Hi. I’m Jerome, a Brooklyn-based writer/director and cinematographer. Currently pursuing an MFA in Writing and Producing Television at Long Island University.
Handheld cinematography is normally identified by its lack of steadiness. There’s a noticeable shake to the camera that gives the audience the sense that a human is behind the camera. One way to think of it is rough cinematography. It isn’t intended to seem machine and uncaring, but rather provide a sense of humanity to the camera work. In big budget films tt’s most commonly used in action and fight scenes or when you’re supposed to be in a POV shot.
So how do you do it?
If you’re intent on doing handheld the best way to do it with a DSLR camera is to use your camera strap to create a third point of contact between the camera and you. Put it around your neck and hold your camera with both hands in front of you to try to minimize any camera shake. Move carefully, using a heel-toe step intended to rock your carriage as little as possible.
Be specific with your movement. The camera is already in your hands and will achieve that shake whether you can see it during the filming or not. One warning I do want to give you for handheld is don’t run.
It’s almost impossible to keep it steady enough for a viewer to comprehend if you’re running. Since handheld makes the shot look rougher, you as an operator need to do the oppoosite. All of your movement has to be as precise as you can.
So here are a few reasons why you might want to use handheld.
Some filmmakers like to use handheld in whatever scene they’re shooting if they want to add a sense of tension. It’s used to imply that what you’re watching is unstable. This clip from Man of Steel highlights that:
Creds: Man of Steel
Handheld succeeds here only at the end of the the clip. When Superman stands from the table, breaks the cuffs and walks towards the puny humans that fear him is the best place for this handheld shake. Why?
Our character is actually unstable. Superman can’t know that his ploy is going to work here. In fact, at the beginning of the clip, he surrenders to their authority and allows himself to be handcuffed to make them more comfortable. By the end of the scene, he’s confirmed what he wanted to know and decides to throw off their comfort.
If we’d been watching a simple tripod-locked shot reverse-shot sequence of dialogue between Lois and Clark that suddenly was interrupted for a profile tracking shot of handheld camera as Superman approaches the two-way mirror the handheld could be even more successful.
Realists might argue that when a camera that is not supported by a stabilizer the shot is given a more documentary feel. After all, a lot of documentaries are made low-budget and in the field you often can’t lock yourself down on a tripod. You have to go where the shot is. Look to things like Cloverfield and found footage films. The characters don’t shoot it like a normal movie, because that would destroy the immersion of found footage.
Here’s an example from my favorite found footage film:
It’s pretty clear why it works. Narratively the camera is actually supposed to be in the hands of one of our characters so if the shot had absolutely no shake it wouldn’t make sense, but here Josh Trank makes the decision to have his camera operator be as stable as possible. It doesn’t become extremely shaky until the character is supposed to be in motion.
Now, this realism isn’t exclusive to found footage. Directors and cinematographers might want to take this and use it for realism in a war film. In a crime film. Honestly, realism can extend to just about anything you want. I just think the best use of it has happened in found footage.
You might be resorting to handheld because you have to as a result of a lack of resources, but a desire to still have shots with motion. It would be pretty hard to film two people talking and walking to a coffee shop on a tripod. Maybe you’re just a fan of the shaky cam of handheld cinematography and want to use it in your work.
There is, however, one definitive best way to use handheld cinematography.
If it feels right for what you’re making.
Take some time when you’re working up your shot list for your next project and ask yourself does the handheld look make sense for your story. If you feel compelled to do it just try to remember that it tends towards the side of rough cinematography, so as the camera operator you’re going to have to make your body as precise of an instrument as possible.