How to Operate Your Video Camera Like a Professional

operating a cameraAll video cameras do not look the same but they have the same features and mostly operate the same. Even if your camera is a few years old, it still has a focus, iris, built in microphone, external microphone jack (not on the Flip) and battery pack, AC adaptor/charger and somewhere to put the tape in. So, this chapter will be on general professional operating tips and techniques that will help you learn how the professionals shoot (I mean record) excellent quality video.

That’s actually a joke in our office. We used to ‘shoot’ video but with how the world is today, we decided to change the term to ‘record’ video, which is actually a very clear way to describe the process.

If you have problems locating the settings or adjusting devices I am about to describe on your video camera, I suggest you look at your owner’s manual. If you have misplaced your owner’s manual, go online to your manufacturer website. Most manufacturers have a manual download page, some have to be purchased, and others are free.

Here are some items to locate on your video camera before reading the rest of this chapter. When you locate the specific item, put a check mark next to the item on the list below. Also write a note for yourself about the location of this item so you can find it later on as well as any notes you might want to take about each item and its function. I will do my best to explain tips and techniques on each of these items in the following pages of Chapter two.

Manual/Automatic focus/mode setting
Headphone jack for audio monitoring
External Microphone jack to plug in a lavaliere or other microphone
Built in microphone; could be mono or stereo
Iris adjustment used to open and close the iris based on light conditions
Image stabilizer; minimize camera movement when shooting off tripod
Audio adjustment/volume control
Battery Pack
Battery Charger
Light meter or zebra setting to gauge exposure
White balance; set white levels so colors are as close to real as possible
N D Filter; used outdoors to reduce extreme light conditions
Gain; used to increase exposure in dark settings or reduce in bright
Fire wire used to load recorded video into your computer

MANUAL Focus/Manual Mode is one of the most important items we will discuss. We have it listed first for that reason but the order of the subsequent items is insignificant. I will take every effort to make sure we are explaining the item in easy to understand language.

On every camera there is a menu switch or button (may be submersed in the “menu” feature-especially on smaller video cameras). This switch may also control some of the other items in our list like white balance, gain and iris. When a camera is in automatic mode or automatic focus mode, the camera senses the situation of which you are shooting then makes a decision how to set these items. The problem is that it often times makes the wrong decision and often changes its mind too frequently. Like when you shoot into the light or lighting conditions change.

Let’s discuss automatic focus first. In automatic mode, your camera is in a constant state of adjusting as the subject matter moves or as the light changes. The result is a playback image that is always trying to be clear and sharp.
This can be very annoying to the viewer. Often times, when you shoot your footage in Auto Focus, you will see the picture constantly adjusting during play back. It will move soft focus to sharp focus constantly adjusting for each change in light and movement.

However, automatic mode is a good way to at least capture an event if you are unsure what manual settings to use. In automatic mode, if the subject is a bit dark, it will never be in focus because the camera is constantly adjusting.

The reason is that the camera needs much more light than the naked eye to see. Just because you can see an image in the dark does not mean your camera can properly capture it.

Try to shoot in manual focus with one exception: when you are constantly moving and you have plenty of light around your subject. An example of this would be on a train shooting the landscape outside your window. Another would be a kid’s birthday party shooting kids running around and playing. In this case, put your camera in auto focus but do not zoom in on the action you are taping but rather crop your picture by physically moving forward or backward.

The key to success with manual and automatic is to practice and experiment. When we get to the iris section in the next lesson, we will discuss some cool techniques using an over exposed shot by opening your iris more than normal.

One way to get clean crisp shots in manual focus is to stand where you want to stand with your camera zoomed out completely (crop the shot by physically moving toward and away from your subject). Then, zoom in completely to your subject’s most critical sight points like a face or a written part. Then, adjust your focus manually until it is crisp. Zoom back out and begin taping a clear crisp shot.

Now, I am not saying do not ever use your zoom, just keep two things in mind: first, your camera jiggles when you’re zoomed in. It’s harder to have a nice steady shot when using your zoom. Secondly, your zoom feature drains your battery quicker. Every time you zoom in and out, you burn up a bit more of your battery power. There is a little electric motor that moves your zoom in and out that takes power (battery or AC) to operate.

The Headphone jack is next on our operations list because as a professional videographer and video journalist, you want to make sure you are always getting good audio. Even if you are using the camera microphone, you want to listen to the audio as you are taping to make sure the camera is not hearing unwanted sounds or noises.

Some cameras may have a headphone volume control, while others do not. Of the cameras that do, always turn the volume completely up so what you are hearing is a good representative of what is going to tape.

