Getting Started: Avoiding Common Camcorder Mistakes

Five ways to keep from shooting yourself in the

I was a professional videographer when I received my first personal camcorder
as a birthday gift from my wife. It was the same brand as the professional
S-VHS camcorder I had been using for work, and it had similar features,
too. Even so, I took the time to read the manual in the interest of learning
all I could about this particular model, so as not to make foolish mistakes
that might ruin my videos or, worse, damage my pricey birthday gift.

That is not to say that I always operated my camcorder properly. Even with
my professional experience, I made mistakes and still do. Studying the manual
could never keep me from forgetting the camcorder was on the roof of the
car before proceeding down the driveway. To avoid disaster when I use a
new tool, I find it helpful to keep a basic checklist of dos and don’ts
in mind.

If you’re new to using a camcorder, here are some tips for avoiding the
most common camcorder snafus.

Be an Energy Miser

First things first. A camcorder is an electric appliance. You can either
plug it into a wall outlet using an adapter or attach a battery to the unit.
Batteries make for more mobile operation, as outlets can be rather scarce
at the zoo, at the park and on the monorail at Disneyworld.

It has been my experience, however, that camcorder batteries don’t hold
an infinite charge. The battery that came with your camcorder will last
for only one or two hours of continuous use, at best; some only deliver
a half-hour or so. That’s why it’s important to conserve energy whenever
you can.

The best way to conserve energy? Turn the camcorder off when you aren’t
using it. This may seem like common sense advice, but putting the unit away
with the power on is very easy to do. You can become very frustrated if
you pull out your camcorder just as Shamu is leaping from the water only
to discover that your battery is dead.

Your camcorder may have a standby feature that puts it into a power-saving
mode when the camcorder is left on for a time without being used. Regardless
of this feature, the best way to conserve power is by turning the camcorder

Nice Footage of the Asphalt

Suppose, however, that you are a chronic power-waster. You couldn’t
remember to turn the camcorder off if your life depended on it. Instead,
you bought three replacement batteries to make sure that you have enough
juice to get you through the day. After shooting five minutes of Junior
at the petting zoo, you swing the camcorder strap over your shoulder and
head for the parking lot. Did you remember to pause the camcorder?

How many times have you gotten a roll of film developed only to find an
embarrassing photo when you accidentally took a picture of your foot? The
same thing can happen with your camcorder. If you don’t remember to pause
it after shooting, you might find yourself back at home reviewing fifteen
minutes of excellent pavement footage, or even worse, a documentary about
the inside of your camera bag.

Adding to the embarassment is the fact that the microphone continues to
record audio as long as the tape is rolling. If you forget to pause your
camcorder, you might accidentally reveal on tape what you really think about
Aunt Millie’s table manners, or your husband’s boss. These bloopers can
make you blush if you don’t know they’re there–and your audience isn’t
expecting them.

This problem has a flip side, as well. You may think you’ve got your granddaughter’s
entire dance recital down on tape, only to get home and discover that you
were in pause mode when you thought you were recording and vice versa.

The good news is that camcorder manufacturers know how easy it is to make
these mistakes. That’s why they gave you a viewfinder.

Listen to Your Viewfinder

The viewfinder is not just for aiming the camcorder. Your viewfinder
speaks volumes about the status of your unit. For example, you can easily
tell whether or not you are recording just by looking in the viewfinder
where, in many cases, you will see either "PAUSE" or "RECORD."

Most, if not all, viewfinders will tell you when your battery is dying,
too. My camcorder has a battery icon with a bar in it that gradually diminishes
as I use up my battery’s charge.

What if you look into the viewfinder, though, and everything you see is
blurry? Does that mean the shot is out of focus?

Actually, it is possible that you just need to adjust the focus on your
viewfinder. You see, your viewfinder is little more than a very tiny TV.
Depending upon your eyesight, you may have to adjust the focal distance
between the eyepiece (which is a lens) and that little TV screen to get
a clear picture. Check for a small slider or dial on the outside of the
viewfinder, and adjust it until the image in the viewfinder is in focus.

Moving Violations

Having a camcorder can sometimes make you feel like Spielberg. You don’t
want to just shoot Cousin Wayne’s birthday party; you want drama, action
and suspense. In your zeal, you may try to add action to otherwise "boring"
shots by zooming in and out.

Being creative in your camerawork can make for interesting video. But there’s
also a lot to be said for the KISS philosophy: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

In most cases, you will be using your camcorder to document special events
for posterity. As such, you may want to maintain the integrity of the shot
rather than try to jazz it up with funky camera moves and special effects.

There’s another good reason for keeping your shots simple–you could send
your audience reaching for the Dramamine.

Here’s a little assignment. Take your camcorder to the park. Find a group
of children playing. Start recording, and zoom out as wide as you can. Then
zoom in really tight on one child, and try to follow him or her for a few
seconds. Zoom out again, find a different child, and zoom in once more.
Do this until you’ve zoomed in and out on every child.

Now go home and watch your video. You will either have a splitting headache
or toss your cookies before you’ve finished watching the reel. Frequent
zooms can be very disconcerting to the viewer. They are also the hallmark
of the amateur videographer. Your intentions are good–to draw attention
to something you feel is interesting–but the technique gives the viewer
too little to look at for too short a time.

You will discover, too, that you won’t have to work very hard to inject
action into your shots. Until you’ve had some practice handling your camcorder,
all of your footage will have some jitters. By keeping your zoom lens as
wide as is reasonable for as long as possible, you will minimize these jitters
and produce better video.

More Support

You can, however, keep your shots rock-steady by investing in a tripod.
Not only do they eliminate jitters, but they also free up your hands by
holding the camcorder for you. Tripods thus provide you with the opportunity
to press record and walk away, perhaps to jump in front of the camera and
become part of the action.

Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security, however. Tripods are only
as sturdy as you make them. The legs of most tripods are telescoping, and
must be locked down when they are extended. If they are not secured properly,
the weight of even the lightest camcorder may be enough to cause structural

Video tripods often come equipped with a pan/tilt head. Typically there
is a knob or two that is used to control the amount of tension applied to
the head, limiting how easily the camcorder can be panned from side to side
or tilted up and down.

In actual use, you will most likely keep the head quite loose so that you
can follow the action around you. However, if you suddenly decide to jump
in front of your camcorder without locking down the tripod head, there is
a good chance that your camcorder will slowly begin to tilt skyward. Not
only will you disappear from the shot, but the force of this tilting motion
may be enough to upset your tripod and send your camcorder tumbling to the

Think Before You Shoot

Sound like a lot to think about? It really isn’t. Today’s camcorders
and accessories really try to be as easy to use as possible. In reality,
most of the mistakes you’ll make while you’re learning will probably not
be earth–or camcorder–shattering. Read your manual. Force yourself to
pay attention to your equipment. Learn to avoid the snafus. Before long,
your video will improve and your camcorder will become less a toy and more
a tool.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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