Getting Started: Camcorder Maintenance

Like your car, your camcorder runs best when you maintain it regularly. Although most camcorders are durable, they’re not indestructible. Wear and tear is inevitable. You no doubt take your camcorder with you into a variety of environments. That means everything from rain to dust to sun can harm your camcorder. While that damage happens a little bit at a time, the cumulative effects, if left unchecked, could mean curtains for your camcorder. That’s why preventive maintenance is so critical to the life and performance of your camcorder.

Water, Dirt and Crud

Fortunately for you, it’s easy to identify the environmental hazards that pose the greatest danger to your camcorder’s health. Moisture, temperature and airborne contaminants are the most common hazards that you must look out for.

Because of its delicate moving parts, your camcorder was engineered to operate best in a dry environment. Moisture tends to gum up the works. High temperatures can cook (i.e. melt) your camcorder and its sensitive electronics; low ones can freeze your unit solid – especially in the presence of moisture. If condensation occurs inside your camcorder, say on your record heads, those parts will not be able to move as easily, and videotape will not move across the heads properly. The optics on your lens can also become foggy with moisture, creating a cataract-like haze and rendering your camcorder essentially useless. Certainly, you shouldn’t get your camcorder wet. If rain or snow finds its way into the camcorder, it can cause serious damage to the internal electronics.

Airborne contaminants, like dust and dirt, can grind and scrape away at your camcorder’s innards or even work to corrode them. Such contaminants include dust, dirt, sand, chemicals, etc. Try to imagine a fine layer of mud or a corrosive chemical inside your valuable camcorder!

An Ounce of Prevention

Avoiding these environmental assailants is the best way to deal with them. That means you should only use your camcorder in relatively clean, temperate environments. If it feels too hot or humid outside for you to be comfortable, then leave your camcorder at home. Don’t use your camcorder soon after taking it from a cool climate into a very warm, humid one; the extreme temperature change is practically an invitation for condensation to form.

Is it dusty or dirty where you are? Put the camcorder away. Are some strange, strong fumes burning your eyes? They’re probably not too good for your camcorder either. Be especially careful when opening your camcorder’ tape door in dusty or wet environments. Opening the tape door, even for a moment, allows the elements to have access to the inner workings of your camcorder.

The best kind of preventive maintenance is to store your camcorder properly. That essentially means that you shouldn’t leave your camcorder just sitting around, exposed to the very elements you are trying to protect it from. You’ve no doubt invested in a camcorder case. Make sure you use it. Store your camcorder inside with the cover closed. Then find a space for your case that is relatively clean, dry and at room temperature (65 – 75 degrees Fahrenheit).

It is also possible to buy or make various kinds of housings that can protect your camcorder from the elements while you are shooting. Something as simple as the clear plastic bags that bed coverings and pillows often come in can give decent camcorder protection from mild inclemencies.

A Pound of Cure

Generally, you will not encounter many situations where radical environmental extremes jeopardize the well-being of your camcorder. Make no mistake, though. The day will come when the elements catch you off guard and get you. Maybe a strong wind whips up a lot of dust at the horse track, or the day becomes a lot more hot and humid than you expected. Is your camcorder lost? Probably not. Just keep a cool head and use some common sense.

For example, the best thing to do when you think the elements may have affected your camcorder is to shut it down immediately and put it away until you can properly assess the damage and make repairs. In some instances, when there’s condensation inside your camcorder, it will tell you there’s a problem and shut itself down. In either case, powering down immediately will insure that any damage will be minimal.

Next, determine what exposure your camcorder received and take appropriate action. To address condensation again, you need to first take the camcorder to a warm, dry place and remove the tape from the unit. Then you have two choices. You can leave the tape door on the side of the camcorder open and let it sit for about 15 to 30 minutes and let the condensation evaporate. If you’re impatient, though, you can use a hair dryer to dry out the condensation. Set the hair dryer to its coolest setting (you don’t want to blow hot air into your camcorder – that temperature thing again) and direct the flow of air into your camcorder via the tape door. Do it just a little at a time, and after a couple of minutes, turn your camcorder on to see if the condensation is gone.

