Okay, okay, I confess: my newest camcorder’s facing its first birthday and I still can’t
work all the stupid buttons on it.
Oh, I understand what they do–no, honestly! I just haven’t gotten around to figuring
out which is which. I mean, I’ve been too busy cataloguing my lima bean collection and
Unless you’re an aggressive technoid, your camcorder may also sport several controls
whose purposes remain mysterious. But these buttons really do deliver functions worth
using, so let’s take a fast and painless tour of them. At best, you’ll achieve better control
of your equipment.
And at least you won’t humiliate yourself when your spouse points to a button and asks
what it’s for.
From the Top
Let’s start with three controls so basic that the camera works them automatically if you
refuse to do so: focus, exposure, and white balance. By taking personal command of just
these three functions, you can eliminate a great many causes of poor quality video.
First on the list is focus. If you’ve used a camcorder even once, you’ve experienced
autofocus, the function that continuously adjusts the lens to keep the picture sharp.
Almost every camcorder has a control that allows you to switch from autofocus to
Why bother? Because the autofocus system, like the scarecrow in Oz, has no brain; it’s
pitifully easy to fool. Example: as you tape your daughter learning to ride a two-wheeler,
she pedals past a light pole in the foreground. Because the pole is much closer to the
camera, the autofocus system refocuses the lens on this totally unimportant element, and
turns your daughter into a blur. By focusing on your daughter and then turning autofocus
off, you can force the system to ignore the light pole and keep her sharp throughout the
The second automatic feature that everyone uses is exposure. The exposure system
regulates the amount of light that gets into your camcorder, so the picture is neither too
light nor too dark.
But autoexposure is just as easily fooled as autofocus. Because it can’t tell which part
of your picture is important, it can’t figure out which part to expose properly. Pose
someone against a dramatic blue sky and the system will expose the bright sky correctly,
turning the darker (though more important) person into a black silhouette.
Different camera models address this problem with different types of controls. The
simplest version is a button that’s usually labeled "backlight." Pressing it forces the
camcorder to let in more light than its auto system tells it to, to give better exposure to the
A more sophisticated control (often marked "iris") lets you dial a bit more light (or a
bit less) while you eyeball the effect through the viewfinder. This gives you somewhat
more flexible control.
Some top-drawer camcorders offer fully manual exposure. If you’re a film
photographer who knows all about f-stops and good stuff like that, you can set the
aperture of the lens by hand for complete exposure control.
Before leaving the topic of exposure, we need to mention
the "gain" button. This feature (sometimes labeled "gain up") electronically amplifies a
dark video image, brightening it enough to be displayed more clearly.
You don’t want to press the gain up button except in very poor light because it
produces a somewhat coarse and grainy picture. But sometimes it’s a life saver. Recently,
my students taped a play, a comic murder mystery in which most of the last scene was so
dark that their camcorders couldn’t see anything. By switching on gain up, however, they
boosted the weak video signal enough to get a respectable image.
Your camcorder’s third major automated system is white balance. (I’ve seen this
button labeled "W.B.," which is informative as all get-out.)
White balance is the control that matches your camcorder to the color of the light in
which it’s shooting. "White" daylight is actually slightly bluish, light bulbs are slightly
reddish, and cool fluorescents are slightly a mess–with evil green predominating.
Your brain adjusts to changing tints of so-called white light automatically, but your
camcorder depends on white balance to do the job. This control comes in three basic
Automatic white balance chugs along completely unattended, and some videomakers
leave the control at that setting permanently.
Switchable white balance has settings for outdoor, indoor, and often fluorescent
lights, offering a greater degree of user control.
Adjustable white balance customizes the camera’s color perception for each
environment by analyzing the incoming light and adjusting accordingly.
If you’ve ever taped outdoors with the white balance set for indoor (incandescent) light,
the ghastly blue footage you ended up with should have already convinced you of the
importance of the white balance button.
While on the subject of controlling light, we need to mention the shutter, which, on
some camcorders, has a button of its very own.
Which is seriously strange, because camcorders don’t have shutters. The word comes
from film photography, in which mechanical shutters control the timing of each exposure.
Camcorders have electronic circuits that do the same job, so their designers named that
job "shutter speed" in a failed attempt to avoid confusion and tedious explanations like
Many camcorders have shutter speeds of from 1/100 to 1/12,000 of a second. Although
the camcorder always records a field of video on tape every 1/60 of a second, high-speed
shutter shortens the amount of time the CCD has to gather each image. With the reaction
time shortened, each image the sensor records has less motion and hence less blur. Fast-
moving subjects become sharper. To see where you need to sharpen the picture, imagine
a golf swing.
