Even if you've never heard of a tracking shot, chances are that you've seen it dozens or maybe even hundreds of times over the years. Instead of being static, a tracking shot is a type of camera movement where a camera moves through space, following a character or moving object through a scene or simply highlighting the surrounding area.
Like the establishing shot, the tracking shot is a staple of filmed entertainment, from movies to television shows. Tracking shots can be the focal point or the b-roll that helps transport viewers into a scene. And thanks to the democratization of video technology, this shot has become a typical shot in YouTube, Instagram and other social media videos.
After defining the tracking shot in a bit more detail, we'll discuss a few different types of them. Then we'll get into how to shoot them.
What is a tracking shot?
First, why is it called a "tracking shot"? Originally, the shot involved film crews laying track trails on a set upon which a dolly with a camera mount could move through space. Typically this movement, or tracking, was either to the left and right or forward and backward.
The reason that tracking shots are so effective is that they not only reveal a lot of detail within a scene, but they can show action unfolding. A good tracking shot can immersively transport a viewer or audience into a scene. And when a tracking shot is used to follow a character through a given space, it brings the viewer along that path.
If you watch early films, there are a whole lot of static shots. And if there is any camera movement at all, it's usually pans and tilts on a camera tripod. Perhaps the first film to feature a tracking shot was the 1914 film Cabiria, directed by Giovanni Pastrone. In it, you can see Pastrone's camera slowly dolly left in a beach scene in which characters launch a boat into the ocean.
It's helpful to remember that a tracking shot is just one type of camera movement amongst many in the filmmaker's repertoire. Learn to use it, but don't overuse it.
Tracking shot vs. dolly shot
Before getting into some examples of great tracking shots in cinema history, it will help differentiate it from the dolly shot. The best way to do this is to think of a dolly shot as a type of tracking shot.
A dolly is an apparatus that runs along track rails. To capture a dolly shot, the cinematographer and his camera team can either sit on the dolly while operating the camera or push or pull the camera along the track while it's mounted on the dolly.
In film vocabulary terms, dollying describes a movement toward or away from the action or perpendicular to it. By contrast, the tracking shot originally described left-to-right motion in parallel to the action.
Over time, the tracking shot has gone off the rails, so to speak. Now, a tracking shot can be captured via Steadicam, booms, cranes, jibs/cranes and even systems attached to motorized vehicles. Cinematographers and camera operators are capturing tracking shots with drones, gimbals and various types of handheld camera systems. French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard famously sat on a wheelchair operating his camera handheld for his 1959 film Breathless.
But you don't always need technologically advanced camera systems to pull off a tracking shot. Steady-handed videographers can create immersive tracking shots using only their smartphones, sure footing and a good sense of time and space.
Types of tracking shots
By now, you've probably got a good sense of the various types of tracking shots. So, let's recap them.
Any shot on a dolly that moves toward or away from the action. "Dolly-in" for movement toward action, and "dolly-out" for movement away from it.
The original tracking shot
It's a movement in parallel to action. So, either to the left or to the right.
Steadicam tracking shot
This is a type of handheld shot that uses a camera stabilizer to create smooth tracking shots. Martin Scorsese is often associated with Steadicam shots, especially in Goodfellas, when two main characters enter and weave through a restaurant to their dinner table.
Crane tracking shot
Instead of using a dolly or Steadicam, filmmakers often use large cranes or booms to follow a character through a scene. Orson Welles famously used a crane shot to capture a complex long take in his 1958 film Touch of Evil.
Handheld tracking shot
Any tracking shot entirely done by hand without any camera stabilizing system or tracks.
Drone tracking shot
A newer form of a tracking shot that features camera-mounted drones that can move with incredible freedom and stability through almost any space. If you want aerial footage, a drone camera is a great and affordable option.
Car mount tracking shot
A common and popular tracking shot is possible with a car and other vehicle mounts. The camera system mounts to the vehicle, allowing filmmakers to film the action in and around it. The film Children of Men has a magnificent tracking shot, captured both in and outside a car.
How to capture a tracking shot
In the previous section, we detailed some of the ways of capturing tracking shots. Some like dolly and crane shots are beyond the budgets of most filmmakers and videographers. Other techniques, like gimbals, drones and handheld, can be done DIY.
As important as tracking shot tools are, they are only one part of the equation. Indeed, a lot of thinking and planning goes into filming good tracking shots.
First, you really have to understand the story you want to tell. Not all films and videos will require a tracking shot. But if you're confident that your video or film needs one, think about how you want to move through the scene, as well as how your shot will fit the larger narrative or story.
Once you've mapped out your story and come up with a shot list, it's time to consider what tracking shot tools will be available to you through your budget. Once you've settled on your tools, it's time to practice. As with anything, you will get better at filming tracking shots the more you do it.
If you don't have the gear, time or budget to create your own tracking shots, consider using stock footage. Even the most accomplished filmmakers and videographers have always used b-roll for their projects, so just remember that this is an option that is available for your work.
DJ Pangburn is a New York-based journalist, videographer, and fiction writer, with bylines at Vice, Fast Company, Dazed and Confused, and other publications. DJ records ambient techno and IDM under the name Holoscene.