Now here’s the deal: you’re going to withdraw one thousand dollars from your bank account–small bills
only, please–then spread the cash along a shallow trench, cover it with wet soil, and leave it for three years
while it turns into rose mulch.
Sound insane? Of course, but it’s equivalent to what some folks do to their video equipment. They spend major bucks on camcorders, tripods, lights, mikes, and suchlike, and then give it all less care than they’d lavish on second-hand dental floss.
How come? Well, for one thing, unless you have an obsessive-compulsive disorder, you may find
equipment maintenance about as much fun as re-shelving your drinking glasses by height.
Besides, your camcorder’s an amazing workhorse, considering the size and complexity of its
components. It doesn’t seem to need any care; like the bunny, it goes and goes.
Until one day it stops. That’s when the repair shop tells you that fixing it’ll take three hours, at an hourly rate of $90; and a new recording head drum runs $300 and up. This recently happened to me, so it’s lucky I teach video courses with built-in repair budgets.
But the chances are that you don’t enjoy such a luxury, and that means you could get socked for repairs that cost almost as much as the camera itself. If only to spare you from shocks like that, let’s run through a quick and painless checklist of common sense care for video equipment.
We’ll begin with the biggest-ticket item in your kit: your camcorder. Some videomakers are a bit leery of
poking sticks into the arcane innards of their system, and rightly so. Ham-fisted cleaning attempts can
damage the delicate mechanisms.
Your camcorder’s tape transport system does need occasional cleaning, though, to remove dust and stray tape oxide particles. Unless you’re an experienced technician, dismantling the unit to clean it manually may not be too swift a plan. Instead, use a head-cleaning cassette to automate the process and keep your cotton-pickin’ fingers out of the works. Robert Borgatti’s “KeepItClean” in the April 1994 Videomaker discusses transport cleaning in some detail, including the pros and cons of wet vs. dry head cleaning cassette systems. Whichever one you choose, follow the manufacturer’s directions for best results.
If transport cleaning’s pretty much automatic, lens maintenance is purely manual–and it takes a bit of skill.
To begin with, check the tightness of lens components and the smoothness with which they move. This is easy with camcorders that have fully external lenses. Simply grasp the lens hood between thumb and index finger and waggle it very gently. If anything moves appreciably, the lens needs maintenance. Of
course, this check is not possible on camcorders designed with zoom lenses fully enclosed in the camera
But you can test all zooms for the smoothness of their moving parts. To do this, rack the manual focus control back and forth, and then do likewise with the zoom control. If either one feels reluctant or sticky at some points on its travel, have the lens looked at.
And looked at only by a qualified technician. Lenses are fearsomely complex animals with delicate parts that require very precise alignment. Without special skills, experience, and tools, you’ll almost certainly harm them rather than help them.
You can, however, clean your zoom safely and successfully, as long as you follow proper procedure. The front surface of your lens is covered with several layers of subtle chemical coatings, all designed to improve image quality. You should never, ever lay a finger on the lens glass because the natural oils from your skin can etch those delicate coatings and degrade your picture quality. Etch or scratch these coatings, and you’ll be able to restore them only at great expense.
In an ideal world, nothing would ever touch your lens glass. In reality, the best you can do is to
minimize contact with it. To achieve this, always follow a hierarchy of cleaning techniques:
Start with air alone, to blow off dust without touching the lens. You can buy cans of compressed air at camera shops, for use at home. In the field, make sure your mouth is clean and dry; then purse your lips and blow very short, hard puffs of air at about a 45-degree angle to your lens. (Skip this if you’re prone to wheezing. Lens coatings aren’t exactly crazy about being spit on.)
Combine air with a special brush. At camera stores you can buy inexpensive rubber syringes with
sliding brushes around their long thin necks. With the brush retracted, try blowing dust off the lens with the
bulb alone. If that’s not enough, slide the brush down past the end of the neck and gently brush the lens
surface as you spritz it with the bulb. Always move the brush in a circular pattern.
