Article, July 2006
Traveling With A Video Camcorder
By Joseph Asling, Video Project Coordinator,
MBUG-PC (Monterey Bay Users Group – Personal Computer)
Jasling( at )pacbell.net (click to email author)
Summer is coming and it’s time to go somewhere interesting and photogenic. Many people carry cameras when they travel and not a few of us take camcorders. Here are a checklist and a few suggestions for coming back with better video.
Equipment Checkup - Make sure your camcorder is in good shape. Run a few minutes of tape and see that it looks and sounds OK, otherwise take it in for cleaning. Allow at least two weeks for turnaround.
Camcorder Size - If you haven’t bought your camcorder yet, consider the following: if you plan to do candid shots of people, buy a small, unobtrusive camcorder. Not only will it fit better in your carry-on luggage, but it will attract less attention. Also, some museums allow them in where they will reject larger camcorders because the big ones look professional.
LCD Screen - I usually shoot through the viewfinder, but an LCD screen is useful.
Computer Connection - Make sure your camcorder has an IEEE-1394 (“Firewire”) or USB2 connector, whichever you need to capture to your computer.
DVD vs Tape - Some newer camcorders record to a DVD instead of tape; since it is more difficult to do computer editing with these, I recommend a camcorder which uses mini-DV tape.
Filters - ALWAYS keep a filter on your lens – a scratched filter is cheaper than a scratched lens. A transparent or UV filter is fine for most uses; tinted lenses are of less use because the auto-white balance of the camcorder tries to compensate for it. For sunny days I like a circular polarizer to suppress reflections on glass and water and to make the sky appear bluer. It also doubles as a neutral density filter. Pay the extra for good double-coated glass filters.
Sunshade - If your camcorder has a sunshade with an atypical connector, buy a sunshade which screws onto the front of the filter (I use a round rubber collapsible one).
Camcorder Stand - Tripods are big, heavy, and slow to set up. A monopod gives you much of the stability of a tripod, and if you buy one with a quick-release extension it takes only five seconds to set up. Plus, it doubles as a walking stick on difficult terrain. Spend an extra $20 for a quick-release for the camcorder.
Lights - I don’t recommend you travel with any lights. Unless you’re on a professional shoot they aren’t worth the trouble.
Tape Supply - Take plenty of tape – I take at least 10 hours’ worth! Buy good quality brands such as Sony or Panasonic (people I trust have said bad things about TDK).
I buy Sony at http://www.taperesources.com but there are other reliable websites which will sell packs of five for as little as $3 per tape. (As an aside, NEVER record with the extended time setting on your camcorder – you may not be able to play it on any other camcorder.)
Head Cleaner - Carrying a head-cleaning tape is probably a good idea, although I’ve never had to use it in the field.
Batteries - If you run out of power you are going to be distinctly unhappy. Buy at least one high-capacity extra battery. And don’t forget to pack your recharger. If you are going abroad make sure you have two plug adapters (research what type of adapter you need for where you’ll be), and that your recharger is multi-voltage.
Headsets – These are nice to have but not essential. If you have a microphone monitor output, take a compact headset (like Walkman earphones) for monitoring music. Make sure the plug is compatible.
Weatherproofing - Bring some paper adhesive tape — if you are going to be in a dirty or sandy environment seal the tape door with it so you don’t get sand into the works. If you may be in the rain figure on bringing some kind of plastic cover (maybe large plastic zip lock bags).
When You’re There
Rule 1: tape is cheap! - If you might want a shot, shoot it! Every shot should be at least ten seconds long if possible and if you are going to zoom, shoot several seconds before and after the zoom. You’ll thank yourself when you’re editing.
When you put a fresh tape in your camera, run about a minute of “throwaway” video. Most dropouts occur at the beginning and the end of a tape, and some capture programs can’t handle the first few seconds of a tape.
Watch the Background - Many a shot has been ruined by a telephone pole growing out of someone’s head or a distracting item behind the subject. Often moving a few feet to one side will fix the problem. A corollary to this is to find a good angle: one with clear sight lines and no-one in the way. And don’t get in the way yourself. Years ago, I was in Chichicastenango and a funeral procession happened by. The mourners stopped in front of the Church – and a German tourist with a big camcorder shouldered them out of the way and started videotaping the coffin and the deceased! I cheered when the locals drove him away with rocks.
Tricks for Big Crowds- If you are in a crowd which you can’t see over, hoist the camcorder up on your monopod. If you open the LCD screen and tilt it down you can see what you’re shooting (so, there is a use for that screen).
Tricks for the Kids - One more use for the LCD screen — see if you can reverse it so that the people you’re shooting can watch themselves while you are recording. You’ll get terrific reactions from kids.
Candid Camera - If you are trying to take candid shots, hold the camera at waist level and watch the subject through the LCD screen. Before you do that go into the menu and turn off the red recorder indicator light so your subject won’t know you are recording. It doesn’t always work — in Morocco, one sharp-eyed fellow noticed from 30 feet away what I was doing and came over with his hand out for money. I paid him, of course.
In the Rain - Check the lens frequently when shooting in the rain. Raindrops on your video are understandable but disconcerting.
Narration - If you are shooting something which needs describing, just dictate in a low voice while you shoot; your voice will be audible on the tape. Of course you’ll have to cut out the audio when you edit, so you don’t want to do this over anything you will want to hear as well as see.
Consider what you will say on the voiceover when you edit the video, and make sure you have names and events correctly. I write them down in a little journal every night.
Music - Think about the music you’ll use with the video and record it if you hear local musicians. I have sometimes let a tape run most of an hour just to capture live music (another reason to have plenty of tape).
Background “Chatter” - When traveling with friends, I delicately remind them that anything they say will be picked up by the camcorder. It cuts down on extraneous conversation and four-letter words in your audio!
Documentation - Make sure you label each tape with the trip, location, and tape number. When you put it back in the plastic cover, slide the little switch to lock it so you can’t accidentally record over it. I keep camcorder, tapes and critical accessories in my carryon baggage. The accessories I can’t fit in the carryon go in the checked luggage.
X-Ray at Security - The X-ray machines at security checkpoints have never hurt my videotape, but I’m not sure about the more powerful X-rays of checked luggage.
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