Before considering the consequences of shooting from the shoulder we need to incorporate the idea of camerawork, and what we are trying to produce with it. Work is the force it takes to change something; to move a camera’s mass, to operate it. The relationship between camera, operator, and audience is a system defined by Thermodynamics. If the experience of experiencing something provides energy, the Thermodynamic movement is the transfer of this energy from one point in space and time to another, via the process of work. There is the original energy of the experience, the work needed to capture this energy, the energy lost in the transmission process, and the final amount of energy received by the viewer. Knowing a system can never be 100% efficient, we hope to maximize transmission and minimize work. If there is more work than energy transferred, the system is ineffective.
Power is force over a distance; the amount of work done over time; a product of current and resistance. In viewing, power describes the final amount of energy transferred to the viewer. More energy transmitted in less time equals more power. We consider power when we stand, camera in hand, having lived what we just captured and ask ourselves, Was it worth it? Will the work of capture enable a powerful experience to be transferred to the viewer? Will the work amount to little or no energy for the viewer?
Unfortunately, more work does not necessarily produce a more powerful image. The camera cannot make something from nothing. The camera does not create, it transfers. In non-fiction and fiction we have to start with something; an experience of some intensity. If there is no energy in what we capture no matter how hard we work there will be no energy for the viewer. In terms of the system, when all the energy comes from the work itself, all the viewer experiences is the work. Images may appear elaborate, labored over, well executed, well crafted. But they lack energy. They are stylish and powerless. This dynamic relationship requires constant attention: what we capture, and how hard we must work to capture it.1»
Did we get it? Was the image in focus? Was it exposed and framed properly, the action clear and understandable? In terms of Thermodynamics: did we capture the energy of the experience? How much? What percent of the found, created, joyous, desperate, or bewildering energy in front of the camera are we transferring to the viewer? Thermodynamics helps answer the question of whether a camera is too much work to operate, or not enough. It helps us answer whether a particular camera is performing its primary function: the efficient transfer of energy from one place to another.
Energy for the viewer relates directly to form; form determines how hard we work. The higher the mountain, the more we expect the shot to pay off. Elegance is the economy of beauty.
Consider some consequences. The strength of the shoulder tempts us into maximizing camera size and mass. The more we carry, the more work required. More work is more fatigue and if we are overloaded, less shoot time. The inertia that helps stabilize the camera also resists us repositioning it. A heavier camera means we have to work harder to pick it back up off our shoulder, hold it over our head, put it on our hip, carry it in a low angle, hold it in front of us, run. We have to work harder to prevent inertia from slowing us down and limiting angles.
Efficiency, together with the viewfinder being most effective at our eye, encourages us to let the camera remain on our shoulder. The camera’s range of motion tends to be where the whole body can support it, favoring certain angles and heights like standing or kneeling, and making us work harder for shot variety outside of these two positions. A tendency to remain on the shoulder may shape the coverage, and the look. A heavier balance camera does not make dynamic and variable camera movement impossible, but it does require more work. We move it in a different way.
The larger the camera, the larger the footprint. Expanding footprint includes not only the camera body, but all its accessories, including power, support, and protective cases. This effects storage, set-size, and transportation. For the operator, the Balance Camera’s viewfinder and body block a portion of their view, reducing their situational awareness. Carried high up on our body, the camera becomes more visible. The body and viewfinder hide our face from the subject.
When we can take a camera down from our face, hold and operate it comfortably in two hands before us and watch what we are capturing on a monitor viewable from most any angle; it’s a Box camera.2» The form of a Box is nothing like the form of the Balance camera. With its monitor and small size, the Box is liberated from our eye and shoulder giving the camera a far greater range of motion. Its small mass can be moved faster and more dynamically with less effort. The box can be boomed and tracked with less effort, small moves requiring less work. Within arm’s reach a great variety of vertical and horizontal positions can be reached and retained. Incremental height adjustments are easier. The smaller size can be fit into tighter spaces, often putting it closer to subjects and objects, making it capable of new angles.3» Unlike the Balance camera, feeling the constant mass in our hands we tend to experience the Box as a separate entity and tend to interact with it as such. We move it.
With the camera down from our face, situational awareness increases; we see more of the world around us. Like shooting with a medium format camera or rangefinder operating from a distant monitor can encourage a different style of framing. With our eyes further from the screen, frame lines are less dominant in our vision, our proximity to action becomes more apparent. Frames may get looser, and more active. We may see and experience the frame in a different way. A small camera tends to pull us closer to things. These factors shape the coverage, and as the tool shapes the capabilities of the user, the camerawork shapes the future possibilities of how the scene can be replayed. Things may look different.
We can use the Box to find the same frames as the Balance camera, but its strength may be in finding something else. Beyond new angles, interacting with a smaller sized camera encourages different behavior; different proximities to people, different camera movements. It’s another set of possibilities, which may or may not be right for our project.
Consequences. By it’s very nature a Box camera is less stable. Second to exposure and sound, instability can render a moving picture unwatchable. Like being too dark, a picture can be so shaky a viewer cannot understand what is happening. As in light and darkness, there are also varying degrees of shake.4»
The CG of a box is in the center of the box. Our arms cantilever out and support the camera’s entire weight, holding it before our body with nothing to rest on. This is the Box’s most ideal position, and its most problematic. Suspended in front of us the camera has maximum freedom to respond; the hovering image plane is also highly prone to the effects of shaking, and puts the body in an awkward position. The cantilevering tends to arch our back, we dip our head to see the monitor. Keeping the camera at eye level for any length of time requires more work as there is nowhere to rest it. Fatigue brings the constant temptation to pull the camera back in towards our body. Our arms tire long before the shoulder, and no matter how small the Box, we’ll reduce the cantilever of our arms and try find a way to use more muscles to support the camera. We will inevitably rest the Box on our body somehow, contracting our arms to find a place where the monitor can be outside of our eye’s minimum focus distance, landing the camera on our stomach, chest, or half-shoulder. This tucks the chin further into our chest, bending the neck and spine out of alignment. Rather than keeping our posture erect we tend to hunch over the small camera. Resting the camera on the body nullifies the freedom of movement which was the Box camera’s greatest asset.
Unknown hundreds of devices have been created to turn the small box into something sizable enough to rest on our body, or directly upon the shoulder. The problem is aggravated by our eye’s minimum focus distance.5» Getting the camera to rest anywhere near our shoulder places the monitor so close to our face that a diopter is required for our eye. Unlike a camera kept on the shoulder, we need the both the monitor bigger as it moves away from our face, and smaller with a diopter as it approaches.6»
The greatest tradeoffs in a Box camera are lack of operational stability, and lack of capture power. These factors are clearly changing as more power arrives in smaller bodies, and stabilized lenses and software arrive continue to evolve. What will not change is the two camera forms will never be one, as we will see they are impossible to integrate. We must choose to operate the camera in one way, or the other.