Home Video Hints: Ready or Not!

When the peacock strutted into our rural clearing, my wife Sue was prepared for it. (I can only explain this improbable visit by saying that we live in real-life Northern Exposure country, albeit in the Lower 48.) Sue grabbed her Advantix point ‘n’ pusher and captured a whole bunch of shots including the one pictured here.

As for me, I erupted in a farcical frenzy like a group of circus clowns battling a center-ring "fire." Upstairs for my camcorder. Dresser? No; closet? got it! Whoa: dead battery – where’s the spare? Check. Eeee: only ten minutes of juice left. Downstairs and out the door. Line up the first shot and… what’s that symbol in the finder? No tape. Tape, tape! Where’d I put the blasted tape??? Back up to the bedroom. Gotcha! Wait a minute: this tape’s half-used. What’s on it? No label; can’t risk paving over old shots. Tape, tape! TAPE!!! By now the contents of my dresser and closet were spraying all over the bedroom. By the time I’d clawed the wrapping off a fresh cassette and pelted back outside again, the peacock was strolling disdainfully into the forest while Sue holstered her little camera like a smoking pistol.

Do I have to point out the moral? If you’re a sometime shooter, your gear may lie around for weeks or even months between outings; but when you need it, you need it right now; so like a good scout, be prepared! As a casual hobbyist, you don’t need to make a big deal out of it – just prep your outfit once and you’ll be ready to start shooting with zero notice.

The ducks you’ll need to line up include your camcorder, batteries, tapes and accessories. Let’s walk the course together.


Camcorder? Well, Duh! Obviously you have a camcorder; but does it have a single home where you can always find it without tearing up the joint as I did? Rule one is to stow all your gear together in a designated video corral.

Next, is it set to go? To make the camera ready for Shoot #2, the trick is to set it up at the end of Shoot #1, before putting it away. Specifically,


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  •  Remove the battery for charging (unless your outfit lacks an external charger). Batteries will occasionally dissolve into putrescent slime when left inside appliances, making expensive messes.

  •  Clean the lens (see the accompanying lens checklist).

  •  Clean the entire camera with a soft dry cloth. Pay special attention to the rear element of the internal viewfinder and the delicate surface of the external LCD screen.

    Then stow the camera away from extremes of heat, cold and humidity (a bedroom closet works great).


    Ideally, batteries should be charged immediately after use, removed from the charger as soon as replenished, then topped off yet again prior to the following shoot. However, modern chargers have circuitry that prevents overcharging and other uglies, so I leave my two batteries in their charging saddles indefinitely. They awaken occasionally and sip a little nourishment, like hibernating bear cubs.

    Incidentally, number your batteries so you can keep track of which ones are used, charged or whatever. Standard VHS tapes for VCRs come with peel-and-stick numbers, so steal a couple to differentiate your power sources.


    Speaking of tapes, it’s well worth a little time to prep them beforehand. Begin by removing them from their plastic shrouds for quick access when that peacock shows up again. Put blank labels on several tapes before you’re ready to use them and pre-number them so they don’t get mixed up. A simple 1, 2, 3 system is fine.

    Next, the mysterious process called "blacking the tape." If you plan to inflict an uncut show on your family, you might skip this part; but if you do any true editing, pre-blacking tapes is both a time saver and a protection. It works like this: in a quiet spot, plug your camcorder into AC shore power and insert a new tape. With the lens cap covering the lens, press Record and tiptoe away. The camera will stop (and sometimes rewind) when the tape is fully recorded.

    What’s the point? In all digital and some analog formats, this process lays down a time code address for every frame on the tape, so that each frame will be identifiable by your editing software even if it’s blank. Also, playing back a few minutes of black tape will generally reveal any defects caused by tape stretch, etc. before you record precious footage on it. B.T.W. don’t forget to rewind the blacked tape, if necessary.


    Since you may fall any place on the spectrum from Puritan simplicity to toy store excess, we’ll try to rank these ancillary widgets in order of importance.

    One essential add-on is a bag to house your kit. A padded fanny pack works great for my sweet little Canon DV. I rotate it to the front for shooting, changing tapes or swapping batteries. I never have to set it down and worry about it, and it papooses behind me when not needed. Bigger outfits might need a gadget bag instead. I prefer lotsa pockets to hook and looped dividers, but hey, it’s your call.

    Almost as vital is at least one filter (if your lens has a front thread to hold them). A clear glass "transparent lens cap" is ridiculously cheap insurance for your expensive lens. If it gets scratched or salt-sprayed or sandblasted, less than $20 sets you up with a brand new one. Scratch your lens and you’ll be out a far heftier amount.

    One level up is a tripod (my light-duty Vivitar cost less than 50 bucks). Even with lens stabilization systems, there’s nothing like a platform to shoot from; and if you do panoramas or special effects, they’re a must-have.

    So far, you knew all this already – but have you given any thought to headphones? You wouldn’t even think of recording video without a viewfinder to see what you’re getting – think of headphones as a viewfinder for your ears. As you move beyond the dewy newbie stage, you’ll get tired of having great images compromised by rotten audio. Here too, $20 is plenty for a good lightweight pair. Even the flimsy pair that came with your Walkman will do the trick.

    When the video hobby really hooks you, you’ll want to add just two more items to your kit: a reflector and an external microphone.

    Reflectors are great for filling deep shadows in bright sunlight (and they help involve family members by making them the video crew). I like the white fabric hoops that open to four times their folded size. They’re light and cheap. Mine are doubly cost effective: when not effecting my lighting design, they’re shading the dashboard of my pickup truck.

    External microphones push us out to the edge of casual video shooting. Even so, there are three types you might consider if you lean toward certain types of programs. Narrow-pickup shotgun mikes are great for sports, shows and other distant subjects. Clip-on necktie mikes are great for interviews, lectures and classroom demonstrations. For meetings around tables or shows on auditorium stages, flat plate mikes work great. All three are available from local electronics stores or from our mail order pages, and decent units can be had for under $100.

    So there’s the scoop on video preparedness. If I take my own advice I won’t be caught flat-footed the next time. Where I live it could be a bear, a bobcat or even a Bigfoot.

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