Are you planning on getting a new camcorder this holiday season? Or maybe you already got a new camcorder earlier this year and are wondering “what now”?

Or maybe you have had a camcorder for a while but have been too cautious to take it out and use it? Or maybe, you have been using it a while but the video you shoot looks embarrassing?

Here are a few tips on how anyone can make their video movies look and sound a lot better.

The first is make your camcorder your friend. It sounds silly, but in order to master the often bewildering array of buttons, menus and options on a typical camcorder, you need to practice with it and understand how it works.

The obvious place to start is with the instruction manual. Have you ever opened it up? Do you know where it is? Find the manual and crack it open. I recommend going through it – slowly – with a marker or high lighter at your side and carefully note the important stuff. How do you get the tape in and out; how do you charge up and exchange the batteries? How do you set and engage the various automatic exposure modes?

Believe or not, I have had people in some of my “How To Use a Camcorder” classes that never used their camcorder once the initial battery charge wore off. They didn’t know how to charge up the batteries and nobody ever showed them.

Once you have figured out the basics like getting the tape in and out, recording and playing back, it is then time to move on to the more advanced techniques like special effects, zooming, focus, and all of the special exposure settings.

By the way, you can’t hurt your camcorder by pushing buttons. It’s not like a Windows computer where you can crash the operating system or get nasty bugs and viruses by not using it correctly. At the worst your videos will look funny. So, go through the manual, page by page, and play with all the various controls. Push buttons, move knobs and adjust the various settings to see what it does to your camcorder and recorded audio and video.
What is video all about?

Here is the essence. If you don’t remember anything but this – I will be happy. Home video is all about people and their faces. Close-ups of happy smiling faces, twinkling eyes and dancing smiles. Yes, you can shoot soccer games, your kids playing the cello, a trip to Hawaii, but what most families, grand parents and friends really want to see, is faces and close-ups.

Plus when you play it back on a typical TV, most wide shots are a bit fuzzy and indistinct. Yes, you do need the occasional wide shot and shots of scenery to set the scene, but the essence of home video is faces.

The Basic Controls – Zoom

Let’s start with the basic and the most overused and abused control – zoom. Zoom is what enables you to use your camcorder like a telescope – zooming in from a wide shot to a small close-up of the action or a face. Zoom is good for when you want to accent something; when you are need to make a point, when you are stuck in the back of hall and need to make the shot of your kids on stage look a lot bigger.

There are two types of zoom found on camcorders- optical and digital. Optical zoom is the important one. Some camcorders offer optical zoom ratios of up to 20 times and more. Most are in the ten to 16 times range. Optical zoom uses the camcorder’s lens to bring things closer. Digital zoom on the other hand electronically magnifies the center of the image. Digital zoom also magnifies the noise, distortion and fuzziness. Despite the marketing hype, digital focus is something never to be used – unless you really have to. I always turn off digital focus on my camcorders so that I won’t accidentally engage it.

The secret of zoom is to not use it while recording. Zooming out from a close up to a wide shot is much more aesthetically pleasing than zooming in to a close-up on something. Try to never zoom in on something while the camcorder is rolling tape and recording. Instead, starting with a wide shot of the whole scene, pause the recorder, zoom in maybe halfway and then shot some more. Pause the recorder once again, and then zoom in to a tight shot to get the close-up and details. Zooming in all at once, live, is called a crash zoom because you are crashing in on your subject.

Even better than zooming in, is to physically get closer to your subject. The closer you get, the more detail you will be able to capture. Also, by getting closer and using a wide-angle lens, you can reduce jiggling images, improve the focus and audio quality, as well as get a better exposure. Getting close is a secret to resolving an entire cornucopia of camcorder challenges.
Rocker levers

Most camcorders have a rocker lever that controls the zoom. If you push on it lightly, it zooms slowly, if you push hard, it zooms quickly. This can be a great tool for making professional looking camera moves – especially zoom outs. A nice, slow zoom out from a close-up can work wonders, as it reveals more and more of the shot.
Focusing In on Focus

Focus means getting your images to look as sharp as possible. This is nowhere as difficult as it used to be. Most camcorders have very sophisticated electronics that can quickly and effectively automatically focus your camcorder for you. Just aim it at what you want the shot to focus on and the electronics do it all for you automatically. Some camcorders allow you to select what part of the shot to focus on and then focus on that section automatically.

However, every once in awhile you may need to manually focus. Camcorders can have a hard time manually focusing when the light is dim, with extreme zoom ratios, through a dirty window or screen, or even on a busy scene with cars zipping by in the foreground. For example, if you are in a bus with wire screens in the windows, the camcorder may automatically decide to focus on the screen pattern instead of on the volcano in the distance. Or, while you are trying to shoot the medieval church across the street, the camcorder will search for focus, going in and out of focus, as it tries to focus in on each car that passes by or the tourists walking in front of you. These are some of the typical situations where it is very important to know how to manually focus.

Step one is to locate the manual focus button. It might be the auto focus off button. The next step is to aim your camcorder at what you want to be in focus and then turn the focus knob to get the image sharp. Adjusting the focus can be simple or complex depending on what kind of focus controls you have on your camcorder. Using a ring around the lens makes it easy – using the zoom rocker knob is a bit more challenging – using a set of in and out focus buttons can be maddening.

