Let's start there (but not spend too much time on it because you are probably already checked out on their use):
On/Off - On some brands you actually have to find two or three switches to accomplish this. You may be required to choose between camera and VCR or VTR, you may have to open shutters over the lens or remove a lens cap, and you may have choices about snapshots, locked, standby, or video. You're probably ready when you see a picture through the viewfinder with no unexpected icon flashing in the middle.
Zoom - Changes the lens setting from wide angle to telephoto. You see what's happening in the viewfinder.
Red "Take" button - Rolls the tape. Usually "REC" shows in the viewfinder when recording and "STDBY" shows when the tape is stopped.
Beyond that everything else is automated on most consumer camcorders. You only have to master all those other buttons if you want to take control of things like focus, exposure, shutter speed, color balance, stabilization, depth of field, freeze motion, volume, and tons of other special effects and titling. On most camcorders the default manufacturer settings are the place to start -- they've done a very good job taming all these options. You should only need to make changes for particular scenes when you see things going wrong. So let's not trail through all the buttons and menu options out there right now. Instead let's focus on you and all the problems you can create.
Let's examine other areas that separate the pros from the beginners. It's always said, and frequently demonstrated, that if you put the cheapest pile of junk camcorder in the hands of a pro, the resulting footage will look dazzling. It doesn't work the other way around. It's not the tools that separate the 8-year old baking her first cake from her grandmother -- it's lots of little things, some of which are hard and tedious to document, and some of which fall into discussions and hot arguments that might be lumped together under the category called "style."
Let's get you started with some of the obvious areas. As you shoot video you will naturally get competitive with and wonder why your footage doesn't measure up to the footage you see on TV and in the movies. This will cause you to start adding tricks to your trade consciously and unconsciously. Most of us are very critical viewers of TV and movies.
The first sign that there is a rank amateur running the camera comes when you realize it is being hand-held because the picture bounces around (and may actually make some viewers seasick, watch out!). The standard answer to this is to lug a tripod around with you. This is great if you are going to be positioned in the same place for more than three minutes filming a game or stage performance, but if you are zipping around like a fly on the wall you have to take other measures. Here are some:
Lean on things while filming to stabilize yourself. Find a tree, a wall, a table, a friend . . .
Take a deep breath and hold it. Dig your elbows into your inflated rib cage creating a triangular bracing system between the camcorder and your stable chest. Do not answer any questions thrown at you and stop filming before your whole body starts convulsing trying to purge the stale air.
Zoom out (going to a wide angle setting) and then move yourself and camera in close to the subject. Wide angle shots are much easier to hold steady. Zoomed in telephoto shots really need a good tripod.
Practice, practice, practice. While rolling tape, pick a stationary object near the corner of the viewfinder, lock in on it, and don't let it move around in the viewfinder. This turns your whole nervous and muscular system into a self-correcting stabilization machine. It becomes second nature if you work at it enough just as a waitress can carry a tray of drinks without spilling any.
Push the "take" button to stop rolling tape when you realize you are about to lose stability. You'd be surprised how many shots run until the cameraman bumps into something, loses concentration or literally falls off a step.
Be sure the camera's built-in motion stabilization feature is turned on. On some brands the stabilization feature reportedly snaps and jerks the picture too much as the camera is moved around. You'll hear that the feature should be turned off. Don't accept this advice as gospel -- play with it for a while first because this objection is true on only a small percentage of camcorders.
Don't dismiss using a small mono pod or very light portable tripod for those "on the go" shots. These won't serve you well when shooting a long event but may be just the ticket when moving around like a fly on the wall.
Another rule to consider is how long your shots should be. Watch TV and count how long their shots run. You'll notice that the average 30-second commercial may have 20 different shots. Pretty much the same with MTV. Now watch situation comedies and cops and robber stories -- maybe shots stay on 3 to 5 seconds. Follow up with slow running talk shows on PBS. Even there they switch the camera before 10 seconds have gone by.
Back when you were getting advice with your home camera movie film from Kodak, the advice they gave was to count to 7 and shut the shot down. They advised against lots of jerky short clips. While that was in a slower and more graceful period of time, it's still a rule to seriously consider. Tightly edited sales pitches, action packed movie clips and music videos may demand one to three second clips, but this is too fast for general family footage. We find that when people put photographs together in a video presentation, six seconds for each photo is about the right time.
On the other hand, you'll lose your audience if you make your shots too long. I can't tell you how many times I've seen shots of a baby being fed in its high chair that a proud parent lets roll for over a minute. It's equivalent to a 3-hour sermon in church or a filibuster in congress.
