By Stuart Sweetow of Audio Visual Consultants ©2007
Originally published in Camcorder & Computer Video Magazine
Camcorders are forever changing; with new models and formats it’s almost hard to keep up. However, the technology for microphones, tripods and other support tools pretty much remains the same. That’s a good thing, because you will be able to use them for years to come and probably with each new camcorder that you buy. These accessories make good investments, and they will expand your repertoire of shooting techniques and styles.
Even lightweight camcorders become difficult to hold steady after a while. Filming Junior’s football game will be easier on your hands as well as easier on your viewers’ eyes if you support the camcorder with a tripod.
Sony makes the VCT-870RM tripod ($179) with a remote control built into the handle. You can start, stop and zoom the camcorder right from the tripod grip, in much the same way that broadcast camera operators do.
The Bogen makes a line of professional tripods such as the Bogen Manfrotto 501HDV-055XBK tripod with a fluid head ($380) that has variable drag for pan and tilt. A tripod with a fluid head will let you perform smooth pans and tilts during your shooting. To help the tilt perform smoothly, it also has a balance control for different sized camcorders.
While a tripod will keep your camcorder steady for stationary shoots, a monopod gives you the freedom to move locations and stabilize the camcorder at each spot. You can hold the monopod over your head to get dramatic high angles, and some monopods have adapters so you can turn them upside down and mount the camcorder near the ground. Monopods can be retracted and placed in a backpack or camcorder carrying case. While you may not want to carry a tripod with you on trips and outings, the slim monopod can easily tag along.
You can get an inexpensive monopod like the Velbon UP 4000 ($20) that retracts to 20 inches and weighs less than a pound. This 4-section aluminum monopod has a waist strap, an adjustable rubber foot and a concealed ground spike. For another $20 you can add a pan/tilt head.
The Bogen Manfrotto 561B monopod ($222) has little legs at the bottom that fold open to give you somewhat of a tripod support. They quickly retract so you can move from place to place. The system includes a fluid head for accurate tilts and a fluid cartridge at the base for smooth pans. It expands up to 80 inches for shooting over heads and can accept a camcorder up to 8.8 pounds.
3. Camcorder Stabilizer
The Steddiepod ($449) is a combination monopod and camcorder stabilizer. Similar to the Bogen monopod, it has three short support legs that retract. These legs also have round weights at their tips that give it the stabilizing feature.
A dedicated stabilizer such as the Glidecam 2000 Pro ($369) or the Steadicam Merlin ($800) will let you fly through your scene and get action shots without bumps and jiggles. They balance the camcorder on a special pivot and incorporate counter-weights to maintain stability.
Sure, camcorders have image stabilization built into the lenses, but they remove only minor jerkiness. With a dedicated stabilizer you can walk or run with the camcorder and get those smooth, dynamic shots that you see in the movies.
4. Spare Batteries
Make sure you have at least one spare battery, and get as large a battery as your camcorder can take. Nearly all new camcorders use lithium-ion batteries, and some, such as Sony’s InfoLithium batteries, provide readouts in the camcorder viewfinder that estimate the time left on the battery.
If you want to shoot all day long and even power a light, Anton/Bauer makes the ElipZ ($300), an external battery pack that mounts under your camcorder. The unit requires an adapter cable that plugs into the camcorder power jack. The ElipZ weighs about two pounds, but since it lowers the center of gravity of the camcorder, it could make the cam a little more stable to hold. It also mounts together with the camcorder on a tripod and comes with a quick-release bracket.
5. Camcorder Light
Anton/Bauer’s ElipZ is designed to operate with their ElightZ camcorder light ($140). The ElightZ gets power from the ElipZ battery through its Powerplug connector. The adjustable 10-watt halogen light helps fill in the shadows that are frequently cast from overhead lights and helps to create a more flattering image. While some camcorders have built-in lights, most of them are not powerful enough to illuminate subjects farther than eight feet away.
The newest development in camcorder lights are LED lights. We reported on LED camcorder lights in C&CV October 2006. LEDs require much less battery power than halogen lights, and they are cool to the touch.
