Buttons, More Buttons

Some camcorders have a plethora of buttons, others are menu-driven. Many name a button control one thing, and others call it something else. It’s time for the Button Game.

Everybody knows you're a professional. You have three Emmys and last year you got footage of the mayor taking a bribe with a camera you made yourself out of a banana; but when your sister in law hands you her $400 camcorder, you're at a complete loss as to what button to push in order to make it do anything productive.

In this article, we're going to take a look at some of the most common buttons and dials found on camcorders today.

Buttons Buttons Buttons…..

Buttons on today's camcorders can usually be broken down into two broad areas: buttons that control the physical aspects of the camera–the LCD screen, the power, the motion of the tape, the position of the tape heads etc, and ones that control how an image is recorded onto tape–brightness, levels, color balance. The placement of these is non-standardized. Some companies go to great lengths to cover up as many buttons as possible behind smooth exteriors, simplifying the look of the camera, while others want them all out and accessible.

Buttons that Control the Camcorder

Power, VCR/Camera: Often comprised as a three position lever and a button, the lever dictates whether the camcorder will be functioning as a camera (recording), a VCR (playback), or powered down. The button typically acts as record/pause. Look for this one in a spot that you can conveniently reach with a thumb. Many video cameras, like Canon's Optura 400, also double as still cameras and therefore have a "still photo" or shutter release button. The Optura also has a button which allows you to switch between recording on Mini DV and an SD card.

LCD Brightness: doesn't affect how the image appears on tape, but rather this controls how bright or dim the actual viewing screen is. You might need to make the image appear darker, for instance, to see it in bright sunlight, but your recorded image isn't changed.

LCD Backlight: turns on and off a light behind the LCD screen. Indoors and at night, the backlight makes the display visible, but in bright sunlight, the backlight can turn your display into a useless sheet of dark gray plastic.

Open, Eject: Obviously, this gets your tapes in and out of the camera.

Battery Eject: Usually the button with the longest throw, the battery eject is often the only truly manual button where the force of your finger actually performs any labor (oh the humanity). The battery eject button often pushes a lever which actually physically pushes the battery from its compartment. Look for it very close to the battery. Take note though, that not all batteries are released by a button, some are merely held in by friction and a good push is all that's required to remove the battery from the camcorder. If you handle your camera a lot, this might pose a problem–and you certainly wouldn't want to lose power during your shoot.

W/T (Zoom): The zoom button is usually a rocker switch in an accessible place and marked W (wide, zooms out) and T (telephoto, zooms in). It will change the way the image looks on tape, by physically moving the lens, which is why we include it here.

Buttons that Control the Image

Backlight, Spotlight: Some cameras, such as Sony's DCR-HC85 have buttons for backlit and spotlit situations. Normally your camcorder's light meter assumes that everything is properly lit. In a situation where a subject is standing before a bright background or illuminated in front of a dark background, the camera's internal meter will be confused and might improperly expose the scene. Selecting backlight tells the camera that the scene is brighter than it is expecting, whereas spotlight tells the camera that the scene is actually darker than its internal meter tells it and will adjust the exposure accordingly.

AE: Aside from backlight and spotlight, other popular program modes for things like "sports" and "portrait" are common on many cameras, often on a wheel that allow you to rapidly switch between them. These presets normally allow you to spend more time worrying about what's in your viewfinder and less time worrying about the lighting. AE modes often lock out many of the camera's manual features to keep them from being inadvertently changed. When handing your camera over to someone who doesn't use it, the AE modes will make it much easier for them to get useful footage.

White Balance: Not all light is created equal. To the eye, a sheet of white paper will look perfectly white when exposed to sunlight, but greenish under fluorescence and reddish under tungsten bulbs.

The white balance button is used to properly adjust how colors will be represented under different lighting conditions. Presets for conditions such as "sunlight" or "tungsten" will often produce acceptable results, whereas more complex lighting situations will require manual white balancing.

Usually, to do this, the camera operator points the camcorder at a white target (like a sheet of copy paper,) and presses a button to calibrate the camera.

Iris, Gain, Shutter Speed, Focus: Many camcorders have manual controls which allow you to set the focus, gain, iris, and even shutter speed of your camera. Together these will serve to determine aspects of your image such as the ability to catch fast motion without blurring, or focus on an area not in the center of your frame. A common control use allows you to use a wide aperture during bright sunlight by selecting a low gain and high shutter speed, giving you a shallow depth of field and better separating your subject from your background.

Aspect Ratio: As 16:9 televisions are becoming more popular, more and more cameras are giving you a choice between shooting in the old 4:3 format or the anamorphic or true 16:9 widescreen DV format.

Image Stabilizer: Popular on high-end cameras, like the three chip prosumer Panasonic PV-DV953, image stabilization minimizes camera shake when shooting hand held–camera shake is one of the most common things that ruins a shoot, especially at telephoto ranges.

Digital Effects: ranging from things such as simple fades, to more complicated things like negative images, or black and white; buttons that perform tasks normally relegated to your editing software are becoming more and more common on cameras such as the Canon Optura 400.

I Can't Find the Button!

In the grand scheme of things, buttons are relatively expensive to put on a camera, and still others are removed due to the smaller size of some cameras. For these reasons, some buttons do double duty (standby and record,) and many less frequently used buttons are options on a menu. The Sony DCR-HC85 got rid of most of the buttons typically found on a camcorder and placed them on a touch screen menu.

Conclusion

All camcorders basically perform the same tasks in similar ways. While some have more features than others, there are great overlapping areas of functionality. Knowing which buttons to expect can help you operate a camera that you're not familiar with, so you’re not stuck standing silly trying to figure how to turn on a simple camcorder.

Contributing Editor Kyle Cassidy is a video artist and network engineer and co-author of Enterprise Internetworking and Security.

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