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Camera Operation Basics

What follows are a few tips for the absolute novice on how to operate a consumer camcorder:

  1. Read the manual or at least peruse the manual so you can get a general idea of where things are on the camera and where in the manual to go for help when something goes wrong or seems to not be working correctly.

  2. Don't jam the tape in the cartridge. This is a lot easier to do than you might think. Here's a step-by-step by guide for putting the tape in the camera.

    • Slide the open/eject lever in the direction of the arrow and open the lid until it clicks.

    • Insert the cassette with its window-side facing up then push the center of the back of the cassette until it slides into the compartment.

    • Press the top of the cassette compartment where it says push, until it clicks shut and then watch as the cassette compartment magically slides back into place.

    • Close the cassette lid, only after the compartment has slid back into place. Do not try to force it shut! It is important to remember not to force the camera closed before the compartment has slid magically back into place. Here's where the camera gets jammed and you might have to take it to a camera shop or a repair shop to get it un-jammed. Yikes.

  3. Get the feel of the camera. Slide your hand under the strap along the side and let the camera rest in the palm of your hand. Switch back and forth between camera mode and play back mode just to be sure you know how. Take off the lens cap and look through the viewfinder. Pull the viewfinder out and up (if it'll let you), so that it is more comfortable to look through. Make sure the image is in focus. If it's not, there should be a focus knob under the viewfinder that you can adjust.

  4. Don't rely entirely on the LCD screen. Most people prefer to use the LCD display, however the viewfinder has its advantages. It uses less battery power. It gives you a more accurate read of exposure than the LCD. And the camera tends to be more stable when held with both hands up to your eye as one would hold a still camera.

    Now try the LCD screen. You should be able to swivel the screen around so that you can hold your camera very low or very high and still see what you're shooting. You can also turn it around so that the subject can see what you're shooting while you view the image through the viewfinder. Remember to be careful. Never hold the camera by the LCD screen. Snapping off the LCD display is one of the most common ways that cameras are broken. Snap off the LCD display and it'll cost so much to fix that you'll end up buying a new camera.

  5. Practice zooming in and out, but once you start shooting, use it sparingly. The zoom is useful to set up a shot of a subject that you absolutely cannot get close to, like a speaker at a rally for instance. It's probably best not to record while your zooming in or out, especially if you don't have a tripod. Wait until your subject is framed the way you want and the focus is set, then start shooting. With small cameras in particular, camera shake is exaggerated when you zoom in, so it's probably best to use the zoom as infrequently as possible. It's easier to maintain a steady shot when the angle is wide. Wide angles also remind you to stay close to your subject so that you can better capture the sound with your on-camera microphone.

  6. Take audio into consideration. Bad audio can ruin what is otherwise perfectly good video. If your camera has a headphone jack, be sure to plug in some headphones and change the settings in the on-camera menu so that you can hear. It's the only way to know for certain that your subject is close enough to the microphone and that there isn't any RF interference or short in the microphone cord, etc. Once your headphones are attached and working, you should check for noises like refrigerators, air conditioners, etc., that will interfere with your recording. When shooting outside, try to make sure the camera is pointed away from sounds, like crowds or traffic, that tend to overpower the voice of your subject.

  7. Go through the on-camera menu. Just as one goes through the menu items of a new computer program, you should go through the menu items on your camera. Having a basic knowledge of where things are in the on-camera menu can help you when your shooting and something seems to be going wrong or not working properly. You should have already figured out how to set the audio for headphones through the on-camera menu. You should also learn how to access the manual controls for focus, exposure (aperture and shutter speed) and white balance. Using the automatic settings is acceptable under most conditions, but there are some fairly common situations that will require manual adjustments. Going through the menu will also teach you how to access any extra options available in your camera like putting a date stamp on the screen, digital effects and the like. Should you ever want to use those, you'll know how to proceed.

  8. Shoot some practice footage. Be sure to experiment with some of the settings on the on-camera menu. Check your results and then shoot again. When you're finished shooting, switch the camera into playback mode and review your footage. Look for areas of improvement. Is the footage shakier than you anticipated? How's the composition? Often times, you'll have your subject in the frame, but also a whole lot of other things that you don't want your audience to focus on. Re-shoot the same subjects as if you were shooting with a still camera. Set up your shot, then hold the camera steady and shoot for at least 15 seconds before moving on to your next shot. Don't always try to follow the action. You'll have more editing options if you allow people to walk in and out of the frame. Look at your footage again and see if there isn't an improvement. You'll go a long way towards making your footage look professional simply by keeping the camera steady and your subject in focus.

    As you practice shooting, try changing things in the menu to see what the result is. Also be sure to set up any accessories you may have. Set up your tripod if you have one. Remember to spread the legs as wide apart as possible on your tripod for more stability. If you have a microphone attach it and test it out. Finally, make sure you have the right cable to attach your camera to your computer. Test this out as well and try to capture some footage into your editing program. Now you're ready to go out and make a video.

Further Reading: For a more detailed explanation of the on-camera menu and its functions as well as some very useful shooting tips, explore the following sites. www.journalism.berkeley.edu/multimedia/tutorials

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