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Chapter Four. Using Your Camcorder Like a Pro > Professional Camera Techniques

Professional Camera Techniques

Here are some tips for camcorder operation that you probably won't find in the manual. There's only one catch: Many of these techniques are primarily applicable to professional models with interchangeable lenses, and some prosumer models that work the same way, but not all camcorders have these features.

Choosing Between 30I and 24P

With the introduction of 24P mode in prosumer camcorders, even videographers on modest budgets can think about shooting at the same frame rate as film. But don't automatically assume that's the way to go. Shooting plain-vanilla NTSC (30I mode) has its benefits.

We'll discuss the postproduction consequences of this decision in a later chapter. (See “Post processing Filters” in Chapter 11.)

We bring up 24P at this early stage to give you another reason for thinking ahead to the results you want in the end.

The reasons to think about it now—when you're selecting and familiarizing yourself with a camera—is to consider the choice from aesthetic and stylistic points of view. When the lights come up, how do you want your audience to feel? Frame rate and the perception of motion do affect them on a subliminal level. So, the choice isn't about being right or wrong. It's like many decisions you'll make along the way: does this choice enhance the mood I want to create?

Traditionally, audiences have come to associate certain types of projects with video, others with film. Video has typically been used for interviews, field reports, educational presentations, live events, and sports. A video image not only captures fast action more smoothly than film does, but also its faster frame rate (enhanced by the sampling of two fields for every frame) imparts a sense of immediacy, of “being there.” In classic video, the audience feels transported to a place where something is happening now.

By contrast, film has been used for storytelling. It's the medium of Hollywood. The blurred motion resulting from its slower frame rate might capture action less accurately than video does, but some people feel it has a texture that video lacks. Audiences have come to expect that a film is not a live experience, but a contrived story. They think of a film as a work of art that was assembled meticulously for later viewing.

With digital tools, it's now possible to make low-cost video look like film. But if that's your objective, the decision involves much more than simply shooting at 24 fps. Going for a film look invites all the other expectations audiences have of Hollywood product—careful, artistic lighting; a musical score that enhances the emotional dimension; layered sound effects that create a rich, realistic audio environment; and even other-worldly special effects. These elements—just as important as frame rate to achieving a convincing filmed look—take time and money.

So, if you don't have adequate time or money, you may not be able to choose a film look. If, for example, you're covering a live event, if the subject is somehow current and newsworthy, or if you're shooting the CEO's speech and you won't get lots takes, striving for a film look might be a needless complication, and the wrong impression to give the audience.

Think of it another way, this time in purely technical terms: shooting in 30I will rarely be a mistake. Software tools such as Red Giant's Magic Bullet will convert 30I footage to 24P in post, as well as help you adjust colors to look more filmic. If, on the other hand, you shoot in 24P and convert to the 30I broadcast standard, the conversion will do nothing to correct the blurred motion effects you captured at the lower frame rate.

Is it better to shoot in 24P, or to shoot in 30I and then apply Magic Bullet in post? In either case, the result will be a 24 fps experience. But you be the judge as to whether one or the other looks better or suits your purposes. On the DVD, we've included a side-by-side comparison of clips shot and post-processed both ways. See "How to Make Digital Video Look Like Film."

Certainly, if you decide to shoot in 30I and post-process for film look, you'll have a wider selection of cameras and lenses in all sizes. You might be disappointed, for example, to choose the Panasonic AG-DVX100 for its 24P feature, only to find the nonremovable Leica lens too limiting on the set.


Be aware that Magic Bullet will not convert 30P to 24P, last we checked; if you want to apply film look later with this tool, you must shoot 30I.

When to Choose Cinema-Style Lenses

Some camcorders come with cinema-style lenses, complete with precise mechanical movement and numeric indexes on the barrel to indicate focal length, f-stop, and zoom position (Figure 4.11). Other lenses have no markings. Canon, for example, offers both unmarked and marked lenses in its accessory options for the XL1S.

Figure 4.11. The lens on this JVC GY-DV5000U has mechanical focus and iris adjustments as well as photographic-style lens markings. Most film-style videographers prefer this type of lens because settings are precise and moves are repeatable. If a film-style crew includes a first camera assistant, he or she will rely on the lens markings rather than the readouts in the viewfinder or on the monitor. (Photo courtesy JVC Professional Products Company.)