- As a last resort (and as seldom as possible) use a photographic lens cleaning solution and lens
tissues–also inexpensive and available in photo stores. Prepare two or three tissues by gently crushing
them into fluffy balls. (Never substitute facial tissues or other materials for lens tissues–they may feel soft to the skin, but most are abrasive enough to scratch the lens.) Now dispense a single drop of lens cleaning fluid onto the center of the lens and then swab it gently around in a circle, working outward toward the lens
barrel. Do not apply any pressure; let the magic of chemistry work for you instead. Finally, apply a dry
tissue in the same gentle spiral path to remove any remaining fluid.
How risky is this cleaning process? After more years than I’d care to admit, I’ve never succeeded in scratching a photographic lens. On the other hand this is partly because I have never (that’s right–
never) exposed a naked lens to the cruel gaze of the world. My lenses always wear filters.
If you keep a filter on the lens at all times, it will effectively seal the front element against grot. You might choose a neutral density filter to improve your picture quality in bright light. Otherwise a
“transparentlenscap” filter, variously designated 1A, UV (ultra-violet), or skylight will guard your lens
without affecting the image. In typical camcorder sizes, you can find these filters for under $20.
Filters themselves require some care. Clean them exactly as you would the lens itself. To store filters, buy a pair of metal caps, one fitting the front threads of your filters and the other matched to the rear
threads. Screw a filter onto one of the caps, screw the second filter to the first, repeat with each additional
filter, and finally screw the other metal cap to the exposed face of the last filter.
The result: a nest of filters screwed together so that dust and other grime cannot get in. To use any filter, simply unscrew the other parts of the stack from its front and rear threads, remove it, and screw the two stack halves back together.
More Camera Care
While we’re buffing lenses, let’s not forget the camcorder viewfinder. Many finders have two exposed
surfaces: the face of the tiny monitor tube that displays the image and the lens at the top end of the finder
barrel. LCD monitor-style viewfinders have just a single glass surface. Simply buff the latter clean of
fingerprints and grime with a soft, non-abrasive cloth.
The face of a traditional viewfinder should rarely need more than an occasional air blast to blow the dust off it. (Unless the diopter lens is the flip-up type, the monitor face below it may never see any dust.) The lens, however, is subject to dirt and to moisture and oils deposited from eyelashes and occasional fingers. Since the simple lens of a viewfinder is not especially delicate, you can safely clean it often, following the techniques described above.
While you’re at it, you may want to check the diopter adjustment that matches the viewfinder optics to your particular vision. (Diopter control is especially useful if you wear glasses but shoot without them.) You fine-tune the diopter either by twisting a ring around the finder or else by sliding a lever below it.
To adjust the diopter control, place your camcorder on a tripod and set the lens at full telephoto. Use the autofocus control to focus on a person standing a good way off–say 25 feet–in a well-lit location. Disable autofocus to retain the setting and adjust the diopter control until the subject looks sharpest to your eye. Another method is to tweak the diopter adjustment until in-viewfinder displays, like the tape counter, are sharp as possible.
Since my diopter control will sometimes drift over time, I’ve etched a small line on my lens barrel for reference. To readjust the diopter setting, I simply line up the diopter lever with the mark.
If viewfinder maintenance isn’t all that exciting, what can we say about camcorder batteries? How about this: if they go, you’re out of business. Batteries suddenly got more interesting, didn’t they?
First of all, check them physically. Though they appear indestructible, I’ve seen batteries whose cases have started to come apart. Since mine are of the lead-acid persuasion, a potentially leaking battery’s not something I want to stuff into my camcorder (or my pants pocket!).
By the way, do you know which type of battery you use? If it’s nickel-cadmium (often called NiCd or NiCad,) your battery needs to be lobotomized periodically to erase its memory. “Memory” is an imprecise term for a phenomenon that no one can seem to agree on. Some claim if a NiCd battery is partially discharged several times, it starts to behave as if that partial drain were a complete discharge and it cuts out on you when it is, in fact, still half-charged. Others say there is no such thing as “batterymemory,” and that poorly-designed camcorders and chargers are the real culprits.
Debates aside, you may find the record time of your NiCd batteries tapering off. If so, try using a special charger (available in most video stores and departments) that first discharges the battery almost fully, and then completely recharges it. This eliminates the so-called memory effect, so that the battery will deliver nearly all of its power.
But if you have lead-acid batteries, forget the whole thing. They don’t benefit from being discharged before recharging.
