Tracking shots: Camera movement in film and video (Part 3)

Videothink Film School

Movement in Film and Video
Movement in Film and Video

When a camera leaves its location during a setting, we speak of a tracking shot. Movement therefore always entails leaving the starting point. Whether in the direction of travel, backwards or transversal to the motion, the camera’s tracking shot view can be in all directions as long as it is dramaturgically motivated. The most frequent tracking shots are in forwards or backward movement. How are tracking shots used correctly in videos?

In a four-part series of articles, Filmpuls explains the 4 most important means of movement in front of the camera and their typical applications. Retrospectively, it is now hard to believe that, during the first years following the discovery of the moving image, the camera was usually only able to observe when immobile. Normally, the early silent films only incorporated dynamism in the form of slapstick in front of the camera. In addition to basic explanations of movement in films (part 1), we observe panning shots (part 2) and tracking shots (part 3) as well as examine the question as to which criteria (part 4) should be applied in image movement for communication with films and videos.

Tracking shots

At the beginning of scenes, tracking shots in forward direction often bring the audience closer to the protagonists. In the same case, reverse tracking shots imply the feeling of increasing distance to the observer. Since Hitchcock ingeniously linked the zoom (which is not counted as and is not a tracking shot) with an opposing tracking shot in Vertigo, the film-loving amateur also knows: the tracking shot can be visually recognised using a constantly changing centre of the image perspective. A circumstance which, by the way, has also already wracked the nerves of several producers planning high-quality 360° filming within the scope of image processing.

In order to impart new image impressions, a tracking shot need not necessarily be curvy. A tracking shot also enables the audience to discover something new on a straight tracking shot. Hidden items can move into the field of vision, whereby, just as in the human eye, the angle of vision doesn’t change.

Tracking shots should be motivated by the fact that they accompany the audience or alternatively the person(s) in front of the camera. Nowadays, the majority of tracking shots are made using a Steadicam or comparable but more simple camera stabilisation systems or on rails (Dolly).


There are several means of movement. This alliteration puts it perfectly and precisely. No single means to move a camera exists, just as little as there is no single means of making a film or a video. Tracking can basically be distinguished as follows (mixed forms are omitted):

The slow tracking motion

As for the panning shot, slow tracking can deepen feelings and the atmosphere. Several directors also use slow tracking motion to impart the audience an intensified sense of space, enhancing identification with the major figures. Because, similar to the slow tracking motion and the slowly moving camera, a person and therefore his eye, will also rarely stand rigidly in the same place for more than a breath of air. Slow tracking motion is also frequently combined with searching panning shots.


During circumnavigation, the camera moves around an object. As for the slow tracking motion, circumnavigation, whether on rails, Steadicam or hand-held, is often connected with driving shots and panning. With it, the foreground, middle ground and background shift, creating more of an illusion for the audience that they really are at the actual location. In informative films, circumnavigation provides an explanatory feature, whereas it creates more of a dramatizing effect in emotional films.

Crane tracking

Although always readily used, crane tracking is often abused as chewing gum for the eyes. Correctly, all crane tracking must be strictly motivated due to the sheer scope of its range of motion. Unmotivated vertical tracking, described as the “lift effect” by old stagers in feature films, irritates the audience instead of creating tension. (Unfortunately the same must also be said for epic flights with camera drones, which are unmotivated with regard to content. Unfortunately, aerial shooting with drones has become a real plague in commissioned films. If you have ever had to assess image films as a competition jury member, you will understand exactly what is meant).

The unleashed camera

Up until around 1920, the film camera was tied to heavy tripods for technical reasons. When the first easier-to-handle cameras came on the market (also as a consequence of aerial front reconnaissance with aircraft for the first time in the trench warfare of World War I), the filming avant-garde used the handy recording devices to discover new cinematic dimensions. The French film pioneer Abel Gance had a camera attached to a horse for the first time in 1923 for his film “Napoleon”. The camera man Karl Freund attached a hand-held camera to his own chest for “The Last Man“ and intermingled with the dancing couples for a dancing scene.

Basics for filmakers ore just short terms innovations: Wherever technical innovation was suddenly perceived as ground-breaking, innovation and technology and therefore the camera itself became a star. According to legend, Abel Gance even tried to reproduce the perspective of a snowflake by throwing a hand-held camera through the air at his lead actors. The term “unleashed camera”, which today enjoys its comeback with action cams for extreme sports, was coined during this period.

Photo: Shooting the German monumental film “Metropolis” (1927) by Fritz Lang. Camera: Karl Freund.

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Articles by the Videothink team are collaboratively-written by more than one member of the videothink publishing team.

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