It's easy for first-time camcorder owners to be intimidated by all of the buttons and controls that seem to sprout from every recess and surface of a new camcorder. Believe me, if you don't know how to focus, adjust your iris or when to select a different shutter speed, you are not alone. In this column, we will give all you beginners an overview of the various buttons, controls, dials and knobs common to camcorders.
Power & Record Buttons
Somewhere on the camcorder, there is a power switch. This switch often includes a save, standby or neutral position so that the camera goes into a power save mode when not recording, to preserve battery life. If your camcorder goes into the standby or save mode, simply push the standby button to power it back up. Power switches sometimes have a "lock" feature that prevents you from turning the camera on accidentally. To disengage this lock, press in the power switch to move it. If yor camera shoots to videotape, the power switch might also be part of the switch that changes the mode of the camcorder from camera to playback.
All camcorders have a record button, of course. This button is usually red and is usually located where your thumb sits when holding the camcorder in your right hand. Some camcorders also have a record button on top or in the front for easier access when using the camera with a tripod. The record button starts and stops recording while in camera mode. On some cameras, the record button also acts as a record/pause button when your camcorder is in the playback mode.
The buttons, knobs or dials that control the lens and the picture are perhaps the most important controls on the camera. As a beginner, you may tend to let the camera do the work in Auto mode. However, as you get used to your camcorder and do more shooting, you may want to switch it to manual so that you can take greater control of your focus.
The focus button or dial is usually located on or near the lens but, on some camcorders, it is on the side of the casing. By setting the camera for automatic focus, you let your camera do the focusing, sending out an infrared beam, computing the distance and setting the lens. This sounds great, but in practice, there are many problems with it. Anything that moves across the lens will cause it to change focus and, even though your subject may not change position, the camera is constantly checking the focus and changing it, this is what the industry calls "breathing". This constant check and rechecking of the focus, causes your picture to drift in and out of focus and is a major drain on your battery.
If you are not comfortable focusing manually, let the camera focus automatically, then switch to manual. This effectively locks the focus until you change it again. Some camcorders allow you to hold the manual focus button down so that the camera focuses using its auto function. Then, when you release the button the camera enters the manual focus again so that it won't auto-fluctuate.
The zoom control is usually a couple of buttons, a slider or a rocker switch on top of the camera. These buttons have the letters W for Wide (zoom out) and T for Telephoto (zoom in). You can also think of these as aWay and Towards. These buttons change the focal length of the optical system, which controls how close or far away your subject looks. The zoom can be a very helpful feature, but be careful not to overuse it. Its primary use should be in setting the image size before you begin recording; try not to zoom during recording. Recorded zooms often don't look very good unless your camcorder has a variable speed zoom and you practice a lot using it. It's also not a natural eye movement, so your audience starts looking for the space you're zooming to, and might not take in the entire scene.
Some camcorders have an iris or aperture control dial. The iris controls the amount of light that enters the camera. By turning the dial, you can make the image brighter or darker. Aperture is measured in f-stops (e.g. f/1.8 – f/16), with larger numbers indicating smaller openings. Some camcorders do not have explicit iris controls and instead adjust the overall exposure through some combination of iris and electronic amplification (gain).
Manual aperture control can be handy when your subject is standing against a bright background. The camera automatically reads the scene as being bright, so it closes the iris, making your subject very dark. By turning the iris control dial, you can make your subject brighter (with the background likely becoming overexposed). Many cameras have an explicit backlight button that may help you do this semi-automatically. You can avoid using the backlight button if you watch your backgrounds and change your shooting location. Always try to place your subject so that the background is a little darker than the subject. You can usually make your subject brighter by turning him so he almost faces the sun. You can also reduce the brightness of the background by zooming in on your subject.
Fundamentally, shutter speed controls the amount of light coming into the camera, with faster shutter speeds letting in less light. Faster speeds also decrease the amount of blur for fast moving subjects. This comes in very handy when you slow the video down in your editor. Without the shutter speed control, the slowed-down video would show blurred motion. By increasing the shutter speed, the motion will be crystal clear, even if the image is paused.
The one problem with higher shutter speeds is that it decreases the amount of light that enters the lens. If shooting outdoors at midday, this is not much of a problem, as the sun provides a lot of light. Indoors, however, you will have to add light if you want to use the high-speed shutter function.
The white balance button is a necessary feature on a camcorder. This button sets the electronics of the camera so that they see colors accurately. Surprisingly perhaps, different kinds of light sources (fluorescent, the sun, incandescent bulbs) produce slightly different colors of light. To use the white balance button, point your camera at a white piece of paper or cloth after you set up your shot. Press the white balance button and you'll see an icon in the viewfinder blink off and on. When the camera is white balanced, it will stop blinking. Make sure you white balance every time you change position or light sources. Watch out for a subtle, periodic cycling of automatic white balance under fluorescent lights, especially when using slower shutter speeds.
Most camcorders have basic playback controls built into them, either within the camera's button controls or in a menu. These controls include Rewind, Fast forward, Play, Pause and Stop. You might also find a record review button that you can press to check what you just recorded. When you press this button, the camcorder rewinds the video and plays back your last few seconds of footage. The camera does not have to be in the playback setting to do this, making it a very handy function.
We've covered the most common camcorder buttons, but your camcorder may have a few more buttons. Read over your manual and experiment using the different settings. If you've had your camcorder for a while, but have only shot in auto mode, it may be time to take more control of your camcorder. Have fun and enjoy making springtime videos.
[Sidebar: Direct Focus]
On still cameras and DSLRs, the focus ring is often mechanical, and a turn actuates a direct change in the position of the optics. On almost all camcorders, the focus ring is not mechanical. Instead, the movement of the focus ring by your hand translates into an electronic signal that then translates into the movement of the lens. This makes the focus ring seem mushy and unresponsive to changes.
Camera designers are faced with a dilemma: too many buttons can be baffling, yet too few restrict a videographer's freedom. Design engineers have attempted to solve this issue by putting the most commonly used controls on the body of the camera and placing seldom-used items in electronic menus. More advanced cameras tend to have more buttons, while simpler point-and-shoot models tend to have more menus. If your camera doesn't have a button that is listed in this article, check the on-screen menus.