Home Video Hints: A Videographer's Family Vacation

It’s time to dig out the khaki shorts, dust off the pith helmet, polish the old puttees and set forth on that grueling annual trek: the summer vacation. And, to keep your camels or elephants from collapsing under the weight of your junk, you need to give careful thought to your video outfit. So, let’s inventory the usual and customary parts of a location video kit (a vacation is really just one shooting location after another). Since most casual shooters travel light, you won’t want everything on your ready-for-anything Swiss Army list. Just use it to select gear that fits your style and this year’s vacation destination.

Camera Gear

If your kit won’t include a camcorder, you can safely stop reading here. Once past that obvious essential, be sure to take its remote control useful for difficult camera positions or for getting yourself in the picture.

Add-on lens converters are useful too. I don’t need a tele-adapter, but I love my high-quality wide-angle converter for dramatic scenes and architectural shots. Lens filters are a must, especially the "transparent lens cap" filter (UV, 1A or skylight) that keeps water, dust and greasy fingers off your expensive lens.

Consider carrying at least one neutral density filter (ND6 or ND9) to force your aperture open wider to soften the background in portrait and flower shots. You might like a polarizer too, to make blue skies more dramatic and control bright reflections. Since a polarizer also reduces light an average of about two stops, you can use it as an ad hoc neutral density filter when traveling light.

Lighting and Sound

If your camcorder lacks a built-in micro light, you may want to take a small unit that mounts on your camera’s accessory shoe. Your camcorder will capture an image in almost any light, but an on-camera light can add just enough punch to turn a yucky under-lit shot into a good one.

Travel with a white reflector (which is easy on road trips if you use a cloth sunshade for your car). These contortionist disks can be collapsed into hoops a foot wide and an inch thick for stuffing just about anywhere. Seek out the plain white cloth kind to the silvered fabric type, because you can also use them as "silks" between sun and subject, for a glowing, shadowless look.

On the audio side, headphones are so essential that we shouldn’t call them accessories. Think of them as a viewfinder for the ears. Crummy audio may be the most common problem with vacation footage, and how will you know what your sound quality is like if you can’t hear what you’re taping? Purists like full-ear designs that exclude outside noise; but the ultra-light Walkman style phones are fine for casual use.

For the best sound you can carry an external microphone. Place a hard-wired mike right at the sound source and it won’t suffer from radio interference and transmission problems. (Unless you spend at least 200 smackers, an external shotgun mike may not sound much better than the camcorder’s built-in job.)

Power Supplies

Advertised battery capacities are like EPA mileage estimates: grossly inflated in real-world conditions. Two is the minimum practical number and you may do better with three: one in the camcorder, one in the bullpen and one in the charger.

And of course, that charger is a must (unless your batteries recharge inside the camcorder). Many charger cords end in wall wart boxes that convert house power to low voltage DC current. These infuriating black bricks a) cover adjacent outlets so they can’t be used and/or b) work loose and fall off because of their own weight. To avoid these hassles, shorten an extension cord to two feet — just long enough to move the wall wart down to the floor below the wall outlet.

For road trips, consider a cigarette lighter plug cord for charging batteries in the car. The extra outlet in my minivan turns off with the ignition, so I rewired it as an unswitched power source. Since battery chargers draw no current when the batteries are full, there’s little chance of running down the car battery. As an alternative, you can use as 12v/120v inverter to run your AC charger. Small models are available wherever you find cell phone accessories.

In many countries, you’ll need a converter to step 240-volt power down to 120 volts. Several types are available, so read their specs before choosing. A brute suitable for a hair dryer may not work well with a battery charger.

Even so, converter plugs are a must. (As a rule, for every six countries that you visit you’ll need seven different kinds of plugs.) Converter packages always tell you which plugs to buy for which country.

Tripods and Accessories

How much camera support you haul depends on the kind of trip you’re taking. A lightweight tripod is ideal, but a monopod also works well, especially the type that serves as an ultra-light hiking staff.

Even in bare-bones mode, carry an eight-inch micropod that you can set on a wall, a table and many other effective surfaces. Some clever versions include long hook-and-loop straps so you can lash them to poles, posts or even saplings.

Lens-cleaning supplies are a must. A full kit includes a blower bulb with a brush on the business end, a jug of lens cleaning fluid, and a pack of special lens tissues. I’m fond of my LensPen, which has a ball-point-size barrel concealing a brush on one end and a soft rubber shaft with a flat pad tip at the other. The brush disperses dust and the pad erases oil and grit.

You’ll want a bag to stow all your stuff. A classic gadget bag works well, but I prefer a fanny pack.

What About Post-Production?

If your trip is a long one, you may want to whip up a quick show for friends and family, or just get a head start on editing. You can carry a laptop fitted with editing software and a CD burner that can archive short programs (and any travelogue that won’t fit on a CD in MPEG-2 format is too long). You may lust for a DVD burner, but it might be best to resist until the format wars are over and prices float down from the stratosphere. If your camcorder has a docking station, lug it along with you to simplify editing.

Last but not least, there are cables. If you do edit, a camera-to-laptop FireWire connection is required. And whether you edit or not, you might want a composite analog audio and video out cable so you can show your footage on a standard TV.

Good shooting!

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