Before leaving camcorder maintenance, lets give a nod to its housing: the metal and plastic exoskeleton that holds and protects its many inner components.
Never clean the camcorder casing with water, of course, and don’t spray it with household cleansers intended for windows, counters, or, for heaven’s sake, bathrooms. Carbon tetrachloride applied to a soft cloth (not directly to the camcorder) is generally safe and effective, but to be dead-sure, consult your
owner’s manual for permissible cleaning agents.
You do know where you put the owner’s manual, don’t you?
Lighting and Audio Gear
If you’ve taken even the first step up from beginner level, you probably have some lighting equipment–
perhaps something as simple as a battery-powered camera light.
Lights are easy to maintain: simply
keep the battery charged and store it outside the lighting unit, especially for long periods of time.
Almost all video lights use halogen lamps nowadays, so here’s a word of caution about these tiny
critters: to withstand the intense heat generated, their bulbs are not made of glass, but quartz. Those same
acids in your skin oil that will ruin a coated lens can etch quartz as well. Etching weakens the quartz
envelope so that the next time the bulb heats up, it may very well explode.
To prevent this, always handle the quartz lamp with a cloth. Some types come packed in foam sleeves that make very good lampholders.
Even reflectors, humble and inert as they are, require a little care. Store white foamcore boards where they won’t get dusty. Replace aluminum foil surfaces occasionally; and when you do, start by crumpling the new foil and then flattening it out again before affixing it to the reflector board. This will break its smooth surface into thousands of tiny facets that will partially diffuse the light as they reflect it.
As for those cloth reflectors mounted on spring steel perimeters, some videomakers prefer to store them unfolded, to avoid fatiguing the metal hoops. Personally, I think this taking caution to extremes, but, to be fair, I’ve never seen one of these folks with a flabby reflector.
If lighting gear is pretty forgiving, sound equipment is just the opposite. Dynamic-type microphones are tough enough to earn the name “nail-drivers,” but if you use a condenser mike, it will be more fragile. Never store a shotgun mike with its battery in place. I always start a recording session with a fresh battery anyway–AA cells are dirt cheap, after all–to make sure the battery doesn’t go south in the middle of a take, taking my audio with it.
Foam windscreens are also fragile. Because they have a tendency to work loose and fall off, I’ve seen some people secure them to the mike barrel with duct tape. Don’t: upon removal, this tape will often tear the windscreen foam.
Most prosumer microphones have mini-plugs–grotesquely underqualified little nuisances that should be taken out and shot. Under even the slightest strain, they tend to break electrical contact, but without losing their mechanical connection to your camcorder. When that happens, they no longer replace your built-in mike, but they do continue to disable it. The result: no audio at all.
So check mini plugs on mikes (and headphones too) for damage.
Regarding microphone extension cables, there isn’t much you can do, except to test them periodically to verify that they’re working, coil them gently to avoid breaking internal wires, and secure their connections to mike plugs with tape. Microphone cables are happiest when not trod upon–you may want to tape your cables out of the way of heavy foot traffic when on a shoot.
If It Ain’t Broke…
We can’t leave the subject of equipment maintenance without considering two common questions:
Should I get a service contract on my camcorder? and
Should I have it serviced on a regular schedule, whether it’s broken or not?
The answer to the first question depends on how much you use your equipment. If you record more than, say, ten to fifteen hours of tape per year you may put considerable wear on your camcorder. And not only on the lens and drive mechanism. On one of my cameras, the lug securing the hand grip strap fatigued and snapped, making the unit very difficult to hand hold, and the cost to replace it would have easily paid for a service contract.
But don’t forget that service contracts vary widely in cost and coverage. Labor costs run anywhere from $50 to $100 per hour, so look very hard at a contract that covers parts only.
And should you fix your camera if it ain’t broke? Personally, I think a scheduled cleaning and
adjustment package is well worth the cost–especially if you if you do any kind of videomaking for money.
The last thing you need is for your camcorder to expire on you in the middle of a wedding. The technician
will usually lubricate the mechanism and replace worn belts too. By having your unit serviced at least once
a year, you increase your chances that it will work properly when you need it.
And that, of course, is why you perform all maintenance in the first place.