More often that not, built in camera microphones are very sensitive and can pick up unwanted background sound. Their pick up pattern may be 360 degrees of the camera allowing sound from behind to be recorded in addition to the sound from your subject. Other built in microphones only pick up 180 degrees. Test your pick up pattern by taping a test shoot.

Point the camera in one direction then while recording, have somebody walk around the camera while talking. You will hear how the camera is picking up their voice. That way, you will know the nature of your record pattern for future taping sessions.

If your record volume is low, you should make every effort to raise the level naturally instead of trying to raise the edit after the shoot. If you subject is soft-spoken, one thing you can do is asking them to raise their voice or speak louder. Another thing you can do is moving the camera closer to the sound source. If all else fails, try to amplify the sound source with a powered speaker or public address system.

That brings me to another important audio point: when your subject is publicly speaking, you should always hard wire their microphone to the camera. We will discuss this more in the audio section of this lesson.

One very important note: Even if you do not want the audio from a shoot, if you are taping something for sale on the Internet and do not need sound for it, the camera mic is still recording and will pick up your conversations. Remember this when shooting so unwanted conversations are not heard in future playbacks.

Now, let’s say that you have your headphones plugged in and hear some humming or unwanted sound. How can you get rid of this unwanted, extraneous noise? The first step is to track down the unwanted sound by alternating listening with the headphones and your naked ear. Try to follow the sound with the camera and your headphones then alternate listening with your naked ear.

You will be amazed how the camera will amplify some unwanted sounds more than your naked ear. This is why this step is all-important for assuring a quality product. Bad audio can ruin a good tape very quickly.

Bottom line; always monitor your audio when taping to assure the highest quality possible. Select a good pair of comfortable headphones. Test the headphones out on another system so you can gain perspective on their quality with a reliable source before you ever use them in action videotaping. You should expect to pay $20-$100 for a good pair of headphones.

If you are using an external microphone plugged into the mini “mic in” jack, also monitor this audio for optimum level and clarity. Some of the time, using an aftermarket lavaliere or other mic plugged into your camera will cause buzzes or unwanted sounds. This is due to incompatibility issues or even a defective microphone. Best thing to do when this happens is to try another microphone and troubleshoot through process of elimination.

There are several external microphone scenarios we need to discuss so you have a complete understanding of your audio recording options.
The first scenario is to use a lavaliere microphone clipped onto the lapel of the person (subject) speaking so the sound is up front and tight.

If you are going to use a wired lavaliere microphone, make sure the cord/cable is long enough so you and your subject have plenty of room to move without tripping.
If you are fortunate enough to have a wireless lavaliere, you will have much more movement options. Plus, the burden will be less on the subject because there are no wires to keep track of.

Either way, there are a couple things to mention here that apply to both scenarios. You may need adaptors to convert the microphone to the cable/cord and into the 1/8” input female jack on the camera. Many microphones have an xlr (3 pin) configuration that has to be converted to the 1/8” mini female jack which most cameras have as the external microphone in. Radio Shack is a convenient place to get these adaptors. Plus, Radio Shack makes a great little wired lavaliere with a built in power supply. It is an omni directional lavaliere condenser microphone model 33-3013. The only downside to this little puppy is you will need a 1/8” mono extention cord to lengthen the cable for conenvience. If you are doing an interview, the cable attached to the microphone should be long enough.

Speaking of power supplies, some microphones (usually the higher quality ones) require 12-volt phantom power supplies. Ask the clerk when you purchase your microphone if you will need a phantom power supply. The come in a lot of shapes and sizes, AC and DC powered. Wireless microphones usually do not require phantom power as their receivers and transmitters carry the voltage necessary to power the microphone.

When you clip on the microphone to the subjects lapel, make sure you are far enough from the mouth so you do not experience wind pops. A wind pop is the distortion made when a puff of wind or breath is exerted directly into the microphone’s diaphragm. Also, make sure that the subjects clothing does not rub against the lavaliere.

If the volume is too soft, move the lavaliere closer to the subject’s mouth. Too loud, move away from the mouth until the volume is medium in volume. Listen carefully for clarity and tonality and experiment a little to achieve optimum performance.

The next type of microphone to consider is a hand held. Hand held microphones work nicely in noisy places because the pick up pattern is more directional keeping background noises lower. If your subject is narrating, a hand held mic may prove to be better than a lavaliere because hand held sound better. If you are doing an interview and do not have the ability to mix two lavalieres together, a hand held microphone can be held and directed back and forth to follow the conversation.
Hold the microphone 4 to 6” away from the sound source. If the volume is too loud and distortion occurs, hold the microphone even further away to lower the volume naturally.

Some cameras have an external microphone volume control which can also be adjusted in addition to distance away from the microphone.

