Top Five Camcorder Tips to Help You Shoot Like a Pro

Recently, I attended the Austin Comic Con in hopes of getting some great interviews with geeky and techie startups, writers, illustrators, and other vendors who took the time to buy a booth at the event. I came equipped with my trusty Canon HF-R20, a moderately priced consumer camcorder that shoots in 1080p with near-perfect clarity. This very camcorder has been used to film segments and B-Roll that has been used on our YouTube channel, and I had hoped to add to our content with interviews during this event.

Unfortunately, I quickly found myself limited in two very different ways. First, the audio I was able to capture was drowned out by an extremely loud convention hall. Despite my attempt to shoot during quiet moments between events and announcements, I found it next to impossible to capture an interview worthy of broadcast. Even though the built-in microphone on the camcorder is actually quite stellar when compared to other models in its class, there is no substitute for a good external audio solution.

The second drawback was much more of a challenge. There’s a perception that holds true even today that someone walking around with a small camera (or camcorder) isn’t doing anything very important. Consumer equipment is often considered sub-standard and easily overlooked in favor of larger and more expensive equipment.

It’s been said in some circles that the bigger the camera, the more important the photographer. One unwritten rule of journalism is that you never want to walk into a situation where you’re competing for interviews against someone with a bigger camcorder. Unfortunately, even though your iPod touch or iPhone shoots great video, the chances of someone taking you seriously is greatly reduced. This is why so many journalists and photographers still take their big lenses with them, even when they’re shooting close-ups and profiles.

I’ve had the privilege of working in several different types of media environments. In one place, we had an audience in the millions, yet we worked off a budget that was only a fraction of what you would find at a local television studio that may have an audience in the tens of thousands. Because those studios have the financial backing of major networks and larger corporations, they have the expendable income to afford $10,000+ cameras that seem to weigh more than a Volvo. Even though we had a larger audience, we were often turned away as press because we simply didn’t look the part. Our prosumer equipment acted like a virtual billboard with big red lettering on it declaring that we were an amateur operation, despite the fact that our audience was easily double that of any affiliate station that was allowed in.

Half of the battle to being taken seriously as a journalist is appearance. Do you look the part? Does your equipment look like it has some money behind it comparable to the size of your viewing audience?

So, how do you overcome these obstacles? How do you shoot amazing video while presenting yourself in a way that makes you more likely to land that important interview? Here are five camcorder tips to help you shoot like a pro.

External Microphone

An external microphone is a very simple (and possibly cheap) accessory you can get for virtually any non-pocket camcorder to help improve overall sound quality. In a noisy room, a lavalier microphone can focus the sound on you or your subject while phasing out the vast majority of the background noise. This also gives you more control over distance and presence — two factors that can make or break quality video.

You could go with an expensive wireless option and easily spent hundreds of dollars on a wireless LAV or handheld microphone. Alternatively, you can buy a $25 ATR-3350 from Audio Technica. The ATR-3350 is a lavalier omnidirectional condenser microphone that attaches securely to your lapel or clothing and picks up audio at a close proximity. Because it sits out of your line of breathing, you don’t have to worry about interference from your breath or a large microphone sitting between you and the camera. Lavalier microphones are easily hidden, and generally sound really good.

Be careful, though: wired microphones are easy to trip over, and can be a hassle if you intend to move around a lot while recording.

You may also want to invest in a shotgun microphone that mounts to the camera via a universal shoe mount. If you’re using a budget camcorder, you might be able to get away with an adapter that screws in the tripod mount or even a zip-tie method to secure it in place. It’s probably a better idea to use gaffer tape over zip ties though, as it is more muted and less obvious while you’re out in public. A shotgun mic picks up sound in a directional pattern directly in front of the camcorder. This gives you a much more focused range of sound, and allows you to record an interview between two parties without having to pass an external microphone back and forth.

A good-sized shotgun mic can also increase the professional appearance of your camcorder. Remember, appearance has a lot to do with your likelihood to book that important interview in the field, especially if you’re competing with better funded outlets.

External Light

Bad lighting can ruin a shot, and dimly lit areas are notorious for providing an environment that is prone to unsalvageable footage. While it may be easier to dim a brightly-lit scene, it’s next to impossible to bright up a dark one. This is why so many news outlets invest in large barn-door style light rigs and external lighting solutions for nighttime recording.

Even on a budget camera, you can greatly improve your overall picture quality with a cheap external light rig. Even if your camcorder doesn’t have a universal mount, you can find a universal bracket that screws directly into the tripod mount to facilitate the external light. Sima makes a line of excellent budget-friendly lighting solutions for consumer camcorders that look and feel like more professional (and expensive) solutions.

On the appearance standpoint, even a relatively cheap camcorder can come off as being more serious when there’s some attention paid by the cameraman to lighting. Good lighting is essential anyway, so there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have one on hand when you’re working. After all, wouldn’t you rather have the best-lit video from whatever event you’re covering?

