawork for another project and you're going for buttery smooth. In this case, you'll want to create a multi-point contact between you and your camera. One way of doing this is by throwing your camera strap around your neck and holding your camera out in front of you to create tension. (This creates three points of contact: your neck and your two hands.)

Now, this isn't going to magically create super steady footage, but it will definitely be more stable than footage you shoot without a strap. You'll also want to be light on your feet as you move around, being careful to keep your body movements as smooth and slow as possible. Lastly, you'll want to avoid zooming in, since that will only magnify any movements.

Beyond that, you can always try to clean up any unwanted shakiness in post. Premiere Pro's Warped Stabilizer is a fantastic tool that works really well. You can also try to ensure that you use cameras and lenses that have auto-stabilization.

What are some other ways to improve your handheld camera work? Let us know down in the comments.     

Your Comment

8 Comments

No offense towards Andy, I actually have been a subscriber to his channel for years, but he never really makes a compelling arguement for handheld as opposed to stabilized, other than convenience. Then he goes on to totally contradict the title of this video by suggesting warp stablizer in post. Huh?

Convenience is the arch nemesis of cinematic. This technique may be great when you're in a run and gun situation but that's more about logistics than "making your films better".

Despite the handheld trend, I believe it should be used sparingly. It can create a great functional asethtic for the right narrative but it's being used way too much and in ways that contradict the narrative.

Filmmakers are getting lazy and relying on convenience way, way too much. There's something to be said for having patience and intention and the older gen cinematographers (I'm not one of them) knew how to stage a scene to great effect.

The shots/video in this example gave me a tense, stressful feeling when the narrative was supposed to be about the magic of a young brewing romance. Contradicting messages imho.

There is no reason in my mind why this scene was better served by the handheld technique as opposed to stablizing the camera. In fact, I would argue the scene/narrative called for more smooth and steady movement, and by the use of warp stabilizer apparently Andy unknowingly agrees.

Sorry Andy. I mean no harm.

December 30, 2017 at 12:24AM, Edited December 30, 12:27AM

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Hi Matthew,

Thanks for your feedback. It's great that we can discuss this topic. And cool to see that you are a subscriber! :)

People probably do this differently, however this is the way we do it: Whether we are making a short film, feature film or documentary with or without a storyboard, with or without tripods, steadycams or shoulderrigs, we do take the camera of whatever rig it's on and test out the light, composition and blocking. This is to quickly figure out that the shot looks good before locking the camera to the tripod/steadycam and shoot the scene in that angle.

When shooting fictional films, you often know when the moments you want to capture happen. And don't get me wrong, I prefer having enough time to rig and shoot scenes the way I want. But when shooting videos like events, documentaries etc interesting moments happen when you least expect it. Therefore you might only got seconds to shoot it. By shooting handheld with just your hands, you can get in the right angle quickly, drag focus, change exposure and capture the moment. And you can do this without getting a terrible shaky shot. You are often just fine with using the stabilising techniques on set, but you can also add the warp stabiliser as a bonus. When you know how to use the warp stabiliser, you will save a lot of time on set. No, I'm not a fan of rushing things, but sometimes working fast is crucial as mentioned above.

The pretended scenario we shot in the video, was filmed within an hour and a half as that was the time we had (I should have mentioned that). I could off course shot it with a steadycam/gimbal, but I think it would have limited my flexibility and way of telling my story.

Again, people have different ways of shooting. This is just one way.

Thanks again for your detailed feedback.

All the best,
Anders

December 30, 2017 at 2:33AM

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Thanks for the video. The advice on three point stabilisation is useful. I have a problem with handheld in that 30 years ago, in the foolishness of my youth, I snapped my leg and that slight imbalance plays havoc. I can see how handheld may have more relevance in a setting where you do not have full control over the environment but where you can fully control what is happening, a more sophisticated set up may be better. I can see in Matthia's work with weddings how useful handheld is as they won't be willing to stop what they are doing to wait for him.

It seems that the stabilisation in DaVinci Resolve is one of the million things that I haven't found yet.

December 31, 2017 at 2:01PM, Edited December 31, 2:01PM

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Julian Richards
Film Warlord
1652

"Convenience is the arch nemesis of cinematic."

Yes!

December 30, 2017 at 8:28AM

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Patrick Ortman
I tell stories. Sometimes for money.
998

It depends what you shoot. What is unbearable is jittery shots. If you are able to shoot hand held and stabilize your shots, sure. A fast pace, urban modern story about drug dealers might be shot hand held. A piece about about a story happening in Versailles in the 17th century, I'm not so sure. Some genre and story are suited for hand held, others are not. And there is a difference between hand held with a GH5 hooked up to a Panasonic 12-35 version two and a hand held iphone.

December 30, 2017 at 4:12AM

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I don't really like handhelding. It makes everything chaotic and just... pushes me off.

December 31, 2017 at 4:11AM

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I've noticed so much handheld in mainstream cinema as often they are trying to better sell a CG effect by having it tracked to motion.
Tail wagging the dog.

January 1, 2018 at 12:32PM

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This.

I love handheld for documentary and event work but agree that most current blockbusters and now television is leaning a bit hard on handheld camera work to give them a "real" feel back since so much CGI is being implemented. And don't get me started on what the Office did and didn't do for comedy/network camera work. Everyone is obsessed (and has been for years) with fake docu-style shooting now, it gets a bit boring. It's almost like handheld if the safe choice now rather than a break from the norm.

January 2, 2018 at 3:50PM, Edited January 2, 3:50PM

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