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FEATURE

 

VIDEO ON VACATION

 

INTRO

A few well-chosen accessories can help improve the look of your video movies. Rick Maybury checks out a few extra items for your holiday luggage

 

COPY

Summer’s coming, time to hike the camcorder out from the bottom of the wardrobe. In the past ten years camcorders have become as much a part of the annual holiday ritual as remembering to pack the suncream and swimming trunks. So too -- unfortunately -- is the scourge of the badly-made, boring and over-long video movies, inflicted on family and friends afterwards; but it needn’t be like that. A few simple accessories and gadgets -- used before, during and after the event -- plus some basic movie-making techniques, can transform a dull video movie into a watchable and enjoyable mini-epic.  

 

ACCESSORY ROUNDUP

 

BAGS

Slinging several hundred pounds worth of camcorder over your shoulder, trusting it to the cheap strap that came with the machine, is just asking for trouble. It’s going to bash into things, and provide snatch-thieves with a very tempting target. Basic padded camcorder bags are reasonably cheap -- you can pick one up for under £20 -- and most of them have pockets and pouches for spare tapes, batteries and accessories. However until fairly recently they have been somewhat bland, and apparently made out of the same material as anoraks. These days there’s plenty of snazzy, colourful and dare we say, quite stylish designs, to choose from. Check out the up-market designer ranges from Hama and Vivanco, Hama also market some classy Samsonite bags if you’re happy with the traditional look. The ultimate camcorder bags are made by Billingham. They’re timeless, hewn from tough canvas and leather, that will almost certainly outlast the equipment they’re designed to protect. Needless to say they’re not cheap, the smallest ones start at around £60, rising to over £150 for the larger models, but it’s money well spent and they’re the sort of thing you’ll be handing down to your children.

 

BATTERIES

Camcorder manufacturers are unbelievably optimistic when it comes to battery life. The times printed in most instruction books relate to continuous operation, not the sort of stop-start recording that occurs in the real world. The simple rule of thumb is to halve the manufacturers quoted figures; on most models that means you’ll get around 15 to 20 minutes recording time from a standard battery. If you want more then carry a spare battery or two with you. It’s a good idea to get a high-capacity pack, apart from giving longer running times they usually work out cheaper. The dearest batteries are the manufacturer’s own replacements, which can be two or three times as much as equivalent quality packs from accessory manufacturers. Beware of suspiciously cheap battery packs, there’s a lot of old rubbish around. You’re generally safe with the better known brands such as Aico, Bandridge, Camlink, DSM, Hama, IQ,  Keene, Uniross Varta and Vivanco. A lot of camcorder batteries look the same, especially the 6 volt packs used on 8mm machines, so make sure you get the right one. Most packs contain nickel-cadmium cells, nickel metal-hydride batteries are a little smaller and lighter -- for a given capacity -- and can have longer useful lives, but they are usually more expensive.

 

BATTERY CARE

Nickel-cadmium batteries have a finite life; with care they can generally withstand around 1000 charge/discharge cycles. Unfortunately the treatment metered out to them by the fast-chargers -- supplied as standard with most camcorders -- reduces their life-expectancy by 50%, moreover they encourage the build-up of the so-called ‘memory effect’ or cell imbalance. This can occur after just a few months frequent use and repeated top-up charges, where one or more of the cells inside the battery reaches a full charge before the others. This shuts the charger off prematurely, so the pack never achieves a full charge. Fortunately the memory effect can be eliminated by carefully discharging the whole pack, so that all of the cells are back on an equal footing. A growing number of camcorder battery chargers have ‘refresh’ or ‘discharge’ facilities, if so use it, otherwise it’s a good idea to get hold of an accessory charger/discharger. Most accessory manufacturers have one in their range but the Hahnel Twin V101 at around £39 is good value, moreover by changing the battery adaptor plate it can be used with other types of rechargeable battery, including mobile phone packs, which also suffer from cell imbalance.

