More than just an afterthought, camcorder accessories can actually increase the quality of your videos.
True confession: I love the back pages of video magazines like this one, almost as much as the back corners of video equipment stores. These oft-overlooked places offer green fields of goodies on which to graze and ruminate, pastures of nourishing forage like lens converters, slide copiers, right-angle mirrors, shoulder braces–in short, fascinating video accessories. Some folks buy doodads for their cars or sports, others are software junkies. Me, I’m a sucker for video add-ons.
Not that they’re frills, mind you. Most accessories contribute directly to the capability and versatility of your videomaking kit. In fact, the only superfluous accessories are, by definition, the ones you don’t use. Which ones are those? Too often they’re the ones I’ve found myself suckered by, the stuff that just seemed cool at the time.
To help you avoid my affliction, I’ve tried to prioritize video accessories by overall usefulness and level of operation, from weekend video keepsakes to entry-level industrial programs. Since this is a column about the production phase of videomaking, I’ve excluded accessories for preproduction (like, say, a spreadsheet for budgeting) and post production (like a time-base corrector).
Within the production phase, however, I’m casting a wide net. For my purposes here, if it ain’t a camcorder, it’s an accessory.
So here’s my personal take on what to acquire, in what order, and for what purpose. We’ll make seven trips back to the video store, to buy add-on packages that begin at less than $80 and then range upward from there.
Make that just six trips, in fact, because you should pick up your first bunch of goodies even before you leave the store with your new camcorder. These are the absolute essentials–accessories you need to protect your camcorder from harm and yourself from stress: a filter, cleaning supplies and a spare battery.
If you buy absolutely nothing else, at least invest in a “transparent lens cap” filter to protect the delicate (and essentially irreparable) front element of your expensive zoom lens. These filters–variously designated UV, 1A or skylight–do not affect the picture. They live on the lens permanently so you don’t have to keep track of them, and they cost less than 20 bucks. How can you lose?
And when your filter (instead of your lens) gets dusty or blotched with fingerprints, you can launder it safely with a photographic lens cleaning outfit. A camel’s hair blower brush will puff dust away while barely touching the glass it’s cleaning. A tiny jug of lens solution will let you lift the grunge without removing optical coatings too. A packet of lens tissues will provide wipes that neither deposit lint fallout nor scratch surfaces.
Sold separately or in kits, these indispensable items will set you back less than $10. Plus, you can use them to clean your internal viewfinder, viewfinder eyepiece, and hey, your binoculars or whatever, too.
While you’re thinking tidy, you might also pick up a cleaning system for your new camcorder’s tape path components. Used according to directions, these products can keep your delicate camera components in shape automatically, so you don’t have to poke around inside the machine.
And no matter how eager you are to rush home and start shooting something, don’t leave the store without at least one spare battery. I know, the camcorder manual promises ample battery life. Lies, all lies. If you will ever shoot more than a few minutes at a time, you’ll need a spare battery–especially if you fall in love with your twelve-to-one, eight-speed motorized zoom. Those guys drink fuel like a ’59 Caddy.
If it turns out that you like your new camcorder enough to use it for more than birthdays, your first trip back to the store will be for accessories to improve video quality: a tripod and a second filter.
Specifically, a neutral density filter (choose an ND6 or ND9 density). Used in bright outdoor light, this filter improves picture quality in two ways. By reducing the amount of light that enters your camcorder, it will often improve color saturation and prevent the color smearing called blooming. Secondly, the reduced light will make your lens aperture widen, which, in turn, can soften distracting backgrounds. (Before shelling out for this filter, verify that your camcorder doesn’t already have one built in. A few higher-end models do.)
Remember: don’t add an external neutral density filter to the skylight filter. That will degrade picture quality and it may cause vignetting (showing the filter ring in the picture) at wide angle lens settings. Swap them instead, temporarily storing your clear lens cap in the neutral density filter’s plastic case.
Speaking of which, when possible, select a filter brand that supplies a hard case instead of only a soft pouch, or buy a separate filter case.
Now about that tripod. You may feel that the bulk and bother of a tripod defeats your whole purpose in buying that light and tiny camcorder. On the other hand, a tripod makes a powerful contribution to steady, professional-looking footage. Here are some tips for selecting a good one.
