Tuning Up your Camcorder

How to get the most performance and the best results from your camcorder

by Lance Albright of internetvideomag.com

Remember when you first bought your camcorder and brought it home? Remember how pleased you were, how great the images looked, how wonderful the audio sounded? You could tape anything you wanted and you were on the top of the world.

However, a year or more has passed and now you are nervously eyeing those shiny new camcorders on the store shelves as well as those profiled in these pages. Is it time for dump your old friend and make the move?

Maybe you can get some more years out of the old workhorse. Here are some tips on how to get the best out of your camcorder.

The biggest limitation to using your camcorder is power and the lack thereof. Are you still using the same batteries you got when you first bought your camcorder? Believe it or not, batteries wear out. At some point, you will have to trudge down to the store and get another battery or two. Most camcorder batteries wear out after a few hundred charging-discharging cycles.

Whenever I teach my "how to use your camcorder" classes, I always hear the old refrain, "my camcorder doesn’t last as long on the batteries as when I first bought it". Yep, that is what happens. It used to be a lot worse…. the first generations of camcorder batteries were lead-acid- sort of like your car batteries. They were durable, kept a charge but wore out quickly. The next generation were NiCads (nickel-cadmiums) – they lasted a lot longer, held more power but were subject to what was called “battery memory”. Every time you used them, they would keep less of a charge than the previous time. Moreover, if you got into a habit of charging them up before they were fully discharged, the developed a "memory" that only enabled them to accept a half charge or even less.

If your camcorder has a battery like this, the battery charger probably has a button that will enable you to do a deep discharge on the battery before starting to charge it back up. Use this capability every five charging cycles or so and you should see a marked improvement.

Most new camcorder batteries are either Lithium Ion or NiMH, and are subject to battery memory. However, they still do wear out after a couple hundred cycles.

Batteries are not bricks; they may look like them but inside is a series of fragile electronic components and chemical components. Throwing and dropping your batteries can break them. In addition, batteries are sensitive to extreme temperatures. Using them in very hot or very cold climates definitely takes its toll, reducing their overall life span as well as the amount of time they can power your camcorder. Readers have told me that they put batteries in the freezer to make them work better. Nope, all you are doing is messing up the fragile chemicals inside the battery.

Even though the old fashioned lead batteries were big, ugly and did not hold a charge, they did not lose it quickly. Most modern batteries lose their charge even when you are not using them. This means it makes little sense to charge up your camcorder’s battery, put in the case and then go out two weeks later to shoot, and expect the batteries to have much of a charge. Charge up the batteries right before you need them. I leave the batteries on the charger until the moment I am to walk out the door.

So, what else can you do to make your camcorder work longer on a single battery charge?

There are many mechanical activities your camcorder performs that suck out the power. Probably the absolutely worst is using a camcorder light that is powered from your camcorder’s battery. These lights are like California’s power woes…use it and you are inviting a blackout. If you need to use a camcorder light, try to get one that is powered from its own power supply or battery.

Almost as bad is rewinding and fast-forwarding tapes. If you need to conserve power, never, never, never, use battery power to rewind and fast forward tapes. Before you leave your house, with the camcorder plugged to the ac power supply, cue up your tapes to where you want to start for that days viewing.

There are a couple of other ways to conserve power to maximize the time you get per battery charge. Don’t zoom. Easy to say but it is true. It is much more effective, from both a composition point of view as well as from saving power, to physically stop the camcorder and walk closer to your image and start shooting again. Of course, if you have to zoom, do not zoom as much. Get your shot and stay with it.

Another way to maximize your camcorder’s power is by not using the big LCD panels that are found on most camcorders. These panels, albeit wonderful to use, are power vampires. If you can, compose and frame your shots using the tiny electronic viewfinder that does not require as much power. One other way to save power is by not using image stabilization. Image stabilization, whether electronic or optical, does use some power. It may not be much, but it all adds up. In addition, if you do not use image stabilization, you will be forced to use good videotaping techniques, which means using a tripod! No image stabilization technology, no matter how sophisticated, comes close to the professional steadiness you get when properly using a good tripod.

Another way to conserve power is by turning off your camcorder when you are not using it. Sounds simple, but it is not. When you stop taping a scene by hitting pause, your camcorder is still running. Some of the motors and gears are still working. It is like using the clutch on your car when you are idling at a stoplight. The engine is still going, but you are not moving. If you are going to cease shooting for a few minutes, and you are concerned about saving power, turn off the camcorder. Moreover, make sure it is off, not just slide into VCR/Playback mode instead of being truly off.

OK, this process has a gotcha. If you are using an older camcorder, turning the camcorder on and off, frees the videotape and enable sit to slide a hair back and forth. When starting back up, the camcorder may then create a tiny glitch of noise before your video and sound are recorded. However, most newer analog camcorders include a flying erase head that eliminates this problem. I have not yet seen a digital camcorder with this problem.

