Modern automatic gadgets surround us: washing machines, car transmissions,
coffee makers, even camcorders. The intent of these automatic conveniences
is to make our lives easier. They attempt to read our minds and fulfill
Sometimes automatic systems fail to do what we want. Have you ever driven
up a mountain and had an automatic transmission "hunt" for the
right gear–apparently undecided if second or third gear is the right one?
That’s frustrating. Some drivers prefer a manual transmission because it
offers more control in varying driving situations. Control is what you want,
whether you’re driving a mountain pass or making video.
Understanding how your camcorder makes its automatic decisions will enable
you to override them armed with the knowledge to make better choices. Let’s
take a look at two manual controls on your camcorder–focus and exposure–and
see how the proper use of these often overlooked controls can give you more
power to make good video.
Hocus Pocus Focus
Early camcorder automatic focusing systems were tediously slow–often incapable
of keeping up with moving subjects. Manufacturers have made dramatic improvements
to autofocus systems since their introduction in the 1980s.
But complex shooting situations can fool even the newest breeds of autofocusing
systems. Just like the automatic transmission that hunts for the right gear,
camcorder autofocus systems sometimes hunt for the right focus. Let’s look
at a shooting situation that can drive an autofocus system–and you–crazy.
You’re videotaping your child while she stands at a podium during a spelling
bee. You framed the shot with your daughter, Kelly, on the left so that
a banner displaying the school’s name is visible on the right. The banner
is about 15 feet behind the podium. You watch in horror as the camcorder
goes into convulsions–quickly switching focus between Kelly and the banner.
What to do?
First let’s look at the "why" of the problem. Most focus systems
give focus priority to whatever object is in the center of the video frame.
Usually the logic behind this autofocus choice works great, but not in our
The camcorder becomes confused because your child is not in the center
of the shot. As Kelly moves and gestures within the frame, the autofocus
system attempts to focus on whatever is in the center of the image. The
result is an eyeball-wrenching image that rapidly changes focus between
the foreground and background.
There are three possible solutions. The best one is to place your camcorder
in manual focus mode. Zoom all the way in to your child and adjust the manual
focus for the sharpest image. Then zoom back to frame the shot as you desire.
The banner will not be in sharp focus but that’s OK–the main subject is
Kelly, not the banner. Unfortunately, not all camcorders have manual focus
A second option is to place Kelly in the center of the frame and zoom in
for a tighter shot. Even in the autofocus mode Kelly will remain in focus
because she will fill the majority of the image.
The final option is to add light to the portion of the stage on which Kelly
is performing. More light on the subject makes focusing less critical. We’ll
investigate the reason behind this phenomenon when we discuss depth of field
Eye on the Iris
The camcorder iris borrows its name and function from the human eye. In
the camcorder, the iris is an adjustable opening that regulates the amount
of light entering the camera. It adjusts the exposure so that the image
has just the right amount of light–not too much or too little. A small
pinpoint opening lets in less light than a fully opened iris, just like
the human eye.
Camcorders without manual exposure control can limit the videographer to
fewer creative options in difficult situations. Let’s consider a shooting
scenario you might encounter while videotaping a friend’s wedding reception.
The happy couple stands under the cool shade of an outdoor canopy on a perfect
sunny day as they prepare to make the first cut in their seven-layer wedding
Directly behind the newlyweds is a gorgeous lake. The water shimmers and
dances as bright light from the sun reflects from the lake. Seems like a
perfect background for your shot, or is it?
As the couple takes the first cut of the cake you look through the viewfinder
and panic as you discover that the exposure is all wrong: the couple is
so dark you can only see their outlines. Their joyous expressions are completely
obscured because the couple’s faces are underexposed. What happened?
Most automatic exposure systems compute the average brightness of the video
image and adjust the exposure accordingly. In our example, the reflecting
water of the lake is much brighter than the shadowed light that illuminates
the couple. Unfortunately, the automatic system has adjusted itself for
the average brightness of the scene, which leaves the couple in dark silhouette.
There are three approaches to solving this shooting problem. First, simply
put the camcorder in the manual exposure mode (if your camcorder has this
feature) and open up the iris so that detail in the couple’s faces is clearly
visible in the viewfinder. The lake will become too bright (overexposed)
but that’s OK since the most important part of the shot is the couple.
A second option is to point a light at the couple. If you can illuminate
them with the same level of brightness as the lake everything will look
A third option is to change the camcorder’s framing so that the lake is
not visible behind the couple. You could try raising or lowering the camcorder,
or moving it left or right. Even zooming into a tighter shot of the couple
may minimize the presence of the lake in the shot and solve the problem.
Depth of Field
You can alter the depth of field, or the portions of a scene that are in
sharp focus, by changing the amount of light that illuminates your subject.
A large depth of field keeps everything–from foreground to infinity–in
sharp focus, thus enhancing the perception of depth. A shallow, or small,
depth of field allows for only a small window of sharp focus. For example,
objects from 10-12 feet from the camera are sharply focused, but everything
in front of and behind this two-foot area of focus is fuzzy.
There are times when you want a small depth of field. Maybe you don’t want
the ugly background of your cluttered garage to show when shooting your
child sitting atop his new Big Wheel. A shallow depth of field would place
your child in sharp focus while rendering the garage mess a pleasant background
In other situations you may desire a large depth of field with everything
from the immediate foreground to the distant background in sharp focus.
The simplest way to ensure a large depth of field is to increase the lighting
on your subject.
As the lighting level increases your camcorder’s iris closes down to compensate
for the additional illumination. Here is the rule: the smaller the iris
opening the larger the depth of field.
More light will also make the color and detail of your shot more vibrant
and clear. You can observe the changes in depth of field in your viewfinder
as you adjust the manual exposure control.
Conversely, if you reduce the amount of light that your camcorder sees,
its automatic exposure system will open up the iris, thus reducing the depth
of field and throwing the foreground and background out of focus. The easiest
way to do this is to use an ND (neutral density) filter to cut down the
light as it enters the lens.
Auto Shooting Modes
Many camcorders have pre-set shooting modes with names like "portrait,"
"spotlight," and "sand and snow." These programmed auto-exposure
(AE) modes alter the exposure settings of the camcorder to best suit specific
Portrait mode emphasizes the subject and softens the background focus.
Spotlight is great for shooting concerts or subjects bathed in bright lights.
Sand and snow mode is perfect for shooting outdoors at sunny beaches and
snow-covered terrain where reflected light is intense. Give these modes
a try, they can help improve your shots.
Technological advancements like Canon’s eye-control system allow the user
to specify the portion of the image that is in focus by merely looking at
a certain area of the viewfinder. The camcorder reads the direction of your
eye and focuses accordingly.
Some of Canon’s camcorders offer a FlexiZone autofocus/auto-exposure image
control system that enables you to control areas of focus and exposure anywhere
within the image. A joystick on the rear of the camcorder controls the position
of a white box displayed in the viewfinder. FlexiZone automatically adjusts
the portion of the image inside the box for focus and exposure.
No matter what your shooting situation don’t overlook the power and creative
control your manual camcorder controls offer. Taking control of your camcorder
gives you the power to overcome shooting situations that will drive automatic
systems into uncontrolled spasms.