Camcorder batteries can make or break
a video shoot. While offering freedom from the nearest wall outlet,
they present their own, sometimes maddening, quirks and restrictions.
And since they’re not among the cheapest accessories you’ll ever
buy, it helps to know what you need and what’s available before
you start waving money around. Making an informed battery purchase
will pay off in more ways than one.

But besides reading up on the various
types and features of batteries, consider your own shooting habits.
For instance, if you’re not in the habit of videotaping, say,
day-long weddings, then you probably won’t need to invest in a
tripod dolly with 48 pounds of extra batteries aboard. On the
other hand, if capturing sunsets and the private lives of wildlife
are your specialties, then perhaps a solar-powered charger would
be a reasonable investment.

You want to tailor your purchase
to your individual requirements, and avoid seductive sales pitches
designed to trap the impulsive buyer.
How long do you typically
run your camcorder? Do you often use the zoom lens, fill-in lights,
or viewfinder replay? How about those convenient autofocus, fast
forward or reverse options? These all consume battery power that
could be used for straight shooting instead.

Batteries 101

Okay, so you’re hip to battery conservation.
And despite using all the standard, energy-saving ploys, you find
you still need more batteries. Time to take a look at the two
major players in the camcorder power game: lead-acid batteries
and nickel-cadmium (NiCd) batteries, often referred to as "nicads."

The basic design of lead-acid batteries
features alternating rows of lead and lead-oxide plates sitting
in a diluted sulfuric-acid gel, all sealed in an air-tight housing
to prevent leaks. Nicads consist of spiral coils of metal strips
rolled into cells. Both differ from traditional disposable batteries
in that you can charge and discharge them from 300 to 500 times.
Eventually, though, both lead-acid and nicad batteries
lose their ability to hold a charge, wearing out as completely
as disposable batteries.

When a nicad or lead-acid battery
finally calls it quits, don’t just heave it in the trash. Cadmium
and lead are environmental hazards, so you must dispose of them
properly. Some retailers such as Target, Wal-Mart or Radio Shack
will recycle camcorder batteries. You can also call the Rechargeable
Battery Recycling Corporation at 800-822-8837, or check out their
Web site (www.rbrc.com), to find the nearest recycler.

Internal Power Sources

Not all camcorder batteries are interchangeable.
Camcorder transport motors operate at specific voltages, so it’s
important to match the battery’s voltage with the camcorder’s
voltage requirement. Generally, 8mm and VHS-C camcorders require
6-volt batteries, while different VHS camcorders use batteries
in the 12, 10 and 9.6 volt range. When it comes to the type of
battery–lead-acid or nicad–you can use either. But sometimes
it’s best to stick to the same type when choosing a replacement
or spare. Luckily, most manufacturers put a label on each of
their batteries listing the camcorders the battery will work with.

You can write to your camcorder
manufacturer for replacement batteries or spares, but you may
also want to look into the wide world of accessory battery manufacturers.
Companies that make standard replacement batteries for a wide
range of camcorders include Duracell, Maxell, Sunpak, Lenmar,
NRG, Cool-Lux and others, with prices usually ranging from $35-$80.


Getting the Lead Out

Lead-acid batteries don’t cost as
much to manufacture as nicads and so are usually less expensive
to buy. Though their low energy density means you pack around
more weight for the same amount of power you’d pull from a lighter
nicad, lead-acid batteries are durable and free of the infamous
nicad voltage depression. More on that below.

As lead-acid batteries discharge
during use, their output voltage drops at a slow, steady rate,
which makes it easy to estimate how much power remains. But this
law of diminishing returns also means the faster you use a lead-acid
battery, the less power it gives you. Rapid charging or discharging
tends to lower the overall power available between recharges.
To get the most out of lead-acid batteries, store them fully charged,
and charge them periodically if they’re going into long-term storage.

Nicad Batteries for All Seasons

Appreciated for their light weight
and long operating time, nicad batteries are widely available.
They maintain a steady voltage during use, which drops quite sharply
at the end of their discharge. Though they cost more than lead-acid
batteries, nicads recharge readily and are more flexible about
taking quick charges. They are, however, prone to certain problems
that other battery types don’t suffer from. Temperature extremes
disagree with nicads; they perform sluggishly in cold temperatures
and may refuse to accept a full charge when overheated.

