A tracking shot is a method of getting pictures on video or film for television or the movies. Unlike a typical shot where the action passes by a stationary camera, a tracking shot uses a moving camera that follows along with the action. The effect is that viewers feel like they are part of the action. Since their perspective is constantly changing they are active participants instead of static observers.
The man credited with developing the tracking shot is D.W. Griffith. The legendary producer and director employed the then innovative technique in his controversial landmark film "Birth of a Nation" in 1915. Griffith used tracking shots to draw the audience in so they could feel like they were in the moment. No filmmaker had ever done anything like that before. He viewed the camera as the audience. Moving the camera, moved them.
Traditionally, tracking shots in films were done on a dolly or some other contraption with wheels. It was rolled along the ground or a train track so the camera could slide smoothly along a path. In recent years, the development of "steady cams" has made smooth tracking shots even easier. Filmmakers do not need to build expensive and time consuming tracks. A steady cam operator can merely walk along a path and get a shake free shot.
There are several types of tracking shots. The moving camera can focus on an object standing still. This action tells a story in itself. Tracking toward a stationary object communicates zeroing in or finding something. Tracking away from a stationary object conveys abandonment or solitude. A tracking shot along side a moving object gives the viewer the same perspective. Tracking faster than the object communicates passing while tracking slower leaves the impression of being left behind. Tracking shots can travel in every direction at any speed. They can be horizontal, vertical, diagonal, circular or in random directions. When the camera is placed on a crane, tracking shots can be moved in three dimensions on the same shot.
In television news, tracking shots are commonly used for "walk and talk" interviews. This is where several people are talking and moving while the camera follows them. The camera is usually in front of them with the photographer walking backwards. The idea is to give the illusion of natural interaction. The audience feels like they are just another person walking along with the reporter and interview subject.
There is a lot of potential in a tracking shot. They can be used in conjunction with pans, tilts, zooms, pulls or rack focus to create complex effects. Creative directors are coming up with increasingly innovative techniques involving the tracking shot.