The Sima SL-10LX Universal LED Camcorder Light ($40) has an array of nine LED bulbs, and it mounts on the top of the camcorder. It measures only 2 x 3 inches, and the company says it will last for 100,000 hours. The downside of LED lights is that color of the LED is blue; you will need to attach an orange filter to match it to indoor light. If your camcorder does not have a shoe at the top, you can get a Sima bracket for $15 that screws into the tripod socket and doubles as a handle.
6. Wireless Microphone
Camcorders have built-in microphones that don’t always pickup the specific sound that we want to focus on. For example, if someone is talking across the room, most likely other noises will drown him out.
A portable wireless mike system such as the Azden 100LT ($350) functions very much like the expensive wireless mikes that the broadcasters use. The 100LT system offers 63 channels in the 794-806MHz band. Both the camera-mounted receiver and body-pack transmitter are housed in small cases, about 3 x 4 inches. The system comes with either a handheld or a clip-on microphone.
7. Carrying Case
OK, you’ve spent several hundred dollars, maybe over a thousand, on a camcorder, but what are you carrying it in? A good case will protect your camcorder, and it will probably be ready for your next camcorder in several years. Buy one with loads of padding and plenty of pockets for all your accessories — and lunch.
The Lowepro Edit 120 Plus Shoulder Bag ($35) is designed specifically for digital video cameras and accessories. It has front pockets, organizers, two side pockets and interior dividers for a custom fit.
The Kata HB-205 Hiker Backpack ($200) is set up with modular, padded dividers to secure equipment during transport, and it has extra padding on the bottom. It has pockets for accessories including a small tripod and water bottles. The backpack accepts the company’s optional Intratrolley integrated wheeled cart.
8. Remote Zoom Control
Some camcorders come with wireless zoom control, but they can be erratic if the remote is not aimed directly at the camcorder’s infrared window. Wired remote zoom controls that mount on the tripod handle make zooming a snap.
The Varizoom VZ-Stealth ($199) attaches to the tripod handle and plugs into the camcorder’s remote jack. It has a variable-speed zoom control as well as a rocker arm for camcorders that offer manual focus. The VZ-Stealth-LX ($229) adds tape search control, a data button that controls the camcorder’s on-screen display and a switch to go from manual to autofocus. Not all camcorders have a jack to plug in an accessory such as a wired remote zoom, so make sure yours has one before you purchase a remote zoom.
9. Wide-angle Lens Adapter
Earlier, we suggested you purchase a camcorder stabilizing system so you can run with your camcorder. You can make those moving shots even more spectacular with a wide-angle lens adapter. You may have seen skateboarding shots with fisheye lenses, such as those taken with a Century Optics 0.3x lens adapter ($300). Fisheye lenses create a dramatic feel, but they distort the frame, giving it a circular look.
For a wide image that is relatively distortion free, select the company’s 0.55x lens adapter ($150). Even if you don’t move with the camera, with a wide-angle lens and the camera mounted near the floor, you can give your videos the look of Citizen Kane.
10. Lens Filter
If you get nothing else, spend about $15 on a clear glass filter that screws onto the camcorder lens. It protects your valuable lens, and replacing the filter is much cheaper than buying a whole new lens. These clear filters may be called UV or Skylight. While you are at it, get a polarizing filter; it helps get you vivid colors in bright sunlight, and it reduces glare. The Tiffen Photo Essentials Filter Kit ($35) comes with circular polarizing filter, an orange warming filter and a UV filter.
If you want to get a dramatic sunset shot, get a graduated filter that has orange on the top and clear on the bottom. Or if you want your lawn to look greener than your neighbor’s, choose a graduated filter that goes from green on the bottom to clear on the top.
Special effects filters can keep the center of your image clear while creating a streak or other dynamic effect around the sides. Star filters add sparkle to water scenes, candle flames, product shots and more.
Softening filters such as Tiffen’s Pro Mist help create a popular motion picture effect by softening excess sharpness and contrast, creating a “pearlescent glow around highlights” according to the manufacturer. Tiffen’s Black Diffusion/FX is said to suppress facial blemishes and wrinkles, while maintaining a clear, focused image.
Whether you use a filter to flatter your subject, a stabilizer to create dynamic action or a wireless mike to clarify the audio, you not only will have more fun with your camcorder, you’ll be improving your skill level. When you add these accessories to your shooting arsenal you increase the value of your videos and give your viewers more bang for their buck.
Websites of products discussed in this article: