Whatever you’re shooting, good use of a zoom lens can take your video to the next level, says creative director and photographer Dom Salmon
Congratulations, you’ve made the switch to a ‘real’ camera with Nikon. Now let’s talk lenses. Just as when I started out in photography, the answer is a zoom, like the new NIKKOR Z DX 12-28mm f/3.5-5.6 PZ VR.
The first reason a zoom should be in your camera bag is a practical one. Very practical. And it’s even more essential for video than stills. Sure, you can often squeeze out a stills frame in a tricky spot. But, for video, can you do it 30 times a second and tell a story? (Spoiler: the answer is yes).
There is a reason why the NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S finds its way into the bags of so many pros. Amazing optics? Definitely. But it’s also that a 24-70mm is possibly the most valuable lens in a ‘zoom trinity’, occupying the central spot from the ‘pretty wide’ to ‘almost telephoto’ in a trio that’s usually topped and tailed by something like a 14-24mm and 70-200mm. Put simply, it has the focal length range, and therefore the wriggle room, to bail you out nine times out of ten. If you’re starting out, the NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/4 S is a great way to achieve this sort of focal range at a fantastic price.
Zoom. Shape the room!
Narrow or noisy space? That lower end 24mm means you can still get some apparent distance to your subject, even when it’s a tight squeeze. If your microphone is on board your camera, it allows you to get physically closer, giving your mic a better chance of picking up the speaker, rather than the ambient noise.
Distracting or busy background? At the 70mm end, you start to tighten in on a subject, the scene is compressed and you achieve great background blur, or ‘bokeh’, giving you real separation between your subject and background. This is very handy if you want your subject to be the real ‘hero’ of the frame and the focus of a viewer’s attention.
Video also often means tripods. It’s hard to hand hold a five-minute interview shot, especially if you’re asking the questions. A zoom lens means you can reframe without moving your whole set-up. On a long shoot, your back will thank you!
Be a people person
As several million YouTube channels demonstrate, video often means someone talking to camera. Whether it’s an interview with someone or a vlogger on their own channel, billions of videos are watched every day. But, while we may think we are all great presenters after practising on our phones, even a small professional set-up will suddenly make people ‘freeze’ a little when you say “Rolling.” How you set up can really play a part in how relaxed your subject is and, therefore, how effective the video will be (even when the subject is you!).
Around 50mm and up, the camera distance to subject will be similar to the distance from which we speak to each other, and this will help inexperienced interviewees feel they are more in a conversation, rather than ‘on the spot’. You can also get a nice, tight mid shot, but still be close enough that a decent on-camera shotgun mic should still be able to reproduce speech well. It’s also a flattering focal length, heading into portrait territory for stills. There’s something inherently TV about this kind of focal length.
At the wide-angle end, no one wants a camera stuck up their nose or to look as if they are being filmed through a goldfish bowl, but it’s still a great tool to get the best out of people. If you want to really ‘establish’ a subject in a location and set a scene, you can use a wider angle to show them in their surroundings, and still be close enough for sound.
If you are star of the show, a wide-angle means you can be more confident you will stay in frame, and the deeper depth of field means you are much more likely to stay sharp, however much you move. So, even if you don’t have a separate monitor to keep an eye on, with your Nikon’s eye-tracking AF engaged, you can hand-hold the shot for some extra zip, with an engaging, reportage feel. And with a power zoom that supports remote control, you can add drama and change the scene without moving out of shot — perfect for vloggers.
The cutting-room floor
There’s a quick, zoom-based trick for interviews that will really help in the edit if you’re only shooting with one camera. Run the interview twice. Do the first take at a wider angle, showing some of the location. This also helps your subject relax and get used to the camera. On the second run through, zoom tighter — you often find the subject is a little more confident and this closer frame will pick up on that.
Then, in the edit you have some variety of angles and frames, building energy level in the subject. Drop in some B-roll to cover the cuts, and bingo! Ten times more interesting and professional looking than a single take, and you didn’t even need to move the camera.
Your flexible friend
Ultimately, the big benefit with zooms, and the thing I love the most, is the ability to experiment with composition very quickly on the fly. I’d always encourage people to get out of any ‘video equals tripod’ mindset, so unlock that quick release and move your feet instead! Because, while a moving image is great, a moving image with a moving camera captures the imagination like little else.
Got a great view, but want to see a little more? Get closer, open the zoom up a little wider and get panning. Spotted a great detail in a busy scene? Tighten in on it with the zoom, losing things that can distract the viewer, and follow where it goes.
That kind of flexibility can be great in stills. In video, it’s a revelation. And, if you are involved and engaged with a scene, your audience will be, too.
This is all helped by the newer mirrorless tech. The lightness of the camera set-up, the tracking AF, plus image stabilisation that, until only a couple of years ago, could only be done with expensive and bulky gimbal rigs — there really is no excuse not to ‘run and gun’ with your camera.
Spicing things up
When zoom lenses were introduced into films in 1931, cinematographers had a significant new tool in their arsenal. As zooms became lighter, cheaper and faster in the late 1960s, however, filmmakers started to overuse the in-shot zoom and it became more of a gimmick. This is a shame because, creatively, an in-shot zoom can be a very powerful tool.
Imagine a close-up of a person sitting serenely on some grass, and then zoom out showing a bustling city zipping around them. Or show a wide shot of a cheering crowd and then zoom into one person completely disengaged with what’s going on around them. Both have a very strong storytelling element unfolding in a single shot.
If you are shooting a music video, an in-shot zoom can add a ton of energy and help you move in, out and around a bigger frame. Syncing the zooms with the music, for example, can add a dynamism and creative tension that you just can’t get with a simple wide shot.
When doing an interview, again you can use your framing to help emphasise the aspect of the story you want to tell your audience. Start close up on someone’s face as they talk about our modern, ‘disposable’ culture, and then zoom out to show they are standing on a huge landfill site, and you’ve helped to nail the subject in the viewer’s mind.
And, of course, this can just look plain great. Remember Chief Brody on the beach in Jaws when the scene just suddenly seems to bend around him? That’s the famous ‘dolly zoom’, where you zoom the lens but track the camera in opposite directions. Cinematic dynamite.
So it’s OK to zoom while the record light is on. It can really add something to your video, especially if you use your camera’s touchscreen to combine the zoom with a change in focus emphasis.
But be wary. Best to think of the in-shot zoom as a very strong spice. A pinch can really add zing to a dish. Too much and it can all get a bit eye-watering.
Starting out in video, zoom lenses are a great practical and creative tool to help people find the freedom to experiment, and thereby develop a personal style of video shooting, but they are also a terrific ‘do-it-all’ to have to hand for even the most seasoned videographer. There’s a reason that 90% of camera bags have at least one zoom in them, and you can bet it’s the lens that looks the most used.
Personally, I think that a great zoom is a wonderful way to help you get confident in your creative ideas when starting in video. Your style may take time, but a zoom is a super-flexible tool that won’t paint you into a creative corner from the off.
Dom Salmon is an English creative director, photographer and videographer based in Italy