 

EDITING

It’s impossible not to make mistakes, there’s always going to be a few scenes that are too long, in the wrong place, or so bad they should be chopped out, but unlike cine film, you can’t cut out the iffy bit with a pair of scissors and some sticky tape. The only way to edit video tape is to copy selected scenes from the camcorder to a VCR. It’s easy, just connect the two machines together using a set of AV leads, and record each sequence in turn, using the VCR’s pause control to set the edit in and out points. Some camcorders have edit control terminals, which allows them to be used with an edit controller. They’re microprocessor controlled gadgets, that memorise the cut-in and out points of selected scenes, and control the VCR. Most controllers allow the ‘edit decision list’ or EDL to be fine-tuned, prior to committing the finished production to tape. Models worth considering include the IQ Studio Edit controller at £170, and the Videonics ‘Thumb’s Up for around £150. If you’ve got a PC, and a suitable camcorder fitted with a Control L or LANC edit terminal then Gold Disc Video Director Home edit control software and connecting cables is good value for money at just £50.

 

LENSES & FILTERS

If you buy no other accessory for your camcorder at the very least you should get a neutral-density filter. There’s no excuse, they only cost a few  pounds, but could save your machine from an early grave. An ND filter will protect the lens from scratches, and help the camcorder’s exposure system to cope more easily with bright sunlight, reflections from water, sand or snow.

 

The zoom lenses fitted to most camcorders are remarkably versatile but they do usually have one shortcoming, and that’s poor wide-angle performance. Most of the time it doesn’t matter too much, but it can become painfully apparent with group-shots, especially indoors, when you may have difficulty squeezing everyone in. At the other end of the scale video movies rarely manage to capture the grandeur of a spectacular landscape. The solution in both cases is a wide-angle converter lens.  IQ have the ‘Insta Wide’ clip-fit converter, that fits most compact machines with 34 and 37mm filter threads; it costs around £20. Better still is the Aico 3-In-One, a combined telephoto, wide-angle and fish-eye converter for £66. This has a 37mm fitting but adaptor rings are available for most other common sizes.

 

LIGHTS

Nowadays most camcorders do a pretty good job recording indoors, under normal room lighting conditions but picture quality is not usually that great; the more light you have the better. A handful of machines have built-in video lights, but they’re not very powerful, and only useful for close-ups. It’s well worth buying a video light if you intend to do a lot of recording inside, they’re not that expensive. A few models can be powered from the camcorder’s own battery; whilst this is very convenient,  it has a drastic effect on recording times. A battery that would normally last for 15 to 20 minutes could expire after just five minutes when used to power a light as well. It’s far better to use a light that has its own battery -- usually the same type of re-chargeable battery pack that camcorders use -- or, if you’re going to be recording for any length of time, a heavy-duty shoulder pack or battery belt. Ease of fitting and light outputs vary;  30 watts is least you can get away with for most applications. The Vivanco VL48 and Hama 6937 both cost less than £30 (excluding a 6-volt battery pack); the Hama light clips onto the camcorder’s battery but you might need to buy a accessory bracket to use the Vivanco model.

 

MICROPHONES

Camcorder microphones, like lenses, are a compromise. They’re fine most of the time but there’s plenty of situations when their limitations become apparent. The subject might be too far away to be heard, or their voice is swamped by ambient noise. A separate microphone is useful for recording interviews or round-table discussions, or simply giving the subject something to do with their hands. Incidentally, not all camcorders have microphone sockets, if that applies to your machine you might as well skip the rest, sorry. There’s an accessory microphone for every possible occasion. Zoom, directional and parabolic mikes are useful for capturing distant sounds, they’re popular with wildlife videographers. Wireless microphones are particularly versatile. A small receiver module clips on to the camcorder, the subject carries the transmitter in their pocket, or on a belt. Camlink’s MG49S2 has a range of around 100 metres, it comes with a tie-clip mike and costs just under £50. A combined mike headset, like the Vivanco VSR67 allows the camera operator to monitor sound, and give a running commentary, it costs around £25. Basic hand-held or stick microphones are widely available for under £10. If you do a lot of shooting outdoors a hairy mike ‘muff’ or wind gag is useful for cutting down wind roar; prices start at around £8.00.

 

POST PRODUCTION

In addition to editing your holiday epic it might be a good idea to tidy up the soundtrack, add some background music or a commentary, correct colour errors, maybe mix in some special effects, or how about some opening titles and end credits? Everything is possible, in fact less than ten years ago the kind of post production facilities now available to home video movie-maker would not been out of place in a well-equipped TV or video studio. One of the simplest and most effective tools is an audio mixer. They enable the original soundtrack to be mixed or replaced with other sounds, including music, speech or both, at the editing stage, or afterwards, on VCRs equipped with audio-dub facilities. Simple stereo audio mixers sell for less than £20 but a better option is to get a combined mixer and video processor, like the Camlink VMX-2000 (£80) or IQ Studio AV (£120) which both have video faders and basic picture controls. Sophisticated video mixers, which combine moving pictures from two video sources, is now within reach of home video movie-makers. The new Videotech VMX410 costs just £800, it also features multiple wipe patterns, numerous digital special effects plus a 3-channel audio mixer.

