How to Shoot Steady Video Without a Tripod

TV cameraman shooting an interview without a tripod
••• Paul Bradbury / Getty Images

A fancy video camera doesn't automatically make you a professional TV videographer any more than a pricey set of golf clubs will turn you into Jack Nicklaus. To transform yourself from an amateur into an artist or professional, you need to practice shooting steady video without a tripod. Whether you're shooting breaking news or your nephew's swim meet, ditching the tripod will put you in a position to catch the best shots.

Move Closer to the Action

If you've been disappointed with shaky video, the first remedy is to get closer to what you're shooting. Standing far away and zooming in will exaggerate every movement in your body -- even your breathing. That's especially true when shooting widescreen video which will be viewed on a large TV set. You will leave viewers feeling seasick.

When you move closer to what you're shooting, you'll be able to zoom out. That will greatly reduce how much your subtle body movements will be transmitted on screen. Shooting steady video of a football game will be easier on the sideline with the action directly in front of you, rather than from in the stands zooming in. Getting good results depends on where you decide to stand.

Position Your Body Properly

Choosing the correct spot to stand is just the first step. Next, you should make yourself as still as possible. That starts with your legs. Stand with your legs at least as wide as your shoulders, if not slightly wider. This stance may seem unnatural, but it gives you a good foundation. Then bring your elbows into the sides of your body. This will help regardless if your camera is on your shoulder or is a unit that you hold in front of you.

You may feel as though you're becoming so immobile that you should go back to using the tripod. But you still have the ability to pivot your hips, tilt your camera up and down and chase the action on foot. So you still have several advantages without being anchored to anything.

Make Sure Horizon Is Level

Nothing screams "rookie" more than shooting video with a horizon that's not level. Think of how it would look if you were at the beach shooting the ocean, except that instead of being perfectly flat, the ocean looked as though it was going uphill on one side of the screen.

Your tripod probably has a bubble that shows you when it's level. Think of your shoulder or your hands in the same way. Make sure the camera isn't tilted to one side, even if your arms or shoulders are tired. If you envision your entire body -- camera included -- as a fence post or flagpole, you will mentally achieve the level position you want. It will become easier to transform that picture into a physical posture.

Use the Ground or Walls to Support the Camera

Even the most seasoned videographer still occasionally needs to make a shot steadier than by just standing still. That's when they'll find a spot on the ground or use walls to help. Putting the camera on the ground or another flat surface can give your video a new perspective as you work to shoot more creatively. The camera is now at a different height than your body, which can add a dramatic touch.

Think of how different it would look shooting the Washington Monument by placing the camera on the ground and shooting upward. You would enhance the height of the structure and make it seem more commanding. Leaning on a wall gives you an instance brace to help steady a shot, especially if you have no choice but to zoom in. If you're using a shoulder-mounted camera, lean on your right shoulder, since that's the shoulder supporting the camera.

Turn on the Image Stabilizer

Your efforts to shoot steadier video can get a boost with just the flip of a switch. If your camera has an image stabilizer, turn it on. The camera will use one of two methods to reduce the shakiness that it detects. They are optical stabilization or digital stabilization.

The difference is whether the camera uses its lens or software to make the video appear steadier. Before shooting that once-in-a-lifetime moment, practice using the image stabilizer to see if it brings noticeable results. While it should help, you need to know its limitations so you're not disappointed that it didn't fix every wobble.

Use the Eyepiece

If your camera gives you the option of using an eyepiece or a small video screen to see what you're shooting, try sticking to the eyepiece. That can make a huge difference in getting steady video. That's because when you put the camera up to your eye, your head becomes another object that can hold it still. Otherwise, the camera is in front of your body.

Also, the eyepiece helps you concentrate your attention on how well you are shooting. It'll be easier to decide that your video isn't as solidly-shot as you'd like and it's time to do something about it. Before you decide that it's easier to use a tripod than learning how to shoot without one, think about how you'd record a child's birthday party or another home video.

With a tripod, you'd likely be in the corner of the room so that no one would bump into you. Your video would have that wallflower look because it was shot from the fringes of the action, even if you zoomed in. But off the tripod, you can move -- standing up one minute, on your knees the next. You can have the camera instantly next to the birthday cake as the candles are being blown out. You can sit on the floor with the child as she opens her presents. The difference in the results is priceless.