What do you do, though, if you suspect sand, dust, or other particles may have entered your camcorder? More than likely they got there thanks to a sudden breeze. Well, what comes around goes around. As such, use a stiff breeze to coax them out. Don’t reach for the hair dryer again, though. You’ll want a more powerful approach. Take a ride to your nearest television and appliance store and invest in a small bottle of compressed air specifically designed to remove dust and particles from today’s electronic equipment.

Again, you can access your camcorder’s interior via the tape door. (Warning: never disassemble your camcorder to get inside, or for any other reason at all. Not only will you void your warranty, you’ll likely do more harm than good.) Aim short bursts of air to remove particles. Unless you can see the contaminants, you may have to guess where they are. A minute or two of this treatment, however, should be sufficient.

Finally, dealing with your camcorder’s variety of heat stroke or hypothermia is the easiest treatment of all. In either case, remove your camcorder from the extreme temperature and let it sit until it reaches room temperature. This could take a while; so don’t think you can speed things up by putting your camcorder on a radiator or letting it sit in the freezer for a while.

If you’ve exposed your camcorder to freezing temperatures, you’d do well to let it sit unused for at least 24 hours. Condensation may have formed inside your unit and then frozen into ice. Not only will you have to wait for this thin layer of ice to thaw, but you’ll have to wait for the condensation to evaporate, as well. With a very cold camcorder, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Focus on Lens Care

Not all camcorder maintenance is of the trauma-center type. Sometimes you just have to perform routine functions to keep your camcorder in top-notch form.

For example, you will have to periodically clean your lens and your viewfinder or viewscreen. Remember that can of compressed air? Here’s your chance to get more than a single use out of it! Use it to blow dust and dirt off your lens’ exterior. Then use a soft brush, either one purchased specifically for lens cleaning or just a soft brush bought at your local hobby store, to sweep any remaining dust away. Finally, you can use a soft tissue to gently wipe the lens, if necessary. If you’d like, you can visit a camera store and buy some proper lens-cleaning cloths.

Don’t use your fingers or a T-shirt to clean your lens; oil from your skin can damage the lens and many fabrics, while soft to the touch, can scratch a camcorder lens.

Wash Those Heads

Routine use of your camcorder will also result in dirty record and playback heads, as with a VCR. That’s when you’ll need to use a tape head-cleaning cassette. There are two varieties that are commercially available: wet cleaners and dry cleaners. Both look like regular videotapes, but instead of video tape, they have a cleaning ribbon.

Dry head cleaners are for the truly routine head-cleaning chores. They essentially wipe dirt and contaminants off your record and playback heads, in much the same way you might dust an end table. Use these only when you’ve seen evidence of dirt in your recordings. Dry cleaners are somewhat abrasive. Overuse could shorten the life of your heads.

Wet head cleaners are for those truly dirty camcorders. They add moisture via a cleaning solution to scrub the grime off those heads. Even if you routinely use a dry head cleaner, you may have to use a wet cleaner occasionally. If you notice a degradation in image quality or other distortions on your video they may be an indication of dirty heads.

Wet and dry head cleaning cassettes are used in much the same fashion. With wet cleaning cassettes, though, you must moisten the cleaning ribbon inside the cassette with the cleaning solution prior to use. Then you insert the cassettes exactly as you would insert a conventional videocassette. You "play" the cassette for thirty seconds to a minute and eject. With a wet cassette, you should wait at least an hour for the cleaning solution to dry before you insert a videocassette and begin shooting again.

A Lean, Mean Taping Machine

Preventive maintenance for your camcorder can mean routine maintenance or immediate recovery from a traumatic shooting incident. In either case, it’s important to use common sense to deal with these situations. That and a little TLC will keep you camcorder in fighting, er, shooting form.

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

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