Decoding Camera Buttons

Picking up a camcorder today can be intimidating, largely because there are so many buttons to press. And they’re usually closely grouped together on the tiny camera body. This makes them harder to find, slows you down and may even discourage you from shooting. The best way to keep from drowning is to understand the purpose of each of these buttons.

The Most Used Buttons

When you pick up a typical camcorder and put your hand into the strap, your fingers should automatically fall near the most frequently used buttons. This includes the power switch, the record button and zoom control, which is often a rocker switch or a slider. The power button might also include a small tab that has to be depressed as well, which makes it harder to accidentally turn the camera off or on. With very few exceptions, the record button will be under your thumb on the right side of the camcorder. Yes, most cameras do indeed favor righties. (But lefties are favored in a different way, more on that later.) Sometimes, you’ll find a review button close by the record button. This lets you rewind and review a few seconds of what you just shot without leaving the recording mode. The power button switch frequently lets you select from a few modes as well. Besides recording to tape, you may also be able to shoot still images in another mode, which may be marked "memory" as opposed to "tape" for video. Of course you’ll also want to switch the camera into playback mode to view your video. The back of the camera is usually where the battery pack lies flush with the camera body. Look for a small button that you push in to release the battery for recharging it away from the camera.

Many professional camcorders have removable lenses, but almost all consumer models have a permanently attached zoom lenses. Usually there’s a rocker button or tab that you push one way or the other to zoom in or out. This is usually right where your first couple of fingers fall when holding the camcorder.


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The Left Side of the Camcorder

Viewfinders are now in full color, but there are still times when having a separate LCD display can’t be beat, especially when it comes to seeing and using onscreen menus. The LCD display is usually located on the left side of the camcorder. Regardless of its size or whether it is touch-screen capable or not, these displays really eat up battery power, so some cameras have a button to turn off the backlight behind the display.

Here’s where the lefties have the advantage. Near the LCD panel, you might find a menu button and a directional pad control or a wheel. These controls access and activate various menus and settings. If you can’t find a button with a label to control the feature you are looking for, it is probably on a menu. While not as convenient to use as a button, a menu also makes it harder to accidentally change a setting.

The exposure controls are also important, starting with the shutter speed. The faster the speed the less blurring, but a fast shutter speed needs more light than a slow one and the overall recording can become darker.

Let’s say you’re shooting a group of children on swings in a park. To keep them sharp as they swing you might want a fast shutter speed. To keep the image bright, you’ll have to open the iris (aperture), but this might decrease the depth of field, which makes the background blurry. Artistically, it is your call if you want this or not, but the shutter speed must work in conjunction with the iris to get a proper exposure. The decision as to which to give precedence to shouldn’t always be left up to the camera, especially when shooting sports or fast-moving action. Sometimes the camera will have an explicit shutter button and a separate iris button, but many cameras combine the two into an exposure button or wheel. The exposure wheel may simply have a brighter/darker function, but it may be a more elaborate control that requires a press and a turn for the iris and another press and turn for the shutter speed.

The final exposure control is the electronic gain when the camera tries to compensate for low-light situations. This can sometimes result in a grainy image.

Another button related to exposure is the backlight button, which overrides the automatic exposure feature of the camera when you have a dimly lit subject against a bright background. Since backlighting is a common problem, a backlight button is fairly common on consumer camcorders.

The Right Side of the Camcorder

The mini tape cassette (or recordable DVD) usually slides into the camcorder on the right side of the camera body, either from above or below. The button that activates the opening sequence is usually placed off by itself so that you don’t accidentally eject the tape.

Autofocus is a great feature, but you will frequently want to turn it off. The button to turn off auto-focus is usually somewhere near the camera lens up front. Once in manual mode, it’s now up to you to focus the lens, most often using a ring that emulates a real mechanical focuser. On a professional lens, the mechanical focuser will actually move lens elements around, but in consumer camcorders, the focus ring only activates tiny servos that then focus the lens.

The End Results

We’ve come a long way since the old days of those bulky VHS camcorders. While there are many more buttons to remember and use, the results are more than worth the trouble. Especially when it’s time to sit back and watch all those great memories that you’ve just taken.

Marshal M. Rosenthal is a technology/entertainment writer whose experience in the industry spans 20+ years.

Sidebar One: Secrets of the Camcorder

It’s great that camcorders have gotten so small, but now there’s barely enough room for all of the parts that are needed. One way the camcorder makers get around this is by hiding things that you don’t need when you’re shooting. Here are some places to check for more controls:

  • Under the LCD Panel
    The way the camcorder’s LCD panel lies flush against the body is pretty cool in itself, but it also might conceal a bunch of buttons. You also might find a small compartment hidden there as well. This is where a long-lasting button battery goes. This battery keeps a small piece of memory powered to save your menu changes and settings.
  • On the Bottom of the Camera
    While you’d think there isn’t anything more on the bottom of the camera than a tripod socket, in some cases that’s where the slot is hidden for the memory storage card that is used to store digital photos. This slot is usually covered by a rubber or plastic runner that is either released by a tab or pulling up.
  • On a Menu
    If you can’t find it anywhere else, check the menu system. It may be inconvenient, but there just can’t be a button for everything.

Sidebar Two: Optical Zoom

Cameras often feature a combination of optical as well as digital zooms. The difference is that an optical zoom uses the actual lens glass to magnify a scene, while the digital zoom takes the image and magnifies it electronically instead. You can turn this feature on and off on one of your menus, but the actual zoom rocker switch will automatically engage the digital zoom after the optical zoom is maxed out.

Sidebar Three: Hidden Camera Outputs

Transferring video from the camcorder requires outputs, and lots of them. The audio and video outputs (which often double as inputs) frequently hide behind some sort of plastic door. Look for the FireWire port and the mike and headphone jacks hidden in the same place as well.

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