Choosing one style or the other is a decision rooted in the different cultures of news-style videographers and film-style DPs. Your choice will be influenced to a great extent by whether you have a camera crew, which crew member operates the camera, and how he does so.

Unmarked lenses aren't designed that way because the manufacturer is trying to save money. Those lenses are unmarked because their electromechanical movement isn't precisely repeatable from one take to the next. In fact, the focus and zoom rings aren't even connected to the lens mechanisms. They are electronic dials that send signals to a servo that adjusts the movement up or down. If you mark the barrel with a grease pencil, and return the ring to that position, the lens probably won't repeat the original setting.

SERVO: Electric motor that translates applied voltages to discrete motion in precisely controllable steps.

If you are the only person operating the camera, especially if you're shooting over-the-shoulder news style, you'll be looking in the viewfinder throughout a take. Lens markings won't matter since you won't be able to see them. You'll want a lens that sends its settings for the current f-stop and zoom position to the viewfinder status display. By contrast, on a film-style shoot, another person besides the camera operator—usually the First Camera Assistant —has her hands on the lens. She will control focus, exposure, and zooming—and since she's not looking through the viewfinder, she must rely on lens markings to adjust settings. The DP or First Camera Assistant may even use a grease pencil to mark the lens barrel so he can make sure retakes use the same lens settings.

Advanced Zoom Techniques

Twisting the zoom ring isn't the only way to control zooming. Most camcorders have a semi-automatic continuous zoom control. It's usually a rocker switch (Figure 4.12) or a pair of pushbuttons labeled In and Out, or + and –, or T (telephoto) and W (wide). For example, to zoom in you press and hold the rocker switch (or the In or + button), and the camcorder increases the magnification until you let go of the switch.

Figure 4.12. For convenience, the XL1S provides a handy zoom rocker control.

CONTINUOUS ZOOM: Changing magnification or demagnification via the semi-automatic zoom control.

Choose the Right Camera Controls for Precision Zooming

Getting a smooth, controlled zoom can be tricky. For one thing, on camcorders that use the unmarked, electromechanical lenses, zooming is subject to all the problems of imprecision we just discussed. But that's not all. The zooming action of most cameras isn't linear. The speed of the zoom may vary depending on how hard or how fast you press the switch: More pressure, or a quicker action, causes faster zooming. It's very important to give yourself time to practice on your camcorder so you can achieve the rate of speed and smoothness you want without visual jerks and jarring effects that will annoy the audience.

You should also experiment with your camcorder's various zoom controls; they often work differently. For instance, the XL1S comes with two zoom controls. The larger zoom rocker switch near the lens barrel is pressure-sensitive, but the smaller switch on the handle isn't. Also, you can vary the sensitivity and speed characteristics of the large switch through the camcorder's menu settings.

No matter which camcorder you use, even if it's on a tripod, you might jiggle it just by putting your finger on the zoom control—especially if you're using a shake-sensitive telephoto setting to begin with. Try using the zoom switch on the camcorder's remote control, if it has one; it lets you operate the zoom without touching the camcorder.

Use Zoom Accessories

If you need precise zooming, start by using one of the photographic-style lenses with mechanical adjustments and markings. These lenses often come with zoom accessories made for motion-picture cameras.

One type of mechanical zooming accessory is totally manual: a smooth, gear-driven crank that attaches to the front of the camera. The crank is easy to use and totally linear in response, which makes it easy to get fancy zooms with precise control.

For truly artful zooming with mechanical lenses, you can get a motorized zoom attachment with a remote LANC (Local Application Control bus) controller. The LANC is a digital control that permits you to pre-program complex zooms and then execute them with a press of the button—without having to touch the camera.

Zoom, Autofocus, and Image Stabilization

Autofocus (AF) and image stabilization are ways to keep the image sharp and steady as the camcorder or its subjects move. (For more information, see “The Price You Pay for Image Processing” in Chapter 3.)

The AF circuit on most camcorders looks at color boundaries between adjacent pixels, assuming these are the object's edges, and adjusts focus until it finds the setting that yields the greatest contrast in values. This works reasonably well as long as nobody is moving or you're not panning, tilting, or zooming the camera.

