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How and When to Use a Handheld Camera for Your Film Project

Learn how and when to use handheld cinematography for your next narrative project

The use of handheld camera techniques are not just the preserve of the amateur, they are a defining part of cinema and are commonly used to help push a relevant narrative and could well be a very useful approach to take for your film project.

Using a handheld camera effectively is not as easy as it may at first seem and will take a great deal of practice before you’ll get it just right. The choice of using a handheld camera is sometimes guided by cost, with larger more ‘cinematic’ cameras being too large to use in such a fashion.

That said, the range of quality video cameras for handheld use is large indeed and this, perhaps, reflects the growing popularity of this form of filmmaking equipment.
Here are some pointers to consider if you are trying to make the most of such a method of filmmaking.


When it comes to filming with a handheld camera, or even when using your phone or device as a camera, the crucial point to master is balance. It’s no good, whatsoever, to have a hand held technique that is too rocky and haphazard. Even if you are trying to make a thematic point by being shaky, you shouldn’t do so just because conditions create that shakiness.

When holding your handheld camera always be aware of the balance of both yourself and your camera. Hold the camera with both hands and hold the camera by your chest, not at your eye line.

If your camera has a strap, having this around your neck helps to form a kind of fulcrum, offering additional balance to the hands holding the camera.

There are, of course, other ways to achieve this balance. You can enlist the help of a camera assistance to guide a camera operator or act as a form of balance themselves. Other options include using additional ‘at ­hand’ options such as a wheelchair to give you more freedom to move, while the camera itself remains steady.

Canon C500 mark II full frame extension handheld teradek
Image by Canon

Handheld Camera to Advance Narrative

Handheld techniques are usually adopted, in the mainstream, to heighten the feeling of tension and action. Think Paul Greengrass in the Bourne movies, his use of the handheld gives you the look and feel of a man, and the action, literally on the run.

A handheld camera can bring your subjects closer to the audience, this can intensify the action that is taking place in its frame. There are a great many tricks and effects you can create by actively using the intimacy created by a close­up shot created by a handheld camera that is recording so close to your protagonists.

Think Blair Witch Project and again you’ll see how a handheld technique became synonymous with a genre of filmmaking.

In this example the fear and trepidation felt by the lead characters was created almost entirely by the use of handheld, above and beyond the scene itself, was the ‘in­ your ­face’ style that has now become something of a mainstream horror trick.

These techniques can really advance the narrative and is a superb example of where handheld options are hugely useful in their own right.

Stabilize and Mounting

Handheld doesn’t necessarily mean you are working without a snazzy bit of kit that helps to keep things as smooth and balanced as possible. There are a wealth of stabilizers and mounts, of wildly varying costs, to help you make the most of a technique that is loose but level.

These helpful pieces of kits can make the camera movement far more seamless and in that way make your handheld camera as stable as a traditional film camera, while also leaving your camera operator more scope for movement that helps advance the filmmaking process or narrative you, as a director, may have in mind.

Indeed clever and ergonomic mounting can lead to a heavier and, in some cases, higher quality camera becoming ‘handheld’, though again using these requires a great deal of training.

Fix it In Post

Sometimes the desire to use a handheld camera technique can leave you with issues that you haven’t managed to address on the shoot. Luckily there are many options you can use to fix those problems in post­production.

One such option comes in the form of Premiere Pro’s Warped Stabilizer, this bit of kit can help you address shakiness of footage and other common issues related to poor handheld camera work. Though this can prove time consuming, it is often preferable to another day of shooting.

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