Battery Care

When you buy a new camcorder, you probably don’t think too much about its power supply

system, but the care and feeding of batteries is perhaps the biggest single factor in your

camcorder’s ease of use. If you’re keeping your present outfit, then you’ve already got

whatever power supply came with it. This quick review of batteries can help you choose your

next camcorder, while reducing battery hassles with your current one (no pun intended). And

multiple batteries are highly recommended for any outfit. We’ll look at types of batteries,

methods of keeping them charged and strategies for using them.

Battery Types

In the dim and distant past (a couple years ago), camcorder batteries came in five different species.

Now, lead acid bricks and drugstore AA alkalines are about gone and even nickel-cadmium

(NiCd) batteries are obsolescent (but see the nearby sidebar). Today, we’re down to mostly

nickel metal hydride (NiMH) and lithium ion (Li-Ion) models.

Both types have a good weight to power ratio: that is, they can store and deliver more

(longer) power than older types of the same size. They also keep a steady voltage level

through more of their discharge cycle. Older battery types could drop below the voltage

required by the camcorder even though there was plenty of juice left in them.

Both types are long lasting, though Li-Ion designs are the true long-distance champs. A word

Charge!

Obviously, batteries discharge during use and you have to tank them up again. Some

camcorders still charge batteries internally, but many models come with an external charger.

If you’re shopping for that new camcorder, check its charging system carefully, since an

external charger will allow you to keep shooting with one camcorder battery while the other is

charging.

First, ensure that you can charge camcorder batteries via 12-volt car cigarette plugs as well as

120-volt wall power. Holidays, picnics, weddings just about every kind of event involves

driving someplace, sooner or later. Many campers and RVers live on 12-volt DC exclusively.

Drive time is an ideal time to charge camcorder batteries, especially if your system includes quick charge

capability.

"Quick charge" typically means that the charger works very rapidly, often

replenishing a camcorder battery in one hour or less. But on some appliances, it’s just a selectable

mode that provides a quick-and-dirty juice-up, rather than a fully programmed recharge.

You see, batteries are filled like gas tanks: quickly at first, more cautiously when the

tank is nearly full, and in short trickles when you top off the fill (even though the sign

on the pump says not to). A properly programmed charging system does the same thing and

delivers power longer during the battery’s next use. It also prolongs its working life

overall.

After 12-volt operation and programmed recharging, the next feature to look for is

multiple battery capacity. A few chargers will juice up two bricks at once, which is a great

time saver for power users (pun intended).

Whether buying a new system or using your old one, you need to know when to charge your

batteries. Different people have different theories about this, but the following procedure

is safe and effective:

  • Recharge a spent battery as soon as possible after use. While this isn’t critical,

    shallower charges of Li-Ion batteries put less stress on the battery than a deep full

    charge. Besides, you never know when you might meet Elvis.

  • Do not leave the battery in the charger after the indicator says it’s fully

    replenished. (Don’t leave the battery in the camcorder either.) Store the battery at room

    temperature. Stashing it in the fridge to slow battery drain is pointless if you…

  • Top up the battery again, just before your next shooting session, to compensate for

    power slowly lost while the battery was on the shelf.

  • Unless you’re using old NiCds (see sidebar) it’s not necessary to "condition"

    a battery by discharging it down to one volt before recharging it. A periodic full discharge

    is not required for lithium-based batteries and, in fact, a partial re-charge produces less

    wear than a full charge.

Finally, don’t expect even the most tenderly nurtured batteries to last forever.

Each time a battery is recharged, it accepts a minutely smaller amount of power than the

previous time, until eventually the poor baby is pooping out after ten minutes of shooting.

If you’re a weekend warrior taping birthdays and vacations, expect your batteries to last

for years. If you shoot weddings professionally, budget for frequent replacements. One

manufacturer suggests that its batteries will last for 400-800 charges, although we find

that range to be a little too broad to be useful.

Perhaps I’m paranoid, but manufacturers do change battery designs from one camera to

the next, and they do eventually stop supporting their oldest models. For that reason, I

bought more batteries than I ever use at one time, so that each requires fewer recharges per

year and therefore lasts longer.

Power as you Shoot

How many batteries do you really have to have? That depends on many factors. The older

the bricks, the faster they quit. The more you shoot per hour, the more you need.

The trick is to compare your charger speed to your shooting demands. For instance, I

typically blow through a battery twice as fast as my charger can resuscitate it. For this

reason, I run three batteries, starting every session with all three charged. When the first

is empty, I stick it in the charger and by the time the next two are shot, the first is

ready again. That way, I have the equivalent of four batteries per session. In my case, that

gives me an honest 2.5 hours of shooting time, which is more than enough.

Your needs will certainly be different, but you should have at least one spare battery for

backup. Remember that battery capacity ratings are about as realistic as EPA gas mileage

figures. If the manufacturer promises 60 minutes, plan on 40 to start, slowly tapering down

to 15 minutes before you replace that battery.

If you do shoot a lot, consider an external battery pack: either a block that you clip on

your belt or sling from your shoulder, or even a belt. You can find models for many

camcorders (especially professional three-chip models) and many allow you to power an

external light as well. Even if you use the built-in camera light, you’ll have ample power

to blaze away without compromising your shooting time.

No matter how many units you run, you want to make each one last as long as possible; so

here are some tips for conserving battery power. First, never use a built-in camcorder light

unless you absolutely have to. Lights love juice like mosquitoes love blood.

Next, don’t leave your camcorder on standby for any length of time, especially if you’re

using auto exposure and focus. Remember: your unit goes right on adjusting the aperture and

focus whether you’re shooting or not and each adjustment is made by an electric motor

powered by your battery. Even when actually recording, you’ll conserve juice if you can

shift one or both controls to manual. This can apply to image stabilization as well, so plop

that camera on a tripod and turn off the stabilization.

Another big power drain is the zoom lens, which is always motor-driven. Try to avoid lots of

zooms in shots (they look amateurish anyway) and when you re-frame by zooming, pre-visualize

your new composition so that you can zoom right to it, rather than hunting around for

it.

Also, remember that batteries give up quicker in cold weather. When shooting on the slopes,

keep spare batteries as close to your warm self as your pockets permit. If you won’t be

shooting for a few minutes, remove the battery already in the camcorder and get it toasty as

well. When you replace it, you’ll get quite a few more minutes out of it.

So: look for lithium ion designs when shopping for new gear, keep your batteries topped up

properly, carry enough to keep shooting and don’t expect them to last forever. And that’s

about it.

[Sidebar: Third Party]

Although there is no reason to expect that third party

manufacturers of batteries (e.g. Lenmar, Bescor, Power 2000) should be of any lower quality

than the batteries that come from the manufacturer, carefully read your camera’s

documentation before you decide to buy an aftermarket option. In some cases, using any other

brand of battery may void your warranty.

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