Recording video is a fairly straightforward process on most devices. Some pocketable camcorders make are simple enough to use that a single button is all you really need to press before capturing whatever it is you wish to have video of.
Though these devices can certainly make life easier for most casual users, there is something to be said about a camcorder that gives the user a little more control over how it captures audio and video. It doesn’t take a big budget to take advantage of these features, but you do need to have the right camcorder to make the most of each shot.
In most cases, there are five big things you should check in either your camcorder or your recording environment before hitting the record button. Some of these things are an easy fix, while others take a little know-how or a glance at the camcorder’s owner’s manual.
White balance is an easy thing to forget, but it makes a giant difference on how your video turns out. If you’ve ever seen a video that looked too orange or blue, you’ve seen one that was poorly white balanced. Fixing this is usually very easy, and can even be done on camcorders that don’t offer a lot of options to the user.
One of the easiest ways to white balance is by sticking a white card or sheet of paper in front of the camera and allowing the camera to adjust. This method only works on automatic white balance settings, but everything from an iPhone to a Flip camera does this the same way. If you’re using an iPhone, just tap the screen where you see the white card (placed next to or directly in front of your subject) and you’re both focused and set.
For more advanced camcorders, this is usually a feature found in the menu area. Setting custom white balance is the best way to get this done as presets can often be deceiving. Never trust automatic white balance unless you have to and always bring a white card or sheet of paper with you on shoots. Trust me, this will make editing easier later on.
Brightness / Lighting / Video Gain
How well is your subject lit? Do you need to boost the brightness or video gain to see whatever it is you’re trying to capture? It’s always better to light your subject properly than to tweak the brightness and gain settings on your camera. Artificial lighting in this way has a number of drawbacks, the most obvious of which being noise that makes an image look grainy and distorted.
You might want to invest on some external lighting such as an LED light panel or some umbrella lights to add diffused brightness to the filming environment. A direct light from a lamp can work, but direct light can sometimes make skin appear greasy or cause reflections on hard surfaces. A diffused light is usually quite a lot easier to work with, and will often soften tones and make whatever it is you’re filming look better. If you’ve ever noticed the lighting in a fine restaurant or an upscale bar, you know what I’m talking about. Everyone looks better around diffused light. Harsh fluorescent lighting in offices, not so much.
Audio Levels / Background Noise
Have the person (or people) you’re filming count to 10 before hitting record if you can monitor audio levels on the camera. Alternatively, you can record a 10-second clip of them speaking and listen for volume and distortion. If the audio sounds great in the clip, it’ll sound pretty good in the final product.
One trick I learned in radio was to have the host scream at the top of their lungs as well as whisper. If you can hit that sweet spot where their loudest moments don’t overdrive the audio and their whispers can still be heard and understood, you’re on the right track.
Never substitute microphone amplification with audio gain. Audio gain, like video gain, amplifies what you have whether it be your speaker’s voice or the hiss of the audio system’s noise floor. Automatic gain control is usually best left off when using an external microphone in favor of the microphone’s own audio tools.
Battery Level / Memory
Always check your battery level and your remaining memory before hitting record. I’ve had the embarrassing occasion where someone is in the middle of a good rant when the camera suddenly died. It’s better to take the time to charge the battery a bit before filming than risk a low battery. Even five minutes of charging can get you through a lot of filming. More often than not, the person you’re working with will understand and appreciate the extra care.
Get rid of obviously bad clips as you go, especially if you are risking running low on tape / memory when filming. Someone’s recorded audio check, bloopers, etc. don’t always need to be kept. I usually take a moment between shots to sort out clips on the card when I can.
In professional shoots, always pack extras. Invest in backup batteries early. You never know when they might come in handy. The same can be said for SD cards and other recording media.
Stability / Image Stabilization
You may not always have the option to keep a tripod with you, but you may want to consider one if you are doing any extensive filming. Even a small tripod such as a Gorilla Pod can make a world of difference in your shooting. A monopod can usually collapse down fairly well and will provide an axis of stability when you need it most.
Keep your eye out for surfaces you can brace yourself against for filming. A table can make a great platform for a camera when need arises, even if you’re making a human tripod with your arms and elbows against the flat surface. Leaning against a wall can also increase stability.
Your camera might have a decent image stabilization feature built-in. Take advantage of this when you can, but be advised that digital image stabilization tends to crop an image. You’re sacrificing a wide angle for a stable one.
With these tips in mind, you should be able to capture some decent video on your next shoot, even if your camera isn’t quite the professional rig of your dreams. Even a cheap camcorder or a smartphone can benefit from things like better lighting and a stable platform.
Once you have these basic components down, you can start worrying about things like aperture, ISO, special effects, and depth of field. Oh, and you could also check to make sure you’ve taken your lens cap off.
Lens by Petr Kratochvil