No matter how casual your interest in video, there are times you’ll want to assert dominance over your camcorder by overriding some automatic setting. To do that, you have to know your basic controls and how to use them. In the misty dawn of the home video era (15 years ago), almost all these controls were buttons (or switches or sliders or rocker arms), so we still speak of camcorder "buttons" for convenience, though all too many manual controls are now buried in the branches of screen menu trees. So, unless you’ve memorized your entire owner’s manual (a little humor there), come with us now on a pulse-quickening tour of camcorder controls.
Briefly, you want to be able to control the white balance, the exposure system, the lens, the viewfinder(s) and the electronic accessories or at least know how to do so should the need ever arise.
The white balance control matches the colors you record to the overall tint of the light in which you’re shooting (outdoors: bluish; indoors: orangish; fluorescents: don’t ask).
In most cases, the auto white-balance setting works well. In mixed-light settings (e.g. window daylight and ceiling fluorescents), you may want to switch between outdoor and fluorescent presets to see which looks more neutral. Today, some fluorescent tubes are even closer to the indoor white balance preset.
If you want to go pro, the manual white balance setting offers the closest match to your shooting light.
Your camcorder defaults to auto exposure (see the Defaults of de Camera sidebar), opening and closing a hole called the iris with changing light levels to deliver the right amount of illumination to the imaging chip.
The most common reason for adjusting exposure is to compensate for excess backlight that overwhelms the auto-exposure system and turns your foreground subject into a silhouette. You can do this in three different ways:
- Press the Backlight button for automatic compensation (quick, but crude).
- Set the exposure for the dark subject (by zooming in on auto exposure) then use the Exposure Lock button to hold that setting when you’ve zoomed back out to your original composition.
- Press the Manual button and adjust by hand for best results. Some camcorders display these adjustments as plus- (or minus-) 1, 2, 3, etc. High-end models may show the actual f-stop (iris opening size) as f/4.5, f/5.6, f/8, etc.
You can also control exposure with the shutter, the circuitry that determines how long the imaging chip is allowed to receive the light needed to build each image (standard is 1/60 second). Today, most camcorders allow you to manually increase the shutter speed to 1/125, 1/250, 1/500, etc. all the way to 1/4,000 second or even more.
Why? First, because each doubling of the shutter speed forces the iris open one f-stop to compensate for the reduction in image-building time. So, if the 1/60 shutter speed sets the iris at f/8, speeding up to 1/250 would open the iris to f/4. The wider the f-stop, the more shallow the focus, so an f/4 stop will throw the background behind your beautiful flower closeup into soft-focus, greatly improving the composition.
Second, fast shutter speeds can freeze fast motion, from a golf swing to an Indy car howling past your lens. This function is very useful for sports analysis and such, but it can create a jerky motion that’s otherwise undesirable.
Two other exposure controls deserve a quick mention. The Gain button electronically amplifies weak images shot in very low light to make them more visible. Your camcorder may have manual gain control or just a simple Gain Up function.
Finally, some very high-end camcorders have neutral density filters built in, with a button to move them into the light path. These filters reduce exposure in settings so bright that the iris alone can’t control them.
Buying Better Buttons
Because a chip-and-display system is much cheaper to build than electro-mechanical buttons, all camcorders access certain controls through on-screen menus. That’s OK for little-used functions like date setting, but inconvenient for frequently accessed controls and unacceptable for settings that must be changed as you shoot. So, when shopping for a new camcorder, make sure that at least these controls are operated by external, physical buttons or switches:
- Exposure (auto/manual)
- Focus (auto/manual)
- White balance (auto/ indoor/outdoor/fluorescent)
- Lens stabilization (on/off)
Beyond this point, the more buttons and fewer menu items, the better.
As you play with potential purchases, look (or rather, feel) very carefully for the sizes and locations of these controls. For example, some hand-grip Record buttons are uncomfortable to reach; and if the only Record control’s on the handgrip, you could find it inconvenient for shooting on a tripod.
The iris is part of the camcorder’s lens, which has three other controls as well: focus, zoom and image stabilization.
Like auto exposure, auto focus works well, but you may want to hit the Manual button to sharpen up the center of interest when the auto circuits insist on focusing elsewhere in the frame. Also, when planning a zoom-in, it’s a good idea to pre-zoom, Focus Lock the setting at full telephoto, then zoom back out to start your shot. Auto focus may not be fast enough to keep your subject sharp throughout the zoom.
You can also use the Focus Lock button to prevent the camcorder from refocusing on unimportant people or objects that come between you and the subject.
The rocker arm controlling the zoom needs no introduction, but you should find out if your zoom is multi-speed. A truly professional zoom accelerates as it starts and then decelerates to a stop. A few very high-end models have a zoom ring on the lens that permits fully manual zooming.
Finally, there’s image stabilization, the optical or electronic system that zigs when you zag to take the shakes out of your images. Some camera manufacturers suggest disabling this feature when working on a tripod, but I never turn mine off.
Some internal viewfinders permit brightness and color adjustments, but the vital finder control is the diopter adjustment. By turning it until you see the finder screen sharply, you can shoot (Hallelujah!) without glasses. For best results, twiddle the diopter ring until the display symbols on the finder screen are sharp.
External finders have their own controls, particularly brightness. But since no LCD finder is yet bright enough for easy daylight shooting, I leave mine at max and use a screen shade (which is a big improvement, by the way).
Some controls are purely electronic (or nearly so), especially the exposure programs, which manipulate both the iris and the shutter to create different effects. The Sports setting increases shutter speed and decreases the f-stop to sharpen fast action. Portrait operates similarly to soften backgrounds. Backlight, already mentioned, compensates for dark subjects against light backgrounds and Theater (or some similar label) adjusts for the bright spotlights and high contrast of stage performances.
Among other virtual buttons, the Date control is used only to set and forget the current date. Some cameras offer settable time code as well. So, if you use a second roll of 60-minute tape, you can set it to start coding at 01:00:00:00, to distinguish the code of its shots from those on the previous cassette.
And now we come to controls that should go away: in-camera effects and titles. Many camcorders still offer pseudo fades, and other transition effects. Some still include titling through a truly tedious input process. Today, even the most basic editing software includes much better versions of all these functions.
Having worked our way down from absolutely vital camcorder buttons to controls that are strictly toys, we can only say, use them well.
[Sidebar: Defaults of de Camera]
Some camcorder controls have default settings – conditions to which the unit reverts whenever you start it up. Though these settings vary somewhat from model to model, the following list is typical. When you power up your camcorder:
- White balance = automatic
- Focus = automatic
- Exposure = automatic (with no special exposure programs)
- Shutter = normal (almost always 1/60 second)
- Gain = off
- Image stabilization = on
Again, these settings are only typical. Many camcorders have other controls that can be set once and left. Examples include exposure calculation (e.g. whole-frame, center-weighted or center-spot) and digital zoom (enabled or disabled).
But don’t take these lists for granted, because every camcorder is different. If it turns out, for instance, that your model doesn’t default to the normal shutter speed, you may accidentally strobe the living daylights out of your daughter’s dance recital.
The moral: thou shalt read thy manual!