Take One

Article from Maryland Family Magazine, By Jennifer SurfaceBreak with tradition this holiday season when you pull out your camcorder and prepare to preserve priceless memories. Leave in the past the telltale signs of the amateur videographer—such as wobbly footage and boring blow-by-blow accounts—and get ready to create timeless family films that everyone will clamor to watch again and again.Read on for the secrets of professionals and other practiced parents on how to video like a pro.

Pick the right camera

Selecting the right camera is an important first step, and that doesn’t mean blowing the bank on the most miniscule model or the one with the fanciest features, according to Frederick-based videographer Michael Liebergot. “Everyone’s ergonomics are different because everyone has different sized hands. It’s got to be comfortable when you hold it,” he said, adding that the size of the camcorder and its accessories do come into play for parents who plan to pack it for a vacation.

In addition to trying the camcorder for comfort, test out its features and see if they are easy enough to figure out.

Jacksonville parent Michael Jacobs said he found his camcorder’s zoom function to be much too sensitive for his liking after purchasing his camera, and would caution others to be aware of such factors when making a choice. Jacobs, a father of three who most frequently uses his camcorder to record his son Matt’s high school wrestling matches, also recommends keeping it simple. “Even the most basic and inexpensive camcorder is sophisticated enough for almost anyone,” he said. “I think many people make the mistake of wasting their money on features they’ll never use or take the time to figure out.”

The jury’s out on whether consumers should tap into the emerging market of high-definition camcorders, which use the latest technology to increase the clarity and resolution of the picture. On the one hand, WJZ Channel 13 video editor Brent Myers, of Ellicott City, says it’s logical for consumers to follow the technology trends in hopes of purchasing a camcorder with a longer shelf life. “Everything tends to be moving that way,” said Myers, who is also an independent videographer. “The technology is just amazing.”

Liebergot, on the other hand, says he’s seen countless ads on Internet auction sites where people are attempting to re-sell fairly new high-definition camcorders. “Basically, it’s overkill. They all say, “It’s too much camera for me,’” Liebergot said, adding that high- definition cameras only accentuate the flaws of novices, like shaky footage. Most would agree, however, that it’s important to invest in a spare battery and back-up tapes or discs, or cards.

Get a good, steady shot

“As cameras get smaller—and they’re getting tiny—they are also getting lighter, and that makes it harder to get a steady shot,” Liebergot said. The simplest way to accomplish this is by using a tripod. If a tripod set-up is not possible, use a shoulder harness or hold the camera close to your body, keeping your arms and elbows tucked close to your body, and stand with your feet shoulder length apart, Liebergot said.

Be aware of where you are

Film people at eye-level. When filming small children and babies, Liebergot recommends getting down to the children’s level, which might include sitting in a chair, kneeling on the floor or bellying up to the floor. “You’ll get a better reaction, especially with babies—you get a smile,” he said. Not only does this technique capture the children’s expressions, it may make the children more comfortable and playful than a camera hovering over them. When filming indoors, be aware of light and audio. At home, turn on as many lights as possible, and avoid shooting back- lit objects and people—they will often result in shadowy silhouettes, Liebergot said.

For the shots when audio really matters, such as grandpa telling stories of his childhood, position the camcorder as physically close to the subject as possible, Liebergot said. Zooming in across the room won’t help capture grandpa’s words. Many stores carry light and microphone attachments to enhance consumer-grade camcorders, although they are not nearly as powerful as those employed by the pros. These features improve a camcorder’s capabilities, although turning on household lamps and shooting in close proximity to the subjects’ voices usually will suffice for home videos, Liebergot said.

Tell a story

Home videos should tell a story, so plan ahead to take the necessary footage throughout the day. Start out by taking some preparatory shots that will come in handy when you edit the footage. For example, on Thanksgiving, film the feast as it sits at an empty table, then again when the family has crowded around to share the meal. On Hanukah, film a quiet shot of the glowing menorah, to be set in contrast against a busy family scene. Document the Christmas decorations around the house—the glittering Christmas tree, garlands and stockings — followed by footage of the children discovering the gifts in the morning. These preparatory shots will help “lead the viewer” through the day when you edit the footage, Liebergot said.

Edit, edit, edit

Affordable video editing programs, like Apple’s iMovie, have made it easy to finish the project by splicing together the best video clips, adding titles, making transitions and putting it to music. The switch from tape-based to file-based camcorders has made the filming and editing process more user-friendly and convenient, allowing parents to “do it yourself” with the help of editing software, DVD burners and personal computers, Myers said. “It’s pretty neat for parents if they want to do stuff with their kids,” Myers said. “Basically, the technology allows people to do what (the professionals) are doing, but on a consumer scale. The technology is there—it’s amazing. ” With older tape-based models, reviewing the footage meant watching it in “real time,” but with file- based programs, users can snip and skip through their footage with ease, Myers said.

When he films a wedding and reception, Liebergot condenses three hours of footage into a 15 or 20-minute highlight video. His rationale is that the final product must be manageable to watch. If the viewer knows watching the video is a two-hour commitment, he or she is less likely to pop it into the player. “People have short attention spans, so keep it as brief and to the point as possible. Give the key elements, but cut out things that get redundant,” he said. “At a wedding or bat mitzvah, how much dancing can you watch? Make it into a montage.” When filming, keep the editing process in mind. To avoid choppy footage, make sure each scene you film is long enough to edit and accentuate with transitions like fades, wipes or dissolves. To accomplish this, keep the camera rolling several seconds before and after the focus of the shot. Although you may be intimately familiar with the footage, remember that your audience needs a few seconds to absorb the content of each scene or shot before it’s off the screen. Don’t move too fast.

Jacobs warns against investing in expensive and complicated professional-grade editing programs. Instead, he recommends simple video editing software, which often comes free with a computer or camcorder. “From basic software, you can make sophisticated digital videos,” he said.

Relax and have fun

A nervous cameraman makes his subjects nervous, too, Liebergot warns. “It should be fun if you’re shooting something with the kids,” he said. Avoid posing your subjects, and try to breathe comfortably and slowly, which will also help steady the camcorder, he said. “It’s a hoot and a half,” he said of the process. “There’s a lot of satisfaction in realizing it’s not that hard.”