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
Whenever I teach my "how to use your camcorder" classes,
I always hear the old refrain, "my camcorder doesnt 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
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 camcorders 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
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 camcorders battery. These lights
are like Californias 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. Dont 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 camcorders 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 editors 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
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
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. Its 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 everyones
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
camcorders 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.