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Simple tips for taking the best camcorder videos

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Simple tips for taking the best camcorder videos

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1993, The Syracuse Newspapers

My friend Gary carted his camcorder to my 50th birthday party and ended up with some priceless videos of the big event. He also learned a valuable lesson about taking video shots in a crowd: You can't trust the auto-focus.

In all the scenes, Gary did his best to hold the camera steady, but the camera had its own idea of what part of the picture it wanted to show clearly. And that also means, of course, that the camera also used its own judgment on what parts it wanted to show out of focus.

Sometimes, the camera and Gary were in agreement. But at other moments, just as Gary moved in for that big shot, the camcorder latched onto an object in the foreground and made everything else a blur. Sometimes it took the coward's way out and refused to focus on anything recognizable.

Luckily, scenes like that lasted only a second or two, and the tape turned out great in every other way. But what Gary did to shoot the best scenes is worth repeating here.

His most successful technique was to use the auto-focus only as a way of setting up the scene. With the camcorder on but not recording anything, he aimed the camera, allowed the auto-focus mechanism to settle in on the right part of the scene, and then switched the auto-focus off. Most camcorders have the same kind of switch that Gary's has—you just tap it, and the auto-focus switches either on or off.

Once the focus was set and locked into place, Gary started shooting the scene. As long as the camcorder kept the same relative distance from the party-goers, everything stayed in focus.

This isn't as simple as it seems, because both the subjects and the camcorder have to be thought of as moving objects when you are taking home videos. If the people in front of you are moving away from or closer to the camcorder, you have the choice of adjusting the focus while they are moving $-$ something that takes a lot of practice—or moving with them, which is a lot easier.

In many of my own home videos, I've become adept at treating the camcorder as if it were just another person in the crowd. When the crowd is moving, I keep the camcorder on the go, too.

This technique is risky, since the worst punishment you can inflict on the guests you invite to view your home videos is jerky camera action. You'll make them dizzy, and you might not be able to entice them back for next year's show.

Keep in mind that camcorders, like movie cameras, don't really take moving pictures. They take a lot of still pictures in rapid succession. Our brains are easily fooled by these rapidly displayed still pictures most of the time, and so we usually see them as actual motion pictures.

But our brains are savvy enough to spot two flaws in this method.

One occurs when the scenes change too much between the stills—in other words, when the camera is panning too fast or when something is moving too quickly within the camera's field of view.

The other happens when the camera is shaking. None of the individual still pictures is clear, but instead of a general fuzziness, as you might get when the lens is out of focus, you see varying amounts of blur in each still frame. This is the kind of motion picture in which the motion is all in the camera, and viewers usually find that more annoying than an overall fuzziness.

So, if you choose, like Gary, to lock in the focus on your best shots, be careful when you move that camcorder. Make most of your motions in the same plane as the forward field of view, by moving the camera toward or away from objects. Moving it from side to side will nearly always cause blurring, unless you do it very slowly.

And that means to avoid panning whenever possible. To help fool the eye, the best pans are done while zooming the lens in or out. This keeps objects from jerking from frame to frame, and it also helps you bring the viewer's attention to the main part of the scene.

And, finally, don't be afraid to edit out those flubs when you make a copy of a camcorder tape on your VCR. Everyone remembers the bad parts, but they won't complain about scenes they never get to see.

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