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Buyers Guides > Digital Camcorder Tips, Tricks & Techniques

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Introduction

The digital video camera/recorder, or "camcorder" for short, has become ubiquitous in the world around us over the last 20 years or so, and makes regular appearances at weddings, family gatherings and other notable events. Purchasing a digital camcorder is the first step towards joining the growing throng of amateur filmmakers, but with an ever-increasing number of features and unique selling points, actually getting to grips with a camcorder, and shooting effective video footage, can take some time. The instruction manual of a digital camcorder is likely to allow you to familiarise yourself with its basic features and operation, there are some techniques not covered, at least not fully, in many manuals that can help you to get the most from your digital camcorder, right from the start. Careful planning, and attention to detail, is really the key to getting the most from a digital camcorder, so spending thousands of pounds on equipment is not necessarily an answer.

Digital Camcorder Tips, Tricks & Techniques

Framing & Focussing

Framing is simply the process of positioning your subject whether it be the happy couple at a wedding, or your child at his or her birthday party, or whatever else, in a "frame" of video to maximum effect. This should be a fairly straightforward process, provided that you keep one or two basic principles in mind.

If you have a digital camcorder that actually displays "safety margin" rectangles towards the outer edge of its viewfinder, it is easier to remember because you have visual confirmation, that images beyond the outer rectangle may not appear when video footage is played back, in certain circumstances. If not, try to keep any critical images towards the centre of the viewfinder, and not too tight to the margins.

It is important to try to balance the contents of each frame, to make it as visually appealing as possible. If you are filming a head and shoulders shot of a person, for example, if they are looking directly at the camcorder, then centring the shot on them will yield best results. If on the other hand your subject is looking to the right or left, positioning them in 1/3 of the frame, so that they are effectively looking into the remaining 2/3 achieves a more balanced effect, in this situation.

Remember too, that a digital camcorder is not restricted to a view of the world from your own eye level. You can kneel or lie down to shoot low angle footage, a "worm's eye view" if you like, making subject appear larger than life, or climb to a higher vantage point such as a chair or a ladder to give a high angle "bird's eye view".

In many shooting situations, particularly those involving people, the "autofocus" feature of a digital camera can be more of a hindrance than a help. If a digital camcorder is focussed on a subject, and someone walks through the shot, autofocussing may shift unexpectedly to follow that person, leaving the original subject out of focus. Manual focussing makes sure that your subject always remains in focus, regardless of any such movement. You may of course, like to experiment with "focus pulling" or changing focus from one element of a shot to another for dramatic effect.

Lighting & White Balance

Most digital camcorders, even the most sophisticated, expensive camcorders, tend to struggle in conditions of low ambient light, so artificial lighting is often a necessity, particularly when filming indoors. If you do need to use artificial light, beware of shadows and silhouettes, and remember that what appears white in one lighting environment, may not in others.

Light from different sources has different colour "temperatures" measured in units derived from the Kelvin temperature scale, and may therefore impart hues of different colours onto video footage. Natural sunlight for example, imparts a blue hue while incandescent indoor lighting imparts an orange or yellow hue, and fluorescent lighting a green hue.

This means that what we and digital camcorders, perceive as "white" varies from environment to environment. The human eye, however, can make appropriate adjustments automatically, whereas a digital camcorder usually cannot, without some user intervention. This is where "white balance" comes in, typically by focussing the camcorder lens on a piece of white card, so that the camcorder perceives white in the same way as the human eye. Once again there are techniques, such as white balancing against a card tinted red, to give a colder, blue hue, that can be employed to alter the look of footage at the shooting stage, but better results can be achieved by doing this in post production.

Zoom

Tempting though it may be to demonstrate the zoom capability of your digital camcorder, by constantly zooming in and out during your footage, this is more likely to induce nausea than any other reaction, in your audience. Try to use zoom sparingly (camera shake, for one thing, is likely to be much more pronounced when you are zoomed in) and be aware of the difference between "optical" and "digital" zoom.

Optical zoom actually moves the lens assembly itself to produce magnifications, typically of "10X" or more, and produces far better results than digital zoom, which is a purely software process. Digital zoom simply "crops" a portion of an image, and enlarges it to the size of the viewfinder (using a process known as "interpolation") producing results that are often unsatisfactory, at all but the lowest levels of magnification.

Similarly, if you do use autofocus, beware of using zoom in low light conditions, as most digital camcorders have difficulty in autofocussing consistently under these conditions. The effect is likely to be more pronounced when zooming in, than zooming out, but, even so, you may come across some unexpected, and unwanted, focus switching.

Stability

The stability of a digital camcorder while recording, is vital to the production of satisfactory video footage. While you may think you are holding a camcorder perfectly steady in your hand, the effect of your breathing, and fatigue in your muscles after the first few minutes or so, may be amplified by your camcorder, so that the end result shakes, and wobbles, all over the place. The use of a tripod or a "monopod" like a tripod, but with just one leg (the other two being the user's own) can reduce these effects, and those of the elements to a minimum, and many compact, lightweight models are available. Remember however, to look for a model especially designed for digital camcorders, as opposed to digital cameras.

In the absence of a tripod, leaning on a wall or a car roof, or another person, can help to stabilise a digital camcorder, but if you are intending to shoot large volumes of handheld footage, consider also the "image stabilisation" capability of a camcorder, itself. Image stabilisation, like zoom, typically comes in two forms; "digital" and "optical". Digital image stabilisation is the less sophisticated and less expensive, of the two, but may nevertheless provide adequate stabilisation for most consumer applications. Optical image stabilisation on the other hand, requires optical stabilising lenses, and is a feature of sophisticated, high-end digital camcorders.

Sound

It is an unfortunate fact that if the sound on your recording becomes overtly noticeable to your audience, it is because it is noticeably bad. Most camcorders rely, as standard, on an integral microphone to capture sound and while this may be more than adequate for informal gatherings, where sound is not important, for more professional productions it may be found wanting. Integral microphones are not particularly resilient to the effects of the elements; wind especially can make them crackle and pop, and the overall quality of the sound recorded is typically poor. It may therefore be worth your while to invest in a so-called "lavaliere" microphone. A lavaliere microphone is simply a small microphone that can be hung around the neck, or clipped to the shirt front, of a subject (wired, and wireless, models are available) such that the voice of an interview subject, or a speech maker for example, can be recorded in clear high quality, free from ambient noise.

Less is Less

It is advisable to record a small portion of video footage, say 5 seconds or so, before and after the footage that you actually want to capture. This means that you will not lose the opening line of an interview or speech for example, because of any time delay between the record button being pressed, and the camcorder starting to record, and allow sufficient "pre-roll" for an editing equipment to acquire a signal correctly. In addition, the more footage you have, the more time is available to insert transitions between scenes, during the editing process.