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Perhaps the single most important characteristic of a camcorder is how it looks and feels when you pick it up. Hopefully, you've tried out the camera before buying or renting, but even if you haven't, give yourself some time to get used to it.

Physical Size, Weight, Balance

Camcorders are lighter than ever, but there's a catch: Although it's easier to hold lightweight camcorders for extended periods of time, you may find it difficult to keep them steady during a take. Heavier camcorders have more inertia, which promotes smoother movement.

Keeping the camcorder steady is also a matter of balance, and the biggest factors in camcorder balance are the size and weight of the lens and the counterbalancing weight of the camera body itself.

Lens optics are made of glass, and glass is heavy. Most good camcorders have a compound zoom lens that weighs several pounds all by itself. The camcorder body, the part that houses its electronics and recorder, is relatively light. As a result, camcorders with zoom lenses tend to be front-heavy, and holding them steady during a shoot can be a challenge.

Use Back-Weighted Cameras for Shooting News Style

Front-heavy cameras can be particularly annoying if you are shooting handheld, news style, which is one reason news-style videographers prefer to work with their cameras on their shoulders (Figure 4.1). In the old days, when cameras were briefcase-size and weighed 10 pounds or more, this was the only practical way to carry them. However, even with the new, lighter models, many videographers still find it easiest to keep the camera steady with its back resting on their shoulders.

Figure 4.1. Veteran news videographers prefer to carry their camcorders slung over the shoulder. This provides better balance and lets them operate the controls easily using both hands.

For this reason, some manufacturers who make camcorders intended primarily for news crews have added extra weight at the back to counterbalance the front-heaviness of the lens—a so-called shoulder-mount body. A back-heavy camcorder tends to stay in place on your shoulder as you move about. JVC's GY-DV5000U is an example.

By contrast, the body of Canon's XL1S is relatively light, causing it to be front-heavy with any of its big lenses attached. To make the XL1S more suitable for over-the-shoulder news-style work, you'll probably want a weighted shoulder pad (Figure 4.2), which provides a comfortable resting place for the camera on your shoulder as well as a counterbalance for the weight of the lens.

Figure 4.2. You can buy a weighted shoulder pad for the Canon XL1S, which compensates for the front-heaviness caused by its large lens. This attachment (shown here mounted on the camera) also has professional-style XLR audio jacks and a wireless microphone receiver. (Photo courtesy Canon U.S.A., Inc.)

Camera Balance for Shooting Film Style

If you're shooting film style, the camera will usually be locked down—set on a tripod or some other mount—and you won't need to worry about its weight, except when you're moving it from one setup to another. (Of course you might want to shoot handheld for effect.)

LOCKED DOWN: Immobilized camera on a stationary mount, such as a tripod.


To a veteran cinematographer, “locked down” means tightening the screws so hard that the camera is absolutely unmovable on its tripod or mount. But you'll also hear less picky types use the term to simply mean “stationary,” as opposed to handheld or mechanized movement.

But even if the camcorder is on a mount, weight is still a consideration for another reason: It affects the quality, size, weight, and expense of the camera mounts you must buy or rent. A heavy camcorder needs a relatively expensive tripod and head to safely support the camcorder and provide smooth movement.

HEAD: The mechanism on top of a tripod or dolly that holds the camera and allows you to move it.

Moreover, balance is still a big factor even if the camcorder is mounted on a tripod. If the weight is distributed unevenly, it will affect how easily and smoothly you'll be able to pan, tilt, and move the camera on its mount. Professional tripods have a movable base plate that you can slide backwards or forwards to precisely align the camera's center of gravity over the tripod attachment point.

Viewfinders, LCD Screens, and Monitors

Camcorders offer two basic methods to help you frame your shot: viewfinders and flip-out LCD screens. Film-style shooters tend to prefer viewfinders. News-style videographers find that flip-out screens allow them to hold the camera more steadily when they're making hand-held shots, especially with smaller cameras. (LCD screens are also handy for checking menu settings when it's not convenient for you to be looking through the eyepiece.)

VIEWFINDER: Lets you see the current view through the lens of a camcorder. Status information is usually displayed as well.

LCD: Liquid crystal display that shows the current view through the lens of a camcorder. The LCD may be either internal (seen through the viewfinder) or external (on a small door that flips out from the camera body).

EYE CUP: Rubber shield surrounding the eyepiece of a camera viewfinder

STATUS DISPLAY: Alphanumeric readouts that appear in the camcorder viewfinder (and sometimes on a field monitor) showing f-stop, battery level, current timecode, Rec/Pause/ Standby, and more.


You'll recognize the viewfinder by its eyepiece, a small lens surrounded by a rubber shield called an eye cup (Figure 4.3). The eyepiece shields the image from surrounding glare.

Figure 4.3. Sighting through the camcorder's eye cup lets you see the viewfinder display: a shot through the lens, overlaid with alphanumeric text that gives you information on current camera settings. (Photo courtesy Canon U.S.A., Inc.)

The viewfinder focuses on a tiny LCD screen inside the camera body that displays the video picture. The image is a miniature of the shot you'll capture if you press the Record Start/Stop button. The viewfinder status display also shows alphanumeric text and symbol overlays that tell the operator about camera settings, lighting conditions, and the charge level of the battery.

Depending on the camera, the viewfinder display will be black-and-white or color. Most film-style videographers prefer black-and-white viewfinders, since it's easier to judge focus and other picture details with a black-and-white display.

Film-style videographers should also look for camcorders whose viewfinders can be set to overscan, showing an area that's slightly larger than the final frame of the recorded picture—a standard motion picture feature you'll now find on some prosumer and professional camcorders. That extra area surrounding the picture will help you spot moving subjects before they enter the frame. The fraction of a second warning you gain might give you just enough time to point the camera or change focus. This is particularly useful for anticipating an actor's entrance. (This feature is not currently supported on any flip-out screens that we know of. But you can get much the same effect by not pressing your eye up hard against the eyepiece—that way you can see things in your peripheral vision.)

OVERSCAN: Camera viewfinder function showing a larger image area than will actually be recorded.

External LCD Screens

Many camcorders offer an additional preview device—an external LCD screen that flips out from the body of the camera like a car door (Figure 4.4). Compared to the internal LCDs used in viewfinders, these external LCD screens are relatively large—one or two inches across. The display is usually in color.

Figure 4.4. This is a DVCAM unit designed for news crews. In addition to the handy flip-out LCD screen, a swivel attachment lets you point the built-in mic directly at sound sources that aren't directly in front of the lens. (Photo courtesy Sony Electronics Inc.)

The flip-out LCD screen lets you shoot hand-held with the camcorder in front of your body, rather than pressed to your head. This technique makes for a steadier picture: when you press the eyecup of a viewfinder to your face, then walk and shoot, physical contact with the bobbing of your head jars the camcorder. If you use the flip-out screen, you can cradle the camcorder in your hands, away from your face. The muscles at your elbows are natural shock absorbers, smoothing the camcorder's ride and steadying the image. This is just what the director ordered for run-and-gun news gathering, especially if you're using a small camera.


Most flip-out screens are mounted on a swivel so you can rotate them for viewing as you stand facing the camera lens. This feature can be useful if you don't have a crew and you're standing in for a close-up, or if you're shooting your own presentation. You'll notice that rotating the screen also causes the image to be presented not only upright, but also mirrored. This might seem odd at first, but clever camcorder designers realized that subjects are more used to seeing themselves in a mirror. In fact, it can be quite difficult to keep yourself in frame if you turn mirroring off (which you can do through the menu), in which case you'll see yourself the way others see you—with your hair parted on the “wrong” side!

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