Q. I consider myself an intermediate videographer and I am extremely critical of my videos. Most people think they look great, but I have noticed that when I use a camera-mounted light, the skin colors change dramatically and make some people look either too red or very pale. I use a Frezzi light with dimmer control and I still can’t get perfect video.
A. The first thing you should try is white balancing your camcorder. Turn on your cam and light and point them at a white card. Make sure the paper is fully illuminated (i.e. doesn’t have any shadows on it) and perform a manual white balance. With many video cameras, this may be as simple as pushing a button, while some others may require you to navigate a few on-screen menus. Some camcorders do not have manual white balance, but may have a number of modes that you can select from, such as Indoor or Outdoor. With on-camera lights, an indoor setting is appropriate, even if you shoot outside at night. You can also click through the various temperatures and hunt for the one that makes the card as white as possible. The viewfinder and LCD viewscreens are usually not adequate for adjusting color, so experiment with the white balance while you monitor the output on a television. This might not be practical in the field, so you probably need to practice and learn your camcorder’s behavior.
After doing your best to set the white balance, the next important factor is exposure. As you have noticed, if the iris is too wide, it will overexpose white areas. This can be difficult to solve if your light-skinned subjects are wearing dark clothing, or vice versa. The dimmer on your light also seems to offer a solution to this problem, but a word of caution is necessary. As the light dims, the color temperature of the light also changes (the light looks orange), and this can throw the white balance off again. Instead of using the dimmer, use the camcorder’s exposure control or use diffusion (white gauze) to soften the light.
Better yet, don’t use the on-camera light at all, since it creates a very high-contrast atmosphere — a black background and an overexposed foreground. Instead, turn up the lights in the room, or move your subjects to a well-lit foyer. If you have the time and resources, even the most basic three-point lighting kit will make a huge difference.
Q. On the Fourth of July, I taped a fireworks display and was disappointed with the outcome. I got good exposure but lost the colors of the displays. Looks like an overexposure problem. Any advice on what I should do the next time?
A. The human eye is an amazing piece of machinery that functions in a wide variety of lighting conditions. It can see faint details at the darkened park, like the expressions on upturned faces ("Ooohhh") and vivid colors in the fireworks ("Aahhh") without many problems. It is going to be difficult to achieve both faint detail and color at the same time with a camcorder, however. You are going to have to experiment and make a choice, but realize that your camcorder will never be able to match what your eyes see.
In your case, you wanted more color. This means that you need to (counter intuitively) adjust your exposure to allow a bit less light in, preventing the bright fireworks from overexposing the image. When auto exposure is on and you point your camcorder at the dark sky, the shutter may slow and the aperture may open up to try and pull in as much light as possible. To prevent this, turn off the auto exposure and set it manually. Most likely, the choice you will make is to completely lose darker details, like the mortar launching into the air, in order to get the color you want.
The other important adjustment you need to make is white balance, of course. If you have full manual white balance, use your camcorder’s on-camera light and a white card. If you have to choose from presets, use the indoor option. As with exposure control, the most important setting is to make sure you turn off the auto white balance feature, which will prevent the color from shifting unnaturally on the fly.