Camcorder tips for the holidays

The holidays are a time for not only getting together with friends, expressing affection through cards and gifts, and ingesting far too many sweets, but also the time of year when the family camcorder gets the greatest work-out. To help ensure that the videos taken with your camcorder are as enjoyable as the events it captures, follow these tips.

Scout the location

If you have the opportunity, spend some time in the location where you’ll shoot before the big event takes place. While there, keep an eye out for good and bad light sources and take some test shots. Doing so allows you to dial in an appropriate white balance setting and take note of locations where you do and, particularly, don’t want to shoot—facing a bright window that will wash out the subject standing in front of it, for instance.

Don’t rely on the backlight control

Speaking of backlight that washes out a subject, most of today’s full-sized camcorders (versus pocket camcorders) include a backlight control. Switch it on when your subject stands before a bright light—the sun, a window, or spotlight—and the background dims and the subject brightens. Regrettably, these controls can’t work miracles and while your subject will be brighter, the entire scene will likely be washed out. Far better that you take our previous advice to find a location with good light—use that same window to provide light to the side of your subject, for example—when first visiting the shooting location.

Stand back

Surrounded though we increasingly are by devices that capture still and motion images, people under the scrutiny of a camcorder routinely switch into “pose-mode” when they feel the camera’s eye upon them—mugging, stuttering, or simply clamming up. You can put people at their ease (and capture more natural actions) by stepping back and using the camera’s zoom to bring the camera closer to the action. Audio can suffer when you do this, however. If you want to capture clear sound as well as video and the on-camera microphone isn’t up to the task, consider getting a shotgun microphone and mounting it on the top of your camera.

Learn the camera’s manual controls

It’s not unusual to see home videos where the camcorder briefly loses focus when someone walks in front of the camera or the video brightens or darkens as lighting conditions briefly change (as they might when you pan across a room). Most people allow their camcorders to automatically adjust focus and exposure. But there will be times when you want to lock focus and exposure in order to avoid radical changes in focus and exposure. Knowing how to quickly move from auto to manual control can help produce better looking videos.

Start rolling before the big things happen

When shooting a holiday event, be sure to capture a few seconds of the scene before the real action starts—the kids sitting around the tree in anticipation of ripping open their presents rather than catching them in mid-frenzy. Likewise, roll for a few seconds after the moment has concluded. Not only will this make your videos less frenetic, but it provides you with a bit of calm material you can use during a transition that takes time—a fade, for example. You’ll be glad it’s there when it comes time to edit your work.

Charge the battery and keep extra media nearby

If your camcorder has been sitting on a shelf since last December, its battery will need charging. If the battery is old, it might need to be replaced. Several days before you plan to use it for an extended period of time, charge the battery and then use the camera to be sure that the battery can hold a decent charge. If it can’t, replace the battery. And while you’re at it, grab a spare battery and charge it too. You don’t want the camera to be without power just before Santa makes his appearance.

Likewise, if your camcorder uses removable media—tape or a media card—be sure you have extra media on hand.

Share the wealth

Kids bring a sense of childlike wonder to events that you likely lost long ago. Allow them to bring that wonder to your holiday video by letting them have control of the camera. If you’re concerned that your expensive full-sized HD camcorder will take a damaging spill, pick up a pocket camcorder before the holidays and pass it around.

Hide a camera

Pocket camcorders such as Kodak’s durable Playsport Zx3 and Sanyo’s Sanyo VPC-PD2BK are small enough to tuck away in the branches of a tree or balance on a window ledge. Try to get up before the kids (good luck!), plant the camera in an inconspicuous place, press Record, and leave. Your hidden camera will reveal the day’s very first moments.

Easy on the narration

Your editing application provides a couple of ways for telling the viewer where you are and what you’re capturing—titles and narration tracks. It's better to add that information as you edit rather than talking endlessly as you shoot. Seriously, we can see that’s a Christmas tree, you don’t need to tell us.

Press Record and walk away

It’s not unusual for the camera operator to become so engrossed in capturing every moment that he or she winds up witnessing rather than experiencing the fun. Today’s camcorders can capture an hour or more of video. Feel free to attach your camcorder to a tripod, point it at the action, press the Record button, and dive into the scene. Later, when editing, you can pull out just the good bits.

Don’t sweat it

The holidays are a time for family, friends, and fun. You and your camcorder should capture holiday events, not control them. Capturing an imperfect, spontaneous event is far better than documenting a stiff, joyless performance, full of retakes, put on only for the sake of the camera. Years later, when you revisit these moments through the video you take today, you want the resulting stories to reflect the joy of the occasion rather than the tyranny of the director.

This is an updated version of a previously published story.

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