Even though you and I may have no interest in a "feed the baby" sequence unless we know the baby, it might keep our attention if broken up into multiple shots such as an establishing shot showing where we are, feed the baby, look at the mother, close up of the mess, close up of mother's stress, picture of baby wiggling feet in the air, mother leaning back in exhaustion . . . . All of this puts you the videographer to work. You have to move around and compose several shots telling a story. Some shots may be long, some short, but the overall impact is dramatically improved.
Closely related to this is rule #3: avoid "hunting" with the camcorder. We've all seen shots where the camera is panning to the left surveying the scene only to change direction and pan back to the right again, then no, maybe what it is looking for is down, let's zoom in for a second, darn it moved out of the shot, let's follow it putting everything out of focus, well heck, we seem to be looking at a blank wall, and with a shake of the camera, it's turned off finally, followed by a totally unrelated shot taken hours later.
You avoid hunting by following rule #2: shut the camera off when a shot falls apart. Also you avoid hunting by getting your head out from behind the camera before you start the shot and planning out what you are going to shoot. If you want really good footage, you might practice the shot a couple of times before you push the red "take" button. Does it stay in focus, is the movement too extreme, is there a bright light or window that comes and goes as you pan causing the camera to change the color and brightness of the subject, etc., etc.?
Paint your scenes with shots that move in one direction, then quit. Don't backtrack in the same shot. This applies to all three movements you control: panning, tilting, and zooming. This seems so simple and yet this indecisiveness shows up all over the place in the work of amateurs. You "hunt" before you "roll." A few seconds of planning pays big dividends.
Rule #4 builds on the two previous rules -- vary your shots. Some shots should be from a distance to establish where we are and some should be very tight so we can really see the subjects in your video. Some shots should be long and some short. Here's what to avoid: lots of mid-range shots with three or more people posing in them.
TV is an "in your face" medium -- watch it closely. It sits across the room from you. The pros cut the tops off of heads with impunity. You need to be "tight" on a lot of shots to make it interesting but you want to vary it so as not to be too invasive.
Also you need to be sensitive as to whether you are above the subjects you are shooting making them look small and dominated or you are below the subjects making them look lordly, controlling, and terrifying. If you get down on the floor with kids they look a lot more like little human beings when looking straight at the camcorder than if you are always shooting the tops of their heads.
Rule #5: let the motion come to you -- be careful how much you zoom, pan and tilt. Watch what the pros do and you'll be surprised how little zooming you see. Any pans or tilts (looking from side to side or up and down) are generally very slow. When you do see the pros chase the subject, you'll usually then see a series of stable shots to let you get your bearings again.
The pros hate zooming in and out. Instead they lay a track, bring in a crane or rent a well-trained Steadycam operator to follow the subject around smoothly. This technology is beyond the casual user's reach, so we zoom. Best advice, zoom slowly and zoom less than every third shot. Use the zoom feature to frame in a shot correctly before you push the red "take" button, and keep your fingers off it while rolling. Fast or excessive zooms cause nausea and disorientation of your poor audience. You don't want to have to provide air sick bags at your showing.
These rules barely scratch the surface. Start by following them and when your footage looks more respectable, you'll be ready to study the hundreds of other things you see the pros do in great movies and on TV that makes their footage dazzle.
Now let's take on some of the many buttons on your camcorder. You should have a large owner's manual that explains what they do and I don't intend to duplicate that. (Most owner's manuals were written in Japanese first and then are translated into dozens of languages, perhaps by a computer. Legal warnings probably fill the first two pages and the really interesting stuff is frequently buried away in tiny-typeface footnotes. Don't get discouraged, you are not alone when wondering if you no longer know how to read.) If you've studied photography a lot, the information that follows may be old hat, but I've got to cover it to show you why you may want to explore some of the buttons from time to time.
Basically you are simply managing light and motion. Start with light: too much light and everything is blistered out, too little light and details get lost in the shadows. The human eye has a much wider range from bright to dark in any given scene than does any video equipment. A video shot of your "true love" that looks OK to you standing there may play back later with white splotches and blisters all over his or her face. How can something like this happen, you ask? You assumed the camera would "close down" automatically when the subject got too bright.
The automation in the camera can fail you if there are extremes in any one shot. It adjusts for the average brightness. Hot areas are averaged with dark areas. The range it can handle is limited. The middle or average of the range you are trying to shoot may not be the setting you want for a correct exposure where the true subject is very "hot" surrounded by a lot of dark holes. You have to take charge deciding to throw away the details in the dark holes in order to get proper exposure of the main subject. Shots of someone on a stage in a spotlight is the most typical example of having to manually take charge of the exposure setting in your camcorder.
The other extreme occurs when details of your true subject are crushed into a gray mess because your subject is surrounded by a very bright background. You need to open up the exposure, throwing away the details in the bright background so you can brighten up and see your subject correctly. Some camcorders have a button called "backlighting" that does this for you.
