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Quality Journalism in the Digital Age

5 pocket video camcorder tips

They’re small, relatively inexpensive and shoot high quality video. Pocket camcorders or “Flip” style video camcorders are a very useful tool for journalists, especially for producing video for the web.

Just about all of the major camera manufacturers produce pocket video camcorders. And, it must be said that the HD video produced by many small point and shoot cameras and also smartphones now compete with these little wonders.

At present, the Kodak Zi8 is one of the main models the DW-Akademie uses during online journalism and web video courses. Flip is of course another well known brand, but these cameras are to be discontinued.

Whatever you use, it’s about the story and not the camera. But here are some of our tips for getting more out your camcorder and producing better quality web video.

1. Plan before shooting

So you’ve worked out that video would be a good way to tell your story or be one of the multimedia elements you are going to use. Great! But before taking the camcorder out, give some thought to how you want to go about filming, and what you need record. A simple way to start planning is to do a little brainstorming and making a list of all the shots you might need. Along with a shot list, another useful planning technique is to sketch out storyboards – this helps you to visualise what sort of shots you might need.

Whatever method you use for planning your video, a little thinking before hitting the record button can save you a lot of time in production and help to organise your shoot.

2. Shoot steady

Pocket camcorders are small and light – that’s what makes them attractive, but it also makes them harder to hold steady. Check if your camera has an image stabilization function. This will help a little bit with camera shake, but if you’re looking to produce high quality results nothing beats some way of supporting the camera for a stable shot.

For starters, practice holding the camera so that it is secure in your hands but avoid having a tight white knuckled vice-like grip. You can also try tucking your arms into your chest for a steady shot. Or, look around for something to rest the camera on or against, like a table.

Of course nothing beats a decent tripod, but even small flexible Gorillapods are useful. You can wrap a Gorillapod around almost anything. And don’t overlook monopods – a very handy video tool. Some monopods also make really simple steadycams for lightweight pocket camcorders.

3. Extra juice

The rechargeable battery in the Kodak Zi8 offers only 90 minutes of recording time. That can go down quickly if you leave the camera on a lot. It’s essential to take at least a spare battery (generic replacement batteries are cheaper). Better still are camcorders that use AA or AAA batteries – easy to find in emergencies.

4. I can’t hear you!

Around video editing suites you might’ve heard editors using, lets say, harsh expressions working on variations of: “rubbish in, rubbish out”… That applies to images and especially to sound. Capturing clean audio is essential for good video.

If you can, use a camcorder that has an external microphone input. At the moment that pretty much comes down to the Kodak Zi8 and PlayTouch (Zi10) and the Creative Vado HD 3rd Gen.

If you are using a camcorder without an external microphone input then give some careful consideration to audio, especially for interviews – ideally somewhere quiet and where background noise does not drown out your interview partner.

Be careful though. Most pocket camcorders have a fixed focal length and if you get too close your target subject to capture better audio you might end up with a soft or out of focus image. The Zi8 for instance needs to be positioned at least 1 metre from your subject to stay sharp.

Another work around is to use an audio recorder to record your audio separately and then sync with the video when you edit. A simple hand clap can help you sync both recordings in post production. One advantage of recording audio separately is being able to monitor the audio levels while recording. Most pocket camcorders do not have an input jack for headphones.

Here’s an example of a straightforward web video produced for an international newspaper where the reporter’s voice is hard to hear clearly against the loud background of protestors – better audio to record the reporter’s voice would have dramatically improved the quality.

5. Video formats for editing

If you finish shooting and just have to pop out the SD card and hand over to an editor, you’re lucky! But if you’re shooting and editing yourself you’ll probably have to do something to your raw video to prepare it for editing. That’s because a lot of camcorders record in highly compressed formats used for delivery and are not always so good for major editing software systems.

The Kodak Zi8 for instance records video in (h.264) .mov, but to edit in Apple’s Final Cut Pro, transcoding to Apple Intermediate Codec or Pro Res is going to be more edit friendly. Likewise for Windows Movie Maker – coverting .mov to AVI first will let you import your video.

So, what can you use? Well there are literally dozens of programmes available to transcode video formats or compress your finished video into a smaller file. But a well regarded piece of free software is called MPEG Streamclip – and it also works on both PC and Mac. Think of it as a Swiss Army knife for working with video.

OK, where to next? There are loads of blogs, how-to guides and video tutorials for literally every aspect of producing video for the web.

Here are some good starting points. And, if you’ve got some tips to share please let us know.

Online resources:

How best to approach a video story

Free MP42AVI video converter

Mindy McAdam’s Windows Movie Maker Tutorial

Using MPEG Streamclip with Final Cut Pro Tutorial

Knight Digital Media Centre Video Tutorials

DW-Akademie Asia – Telling a story

Author & Photo credit: Guy Degen


Monday 2011-08-08



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