If you’ve ever looked at the number of buttons on your camcorder and wondered just what the heck they do, you’re not alone. Most people, intimidated by the sheer number of buttons, find it easier to just point and shoot. But these buttons are what control many of the advanced features (that you paid good money for) on your camcorder – features that can help you produce superior video.
On many camcorders, a single button or knob controls a number of these functions through a menu. We will continue to refer to unique buttons for each function, but you may instead access their controls as individual selections within your camcorder’s menu.
You’re probably most familiar with the "record" button that resides close to one of your thumbs, as you hold your camcorder. There might be one or two others that you’ve come to familiarize yourself with as well. Your camcorder has a whole slew of buttons, though, that control much of your unit’s functionality. In the following pages, we’ll push the most common camcorder buttons just to see what happens.
A Tiny VCR
Your camcorder is truly a wonder of engineering. Not only is it equipped to shoot and record moving images, but it can also play them back on the viewfinder/viewscreen or via a cable on a full-size TV. Boil it down and your camcorder is a miniature VCR with a lens. This dual purpose means that the buttons you find on your camcorder can be classified into two groups–those that control the camera features and those that control the VCR mode.
As a VCR, your camcorder has a standard array of buttons that, in most cases, will offer the usual selection of VCR functions. These, of course, are play, fast forward, rewind, pause and stop. Their operation is pretty basic too; whatever these buttons can do on a full-sized VCR they can do on your camcorder. This means, for example, that you can quickly scan your footage by pressing "play" and then either the "rewind" or "fast-forward" buttons.
Few people, however, use their camcorder primarily as a VCR. That’s why the most important camcorder buttons deal with its operation as a camera.
Off Again, On Again
First, there are the "toggle switches"–those buttons that allow you to turn a feature on and off at your leisure. These are the most common of all the buttons on your camcorder, since the majority of camcorder features are either active or inactive.
What features am I talking about? Let’s begin with features that are normally off and the buttons that turn them on.
If you need to get particularly close to a distant subject, find the button marked, "digital zoom." Press this baby once, and when you zoom, your camcorder will digitally enlarge the image far beyond what its standard optical zoom could muster.
As long as you’re zoomed in so tight, you might want to find and press another button– the one marked stabilization (either electronic or optical). When holding the camcorder in your hands and zooming in very tight, it’s difficult to maintain a jitter-free shot. Image stabilization can help minimize the shakes.
If your subject is moving at a very high speed–perhaps a drag racer or UFO–your camcorder’s high-speed shutter is as close as the push of another button. The high-speed shutter is a feature that works in much the same way a high-speed shutter works on a still camera. It helps capture a fast-moving object in such a way that it minimizes blurring of the subject as it passes the lens. The result is a clearer shot of fast-moving objects. High-speed shutter is also useful for throwing the background of a shot out of focus; since high shutter speeds require more light, a camcorder’s automatic exposure system will open up the iris and reduce the depth of field.
Suppose this high-speed UFO of yours stops and hovers close to the sun. Because the sun is so bright, your great shot of those friendly creatures from outer space will be nothing but a dark silhouette. The network news will never buy such lousy footage. You’ve got to do something fast!
Fortunately, you have yet another button at your disposal. By pressing the "backlight" button, your camcorder will dampen the effects of the strong backlight coming from the sun behind your subject, opening up the iris a stop or two, allowing you to see the subject better. This feature works just as well when shooting Aunt Martha and her begonias in front of a window or in any other situation where the background is brighter than the foreground.
When the shooting situation returns to normal, simply press the "backlight" button again to deactivate this feature. The same goes for any of the aforementioned features. Because they are operated with toggle switches, just press their buttons again to turn their corresponding features off.
A Real Turn-Off
What about those features that are normally on? Can they be turned off as easily? Well, it depends on whether your specific model of camcorder allows you to take manual control of those features. These tend to be your camcorder’s automatic focus, automatic iris, and automatic white balance functions.
Automatic focus is a feature that’s best left off when shooting, if possible. This is because the automatic focus circuitry doesn’t always know what object in the scene you’d like to focus on, and as a result the focus shifts around.
Automatic iris regulates the amount of light entering your camcorder, so that no shot is too bright or too dark. Again, the automatic circuitry may or may not know which portion of the scene to expose properly, leaving your shots too dark or too bright. Unfortunately, not many consumer camcorders give their users control over the iris.
You may not be as familiar with automatic white balance. Thanks to this feature, colors come out perfect every time. Reds are red and blues are blue. That’s because your camcorder automatically determines what color "white" is, and builds the rest of the spectrum using that as its reference point. Manual white balance controls allow you to set white balance for a given lighting situation, and fix it at that setting for the remainder of the shoot (or until the camera shuts off).
So why deactivate such terrific automatic features? Manual controls allow you to decide for yourself what looks right in a scene, which objects to focus on and which portion of the screen to adjust exposure for. It’s also an issue of creative control. Your camcorder will automatically try to deliver a good picture, as defined by some engineer or standards committee somewhere. That "good" picture may not be exactly what you want, though. You might want your shot to be a little bit out of focus, for instance. Or you may want to use the iris to lighten a shot. That’s when it’s nice to be able to push a button and tell your camcorder, "Knock it off for a minute, will ya? And let me do the thinking."
Pick a Feature, Any Feature
Many buttons do more than simply toggle features on and off. They offer the user a series of choices regarding a group of related features.
For example, let’s assume your camcorder has a truckload of digital effects (many do). As good as most development engineers are, they probably would be hard pressed to find room on that tiny camcorder of yours to install buttons that correspond to every digital effect available. It’s more likely that they grouped the effects into categories and set up buttons for each of those categories or gave you access to them through a menu.
So how would you select an effect this way? Let’s pick a hypothetical category–we’ll call it "wipes"–to illustrate. There are many different wipes: side to side, top to bottom, corner to corner, etc. As you set up your shot and look through your viewfinder, you might press the "Digital Effects" button once. There, in the viewfinder, a menu of the available wipes would appear. By pressing the button repeatedly, you could then choose which wipe you would like to use.
Many of the active or inactive features we described above take advantage of this method of selecting a feature subset as well. Auto iris is one such example. If you press the auto iris button once, you will turn auto iris off. Some camcorders, though, make it possible to cycle through a list of pre-set exposure settings by pressing the button repeatedly. (Other camcorders have a little wheel mounted on the side of the camcorder containing all of the pre-programmed exposure settings, while others put the controls on the camcorder’s on/off switch.) These iris choices are usually displayed in the viewfinder. Press the auto iris button enough times and you can turn it back on again.
If you’ve gotten used to pushing only the "record" button on your camcorder, it’s important not to forget about all those other buttons. Sure, they look complicated, but they hold the key to a ton of features you may not be taking advantage of. So, don’t let your camcorder push you around. Push back, by pushing some buttons, and unlock the door to a world of neat bells and whistles that can help to enhance your videos.