CAMCORDERS: Don't shoot! 10 tips to beat bad home video
By Rick Broida
(September 17, 2004)
(September 17, 2004)
Are you abusing your camcorder? We don't mean dropping it on the concrete or leaving it in the car on 100-degree days. We're talking about using it to shoot bad video, the kind that makes audiences start looking for the exit or, worse, that fails to capture important moments. Hey, don't feel bad--camcorders are sophisticated, complicated tools, and some mistakes are almost inevitable unless you've studied cinematography. Sure, you could sign up for expensive classes. Or you could just keep reading and learn to avoid 10 of the most common camcorder gaffes.
1. Don't use digital zoom.
It's true for camcorders as well as cameras: optical zoom, good; digital zoom, bad. You may have been suckered into buying a particular model because it touted some astronomical digital-zoom number (240X! 300X! 800X!), but unless you like grainy, pixelated video, never use it. If you need to get even closer to your subject, follow the old photographer's maxim: Zoom with your feet.
2. Don't shoot in LP mode.
Most consumer camcorders have tiny, low-power microphones. If you're shooting a school play, an interview, or anything in which audio is crucial, you'll achieve far better results with an external mike. First, make sure your camcorder has an audio input--not all models do. For interviews and other close-up work, choose a lavaliere--also known as a lapel mike, the kind you'll often see newscasters wearing. If you're trying to record audio from afar, a shotgun microphone will do the trick. Or if you just want a more robust all-purpose microphone, consider a model such as the Sony ECM-S930C, which mounts on your camcorder's accessory shoe. This stuff can get expensive, but remember that nothing ruins a video like bad audio...except perhaps bad lighting.
5. Don't go gently into the night.
Imagine a tic-tac-toe board overlaid on your viewfinder. The lines intersect in four spots. Your goal should be to frame the action using one or more of those spots. This is especially true if you're conducting an interview or shooting a close-up of someone talking. If you put that person dead-center, your movie is going to look more Mack Sennett than Steven Spielberg. Of course, rules can be broken for sake of creativity, but this is one guideline that you should master before you break.
1. Don't use digital zoom.
Optical zoom on the left, digital zoom on the right.
Since the dawn of the VCR, people have been using LP (long play) mode to fit more video on each tape--at the expense of video quality. What's worse: a gap of 2 to 3 minutes while you swap in a new tape or an entire video that looks grainy? The latter is what you'll get from LP, even if you have a high-end camcorder. If you really need to fit more video on each tape, try a little in-camera editing. Shoot only the scenes you really need; pause the recording during long, uneventful stretches.3. Don't skimp on batteries.
This one's a no-brainer: pack an extra battery. In fact, pack two. And throw in the charger/power supply if you're going to be shooting near an AC outlet. At best, you'll be able to run your camcorder off electricity; at worst, you can toss your drained battery on the charger after you swap in the fresh one. There's just no excuse for running out of juice while you're filming. Also, remember that all rechargeable cells wear out over time. A battery may give you an hour of power when it's brand-new, but after 12 to 18 months, it may peter out after 30 minutes. Thus, you should not only augment your equipment with extra batteries, you should plan on periodically replacing your batteries as well.4. Don't use the built-in microphone.
What may look like enough light to your eye is often not nearly enough for your camcorder. A 60-watt lamp may give the room a soft, romantic glow, but it will make your video muddy and unwatchable. Even if your camcorder doesn't offer the ability to adjust exposure, white balance, and related settings, there are still a few things you can do. First, turn off autofocus. It's very hard for the lens to lock on when light is low, so it will continuously hunt--not pretty. Second, keep the camcorder as steady as possible. Place it on a table or some other fixed surface, or better yet, use a tripod.6. Don't forget a tripod.
Even if your camcorder has image-stabilization features, they can't compare to the physical stability of a tripod. Unless you're specifically going for that overused documentary-style shaky look, put your camcorder on a tripod. You'll be amazed at how much better your video looks. If your shooting demands mobility, consider a do-it-yourself Steadycam kit. For about $14 in parts, you can build a camcorder mount that does a pretty darn good job of re-creating a $1,500 Steadycam. Now run around all you want.7. Don't turn on special effects.
Lots of digital camcorders offer special effects, everything from sepia to slo-mo to letterboxing. These can be fun to fool around with, but when the time comes to shoot your scene, turn off the glitz. Likewise, skip the camcorder's autofade features; your editing software will give you far greater control over transitions and greater variety as well. The one exception to all this is letterboxing (16:9 aspect ratio); if you want those DVD-like black bars at the top and bottom of your video, it's better to frame your shots with them already in place. Apply special effects using your editing software instead (a little maneuver the pros like to call postproduction).8. Don't be lazy.
Let's say you're filming your daughter's soccer game. Convenience dictates that you put the camcorder on a tripod, frame the field, then go chat with the other parents. But the creative thing to do is film the game from different angles: behind the goalie, atop the bleachers, and so on. Even if you're not planning to edit the video into a fast-paced, Bend It Like Beckham-style montage later on, you'll avoid the staggering boredom of watching the entire game from the same perspective. Whenever possible, mix up your shots. Get high, get low; move in close, shoot from afar. Add the occasional pan or slow zoom. In short, do the things you can't do in postproduction.9. Don't forget the glue.
Remember that soccer game? The video you shoot of the game itself is A-roll--the primary action, the main focus of the movie. B-roll is supplemental footage, the extra stuff you shoot to fill in gaps, transition a scene, hide a zoom, or illustrate something that's being described in A-roll. In the soccer example, this could be your daughter getting ready for the game, a close-up of the coach shouting instructions, shots of other parents' faces while they watch the game, and so on. When the time comes to edit, you can sprinkle these shots throughout the movie, thereby adding visual diversity and making it much more interesting to watch. Obviously it takes some extra time and effort to shoot B-roll, which is why most videographers forget--or neglect--to do it. But when you see how much it can add to your movie, you'll find it's well worth doing.10. Don't ignore the Rule of Thirds.
Keep your subject out of the center square.
Rick Broida is the coauthor of How to Do Everything with Your Digital Video Camcorder.