Consider only models intended specifically for video. Still camera tripods are too stiff in the head and too limp in the legs. Even with video models, pay no attention to the extendable center column. Unless the camera is shooting unattended, extending the tripod this way makes it too unstable.
Buy the sturdiest model that your muscles can tolerate. Stronger tripods tend to have smoother, silkier head movement as well as greater rigidity.
Buy the best you can afford. Tripods have what my physicist brother-in-law calls “an infinite duty cycle.” Translation: they last approximately forever; and if you later want to swap a cheap one for a better one, the cheapo will sit in your closet, endlessly reproving your bad investment.
Should you compromise with a monopod instead? A monopod is more a steadying aide than a true camera platform. If you really get serious about videomaking, you can pick up a one-legger on your fifth return to the video store, which we discuss further on.
With batteries, filter(s), tripod and cleaning gear, you’ve stockpiled the basic accessories. Now the fun really begins as you start to consider the options–the particular add-ons that’ll create your personalized videomaking outfit.
For me, the first item has to be an on-camera light to provide just enough fill to kick up dully-lit shooting locations. You can find these lights at anywhere from $50 to over $200. Whichever model you choose, look for these desirable features:
- Battery power. Avoid lights that act like parasites, sucking the life out of your camcorder’s battery. Make sure your light has its own power supply.
- Multiple light levels. Sometimes you need less light, other times more. Though you can vary light intensity by moving the camera closer or farther away, it’s more convenient to be able to adjust the output of the camera light instead.
- Provision for accessories. Better models allow you to mount barn doors (side and/or top shade flaps) and screens to control the spread and the character of the light.
With filters, batteries (and charger), lights and all, you’re going to need some way to wrangle your stuff. Now, perhaps, is the right moment for a gadget bag. Find one that’s sturdy, well padded, and capacious–big enough, in fact, to hold about twice as much stuff as your currently carry. Like tripods, good gadget bags last a day short of forever, so think of your future needs when you select one.
If you use a VHS-C or 8mm camcorder and like to travel light, consider one of the larger “fanny pack” gadget bags. Though designed primarily for still photographers, they’re flexible enough to accommodate a small camcorder, spare battery and cleaning supplies.
And here’s a tip for to do-it-yourselfers. Using cable clamps and two feet of eighth-inch, vinyl-sheathed steel cable, I made what looks like a short, skinny bicycle cable. It and a small padlock take up very little room in my bag. When I need to set my bag down while I shoot in the immediate vicinity, I thread the cable through a carry strap ring and padlock the bag to anything convenient. Of course this won’t stop a professional with a bolt cutter (or a canvas-cutting knife, for that matter), but no one can just grab my bag and take off with the whole works.
Another long piece of steel that folds compactly is the hoop around a flexible reflector.
Reflectors are especially good for outdoor shooting, where the problem is not too little light but too much contrast. A pair of aluminized Mylar auto sun shades makes a great set of reflectors and you can, of course, use them for sunshades too. For a softer reflected fill, the white reflectors available from Videomaker work just fine.
If your shooting needs demand sturdier and more versatile reflectors, you can find a wide variety of professional models at better video and camera stores.
Moving up the dollar scale a bit, consider a battery quick-charger/conditioner. This product is invaluable for removing the so-called memory effect from NiCd batteries. Even if your batteries are of another type, a quick charger will let you top up a second spare battery while your camcorder charger is refilling your primary spare.
As your shooting needs grow more varied, you may want to invest in the added flexibility of a lens converter. These short barrels contain optical elements and screw onto the front threads of your zoom lens. Typically, a converter will change a lens focal length by a factor of two.
For example, a 0.5X wide-angle converter will turn your 6mm maximum wide angle setting into 3mm, making the view twice as wide. A 2X telephoto converter will double a 60mm setting to 120mm. You can also buy flipover or otherwise reversible converters. With one end forward, they increase your wide angle field of view; with the other, they multiply telephoto.
Personally, I haven’t much use for the wide angle versions. Video is inherently a low-resolution medium, and the wider the view the poorer the detail. The regular wide angle end of a camcorder lens is wide enough for me. Also, lens converters necessarily degrade picture quality a bit, thereby reducing image resolution even further.
