I’ve been having a discusion with Mark Hancock of the Beaumont Enterprise about which low-end camcorder to purchase. His goal is to do what I did – get a low-end camera and teach himself how to shoot and edit video (OK, so i was a mite different – I needed to learn nonlinear). He’s made his decision and hopefully will be in the store today and home playing tonight. But he reminded me of what happened when I got my very first digital camcorder. I put it through its paces. Was used to broadcast cameras and wanted to see what this teensey little camera could do. So here goes.
Open the box and smell the new. Pull out the camera – it’s never gonna be this pristine again. Put the lens cap on right away, and your skylight filter if you opted for one (hope you did). Now start turning it over and around and get to know the exterior. Find all those little nooks and crannies and plastic and metal covers that hide the goodies and open each one up. (Oh – and if you can’t find them, do what I did after a week of owning my first camcorder: look in the manual. I couldn’t find the pesky firewire port….on the ZR at the time hidden under a cover just beneath the lens and mike.) It doesn’t hurt to have the manual open to the diagram so you can see what you’re looking for.
Hopefully the battery has a charge – so attach it. Turn on camera to camera/shoot mode and look through the viewfinder and adjust the diopter to your eyesight. Go into the menu and set up your time and date.
Now for the tape – the tape carriage is one of the most delicate parts of your camcorder (and the mechanical part you’ll have the most contact with). Once you’ve discarded the tape wrapper, open the tape carriage. Check your manual on this if you aren’t sure, and gentley insert the tape. The carriage will have a tiny label that says “Push.” This is where you push and no where else. You can twist your carriage out of alignment by pushing in the wrong area. Once you’ve pushed, the carriage will begin to pull the tape into the camera…let it go all the way in and then close the tape door.
Time to really start playing. I did some seemingly stupid stuff. Walked around the house, inside and outside, shooting in all kinds of light. Wanted to see how good the auto-white was. Put the camera on a tripod and shoot a wide, medium, and close up. Then put an object within inches of the lens to get a feel for how close I could go with macro. Check out the zoom and get a feel for how fast it goes.
Now turn the camera on yourself. Have it on the tripod and do an audio test. Stand two feet away and state, “I’m two feet away,” then step back and repeat at four, six, eight and ten feet. When you play this back you’ll get an idea of how well your mike captures sound.
Get into the menu. I honestly hate those tiny little dials and menus…but they do give you some control and you should know how to work them. Find your manual control for exposure and focus and test them. Go into the manual white balance and balance on a white object in sunlight and then turn and look at an area lit by tungston. Big difference. If you want a real red sunset…you can white balance on the cool side of a car (bluish white) to enhance the warmer colors.
Your camera has two modes: camera and playback. Go into playback and figure out how to play, fast forward and rewind.
This may take a few days or weeks, but really get to know your gear. You shouldn’t have to think before shooting, especially if you’re on a breaker. Oh – one last hint. Before I roll on a story I shoot off ten seconds of bars (or I cap the lens and shoot ten seconds of black). When I go to look at tape, this tells me I’ve either changed location or stories. It also helps when you playback some tape…you don’t lose your time code by rolling past the last recorded segment and you aren’t in danger of erasing the last few seconds of your last shot.