Home Video Hints: Pushing Your Buttons

If you’re like a lot of first-time camcorder owners, you purchased a camera after hearing how fun and easy-to-use they are. Then you pulled it out of the box only to find it covered with confusing buttons. While pushing some of them may be frightening or frustrating, you should understand that they are there to help you get the most from your video shooting experience. They let you tap into the true potential of your camcorder.
Some of the buttons on your camcorder are there just to get things rolling. For example, you’re probably most familiar with the "record" button that hides under your thumb as you hold the camcorder. But there are more things that you can work with on your camcorder than that. In this article, we discuss the buttons that control focus, iris, exposure, shutter speed, image stabilization, digital zoom, titling and playback controls.
No, you don’t have to use all of these buttons every time out. But it’s important to know what they do so you can produce the best video possible with the equipment you have.
Your camcorder has a lot of fully automatic features. Sometimes, though, you want to manually control features, especially if you’re striving for a particular look to your shot. That means turning off a few of those automatic features. The first one we’ll discuss is focus.


Your camcorder’s ability to focus shots automatically is usually pretty good. There are some situations, though, when your camcorder will have trouble maintaining steady focus. This is particularly true in low light conditions, when it’s tough for your camcorder to "see." It’s also true when many different objects are passing through the frame. Your camcorder may have trouble deciding which is the main subject. The result it will go in and out of focus, trying desperately to decide on a main subject. That’s when it’s time to take control yourself. Find the button on your camcorder designated "autofocus" or "focus", and press it once. That will usually turn autofocus off. To turn it on again, simply press the button a second time.


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The automatic iris regulates the amount of light entering your camcorder so that no shot is too bright nor too dark. As with autofocus, though, situations may arise in which your camcorder’s circuitry will be unable to decide which portion of the shot to expose properly, leaving some shots too light and others too dark. Many camcorders allow you to take manual control of your iris. Select the manual setting, and turn the wheel to adjust to your lighting circumstances. In many situations you might do well to let your focus and iris adjust themselves for a setting, then turn them off to prevent drifting.

Shutter Speed

Your camcorder’s automatic shutter control works electronically in a way similar to the shutter on a still camera. Instead of regulating the duration that light hits the film, a video camera’s shutter controls the duration that light hits a CCD (charged couple device). But in general, the effect is the same. There may be situations, when shooting something moving at very high speeds for example, when you will want to control your camcorder’s shutter speed. Raise the shutter speed and you’ll shoot video with less of a motion blur. This is an excellent feature if you’ll be taking stills from the video later.
If you’re familiar with still photography, you know that increasing the shutter speed results in less light entering the lens. That’s why you may have to use manual iris control to increase the light entering the camcorder in conjunction with your camcorder’s higher shutter speed.

Image Stabilization

Many camcorders are equipped with an image stabilizer. When you hold your camcorder in your hands and zoom in on a distant subject, it’s difficult to maintain a jitter-free shot. Image stabilization works to minimize these jitters either optically by shifting glass elements in the lens to compensate for minor shake, or electronically by shifting pixels on the CCD. Just press the button to turn it on.

Digital Zoom

If you need to get really close to a distant subject, you might think to turn on your camcorder’s digital zoom. The digital zoom electronically zooms your camcorder far beyond the limits of its standard optical zoom. In theory, digital zoom is a great idea. In reality, image quality decreases as the digital zoom increases. Anything over 40x is virtually useless. You should use this feature as seldom as possible to keep your imagery crisp. It is better to move closer to a distant subject than to rely on digital zoom.

Titler/Character Generator

Many of today’s camcorders have in-camera titling features for superimposing words over what you’re shooting. Along with the on/off button for the titling feature, there may be other buttons that allow you to create the titles. They will either toggle through the alphabet to build your own or they will have a pre-designed set of titles that you can select from. Just remember to turn this feature off when you’re finished. Otherwise, you may find that your opening title gets recorded throughout the duration of your shoot.

VCR Controls

While you certainly use your camcorder for shooting, your camcorder can also play back footage. There is a whole set of buttons that control your camcorder’s VCR functionality. In most cases, they include the usual selection of VCR functions: play, rewind, fast forward, pause and stop.
Remember, though, that your camcorder cannot serve as both a camera and a VCR at the same time. You generally have to flip a switch maybe even push another button to tell your camcorder which of the two roles it will assume for the moment. That means that when you are done using your camcorder as a VCR, switch it back to camera mode before trying to shoot more footage. Otherwise your camcorder will be unable to record any additional imagery. Use caution to cue the tape at the end of the footage you’ve already recorded to avoid accidental erasure.

Be Bold with the Buttons

If you’re used to pushing only the "record" button on your camcorder, it’s easy to forget about all those other buttons you have at your disposal. They may seem complicated at first, but they let you get at the full functionality your camcorder possesses. So push a few buttons now and again at least the ones on your camcorder. You will really appreciate the results.

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