 

STABILITY AIDS

Quite a few camcorders have electronic image stabilisers, which do a fair job of neutralising small amounts of camera shake, but none of them can match a good tripod. Hand-held camera shots are the number-one give-away, that a recording has been made by an amateur. Take a look at any professionally made film or video recording. Most of the time the camera stays still whilst the actors or subject provide all the movement, unless there’s a need to follow the action or create a particular effect, and even then the pan or tilt is smooth and controlled. True, not everyone wants to lug a tripod around with them on their holidays, but there’s plenty of small compact models on the market, that are useful for steadying the machine, on a wall or similar flat, stable surface. The Techno Mini Flexipod costs only £5.00 and it’s small enough to slip into a jacket pocket. Monopods are almost as steady as tripods and very convenient.  The Manfrotto 479-4 cost less than £35, but for a useful lightweight, go-anywhere tripod the Slik U9000 at £70 is hard to beat.

 

KEEP IT DRY

Normally it’s a very bad idea to take your camcorder anywhere near water, but most machines can be protected from rain and sea spray by placing them inside a plastic bag, which will keep it safe on the beach or during a sudden downpour.  Better still, get a proper rain hood. They’re not much more sophisticated than a plastic bag, but they’re shaped to fit the camcorder, with a transparent window at the front for filming. Most accessory shops have a selection of sizes, prices start at under £10. Quite a few camcorder manufacturers market purpose-designed splashproof, water-resistant and even underwater housings for their machines. Sony have always been very good in this respect and have cases for most of the machines they’ve made in the past 10 years. Sharp and Canon are catching up, but there’s quite a few gaps in their ranges. You can expect to pay £70 to £100 for a simple weatherproof or ‘sports’ housing, which isn’t too bad considering the complexity of the construction. Waterproof housings from the camcorder manufacturers, capable of protecting a camcorder to a depth of several metres, cost whole lot more, typically £300 to £1500. Several companies specialise in waterproof cases for a variety of popular machines; Camcorders Underwater have a wide range of submersible housings for Sony, Panasonic and other makes, that are safe to a depth of 10 metres, for around £200.   

 

 

Contacts:

Aico International (Hahnel, Slik), telephone  (01635) 49797

Apex (Camlink), telephone (01707) 266222 

Bandridge Ltd., telephone 0181-543 3633

Billingham Bags, telephone (01384) 482828

DSM Video, telephone (01942) 272730

Cameras Underwater, telephone (01404) 812277

Hama UK (Videonics), telephone (01256) 708110

Jessops (IQ), telephone (0116) 2320033

Keene Electronics, telephone (01332) 830550

Uniross, telephone (01275) 858101

Varta Batteries, telephone (01460) 77470

Videotech, telephone (01622) 729872

Vivanco, telephone (01442) 231616

 

 

TEN TOP CAMCORDERING TIPS

 

* Plan your movie, create a story. Don’t wait until you get there to start shooting. Show the preliminaries, a stack of holiday brochures makes a good opening shot.

 

* Set the scene, show local landmarks, famous building, even road-signs, so the audience know where they are

 

* Keep it short. Each shot should last for no more than 10 seconds, unless something really interesting is happening.

 

* Sun, sea and sand. Essential ingredients for a good holiday but instant death to a camcorder. Don’t allow them to mix...

 

* Keep it logical. When shooting sequences of movement of people or objects try to make sure they’re always travelling in the same direction, otherwise it gets confusing

 

* Use the fader if there’s going to be a jump in time or distance between the last shot and the next one

 

* Remember you’re recording sound as well. When things get quiet fill in with a running commentary, or get someone to do a Judith Charmers impression

 

* Keep it steady. Avoid lots of panning if you can. Keep the camcorder still and let the scene and the subjects provide the movement

 

* Leave that bloody zoom control alone! By all means use it to frame shots, but wild zooming looks amateurish, and it’ll make your audience queasy

 

* Give your movie an ending. Sunsets are cliché, but effective.

 

 

---end---

Ó R. Maybury 1996 0904

 

 

 

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