No, this is not an article about how to nail your next interview. This is about getting the most out of your camcorder. These days, manufacturers are cramming better technology into our consumer camcorders: Resolutions are increasing, prices are dropping, and the gap between casual and professional moviemakers is getting smaller.
However, camcorder technology hasn't advanced to the point where the camera will actually shoot videos for you. This means that you’ll still have to take some extra steps to make your movies look truly great. While bad camera work can make a $10,000 dollar camera look like a $200 camera, good camera work can do just the opposite (well, almost).
Step One: Stabilize
If you want your home videos to look more like the movies, the first step is to get rid of the shakes. Even as built-in image stabilizers advance, a camera waved around by hand is still going to look like a camera waved around by hand.
The best and most reliable way to ensure stability and smooth motion in your footage is to buy a tripod. Let’s repeat the last part of that sentence: Buy a tripod. It doesn’t need to be a $1,000 fluid-head unit. It doesn’t even need to cost $100. Anything with foldable, telescoping legs and a screw-on mount will do the job. The point is just to get a firm, level base for the camera to rest on. When people watch movies, the image on the screen becomes their world. When that world is level, and doesn’t earthquake around, people have a much easier time watching it.
A step up from the basic photography tripod is one with a pivotal head that can swing smoothly up, down, left and right. It should also have a control handle and preferably a level indicator of some sort. This piece of equipment pretty much guarantees that you'll capture smooth, stable shots time after time. You can swing across exotic panoramas or just track your favorite player as he runs down the soccer field. Either way, your friends will appreciate the added quality when it comes time to share the memories.
Right now, you may be thinking of bulky, complicated tripod rigs from days gone by. Fear not; consumer tripods have advanced almost as much as camcorders over the years, and there are plenty of models out there that fit in a backpack or even a purse. Set-up is a breeze, and the results are well worth the little amount of extra time.
Even if you don't have a tripod available when you're shooting, just keep stability in mind. A low wall, chair back, stack of books, or even your knee can all make for great shooting bases. Whatever extra steps you take to keep your camera steady are going to pay off, big time.
Step 2: Light
Nothing changes the look of a shot quite as much as lighting. Some cameras shoot great-looking video in a wide range of lightings. Some cameras, however, have remarkably weak eyes in the dark. In other words, that 60-watt lamp in the corner of your living room isn’t going to cut it. Take some time to experiment with your camcorder and find out where it falls on this spectrum. Try it out in full, bright light; in average interior and exterior lighting; and finally, outdoors in the evening or in a dimly-lit room. Getting this initial feel for your camera’s response to light is important, since it will always perform that way in similar conditions.
So what do you do if your camera is a little afraid of the dark? Again, expensive rigs and seasoned professionals are not necessary. If you’re shooting indoors, try turning lights on or off lights until you like the look of your shot. Try to redirect light to your subject by turning or tilting fixtures or lampshades. If things are a little dreary outdoors, try increasing your camera’s ISO (light sensitivity) setting -- just be careful not to overcompensate.
Step 3: Adjust
Don’t feel confined to the Auto settings of your camcorder. The custom menus can seem intimidating, but don’t worry; you’re not going to break anything. Take some time reading your camera’s instruction manual and get familiar with your options. Then take some test shots using different settings. These adjustments can have pretty substantial (yet subtle) effects on your footage. For instance, shooting in twenty-four frames per second is going to give you a classic “film” look, while shooting at sixty or thirty frames per second is going to give you a smooth, modern appearance. Again, experiment, see what works best, and keep these settings consistent throughout each project.
Keep these tips in mind and take some time to experiment with your camcorder. You’ll be getting your money’s worth (or more) in no time.