Filmmaker Tips: Dolly Camera Movement vs. Lens Zoom

There are two types of motions in video that look similar, but are accomplished in different ways, each having a unique effect on the audience. One of them incorporates moving the camera on a track. The other uses the optical zoom of the lens. In this video tutorial you will learn what's the difference between those techniques and when to use them.

In this informative and entertaining video, Ryan Connolly from Film Riot discusses dolly camera movement and lens zoom.


The camera is moved over a track. It can be on rails or on the ground. The camera can be moved towards or away form the subject, up or down, left or right, or alongside some trajectory. That type of technique makes the audience feel they are physically moving within the scene. The dolly shots look three-dimensional because of the parallax. This type of movement can be subtle or complex combining it with camera pans, tilts, and lens zooms.

Moving the camera can be made by manually pushing or pulling it, or automating it by using sliders with electronic motion control. A manual operated push can be made smoother by letting the camera move by itself on a slightly tilted track. Don't forget it accelerates and doesn't have brakes. It's on you to stop it.

Lens Zoom

Optically bringing the objects closer or further away from the viewer using lens zoom is another technique which somewhat resembles the forward and backward dolly move. The obvious difference is the lack of parallax in the lens zoom. This technique is used when we don't want the viewer to change their physical position in relation to the subject or the scene. However, we want to make them focus more or less on something in the frame by making it visually larger or smaller.

Zooming with your hand may not give the best results. If you are on a budget you can try using cheap focus handles or try the more expensive solutions by using follow focus units to get smoother results.

Combining Dolly And Lens Zoom

This technique can be also used in various combinations. Moving the camera forward and zooming out or backward and zooming in is used in famous movie scenes from "Vertigo" and "Jaws." This is often called a "dolly zoom" or "push-pull." It keeps the subject the same size in the frame while the scale of the environment changes. You can also slide the camera sideways and zoom in or out to make an impression of moving on a curved track. The possibilities are endless.

Faking the Lens Zoom In Post

Although it's not the same, faking a zoom by scaling the video up or down in post is also an option. Lenses distort the objects mostly in the periphery, so a little bit of scaling in post may fake the optical zoom almost perfectly. Making just a slight scale transformation can vastly increase the impact of the shot.

Now that you know the different emotions these movements convey, you should be able to incorporate them in your next shoot or even in your current postproduction.

For more great tips on filmmaking head over to Film Riot's YouTube channel.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Tihomir Lazarov is a commercial portrait photographer and filmmaker based in Sofia, Bulgaria. He is the best photographer and filmmaker in his house, and thinks the best tool of a visual artist is not in their gear bag but between their ears.

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