Before each shoot, I print a checklist of configuration items for each camcorder and each shot location. This forces me to consider how I want to set each option beforehand, and helps me verify that I’ve done so, especially when working with multiple shooters. Here are the items on my checklist and some thoughts to consider for each. I’m sure you know all this stuff; what’s important is the discipline of reviewing these options beforehand, rather than assuming that you, or your fellow shooters, will get them right on-the-fly.
First up is format, which I set before leaving my office. I typically shoot in HDV mode for any serious production bound for DVD, even if it’s only SD DVD, because I like the editing and framing wiggle room that HDV provides. On the other hand, I always shoot in DV when shooting for streaming, and usually with less formal shoots, like my children’s recitals or assemblies.
Along with format, I also need to decide whether the video is interlaced or progressive. It’s almost always the former, but again, when shooting for streaming, I always shoot in progressive. Similarly, when shooting for streaming, I use 24 fps; otherwise, 30 fps.
Next up is aspect ratio. Obviously, the client has input into this, but my default for stage events and weddings is 16:9, while most tutorials and instructional videos are 4:3.
Next is exposure strategy, which depends upon the type of event, the camera that I’m using, and who’s driving the camera. For example, when filming a stage event with changing light conditions, I typically control exposure manually via aperture controls, sometimes adding gain, but only when I absolutely need to.
However, few of my shooter buddies are comfortable adjusting aperture controls on-the-fly, so if someone else is driving the camera, I need an auto setting that works effectively. If I’m driving two cameras, which happens a lot, I set the static back camera on auto exposure, and manually control exposure on the close-up camera.
For stage events, spotlight mode is my go-to auto exposure mode. The camcorder makes sure that the bright spots in the middle of the frame, usually the face, are properly exposed, which is what I want. This is different from backlight mode, which cares more about exposure in the background, and often leads to very dark faces.
Not all camcorders have spotlight mode, and settings differ by camera. On my Canon XH A1, spotlight mode is a setting on the control wheel that you choose when you turn the camera on. On the Sony VX2000 and FX1, it’s a button that you push after powering on the camcorder. If you turn off either Sony during the shoot (say, to change batteries), you have to re-engage spotlight mode after you turn the camcorder back on, a detail you should remember for yourself, and remind your camera jockeys.
For interviews and tutorials, I tend to be the only shooter, and lighting is controlled, so I manually control exposure. Weddings are tough because there are multiple locations, each with unique lighting requirements, and conditions can change over time, especially outdoors. Obviously, you need a white balance strategy, which is also tougher if you change locations. If you set white balance manually under the incandescent lights in church, you’re hosed if you forget to switch over once you start shooting outside. Overall, when shooting over a range of conditions in a hectic environment, auto-everything starts to look better and better, especially if you’re working with less sophisticated second and third shooters.
When formulating your strategy, remember to consider the effectiveness of each camcorder’s auto controls. Auto exposure is extremely effective with my Sony VX2000 and HDR-FX1, but while the Canon XH A1 is the sharpest camera I’ve seen when driven manually, its auto-gain settings produce video reminiscent of an NFL playoff game played in the snow at Lambeau, a detail I need to consider when choosing my settings.
If you opt for manual exposure control, you’ll probably have to choose shutter speed and gain settings before the shoot, then adjust aperture as you go. I almost always shoot at a shutter speed of 60, and for those camcorders with a three-setting gain adjustment, set the levels at 0, 3, and 6 dB.
Next I nail down focus. My default is autofocus for stage events, and manual focus for interviews and training shoots. If I’m on a tripod, I always disable image stabilization, though I’m guessing that any issues are largely vestigial. On those rare instances where I’m working handheld, I make sure that image stabilization is engaged.
Last is audio strategy. For each camcorder, I have to decide both where the audio is coming from, whether from a soundboard or internal or external microphone. Then I need to decide whether I’ll control volume manually or with AGC.
If you customize picture controls, you need to factor this in as well. There are myriad other settings to mess with; the key point is to consider the optimal settings in advance, taking into account both your equipment and your personnel, and to create a system for ensuring that all the cameras on your shoot using those settings. And if you can keep all this straight without writing it down, more power to you!
Jan Ozer (jan at doceo.com) is a frequent contributor to industry magazines and websites on digital video-related topics and the author of DV 101: A Hands-On Guide for Business, Government & Educators, published by Peachpit Press.