Battery Basics

Everyone who has a camcorder has at least one battery. But not all are created equal and knowing which kind of battery and how to best take care of it can be the difference between getting the shot and running to an outlet.

Does this sound familiar? You're running out of daylight but you only have one more shot to grab before you call it a day. There are still two ticks left on your camera's battery indicator and then suddenly everything goes black! A dead battery on your camcorder and no charged spare in your bag means no shot. Knowing more about the type of batteries on the market and how they work will allow you to find the right one for your needs and hopefully keep you from missing that golden moment..

What is this Little Thing?

Everyone knows what a battery is right? Okay, before reading on, see if you can come up with a definition for the word. You have 10 seconds. 10… 9… 8…

Okay, time's up. Coming up with the correct definition was probably more difficult than you thought, right? Put simply, a battery can be any kind of tool that stores energy for later use. However, in this context, the word battery refers to any electrochemical mechanism that uses two electrodes – an anode and a cathode – connected via an electrolyte, that converts chemical energy into electricity. .

Eenie, Meenie, Minie, Moe.

There are a number of dependable batteries on the market. As for manufacturers, it's difficult to call one better than another. Knowing which type of battery best suits your needs will allow you to make the right choice, at the right price.

When thinking about your next battery purchase, there are three different battery types you will want to consider, NiCd, NiMH, and Li-ion.

  • NiCd — Nickel Cadmium: is an older cell technology, however it has a good weight to energy ratio and a good service lifetime, which makes it a good choice for portable devices. A drawback to the NiCd battery type is it is well-known for suffering memory effect. Therefore, it is best to let nickel cadmium batteries completely discharge before recharging.
    * "Memory effect," more accurately described as voltage depression, refers to the understanding that when a battery is not completely discharged between recharging cycles, the battery "remembers" the shortened energy cycle and delivers a reduced run time. Voltage depression does not mean your battery has low storage capacity nor will it permanently damage your battery. Fully discharging and then recharging the battery will often correct the problem.
  • NiMH — Nickel Metal Hydride: is the most common battery type available on today's market. While other cell types are more popular because of their ability to hold a charge, NiMH cells are relatively inexpensive to produce and that low production cost transfers to you, the consumer. While NiMH cell types do experience memory effect, it is not nearly as prevalent in this type as it is in the NiCd batteries. NiMH batteries can also be charged many more times than NiCd batteries.
  • Li-ion — Lithium Ion: is one of the most recent advances in battery cell types now on the commercial market. Advances with Li-ion cell types make these batteries lighter than their counterparts, saving users the physical wear-and-tear of transporting and using heavier battery types. Additionally, the Li-ion cell type provides more power and suffers no real problems with memory effect. As for price, advanced engineering costs associated with the lithium ion technology means a much higher cost for you, the consumer.

When used under normal conditions (i.e. no extreme heat, moisture, or excessive physical abuse), any of these cell types will provide you 2 to 3 years of dependable operation..

Smart Batteries

So, you've been shooting out in the field for most of the day. You'd like to continue uninterrupted but are unsure about which one of your batteries has the most charge. In the old days you might swap-out batteries on your camera to reveal which one is up to the task. However, many batteries today are now equipped with complex "fuel gauging" technology that allows users to read a built-in lighted meter that indicates how much battery life remains on the current charge.

Batteries that utilize fuel gauges are more expensive than those without, but some consider the increased user friendliness worth the extra cost.

While they are efficient mechanisms, no battery can hold a charge indefinitely. Just like single use batteries, rechargeable batteries, when left unused for long periods, will de-charge on their own. As previously stated, to avoid problems with voltage depression it is best to de-charge and then recharge or "cycle" your battery. You might think that in order to de-charge the battery you have to use it until it quite simply quits or pay more for a battery charger/de-charger (sometimes marketed as battery conditioners). While those solutions ensure a full de-charge, depending on what you're doing at the time, that former scenario could prove to be rather inconvenient and the latter is more expensive. While it's best to cycle your batteries at least once every month to ensure maximum performance, you do not have to necessarily be using your battery to make sure it de-charges. You can leave it unused for a long period of time and achieve the same results. When you aren't using your batteries, make sure that they have attained a full charge and keep them stored in a cool, dry place..

Alternative Fuel "Sell"

With all the talk about new ways to energize the country, the potential doesn't stop at the car in your driveway. Someday, you may walk into your local retailer and purchase a handy little fuel cell for your home video camera. In fact, if current research is any indication, fuel cells that use methanol as their primary renewable source of energy could be available for portable consumer devices as early as 2007 or 2008.

While these new sources of energy pack up to 60 percent more energy than the most reliable battery on the consumer market, the chance that they'll immediately replace your standard batteries is slim. Nevertheless, the possibilities are very exciting. When the technology finally comes into play you will no longer replace your battery or have to hunt down an AC outlet to recharge. Instead, your camera (or other portable device) will house a fuel cell capable of accepting a liquid or gaseous "injection" in order to recharge.

Whether you're next battery purchase is driven by need, desire or simply by price, there's a battery on the market that’s just right for you. But remember, no matter what type you buy, following the rules of good care will ensure you get the best performance out of your battery.

Michael Fitzer is an Emmy award-winning commercial and documentary writer/ producer.

[Sidebar: Spotlight on Batteries & Accessories]

  • Compact Chargers:
    If you want to charge your batteries but hate packing and unpacking the standard charging plate and AC adapter cord, a number of manufacturers are making compact wall chargers. There's no cumbersome plate and no long cord to manage. Simply snap your batteries into place, flip up the AC plug and let the action happen.
  • Conventional AA Approach. Many digital cameras on the market can use the conventional AA-size batteries. While very affordable to stock, the standard alkaline batteries are no match for the video world. A couple of zooms, some recording, a playback and "poof" you're out of juice. But there are some rechargeable AA NiMH cells that do well to serve short-term needs. Just make sure you're packing a quality brand and a darn-good charger.
The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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