Videotaped at the normal 1/60 of a second shutter speed and played back frame-by-
frame, you can’t really see the club at all. You just get about eight frames of blur. But if
you tape that same shot at 1/1000 of a second shutter speed or higher, each frame will
reveal a sharp, distinct golf club. When you play back in slow motion, you can easily
analyze the golfer’s form. On the negative side, very high shutter speeds may create a
strobing effect when playing back at normal speed.
As for increasing the shutter speed to reduce the amount of light your camcorder has to
work with, you can use this to your advantage in two ways:
To improve picture quality in bright light. Camcorders are not at their best in very
bright conditions. Colors can "bloom" and smear. Upping the shutter speed reduces
the light to a more manageable level.
To reduce depth of field. Depth of field is the amount of real estate, stretching away
from the camera, that appears in sharp focus. At very small outdoor apertures (lens
openings), this sharp area is extremely deep, and distant background elements
sometimes compete with the subject for the viewer’s interest. Increasing shutter speed
to 1/1000 second or more reduces the light so much that the lens must open to the
wider apertures, reducing the depth of field. Thrown out of focus, background
features are far less distracting.
To avoid scaring you off, some manufacturers hide shutter speed control in so-called
"programmed" exposures that you set by name instead of speed. "Sports" selects a very
fast speed to stop action. "Outdoor" increases speed moderately for better picture quality.
"Portrait" increases the iris opening while raising shutter speed, the resulting decreased
depth of field throwing background elements out of focus. As you can see, you can’t
discuss exposure without talking about the camcorder’s lens, so that’s the next bunch of
buttons we’ll look at.
Only a few high-end consumer camcorders let you set the lens opening manually,
but even the cheapest models feature the control everyone can locate: the zoom–whether
it’s a pair of buttons or a rocker-arm switch.
Push the front part of the control and you zoom in to a tighter picture; push the back
part and you zoom out to a wider one. With some cameras, the harder you press, the
faster you zoom. Simple!
And here’s something simpler yet, and better: the manual zoom control.
The manual zoom control is a rarely-used feature found on most larger
camcorders; it offers two big advantages over motorized zooming:
It’s very fast. Often you need to zoom when you’re not taping, to find a composition
or to manually focus the lens (you always do that at full telephoto, don’t you?). For
these chores, the stately pace of a motorized zoom wastes your time and tries your
It burns up battery power. Zoom motors are notorious for draining power and
shortening battery life. The manual control uses finger power instead.
Besides, the more experienced you grow, the less zooming you’ll do while taping.
Professionals rarely zoom mid-shot, and use taste when they do. They appreciate the silky
smoothness of a motor zoom at times, but more often use the manual zoom in their work.
So when you shop for your next camcorder, don’t forget to look for that modest but
essential control, manual zoom.
Before leaving the topic, we need to mention digital zoom, a feature found on many
better-grade camcorders. Digital zoom electronically increases the ability of the
camcorder to magnify the incoming image.
Here’s how digital zoom works: within its range of focal lengths (such as 5-60
millimeters), your lens optically enlarges the image by changing the distances between
the many hunks of glass inside your lens barrel. The extreme telephoto position provides
enough magnification for most situations, but not all. If you’re shooting your daughter’s
soccer game or the moose at the far end of a meadow, you just can’t get close enough.
That’s where digital zoom comes in. Instead of magnifying the image optically at the
lens, it does this electronically at the chip. As you digitally zoom in past the optical limit
of your lens, circuits fill the entire frame with smaller and smaller portions of the image-
The good news is that digital zooming can extend your range remarkably (some
models claim 100-to-1 zoom ratios). The bad news is that image quality degrades very
quickly as you zoom. Why? Because a video image is made of tiny dots. In order to fill
the frame with just a portion of the full image, you have to enlarge those component dots.
It’s like magnifying a magazine photograph: after a certain point, the picture breaks down
into separate blobs.
And beware: some digital zoom features are manually switchable–but not in my
camera. If I hold the zoom-in switch down too long, the camera switches automatically to
digital and keeps right on zooming. True, the zoom ratio does have a readout in the
viewfinder, but viewfinder information is hard to process, as we’ll see further on.