The last microphone scenario for your consideration is a headset microphone. The advantage of a headset microphone is when worn on the head, placed in the best location right in front of the mouth; you have the best sound quality. Unlike a lavaliere, you are never off mic with a headset. As you turn your head and gesture, the microphone follows. With a lavaliere, you turn your head and the microphone does not move with your mouth. In this case, you will notice part of the speech has different volume levels because of this phenomenon.

A built in microphone is on every video camera. Depending on your camera make and model some built microphones are better than others. The advantage to using a built in microphone is convenience. The disadvantage is the sound quality. Video always sounds better when a direct microphone is used like a lavaliere or hand held microphone. However in some situations (like run and gun video) it is necessary to use the built in microphone and adjust and enhance the sound afterward.

The iris adjustment is used to open and close the iris based on light conditions so your video is neither over nor under exposed. On some cameras the iris setting is manual and visible on the outside of the camera; on others it is electronic and visible only in the digital LED display in the menu function.

An image stabilizer setting helps to minimize camera movement when shooting off tripod like in a moving vehicle or following a subject walking around. This image stabilizer is a setting that stabilizes the camera and results in a jib like movement without actually using a jib or steady cam. You can get this desired effect by holding the camera at arms length with the stabilizer on and slowly moving the camera fluidly to get the desired effect. You may want to practice and experiment with this technique before you actually use it on a client’s video.

The audio adjustment/volume control is also on the outside of most video cameras and adjusts the audio gain on either the internal or external microphone accordingly depending on what is being used. Be careful especially in digital video applications to not over modulate the audio (record too loud) as this permanently damages the sound quality. It’s easier to raise the volume instead of trying to remove distortion on poor audio. Try to keep the audio mid volume so as to accommodate for loud spikes or gains in the sound.

The battery Pack is perhaps the best part of your camera as this is what makes your camera portable. When you use the AC power supply, you have to have it plugged into an AC outlet. When using the battery pack, you have the flexibility of being portable moving from setting to setting-room to room very easily. It’s a good idea to have back up batteries so you never run out of power. Make sure they are completely charged before you hit the road. I always have (4) fully charged batteries with me when shooting as well as the AC power supply. You can never have too much back up. As a side bar, when you record video outside the United States, you will need a 220volt adapter/converter for your camera and battery charger. Its also a good idea to travel with a second converter as a back up just in case the first one quits.

When we were shooting in Italy, my friend Terry Brock suggested getting a second converter just in case. It was a great idea because on the second day, the first one crapped out.

The battery Charger is often times part of the AC power supply and can be use for both charging and powering the camera. However, as far as I know, all battery chargers will not charge batteries when they are being used as a power supply. If you are using batteries as your power source, as soon as you change one when it is getting low, throw it on the battery charger (if you have AC access) and recharge it so you always have an arsenal of charged batteries just in case.

The light meter or zebra setting to is used to help you determine and gauge light exposure. When the zebra is turned on, you will notice moving (zebra type) lines on your camera display. You always look at the exposure light quality then determine what the zebra activity is. For good point of reference you always want a little zebra movement in the display or monitor. Most likely this zebra activity will not transfer to an external monitor but rather work only in the camera display or viewfinder.

White balance is a crucial setting to adjust when your lighting is established or as soon as you’re lighting changes. Use a white board or paper in the center of your shot and follow the instructions in your manual of how to set your white balance. Footage recorded without properly setting the white balance will not have robust colors and proper white and black levels because the camera has no light and color reference. This is what the white balance does, sets a white reference. Set white levels so colors are as close to real as possible and look at the set through the lens as well as outside the camera view with your naked eye to compare.

N D Filter or neutral density filter is a setting on some cameras that can be used when shooting in extreme light conditions. You will know you need to use your neutral density filter when you can not close your iris enough to compensate for extreme light like bright sun. The neutral density knocks down the light levels so you have a lower range to work with using the other settings like iris and gain. The ND filter is used mostly outdoors to reduce extreme light conditions but can also be used in doors. Experiment with the ND setting before you record video for your client.

Gain is a setting that is used to increase light exposure in dark settings or reduce in bright settings. I love our Cannon XL2 as it has some serious gain settings to shoot in nearly pitch black environments. You can also reduce your shutter speed to gain additional light however, the video may have a strobe effect noticeable mostly in subject movement.

The fire wire port is used to export video from your camera into your computer for editing. It is the highest quality and easiest way to load footage into your computer. Fire wire cables come in many configurations; fire wire on one end and USB and or fire wire on the other end. Look on Amazon for various inexpensive fire wire cables that can be purchased.

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2 Responses to “How to Operate Your Video Camera Like a Professional”

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