If you want to get great focus – and are not planning on moving the camcorder during the shot, try this technique. With manual focus engaged, zoom in as tight as you can on your subject. Now focus as sharply as possible. Once you have the focus set, as long as you don’t change the distance between the camcorder and your subject, you can zoom in and out as much as you want and your camcorder will stay focused.

No shaking allowed

Look at the video you shoot and then compare it to that shot by professionals. One of the biggest differences is probably the lack of shaking and jiggles in the footage shot by the pros. So how can you make your footage rock steady? Here are a few basic tips.

The most obvious is to use a tripod or a monopod. You don’t need an expensive one. A forty-dollar Target or Wal-Mart special will work just fine. Most camcorders have a tripod screw socket on the bottom that enable you to connect it to almost any tripod on the market. If your tripod has a removable shoe that attaches to your camcorder, don’t lose it. It sounds goofy, but I lose these little thingies all of the time and unfortunately, they are usually unique to individual makes and models of cheap tripods.

Another option is to use the image stabilization feature found on most camcorders. There are two flavors of image stabilization – optical and digital. Optical is the best but digital is pretty good as well. Years ago, you would see a big degradation in image quality when you used digital image stabilization but the technology has gotten a lot better. In addition, some camcorders offer digital stabilization when you first record the video, as well as when you play it back. You get two chances to stabilize the video and make it look good. Regardless of what type of image stabilization you use, neither compares to using a tripod or a monopod.

Here are two more tricks to use to make your footage “seem” less shaky. First, shoot wide angle. The closer you are to your subject and the less zoom you use, the less anyone will notice that your camcorder is jerking around. Shakiness is most noticeable on extreme telephoto shots where you are using maximum zoom. In fact, I think it is impossible to get a stable shot while hand holding a camcorder when you are using a zoom of 16 times or more. Another trick to hide shakiness is to deliberately move the camcorder while shooting. On a still shot, jerkiness is easy to see. However, if you are slowly moving your camcorder following your subject, or slowing zooming out from a close-up, the shakiness is nowhere as noticeable.

The Best Video Shooting Tips and Tricks

Here are some of my favorite tips and tricks that will help make your videos look a lot better.

Use the LCD screen and get unique angles. Most camcorders now have a fold out LCD screen to help you compose and monitor your shots. You no longer have to stick the viewfinder to your eye and peer through it. By using the LCD monitor, you can comfortably shoot at a variety of angles. With the LCD titled upwards, try shooting with the camcorder held down at your knees or at tummy level. People look a lot better when you are shooting up at them.

You don’t have to hold the camcorder in front of you. With the LCD opened up in the right direction, you can hold the camcorder off to your side, at different heights and get all kinds of fun and unique angles on the action. In a crowd or in a situation with tall people in front of you, hold the camcorder up overhead with the LCD screen aimed down at you. No more bobbing heads obscuring your view when you are shooting your kid’s concert recital. (Unless of course, they all read Camcorder & CV Magazine and now you’ll get a bunch of bouncing camcorders obscuring your view).

Try shooting at your subject’s eye level. If you are shooting children, use the camcorder at your belly level with the LCD screen facing up. Even better, get down on your knees or sit on the floor and shoot the kids circling around you. Shooting on the ground works exceptionally well when trying to get good video of your pets and other animals. Who wants to see shots of the top of Spot’s furry head?

Avoid the Daddy Syndrome – This might be the most important recommendation; especially when you are looking back at your footage many years from now. Let someone else operate the camcorder from time to time and let you get into the shot. I call this the Daddy syndrome. Too many times, the dad in the family becomes the official videographer and gets all these wonderful shots of the family having fun and going on trips. However, when the family watches back the movies later, where’s dad? He wasn’t having fun at all. Was he even there? You got to get out from behind the camera.

From the earliest, give your camcorder to your significant other or let your kids shoot. When my daughters first started walking I let them hold and operate the camcorder. Of course, I made sure they knew how to hold it correctly and that the floor underneath was carpeted and padded. And you know what, they never dropped the camcorder. Yes, the shots often cock-eyed, out of focus and bouncing video, but when I look back at it, and remember the day, it is all right. And I am in the picture! So dads, let go of the camcorder and let your family shoot.

How to get good audio

Getting good audio is often harder than getting good video. There are two basic tricks. One, if audio is really important to your video, buy an external mike and plug it into your camcorder’s external mike input jack. You can buy a basic shotgun or telephoto mike that attaches to the top of your camcorder for under $100. Until you add this one peripheral to your camcorder, you will not know truly how good your camcorder’s audio can sound. The other trick, if you don’t have a mike, or if your camcorder doesn’t offer a mike input connector, is to get close. The closer you are to your subjects, the better the camcorder’s mike will sound. It may seem obvious but I have seen many people shooting performances standing too far away. All they had to do is take a few steps closer and their video would not only sound better, bit it would look better.

Here are my top three recommendations

Video is all about faces

Read the manual and practice playing with your camcorder’s controls.

Get close, it will make your videos look and sound a lot better.

OK, four.

Let everyone in the family operate the camcorder. Avoid the Daddy Movie Maker Syndrome.