Given the higher costs of nicad
batteries, you might want to consider investing in one of the
fast chargers available on the market, and one extra nicad.
Assuming a one-hour discharge for the average battery, and ditto
that for a fast charger, you’ll theoretically be able to shoot
continuously with just two batteries, recharging one while you’re
using the other.

Some camcorder batteries come with
extra features that make them easier to use. Sony, for example,
makes the NP-77HD battery ($130) that includes an LED charge status
feature with readouts in increments of 20%. Sunpak’s RB-80UL ($120)
also includes an LED display, as well as a switching mechanism,
making this battery compatible with most 8mm and VHS-C camcorders.

Also available is a self-charging
nicad battery ($49-69) from Aztec Video. Compatible with 8mm,
6-volt camcorders, this battery features a retractable plug that
fits into any standard electrical wall outlet. An internal microchip
regulates the charging process, preventing overcharging.

The Great Nicad Voltage Depression

Nicad batteries sit at the center
of an ongoing wrangle regarding their curious habit of voltage
depression, often misnamed "memory."
Voltage depression is a slight dip in voltage that occurs, at
first, near the end of a nicad’s discharge. The dip sends the
battery’s voltage below the camcorder’s normal cutoff voltage,
and the camcorder automatically stops. No big deal, since it occurs
at the end of a discharge cycle.

However, as you repeatedly charge
the battery, the dip moves toward the beginning of the discharge,
disrupting the normal length of the discharge cycle. The camcorder
shuts off even though there’s still plenty of charge capacity
left in the battery. Eventually the phenomenon results in a growing
pile of finicky nicads and, more often than not, a frustrated
videographer.

The problem stems from overcharging,
which happens when a charger–usually an older, cheaper model–fails
to sense a charge completion, or else the user leaves the battery
on the charger longer than the manufacturer suggests. Voltage
depression also occurs when you place a battery designed to accept
a slow (12-hour) charge onto a quick (2-hour) charger.

You can cure afflicted nicads by
discharging the battery fully before recharging. Ambico sells
a Model V-0908 BatteryLifesaver ($60) that reconditions and charges
6-volt, 8mm camcorder batteries from a wide range of manufacturers.
The company also has a model V-0912 ($40) for VHS 12-volt camcorders.
Lenmar Enterprises offers the QuickCharger Plus ($90), an AC/DC
battery charger and reconditioner that discharges, then charges,
most 8mm and VHS-C batteries. Its automatic shutoff prevents overcharging.
Alternatively, Aztec Video sells a self-refreshing battery ($49-$69)
compatible with most camcorders.


Up-and-coming Batteries

Not as widely available as lead-acid
or nicad batteries, two newer contenders offer some promising
features. Nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries run the same 1.2
volts per cell as nicad batteries but supply 20% more power. They’re
good for about 500 charge/discharge cycles. NiMH batteries will
lose about 25% of their charge if you leave them sitting idle
for a month. So far, they cost slightly more than nicads; Duracell
sells their NiMH batteries for around $65.

Lithium-ion batteries generate 3.6
volts per cell. They recharge in an hour, a quantum improvement
over some of the 12-hour varieties. And voltage depression is
not an issue with these batteries. Their self-discharge rate of
only about 10 percent per month is the lowest of any rechargeable
battery available. Problem is, not all camcorders will accept
them. Sony and Canon sell accessory lithium-ion batteries for
their newer camcorders. Like the NiMH batteries, lithium-ion batteries
are still quite expensive–ranging from about $80 for the smaller
models to about $200 for the larger.

Charge It

For extended shoots or the luxury
of enough power whenever you want it, a combination of fast chargers,
external power packs or power belts can add hours of discharge
time to the standard internal battery.

Fast chargers are designed to make
an end run around the usual 12-hour recharging time. Though
batteries as a rule prefer to recharge slowly, some newer ones
can handle fast charging. Be sure your batteries fall in this
category before you subject them to the life-shortening fast lane.
Lead-acid batteries generally can’t take quick charges. Nicad
batteries in particular build up heat while charging, releasing
gas in the process. If the battery doesn’t have a self-sealing
vent, charging could create a hole in the cell or even an explosion.