Though the same is true of telephoto converters, I find them much more useful. A 2X converter does the same job as a 2X “digital zoom” feature, but without anywhere near as severe a loss of quality. For shooting sports or wildlife, a telephoto lens converter is a wonderful asset to have in your kit.
So far, we’ve neglected sound accessories. As our shooting needs grow more sophisticated, however, it’s time to give audio its due. The first accessory you should obtain is a set of lightweight headphones. You wouldn’t be comfortable, would you, if you had no viewfinder to tell you what quality images you were recording? Well, the same is true for sound. Think of headphones as a viewfinder for the ears, and you’ll see why they’re so essential to sophisticated shooting.
The next upgrade is an external microphone. Good miking is so important to quality videomaking that we’ve run many articles devoted to this under-appreciated skill. Here, we’ll just note your options in add-on hardware. You have three basic types of mikes to choose from:
- Camera-mounted. These shotgun-type units are useful because many can be set to different pickup patterns, including narrow angles that help exclude unwanted noise. (They can also be used off-camera on stands or booms.)
- Cabled mikes. These let you get the microphone close to the subject, for better sound quality. Choose cardioid designs for all-purpose use; flat plate mikes to pick up sounds from stage floors, conference tables, and similar surfaces; or lapel mikes for interviews.
- Wireless mikes. These provide the most freedom (though they can sometimes be tricky and the better ones are more expensive). Lavalier (tie clip) designs are good for interviews, and hand-held designs are simpler to use.
Now about that monopod we referred to earlier. If you have to move fast and shoot long, a monopod may be a lifesaver. Because they have one leg instead of three, monopods set up more quickly than tripods and, of course, they weigh much less. So if you’re running up and down the sidelines at a football game, you’ll appreciate a monopod’s convenience.
On the other hand, a monopod does not pan and tilt anywhere near as well as a tripod with a quality head. In using a monopod, you have to rotate or tilt the entire unit. Professionals do get quite good at this, but it’s a skill that demands some practice.
Open for Business
So let’s suppose you’ve had that practice. In fact, let’s suppose you’re good enough by now to hang out a small shingle and earn some cash making videos. Then it’s back to the store for you, Bucko, for at least two professional essentials.
The first is an external monitor. Add-on LCD monitors are inexpensive, and they let you unglue the camcorder from your head. You can mount them right on the camcorder for easy viewing as you shoot.
For more demanding work (such as promotional and training videos) a stand-alone monitor is a must. These little TV sets sport screens from five to 13 inches in size and operate on both AC and battery power. Professional units can be expensive, but you can get a perfectly serviceable model from a discount store for under $200.
Why an external monitor? To check white balance, color accuracy, contrast, focus and composition–all factors that cannot be fully evaluated on either an internal viewfinder or an external LCD screen.
Next, you want a battery pack–a big battery pack. If you’re covering a wedding, reunion or similar event, you want to have four or five hour’s worth of reliable power, even if you’re juicing a camera light from the same pack. You can find a wide variety of battery packs and belts to do the job for you.
If you shoot industrial programs, you may find a hand-held camera steadying system a good investment. Modern shooting styles favor fast-moving cameras, but clients do not expect shaky pictures. A camera mount like the GlideCam or Steadicam JR, for example, will go far to smooth things out.
The Whole Nine Yards
So here you are at last, proprietor of a growing business in training, educational, commercial and promotional videos. Not only have you quit your day job; this now is your day job!
First off, you need a lighting kit: three instruments minimum, with barn doors and screens and studio reflectors for fill.
Next comes an audio production mixer. No longer content to process your sound only in post production, you’re now massaging it even as you lay it down.
And then, that old tripod’s just got to go. I know it’s still good, but it doesn’t have the rigidity you now demand, or the head movement–smooth as virgin olive oil–that you need for perfect pans and tilts. (See? I told you to invest in a quality tripod way back when you were just starting out.)
What else? From this point on, you’ll probably be upgrading accessories previously purchased, like exchanging professional reflectors for your old sunshades.
Beyond that, it’s no longer possible to prescribe for you. Your skills have grown and your videomaking has specialized to the point where you know far better than I do which video accessories you need.