Many aspiring directors and filmmakers conflate the zoom and dolly shot. You’ll even see video supercuts online that claim to be a collection of zooms but also contain dolly shots or the combination dolly zoom shot. All of these camera shots can be effective: while some directors use these shots to create comic moments, others aim for surprise, intensity, visual turmoil or nostalgic homage to classic films.
The zoom and the dolly shot contain subtle differences and are created with different techniques. How do you tell the difference between them? Which one is more appropriate for your next short film or feature? The below guide will help you learn more about these camera shots and filmmaking terms.
The Zoom Shot
To accomplish the zoom, the filmmaker changes the focal length of the camera lens. You’re zooming in or magnifying what’s seen, as opposed to coming closer to the person or object in a physical way. When you get closer, you zoom in, making the object look larger in the frame; when you get farther away, you zoom out, making the object look smaller. In both instances, the camera remains in a constant position.
You can also zoom in rapidly, which is often known as a crash zoom. Director Edgar Wright (Baby Driver, Hot Fuzz) is known for these kinds of zooms. He spoke to Slash Film about his camera techniques:
The Dolly Shot
In the dolly shot, the camera and lens don’t zoom in or out; instead, the physical placement of the camera changes. A dolly is a cart or wheeled platform that travels along a track; the camera rests on top of the dolly, so for a dolly shot, the cart travels closer to or farther away from the objects and people on screen, pushing the camera along with it. When you get closer, you dolly in; when you move backwards, away from the subject, you dolly out.
Check out the new video from SFX Secrets for more about the difference between the zoom and the dolly shot:
The Tracking Shot
A dolly is also used for a tracking shot, in which the camera travels parallel to the object as it moves to the left or right (often to follow a character who is moving). In a tracking shot, the camera does not get any closer or farther away from the subject.
The Dolly Zoom
For a powerful visual moment, you can also use a dolly shot at the same time as a zoom – meaning that the camera is zooming in or out at the same time it is being moved in the opposite direction. This is sometimes called “The Vertigo Effect,” since it was famously used by Alfred Hitchcock in the director’s 1958 classic. See the clip below:
Many credit the dolly zoom to Irmin Roberts, the second-unit director of photography for Vertigo. Crazily enough, Roberts didn’t even receive an on-screen credit for his work on the film – but his technique has lived on! The zoom and the dolly shot combo has also been used in Jaws, Poltergeist, The Wire, Raging Bull and Goodfellas. If you want to try this filmmaking technique, you may want to watch some tutorials first. Here’s one example:
How to choose your shot
You may want to choose different shots for both creative and practical financial reasons. In an interview with The Film Pie, director Luca Guadagnino explains his preference for zoom shots: “It’s a question of taste. On one hand, there were a lot of films in the 1970s and 1980s where zoom replaced the normal travelling shots. It was a cheap way of avoiding scenes where you had to put a track down and push the camera along. That costs time and money,” he explained. “The zoom became a shortcut for many years. You might remember Death in Venice or The Innocent by Luchino Visconti.”
Guadagnino continues: “On the flip side, you have Stanley Kubrick using zooms in The Shining but for the opposite reason. It wasn’t to save time and money but it was to express something strongly. This I endorse. It’s like an ultra-vista attitude and I love it. In my next movie, I’m only shooting it with one lens which will be a fixed lens. I have a lot of discussions with myself about how to shoot a movie and which lenses to use. You’ve touched on a delicate subject.”
As with most things in filmmaking, the best way to master various camera shots is to try them out yourself. Are you working on your first film? Have you tried the zoom and the dolly shot? How about the dolly zoom? Do you have a preference? Let us know in the comments!