What is a Zoom Shot in Film? Types and Examples

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A zoom shot is an optical change of focal length that changes the framing and makes the subject appear closer (zooming in) or farther away (zooming out) without moving the camera.

Zoom shots were prominent in early cinema but not in cinema today. Using a dolly shot feels much more natural because we can move closer or farther away from a subject. Zoom shots seem unnatural because our eyes can’t zoom.

Today, zooms are used subtly because they draw too much attention to themselves and can have a cheap holiday video camcorder look. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t be used deliberately as an artistic effect.

Types of Zoom Shots in Cinema

Here are some prominent types of zoom shots and their characteristics:

Subtle Zoom

Most zoom shots are done subtly with parfocal cinema lenses, which doesn’t draw attention. If a zoom is used, it’s often slow to medium-slow zooms to subtly focus on a subject or reveal more of a scene.

Stanley Kubrick was a master of the subtle zoom shot and used it to build suspense:

Modern examples include horror films like The Conjuring (2013), where director James Wan and cinematographer John R. Leonetti often use slow, subtle zooms to build suspense.

Long Zoom

A long zoom shot is used for dramatic effect to draw our attention closer to a subject or reveal a scene. The speed is often medium or medium-slow. If it’s a fast, long zoom, it becomes a crash zoom (see below).

Long zooms in modern cinema are often done to achieve a distinct visual effect that fits within a certain artistic style. A good example is Wes Anderson’s distinct auteur style cinema that uses a combination of symmetry, specific color palettes, and set design where motivated long zoom shots fit right in:

Crash Zoom

A crash zoom (aka Whip Zoom or Snap Zoom) is a sudden and rapid zoom in or out, often used to create a dramatic, comedic, or nostalgic effect. This technique can quickly draw the audience’s attention to a specific detail or character.

Quentin Tarantino frequently uses crash zooms, especially in action sequences, for dramatic, comedic, and nostalgic purposes as an homage to earlier filmmakers.

You can also find examples of crash zooms, in which the camera performs several snappy zooms in and out in a row. These were common in 1980s music videos and live music shows where the director wanted to spice up a dancing performance.

The Dolly Zoom

The dolly zoom, also known as the “Vertigo effect,” was popularized by Alfred Hitchcock in his 1958 film Vertigo. It involves simultaneously zooming in and dollying out to create a disorienting effect:

Other Ways of Moving Closer or Further Away in Film

Of course, zooming isn’t the only camera shot you can use to move toward or further away in a scene. Below, you can see a table of common ways to get closer or away from a subject in cinema:

TechniqueDescription
Push In/Pull OutMoving toward or away from the scene. Combines wide and tighter shots to enhance drama and direct the viewer’s focus. Adjusts framing as characters enter or exit the scene.
ZoomChanges the lens’s focal length without moving the camera. Alters perspective and depth-of-field, compressing the background.
Dolly ShotMoves the camera, dynamically changing the background. Adds motion and changes the shot’s background.
Dolly ZoomZooming out while dollying in changes perspective dramatically. Notable uses include Jaws and Goodfellas for disorienting effects.
Punch-InAchieved by using a longer focal length lens (requires a cut in editing) or zooming in without moving the camera. It is commonly used for tighter shots in dialogue scenes – fx going from an over-the-shoulder shot to a clean single. Maintains consistent head size with a minimal perspective change.

Summing Up

Zooming is an optical change in focal length that adjusts framing without moving the camera. Visible zooms have fallen out of favor in feature films since the late 1970s because they draw attention to the filmmaking process, breaking the immersive experience.

Like all other camera shots and movements, zooms should be motivated and ideally hidden, blending with other camera or actor movements to remain unnoticeable.

Author

  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns filmdaft.com and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

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