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In all of the movies I have seen in my life, I have rarely seen zoom-in shots used. Most of the time, when the camera moves closer, it "pans" in. (The difference is that in a zoom-in shot, the camera is in one location and the zoom is done with the lens, whereas in the shot used in movies, the camera itself moves forward.)

So, my question is, why do movies tend to not use zoom shots, especially when zoom shots are commonly listed as common film techniques?

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    It's basically an artistic choice. Plus, the technique was used so much in the 70's that some people think it looks "dated ." – Meat Trademark Dec 9 '14 at 1:23
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    A zoom would just be a geometric transformation of the visible scene, whereas moving the camera back and/or forth adds a great deal of depth (3D experience) by the changed perspective/object size relations – Hagen von Eitzen Apr 6 '15 at 21:26
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Zooms draw attention to the camera. Frequently, the camerawork in a film is similar to what an observer's eyes would do:

  • If there are 2 people talking, we look back and forth between them (like the shot cutting from one person's face to the other's and back to the first).
  • When an important person is walking across our field of view, we follow them smoothly with our eyes (like panning the camera).
  • If there is an important detail, like the time on someone's watch, our eyes might dart to it for an instant (like a quick "insert shot").

The way I look at filmmaking, the camera zoom is not something our eyes can do. We can walk forward or backward, simulating a truck or dolly shot where the camera gets closer to a subject, but we can't "zoom in" with our eyes. So it looks cheesy or unnatural, and pulls a lot of viewers out of the experience of the movie.

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    Looking cheesy was definitely my first though. Unless it's really done well and in the right situation, it always distracts me from the show/movie. – Broots Waymb Feb 8 '17 at 20:04
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    Funnily enough, the only instances of zoom-in shots in movies I can think of are when the shot is supposed to be replicating what a person is seeing through a Camera that is zooming in. – SGR May 5 '17 at 10:25
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To be accurate - having the camera follow isn't a "pan" - a pan is a rotation on an axis. If the camera is moved, it falls more into a "dolly" or "tracking" (crane, truck, steadicam). See this link for some good definitions.

Director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, There Will be Blood) utilizes tracking shots frequently.

Zoom shots are usually used to immediately bring the audience to an object or person of focus from a much wider scope shot. From a storytelling perspective, this is rarely required. (Though is occasionally used - I'm thinking Martin Scorsese used one in Wolf of Wall Street).

The aforementioned Paul Thomas Anderson (or his cinematographer) uses tracking shots to either A) follow a series of events happening at the same time or B) physically follow a character or object from point to point or through events.

A slow zoom is sometimes used to draw in on a character delivering a dramatic monologue. Again, as a plot device, this is not frequently used. (It is used more on Television to bring more weight to a revelation; however - in film - the schedule and budget usually allows for more exotic techniques).

Fast Zooms are generally aesthetically unpleasing, if not done well. If you think about it - the photographer has to ensure they "end" on the proper center object. If the camera is not perfectly centered on the desired object, the end frame will not be centered well after the zoom.

5

If you are a local spectator you can't zoom, you only can go closer. So it wouldn't be natural. Maybe a viewer will get unconfortable by watching a lot of zooming scenes.

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    This makes sense to me. Zooming usually feels "intense" to the viewer -- it usually sends the message "this shot is very important." Too much use of zoom could be overwhelming to the viewer. – Shiz Z. Dec 9 '14 at 18:33
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Part of the reason so few films use zooms is very simple...

Most directors/DPs shoot with "prime" lenses... which don't zoom.

Prime lenses (or fixed focal length lenses) can’t zoom in or zoom out. Therefore, when using a prime, every time the filmmaker wants to get tighter on his composition, he can either (1) physically move the camera closer to his subject or (2) change the camera lens for one with a longer focal length and narrower field of view – the telephoto lens. Accordingly, if the filmmaker decides for a wider composition, he can either (1) move the camera away from the subject or (2) change the camera lens for one with a shorter focal length and wider field of view – the wide-angle lens.

Zoom lenses have major issues with image quality, causing various issues that no serious filmmaker wants to have to deal with:

Zoom lenses achieve this convenience through compromises on image quality, weight, dimensions, aperture, autofocus performance (both speed and accuracy), build quality, and cost of manufacture. For example, all zoom lenses suffer from at least slight, if not considerable, loss of image resolution at their maximum aperture, especially at the extremes of their focal length range. This effect is evident in the corners of the image, when displayed in a large format or high resolution. The greater the range of focal length a zoom lens offers, the more exaggerated these compromises must become.

Because primes are so much simpler in construction, lens manufacturers can make excellent quality lenses that create beautiful images.

  • Although it's possible to simulate a zoom in post production, if the resolution and image quality of the shot footage is high enough. – bdsl Mar 18 '16 at 23:42
1

I thought about this a lot and aside from simple "dont zoom (in)" advices, I was unable to find anything going deeper into the topic so far.

In my opinion, there are many factors contributing to the "to zoom or not to zoom" question, aforemost budget limitations. This can be seen if you compare TV to Cinema: Cinema has more money, so they can do more elaborate things than zooming (tracking/dolly/crane), TV often has to fall-back to zooming as everything else usually invovles more complicated sets, lighting and sound-recording.

The question why there are so many zoom outs and not many zoom in nowadays is also striking to me and I recognized a very important asymetry: If I zoom out, more and more genuinely new information enters the frame. It gives the effect of "aaah, that's the big picture" and done properly (lens choice) feels very natural. A zoom in doesn't provide new information (except it's really far in) and almost always feels wierd, as the non-uniform change in object sizes (which is easily forgivable in zoom outs) is disturbing and unnatural.

Of course this all depends on the evolution of certain memes and perception habits as they change over time, but nevertheless, zooming in general is hard to get right, so it's seldom done, so viewer don't get used to it (and "bad zooms") so it gets even harder to do, and so on and so forth.

Luckily, we have all the new Indy-movement due to internets and such, so we can always expect an sudden and unexpected change in viewing "fashion".

BTW, compare zooming in video games history. I think it's very enlightening, as it is easier to distinguish the technical necessities from artistic freedom and the memes are much better documented.

  • I agree with you, zooming is a lot more appealing than zooming in, especially with light movement. Great for establishment shot, from subject/object to reveal an environment of event. Very slow zoom is appealing as well on some cases, throwing attention to the eyes etc. Bu for zooming an object works better the cut, immediate jump from long view to the closer view of an object of interest. Zooming is widely used in TV, rarely in Cinema. – D.A.H May 8 '18 at 10:09
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A zoom is technically not a camera move as it does not require the camera itself to move at all. Zooming means altering the focal length of the lens to give the illusion of moving closer to or further away from the action.

The effect is not quite the same though. Zooming is effectively magnifying a part of the image, while moving the camera creates a difference in perspective — background objects appear to change in relation to foreground objects. This is sometimes used for creative effect in the dolly zoom.

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    Helpful facts but doesn't answer the question. – Charmin Dec 9 '14 at 15:26

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