Have you ever watched back your tapes and watched your feet and the ground as you tromped from one spot to another? I have. Sometimes you think you hit that pause button but you really have not. This wastes both power and tape. Make sure the camcorder is OFF when you really want it to be off. This is why I like camcorders that have audible beeps that tell you shooting and power status.

How else do you save tape?

You should learn to shoot with an editor’s eye. This means shooting only those scenes that you will actually use. If you are not editing your tapes, please do not shoot the scenes you do not want to watch back later. Unfortunately, this knowledge usually comes from experience…sitting in front of the TV screen with your family, watching back your holiday tapes, and going, ouch, do I really have to watch this?

By shooting only what you really need, you will conserve both tape and power. In film school, I learned the five-second rule – most scenes only need to be about five seconds long or so before you should move the camera, change the subject or cut to a different scene. Many camcorders come with a timer function that actually counts down how long each scene you are taping actually is.

If you have time before going out to shoot a special event, go through your partially shot tapes and cue them up to where the recorded video ends. Carefully label the tape so you know what has been already recorded. You may actually review these tapes and decide to re-use them. You can re-use an analog tape (VHS or 8mm) five to ten times over without any apparent loss. You can re-use digital tapes many times more than that.

What else can you do maximize the life of your camcorder?

Take proper care of it. Camcorders were not meant to be used in dusty, sandy and muddy places. If you do have to shoot at the beach or up on a ski slope be careful. Do not put your camcorder down on the sand. That is what carefully dusted off towels are good for. Even better, when you put it down, put it back into its case and zip it up. Do not handle your camcorder with snow on your fingers. Water and delicate electronics are not friends.

One of the best things you can do for your camcorder is to get an inexpensive UV or clear glass lens and screw it on in front of the existing lens. This will protect you camcorder from dust, flying gravel and splattering paint.

By the way, a lesson I learned when traveling in the wilderness, many bug sprays and lotions contain chemicals that eat camcorder plastic. When I returned from a trip to Belize, my brand new camcorder no longer had any recognizable labels or icons on the various buttons. They were all eaten away, I did, however, have nice sets of my fingerprints permanently etched into the body of the camcorder.

Finally, avoid triggering your dew-warning indicator. This special circuit built into most camcorders monitors the amount of moisture built up inside the camcorder. To prevent damage from the moisture getting on the electronics and tape, the dew warning will turn off your camcorder. This usually occurs when going from a dry cold area to a warm moist area. For example, taking your camcorder out of your hotel room and down to the beach outside your door. Alternatively, taking the camcorder from your air-conditioned car out to the moist, hot spot like a jungle.

Try to let the camcorder acclimate its temperature to the air around it. Let it sit for ten minutes or so before hitting the power on button.

How Else to Boost Camcorder Performance

You can make your camcorder see better by keeping the lens clean. As recommended earlier, you can use a cheap UV or clear glass lens. Buy some optical cleaning paper and wipe the lens clean every once in a while. It’s amazing what you will find on the front of your lens. Dirt, grime and dust can quickly build up on a lens and cut down the amount as well as the quality of light going through.

You can make your lens see better by using filters or adapters. I recommend only two types of filters - one a polarizing filter that enables you to reduce or cut the amount of haze you get when shooting outside. A wide-angle lens adapter is also very handy for creating unique, dramatic shots. A wide-angle lens also allows you to get closer to your subject. It will also enable you to get a whole family group into a single shot without having pan back and forth or to back up so far that everyone’s face is indistinguishable. Finally, by using a wide-angle lens, more of the shot is in focus. You have deeper depth of field. Deeper depth of field means you will not have to focus as carefully. This in turn translates into easier and faster shooting. And, if you are using electronic or mechanical focus, less power draw on your camcorder and more efficient use of your batteries.

One of the best ways to improve your camcorder is in the area of audio. Most camcorder technologies can capture and record CD quality sound. However, most camcorders come with cheap microphones located poorly on the camcorder body. Either they are placed too close to the lens so that they pick up every sound the camcorder's motors make, or they are so close to other controls, that your fingers continually brush across them. Many of the tiny “cigarette” box camcorders have the mike on the top of the camcorder, aimed upwards!

The solution is to use an external microphone that plugs into the camcorder’s external mike jack. If your camcorder has an external mike jack, and some kind of accessory shoe to hold it, you are all set. Almost any external microphone product, no matter how cheap, will sound better than your the mike that is built into your camcorder.

By using an external mike, a lens filter or two, and taking proper care of your camcorder, you can ensure getting the best possible performance out of your investment. And by practicing good power and videotaping techniques, you will get the most oomph out of your batteries and cassettes, and never run out either every again.

Charging Camcorder Batteries

Tuning Up your Camcorder

Tuning Up your Camcorder


 Tuning Up your Camcorder

Tuning Up your Camcorder