Cristina Cassidy with her Panasonic HVX200A

Cristina Cassidy with her Panasonic HVX200A

I recently had the good fortune to take a weekend workshop with Wendy Smith at the Duke Center for Documentary Studies in Durham, NC. What I learned in two days was worth gold.

Wendy Smith is an amazing teacher and an accomplished independent documentary filmmaker. She lived in Paris for 14 years and studied with Jean Rouch, the renowned French New Wave filmmaker. For more information on Smith, please see her resume:

The class was on how to improve your handheld camera techniques. I recently had rotator cuff surgery on my right shoulder–my shooting side–and thought I’d take the course to see about improving my left arm/hand shooting techniques. I also have a familial tremor in my left hand, so I wasn’t too hopeful about the results of the class. I was pleasantly surprised!

Smith uses Tai-Chi moves and breathing techniques to help filmmakers steady their shots. The first thing I learned was that you need to strengthen your thigh muscles if you are going to be doing a lot of handheld shooting! Being in tip top physical condition is important for those long hours on your feet, and the more control you have, the better your shots. You need to breathe right, too. Smith convinced me that learning proper breathing techniques makes for much better handheld results.

We did a series of outdoor exercises, mostly walking shots, where we had to follow a subject. The most difficult exercise involved following two people walking down a crowded street. It was a most challenging experience.

What I came out of the class realizing was 1) you had better know your camera inside and out, and 2) you need to practice, practice, practice shooting all the time. I’ve gotten into the bad habit of just picking up my camera when I have work to do. Smith says she spends months getting to know her equipment and practices shooting with it before she goes into production. And she’s absolutely right to suggest we do this.

With all the fancy equipment coming out these days, I think a lot of us depend on the equipment and forget about the technique. Here are some tips for handholding that I got from Smith’s class:

1) Shoot wide. Don’t forget about head room and the rule of thirds. Try zooming in with your body instead of using the camera zoom control. That way you have more depth of field.

2) If you are going to be walking and shooting, take someone along with you. Several years ago, while shooting on a busy street in Buenos Aires, I got so enamored with filming a balloon man that I didn’t see the huge hole in the sidewalk filled with polluted water. Sure enough, I landed one leg in the hole up to my knee. I’m lucky that I didn’t do permanent injury to my leg. So, please, take someone to guide you so you won’t get hurt!

3) If you are shooting from inside to outside, or vice versa, preset your camera white balance. The lighting is going to change folks, and doing a white balance preset beforehand will save you tons of work in post.

4) Consider taking a Tai-Chi or Yoga class to improve your flexibility, steadiness and breathing techniques.

4) Above all else, practice, practice, practice. I find that sometimes when I’m shooting on the fly I tend to depend on the camera’s automatic settings. As I get better at my craft, I am learning how to use my manual settings more often. It’s a challenge, but the results are well worth it.

If anyone is interested in taking a class with Wendy Smith, she teaches a week-long workshop at the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, NY. Here’s more info:

I still need to be careful about how I carry the camera–even using my left side–and how long I shoot, because of the surgery. The doctor has told me no long term shooting for a few months–but as soon as I am able, I’m going to be out and about, shooting anything and everything I can!

In the meantime, happy filmmaking!

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