Tripod and Monopod

You might be thinking to yourself that a tripod is a heavy and cumbersome accessory that you really don’t need to get a great shot. You’re right; you don’t need one to get a good shot, but, they can certainly help. Budget-friendly camcorders may have image stabilization built in, but the extent to which they operate can vary greatly, leaving it to you, the user, to discover just how good (or bad) your camera really performs in the field. A tripod (or monopod) can make your shots look incredibly good, even on a budget camcorder. Not only that, but you might notice that your digital footage renders much cleaner when you use one because many compression algorithms work very well with backgrounds that don’t move. Essentially, they can render the background once every so many frames rather than having to redraw the object over and over every frame. Your video quality to bit rate ratio may also improve.

Having a tripod or monopod at an event may be a drag when it comes to moving through crowds, but it also adds a subconscious legitimacy to your work. Simply whipping out a camera and shooting video is something everyone can do, but that little extra attention to detail increases your perceived professionalism, especially if you’re attempting to get some decent video interviews going.

Pack a Bag

Whatever you do, don’t go into the field without enough supplies to get the job done. Extra batteries, tape, memory cards, lights, mounts, headphones, microphones, etc. should all be carried with you into the field by way of a backpack or professional camera bag. The average budget camcorder has a fairly lackluster battery life compared to its potential recording time thanks to memory card slots. If you’re going to invest in one thing for your camera, invest in extra batteries. Nothing is worse than being in the middle of an important shoot and having the camera suddenly shut down due to a drained battery.

Having a pack with you also adds to the appearance of legitimacy. Have you ever seen a professional cameraman for a news agency out on a shoot without either a pack or a big van parked nearby? Being behind the camera in a professional environment is akin to being a Boy Scout on a camping trip. If you’re not prepared, you’re apt to lose out on an opportunity. Pros don’t worry so much about battery life and memory because they pack for a much longer shoot than they expect to have. The best rule of thumb is to triple your needs. If you’re heading to a convention and plan to record an hour, pack for three. Bring enough batteries and supplies for triple the time you intend to actually be on location.

Learn Your Camcorder and Use Manual Settings

This tip may not help you land the big interviews, but it will help you in the long run. Spend your off hours learning everything there is to know about your gear. How does it work in low light? How does it work in bright light? Does this setting work better for shooting on a white background? Does that setting make shadows more or less obvious?

You might be surprised to find out just how capable your camcorder really is when you start digging in the settings. Don’t let your camcorder intimidate you. You own it — it doesn’t own you.

Manual controls will give you the ability to cater your shot to the moment. Lightning can’t always be optimal, and the first thing you want to make sure you have right before you even think of hitting the record button is white balance. Improper white balance can throw off your entire shot, which may impact your entire video as you switch between B-Roll and primary footage. Take a white card with you and flash it in front of the camera for a few seconds while hitting the white balance adjustment. Once the card actually appears the way it does in person on the viewfinder, you’re ready to fine-tune the image even further by adjusting settings such as brightness, exposure, and color.

With these tips in mind, you should be able to both look and act the part of a professional cameraman. These tips have helped me get in places where press restrictions were tight while others may be turned away for appearing like hecklers or bystanders. This isn’t to say that social engineering is a requirement of being out in the field, but it can help you get the edge in a more professional setting.

18 comments On Top Five Camcorder Tips to Help You Shoot Like a Pro

    • Thank you, and great work yourself making me sound like a smarter writer by correcting my terrible grammar and spelling. 😉 No small task, I’m sure.

      • Hi! I’m going to sxsw this year and need something to take videos without editing and to post them quicly on youtube, so I thought of iphone or opodtouch, with an external mic for sound, but then your article made me think. Any advice?

  • Excellent tips! I have the Sony HDR-CX110!

  • At some point in the future I really need to invest in a quality camera in the future, as opposed to filming my youtube videos with a 1.3 MP webcam. 

    • If you’re in the field often, nothing can truly replace the quality you can find with an actual camcorder. Pocket cams and iPhones are great, and they certainly have their usefulness, but people love seeing actual video equipment. It makes them take you seriously, for sure. Thanks for reading.

      By the way, if you do not go into the field to record video, I’d recommend Logitech webcams. The software is crap, but you can get around using it. The hardware is usually very good for the price.

    • If you’re in the field often, nothing can truly replace the quality you can find with an actual camcorder. Pocket cams and iPhones are great, and they certainly have their usefulness, but people love seeing actual video equipment. It makes them take you seriously, for sure. Thanks for reading.

      By the way, if you do not go into the field to record video, I’d recommend Logitech webcams. The software is crap, but you can get around using it. The hardware is usually very good for the price.

  • At some point in the future I really need to invest in a quality camera in the future, as opposed to filming my youtube videos with a 1.3 MP webcam. 

  • Samdavidphillips

    Good article. I do a lot of filming and some live events and I know exactly what you’re talking about. Just add the microphone, headphones, and the tripod and people take you A LOT more seriously.

  • Samdavidphillips

    Good article. I do a lot of filming and some live events and I know exactly what you’re talking about. Just add the microphone, headphones, and the tripod and people take you A LOT more seriously.

  • Ahoy Chris. Nice article and I can see what you are talking about. Another case of, “bigger is better.”  🙂 

    • Thanks. I’m glad you liked it. Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns about this topic and I’ll try to address them in a future article.

    • Thanks. I’m glad you liked it. Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns about this topic and I’ll try to address them in a future article.

  • Ahoy Chris. Nice article and I can see what you are talking about. Another case of, “bigger is better.”  🙂 

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