Free technical help for digital creators - music, video, art, photography, graphic & web design

Using a camcorder by Matt Ottewill

The discussion of effective camera work has filled many hundred of books since the invention of moving pictures. What follows are some basic points to consider.

Before you start filming

Powering the camcorder

Can you power the camcorder from the mains? Have you got an extension lead? Have you got enough batteries? How long do they last? How long do they take to charge? Can you charge them on location?

DV stock

Do you have enough DV tapes? Plan on taking twice as many as you think you will need. A DV tape holds 60 minutes of video and audio.

Record modes

Is the camcorder in SP (standard play) record mode rather than LP (long play) mode? LP mode is not supported by most desktop editing applications.

Aspect ratios

DV has 4:3 and 16:9 anamorphic aspect ratio modes. Choose the right one before you start filming.

Audio modes

DV has a 4-track 12-bit 32Khz mode and a 2-track 16-bit 48Khz mode. Ensure your camcorder is set to 2 channel 16-bit 48kHz audio mode. This will allow you to capture into Premiere or Final Cut Pro using the DV PAL 48kHz sequence preset.

Burnt in date & time display

Ensure the date & time display is NOT being "burnt into" the video frames.

 Blanking the tape

Blank your DV tapes by setting your camcorder to record mode with the lens cap on and recording from the start to the end of the tape. This will ensure you have continuous SMPTE timecode on tape to enable automated "Device Control"-led batch capture later.

Camcorder features

Familiarise yourself with the camcorder It is vital that you feel completely comfortable with the operation of the DV camcorder before you start filming. Important features to be aware of include ...

  • Focus - Discussed later
  • Exposure - Discussed later
  • Brightness - Discussed later
  • White balance - Discussed later
  • Shutter speed - Manual or auto? Faster speeds for action sequences, but more light required.
  • Program modes - DV camcorders have program presets (auto / interior / exterior / low light /sport / portrait etc). Set the camcorder to an appropriate program and then adjust the parameters as required.
  • Audio modes - Ensure that the camcorder is set to 2 -track 16-bit record mode. Turn the microphone windscreen On for outside and Off for indoors filming.


Unless you are intending to intentionally soften or blur your picture you will need to keep your images sharp. For most applications the Auto Focus feature of your camera will keep focus (Follow Focus) for you but if you wish to shoot one of the following scenarios you will need to focus manually or fix the focus ...

  • You wish to focus on something in the background.
  • You wish to follow a subject which is moving in front of and behind other subjects.
  • You have two subjects, one on the far left and one on the far right of the frame.
  • You are shooting a distant scene and something moves into view in the foreground.
  • Your are zooming.
  • You need to focus on subjects in the fore and backgrounds simultaneously.

In some circumstances you will need to Pull Focus, that is, change the focus manually as you move from one subject to another. Also remember that all lenses have a Minimum Focus Distance within which they cannot focus.

Depth of field

The range of focus or focused zone, is called the depth of field. Close to the camera your depth of field may be very shallow, a subject may only need to move forward or backward by an inch to fall out of focus.

Depth of field is determined by ...

  • Distance from subject
  • Aperture setting
  • Focal length of the lens

Depth is greatest when ...

  • You are focused on something in the background
  • Your lens is wide-angled
  • The aperture is stopped down

Depth is shallow when ...

  • You are focused on something close up
  • Your lens is narrow-angled
  • The aperture is opened wide


Because video cameras can only accommodate a limited range of tones at a time you will need to set the exposure of your shot. Your camera will have an Auto Exposure feature which should cover most lighting conditions. But sometimes you are shooting in changing lighting conditions ...

  • You are shooting a series of outdoors shots over a period of time and the light keeps altering.
  • You are shooting action which moves between interior and exterior locations.
  • Special circumstances such as - you are shooting an interior scene in which an overhead light is swinging back and forth.

Lock exposure

In these circumstances you will need to use adjust exposure manually and Lock Exposure. You can do this either visually or by setting the White Point by using the appropriate camera feature.

White balance

This allows you to set what in the shot will reproduce as white.

Zooming and panning

Zooming and panning are useful tools when following a subject or to introduce drama and movement into a shot that would otherwise look too static. Depending on the camera you have it will be possible to either zoom manually and/or automatically. The problem is that zooming requires constant re-focusing. Using the auto-focus feature can produce unpredictable results as the camera struggles to keep up. Manual focusing requires manipulating another set of controls. (Now you know what a Focus Puller’s job is).

You may find yourself attempting to support the camera, move your body smoothly to pan it (which looks great with a zoom), controlling zoom and controlling focus all at the same time. DIFFICULT! Here’s some tips ...

  • Practise the shot and ensure that Auto Focus can cope.
  • Spread you legs a little and point your toes in the direction of the subject halfway through the arch of your pan/zoom.
  • Swivel you body round to the beginning of the arch and start your shot before your subject comes into frame allowing yourself to build up a steady pace.
  • Follow through past the point at which your edit will drop out.
  • If you need to pan and zoom and come to rest exactly on a subject in close-up, consider shooting in reverse and then reversing back again during editing.

Digital zoom

Many cameras have a Digital Zoom feature. Turn it off, it will produce pixilated pictures.

Supporting the camera

Unless you are intentionally seeking a shaky hand held look to your pictures, you should try to keep the camera as still as possible. Unsteady camera work can be very distracting to watch. If you are going to pan (move from side to side), tilt (move up or down) or zoom you will need to do so in a steady smooth action probably aided by a tripod or mounting of some type. Lightweight tripods are almost useless as they tend to shake as you try to swivel or elevate the camera.

There are 3 primary ways to support a DV camera ...

  • Hand held
  • Rest it in your shoulder
  • Mount it on a tripod of dolly

Choosing what to shoot

The audience will only see what you choose to show them. Anything out of shot, whilst obvious to you, doesn't exist for them. If you watch many TV scenes they will start with a establishing wide (long) shot to show context, perhaps showing the outside of a building in which the action takes place, then perhaps a medium shot of a window or door and finally close-ups of the interior of the room and actors as the scene starts. The dialogue may have started with the establishing shot.

Of course the reverse shooting sequence could work in a scene where the context is not obvious to begin with but is slowly revealed by the director perhaps for dramatic reasons. For example we may start with close-ups of sheets, arms, hair falling across a face, eyes closed, someone apparently asleep, until the a medium shot reveals a body lying on an autopsy table in a hospital morgue.

To recap, the 3 primary shot types are ...

  • Wide, or long, shots (for establishing context and where there is fast action/movement).
  • Medium shots (where there is movement).
  • Close-ups (where there is no danger of the subject moving in and out of frame).

Space precludes an in depth discussion of frame composition and shooting strategies but here are a few tips ...

  • Don’t place your subject centrally, film them (or it) off centre.
  • Plan your shots and make sure you have everything you need to cover the narrative of your sequence or story.
  • If you are following movement let the subject lag behind slightly in the frame.
  • Use the “Rule Of Thirds” to compose your picture. Visualise the frame divided into equal thirds both vertically and horizontally. Place you subjects and horizons on these lines.

Video compression considerations

If you are intending to deliver your video on a CDROM or DVD disc your finished video edit will need to be converted into MPEG compressed files. To help this process to be efficient and produce the best possible quality files you should consider the following ...

  • Use a tripod
  • Move the camera as little as possible
  • Shoot against solid colour backgrounds