This doesn't mean your camera can't take pictures in extremely bright or extremely dark places: it can if the whole scene is bright or the whole scene is dark. The thing you have to be sensitive to occurs when there is a mix of bright and dark, your true subject is not in the middle of the range of lighting intensity, and your camcorder is calculating an average brightness setting that is wrong for what you want to capture.
What do you look for to adjust exposure? If your camera is anything like most of ours, there are several ways to adjust exposure -- some are redundant and others handle extreme situations beyond those discussed above. How do you sort it all out?
If your camera has a wheel or dial called exposure and the picture gets dark and light as you turn it, then that's where to start. You will need to "turn it on" telling the camera's automation that you are taking control of exposure and to butt out. This may require you to read the manual -- different manufacturers have different ways to block you from tampering with their automatic settings. Once you are in control, here are several things to consider and several words of advice:
Be sure you trust what your camcorder's viewfinder is telling you. In an ideal situation, you want to play with your camcorder in some very tough situations taking and reviewing throwaway footage before you "go live" on location. The viewfinder may have its own settings which if set wrong will mislead you. For example, if the picture in the viewfinder looks dark and dingy, but it looks great when played back on a TV, brighten the viewfinder setting, not the exposure setting of the footage you're taking.
Flip out screens are a wonderful invention everywhere except outside on a sunny day. Because it's so hard to see anything on them when it's too bright outside, you may be tempted to crank around on the brightness setting of the flip out screen. Fine, but this may seriously mislead you when you come back inside again -- be careful. Try to remember the setting before you changed it outside and go back to that point as soon as possible.
Once you trust what you are seeing in the viewfinder, learn what to look for that clues you when to switch off the camcorder's automation and change to manual exposure control. Then you need to know how to set the exposure manually. Set it wrong and everything will come back too dark or too bright -- sadly it's easy to do.
There is a trick I use when going to manual exposure at an event such as a stage performance or a wedding. Let the automation help you! Before going to manual exposure, zoom in tight on an important face that is lit pretty much as you expect will be common throughout the event. The camcorder should adjust its exposure to a nice mid-point of the light on that face. Then flip the manual exposure feature on. Normally this will "lock-in" the automatic setting that you trust is OK. Do not turn the manual exposure knob -- the camcorder is set to the desired value. You are now free to zoom wide and pan around the room knowing that a bright window in the background won't close the camera's lens down and black holes won't cause the faces of the main stars to blister out.
As I mentioned earlier, many cameras have other ways to accomplish the same results when working with uneven lighting situations. Many have a "backlighting" button that will take faces out of the shadows in a scene with lots of hot spots in the background. Solving the other problem, some have a special features setting that shows an icon with a face in a spotlight. This feature will help eliminate blistered out faces in your video where the main characters are surrounded by dark holes in the background.
You may find these settings are easier to use that trying to adjust the exposure manually. Just be sure to turn them off when no longer needed. We see videos shot with the backlighting feature turned on during normal shots -- they are all washed out.
The camcorder engineers didn't stop there. Lurking behind every senior male electronics engineer is a teenage boy who wants to develop the perfect camcorder that will shoot good footage in near darkness. The race is on between vendors. This means you will likely find still more exposure settings that address this issue. Most of these settings result in footage with horrible color, jerky motion, and grainy images. Go there if you must but all of these features are outside the scope of this booklet.
The next basic issue centers on focus. Most cameras have a very good auto focus feature. This feature probably does a better job by far than you can do manually if you lack experience or just use the camcorder from time to time. Some situations confuse the automation, however, and to get decent footage you will have to jump in and take charge.
There are two things to look for: 1) the camera is focusing on the wrong thing, and 2) the camera is confused and is hunting back and forth for something to focus on. Most camcorders today look for a sharp vertical edge in your picture. Once found, they very quickly focus in and out picking which direction better sharpens this edge in the picture. It's the same process the eye doctor uses: "Which is better, A or B"?
No edge in the picture: the camera is lost. A clear edge close by and another in the distance: the camera is confused which one to select. Most of the time you can help your poor camcorder by just centering in on a sharply defined object that you want to film. If it's really lost and is focusing on the dust on its own lens when you want to shoot a sunset, you can move things along by aiming the camera at a tree or something else in the distance before you push the red take button. Once it's focused for distance shots, it will usually stay there.
If none of this works you are going to have to learn how to turn off the automatic focus feature and take charge of focusing yourself. This is not complicated. One switch or button gives you control and usually the ring around the lens moves so you can change focus. Some camcorders let you go to manual but have a button or spring loaded switch setting that lets you tell the camera's auto focus feature to quickly do its job and return to manual operation.
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