NRG Research offers a number of
chargers for different needs. The Intelliquick Fast Charger ($224)
provides 1-hour charge times for Power Pro cells or 2-1/2 hours
for Power-MAX. This charger features standard, fast and maintenance
modes. The Solar Charging Series ($223-$338) allows you to charge
batteries without benefit of conventional power sources. These
chargers consist of stable, high-efficiency semi-crystalline silicon
solar cells laminated between sturdy, placemat-sized sheets of
EVA vinyl and Tedlar. The automotive-minded may find the
Car Charger ($158) appealing. It allows quick charges while driving
to a location, and you can use them even when the vehicle is not
running. Also featured are automatic shutoff and an LED charge
status indicator.

The reasonably priced PowerMax Pulse
Charge ($79) will charge two batteries, reconditioning them first
if needed, in half the time of traditional units. It works with
most 6-volt Sony, Canon, RCA/Hitachi, JVC and Panasonic batteries.

Power Up: Packs and Belts

Power packs provide convenient auxiliary
batteries that work in conjunction with your regular camcorder
battery. Typically either pocket-sized or fastening around the
waist, power packs can weigh 4-10 pounds, sometimes more. They
consist of dozens of "C" or "D" size nicad
cells stitched into a pouch, which may also include a built-in
charger or retractable power cord.

Among this breed is Sima’s PowerMax
Power Pocket ($49), which holds three of your own 6-volt batteries.
A switch allows you to transfer from your camcorder’s internal
battery to one of the spares while continuing to shoot. Bescor
has the XL-66 Extended Power Battery ($180), a pocket-sized pack
weighing 2.2 pounds. It runs the equivalent of half a dozen Sony
NP-55 batteries.

Markertek offers the PRB-10 ($94),
a 10-pound, lead-acid battery capable of providing ten hours of
discharge time. For double the money but not double the weight,
the PRB-20 ($188) power belt also contains lead-acid cells, providing
20 hours of discharge time against a 16-pound schlep.

NRG sells a couple of mid-range
power packs. Their 880 Power-Pro+ ($324-354) features individual
removable packs and dual outputs that allow you to power a camcorder
and accessory simultaneously. The Campak series is available in
12-volt ($169-184) or 13.2-volt ($219) units. These nicad batteries
are capable of 2-6 hours of discharge time and only weigh 2.3
pounds. Each battery comes with a custom case and an overnight
charger.

Remember, when you’re buying a battery,
you’re buying for yourself. Pay attention to typical shooting
situations to get an idea of your camcorder habits. Then figure
out what works best for you and your equipment–lead-acid batteries
or nicads, a couple of spares or a power pack, standard chargers
or fast. Take care of your batteries and they’ll take care of
you.

Taran March is a freelance writer
and video enthusiast.

Sidebar: Battery Manufacturers

Ambico

145 East 57th Street

New York, NY 11101

800-231-0031

Aztec Video

4347 Cranwood Park Way

Cleveland, OH 44128

800-955-5505

Bescor Video Accessories

244 Route 109

Farmingdale, NY 11735

516-420-1717

Canon

One Canon Plaza

Lake Success, NY 11042

800-828-4040

Cool-Lux

409 Calle San Pablo, #105

Camarillo, CA 93012

805-482-4820

Duracell

Berkshire Corporate Park

Bethel, CT 06801

203-796-4000

JVC

41 Slater Drive

Elmwood Park, NJ 07407

800-252-5722

Lenmar Enterprises

31328 Via Colinas, #102

Westlake Village, CA 91362

800 424-2703

Markertek Video Supply

#4 High Street

Saugerties, NY 12477

914-246-3036

Maxell

22-08 Route 208 South

Fair Lawn, NJ 07410

201-794-5900

NRG Research

840 Rogue River Hwy., Bldg. 144

Grants Pass, OR 97527

541-471-6256

Sony

One Sony Drive

Park Ridge, NJ 07656

800-282-2848

Sima Products

140 Pennsylvania Ave., #5

Oakmont, PA 15139

412-828-3700

Sunpak-Tocad America

300 Webro Road

Parsippany, NJ 07054

201 428-9800, Ext. 114

This list is only a sampling of battery
manufacturers; it is not intended to be comprehensive.

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