For the Record
While we’re out here on the camcorder hand grip next to the zoom control, we
should say something about the record buttons. "Record" itself is too self-evident to
linger over, but you should know about its companion controls, "record review" and "edit
search" (most cameras will have either one or the other).
These controls allow you to review your shots as you go. That’s nice in theory, but in
practice it has industrial-strength drawbacks. First, it drains battery power. More
importantly, it offers a dandy chance to blow away footage by taping over it because you
didn’t roll down to blank tape before resuming. (Happens to my students all the time.)
While on the subject of recording, some camcorders have another ingenious button:
one that disables the little red "recording" light–very useful when you don’t want to
spook your subjects.
Many consumer camcorders include buttons that create so-called "DVEs," or
Digital Video Effects. The most common are fade out/in and
wipe/dissolve. Fancier models add strobe, mosaic, and
My advice: avoid cameras festooned with these toys, for two reasons. First, they’re all
too easy to hit by accident. You’re taping your baby’s unrepeatable first steps when your
finger slips and turns the little tike into a pattern of squares. Camcorder designers struggle
to place the buttons in easily accessible positions. The big problem is that this makes
them easy to access by accident as well as on purpose.
Second, when you make an effect in the camera, you’re stuck with it. If you realize
later, in editing your program, that you faded out too soon, tough tofu, Jack; you can
never extend that shot.
Nowadays, all these effects and more are available in black boxes selling for under
$200 on the street. It makes much more sense to add these dandy visuals in editing. That
way, if you mess something up, you can always do it over.
The exception to all this is the date button. It lets you mark your footage with visible
date and time. This is a very useful feature, if you record the date for 20 seconds, disable
the date function, and only then start recording program material. Visible date numerals
grow irritating if left on through part or all of the program. So remember to look for them
in the viewfinder and turn them off.
A Tube with a View
Speaking of viewfinders, these tiny TV sets have buttons of their own. Just like their
27-inch siblings, they have controls for brightness, contrast and (if color) saturation.
Adjusting these little devils can be tricky. The best way to do it is to patch your
camcorder to a big and well-adjusted color monitor. Check to see that your camera is
delivering a good picture to the big screen and then adjust the viewfinder controls to
And here’s a finder control that many people miss: the diopter adjustment. When you
pick up a pair of binoculars, you probably focus for one eye and then adjust the second
eyepiece to focus for your other eye.
A camcorder viewfinder has the same control, usually a ring around the finder barrel or
else a slider below it. By adjusting the diopter control, you can shoot without your glasses
and still see a sharp picture.
Camera and VCR
We call our video cameras "cam-corders" because they’re VCRs as well as a
cameras, with all the usual VCR buttons. You don’t need to review what stop, play, and
pause mean, so we’ll omit those buttons here.
But there is one switch that does confuse people: the one that toggles the unit between
camera and VCR modes. This control often hides within a door or panel that covers the
VCR buttons. Open it and you have a VCR; close it and you have a camera.
Ah, but leave it partially open by accident and you have a zilch: nothing on the
machine will work. Nine times out of ten, when a student brings me a live but catatonic
camera, the VCR button cover has been bumped.
A Blizzard of Info
With all these buttons and dials and sliders and knobs and rings and rockers carrying
on all over your camcorder, how do you know what they’re doing?
The upside is that most of them tell you; the downside is that they often do so in the
viewfinder–the same viewfinder through which you are squinting in a valiant attempt to
see what you’re taping.
Different camera models display different types of information; the long-winded story
in my camera’s finder includes day and date, white balance, zoom position (2x, 4x, etc.),
battery condition, tape counter, gain up, autofocus enabled, and shutter speed.
To address this information traffic jam, and to reduce the number of actual buttons on
ever-shrinking camcorders, some manufacturers are turning to menu-driven settings on
external LCD screens. The idea, of course, comes from personal computers: a single
mouse button can select a zillion different functions, depending on where you are on
some sub-sub-menu, and where you point and click.
Though this can clean up the camera body and reduce the competition for the finder
screen, stepping through the process can be as annoying as responding to a computerized
phone system. You know the type: "Hello! You’ve reached 911. If you’re
having a heart attack, please press 1 now. If you’re being mugged, press 2. If you’re
already dead, please wait for an operator…"
Fact is, there isn’t an easy solution. As your experience increases, you rightly demand
ever more sophisticated control of your camcorder. Which means ever-increasing
decisions, displays…and buttons.