Zooming is confusing for AF, and its wild, erratic attempts to self-adjust the focus are all too visible. Video technicians call this hunting, and it's very distracting to watch. Attempting to zoom with image stabilization turned on is even worse: the zoom itself becomes erratic.

Whether you're shooting film style or news style, it's best to turn AF and image stabilization off (if you can), hold the camera as steadily as possible, and adjust focus manually, judging the shot through the viewfinder or in the monitor. Once in a long while, if you're in a desperate run-and-gun crisis, AF and image stabilization might save your shot. But if these features are turned on, try to avoid zooming.

Use the Zebra Pattern for Correct Exposure and Contrast Range

For all but the fastest-breaking news-style work, and for all film-style videography, the most reliable tool for monitoring the exposure level of a shot is the zebra pattern. You can find the zebra feature on most prosumer and all professional cameras.

Used correctly, zebra stripes are the best way to make sure you don't overexpose parts of your shot.

Zebra stripes are a black-and-white optical effect that appears in the viewfinder and on the monitor to highlight overexposed portions of the image (Figure 4.13). To adjust for proper exposure, rotate the f-stop ring or dial to reduce the size of the aperture until the stripes disappear.

Figure 4.13. The highlights just above the actor's head in this scene are blown out, or totally overexposed. If the camcorder's zebra pattern is switched on, stripes will appear in these areas in the viewfinder. As you stop down, at some point the stripes will disappear, indicating that the brightest parts of the image are no longer overexposed. However, at this f-stop setting, the rest of the scene may well be underexposed. The best solution is to adjust lighting to remove the highlight, or increase brightness on the rest of the scene.

Once you've done this, as long as the faces in the scene appear well lit, you're ready to shoot. If the faces don't look right, leave the exposure alone, adjust the lights, check the zebra stripes again, and reset the f-stop.


You're the boss, and you can choose to ignore the zebra stripes. For example, if everything in the scene looks great except for a hot highlight, you might make an artistic decision to permit the overexposure (let the highlight blow out). The result will be a white area of the image that contains absolutely no image detail. Therefore, no matter how much you might adjust brightness or contrast in post, you will not find any visual information there. At the risk of overstating the obvious, remember that permitting blown out highlights is an irreversible decision.

BLOWN OUT: White area within a video image that is totally overexposed and contains no picture detail.

The IRE Setting

When the zebra function is on, stripes appear in the viewfinder wherever the light intensity is greater than a preselected numeric value. That value is called an IRE (International Radio Engineers) reference. Camcorders that can display zebra pattern also allow you to change the preselected IRE value.

A value of 100 IRE is pure white. In the NTSC system, black is not zero but IRE 7.5 because of limitations of early television transmitters. (PAL systems set black at 0 IRE, however.)

Most of the time you don't have to fool with the IRE setting, but it's a good idea to check the spec sheets to see how the factory has set the default zebra IRE on your new camcorder. Many camcorders are preset to 78 IRE, far less than pure white, to keep you from blowing out the highlights on people's faces, which range from 70 to 85 IRE, depending on skin tone.

If you shoot news style, an IRE setting of 78 is a good idea, provided you aren't so busy you have to rely on AE—in which case the zebra function will be disabled.

Setting Black Balance

The white-balance control on a camcorder is crucial to getting good-looking color in your shots. It's closely related to setting and rigging lights. (For more information, see “The Importance of White Balance” in Chapter 6.)

The opposite setting—black balance—also exists, but you will rarely have to deal with it. A camcorder sets its black balance—the absence of signal on all three primary colors—when you turn the unit on. This automatic feature is fairly reliable and probably won't need attention unless you haven't used the camcorder in a long time, or it's gotten physically cold or hot while being transported.

BLACK BALANCE: Camcorder color compensation adjustment when red, green, and blue signals are all effectively zero.

If you've set the white balance, but the colors in your scene still look odd when you play them back, try setting the black balance. Cover the lens with its lens cap, and with the camera on, press the Black Balance button (if there is one), or adjust the video gain until the image in the viewfinder or on the monitor looks black. Then, take the lens cap off and repeat the manual white-balance procedure.

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