Each camera types (e.g. smartphone, camcorder, DSLR) offers different controls and features, from the very limited to the bafflingly comprehensive. You need to know how to get the most out of your chosen camera to get the best pictures.
Most consumer cameras offer autofocus and no way to turn it off. That’s fine, but it means you can’t do some of the more advanced tricks like pulling focus during a shot, or focusing on a person at the side of the frame, rather than dead centre. Some cameras now offer face recognition and touch focus controls to help keep the focus where you want.
More advanced cameras will give you manual controls or even a focus ring on the lens. Some offer programmable focus points, so you can pull focus during a shot with the press of a button. Going manual gives you greater control over where the focus is (or isn’t), but it means you’ll be constantly adjusting as the camera or your subject move about. DSLR cameras like the Canon 5D have a very shallow depth of field (only a narrow band is in focus) and while this can look great, it becomes a challenge to operate and monitor. Out-of-focus shots are the bane of any good cameraperson.
Above: An example of shallow depth of field. Image source: www.nyuvisualworkshop.com.
All cameras have a limited range of light they can handle and must be set according to how bright or dark it is. To do this you adjust the aperture of the camera to control how much light gets to the sensor. Too much and things will blow out and become white splotches. Too little and the image will be dark and murky. This is most apparent shooting indoors with bright windows.
Above: Adjusting your camera’s aperture affects both exposure and focal depth of field. Image source: www.nyuvisualworkshop.com.
Most consumer cameras use auto-exposure, but may also offer simple controls for day/night, interior/exterior and other presets. More professional cameras will offer ND filters and talk in f-stops to control the amount of light getting to the sensor. With auto-exposure the brightness will shift radically when you move from a dark corner to a bright window. If it’s set to manual it will stay consistent, but part of the shot will be too dark or too bright. High Dynamic Range (HDR) on still cameras can get around this, but this technology has yet to filter down to budget video. Usually you want to have consistent lighting. If your camera offers a zebra pattern overlay, use it to see where possible exposure hotspots are.
What does white look like at your location? Is it really white or perhaps a bit yellowy because of the lighting? White balance calibrates the camera to a white surface (usually a piece of paper), so all other colours are recorded accurately. On smaller cameras this is done automatically, with some presets for daylight and fluorescent lighting.
Resolution & Frame Rate
We’ll assume you’re using an HD-capable camera, so let’s forget about SD. There are two common settings for frame size: 720 and 1080. 1080 is referred to as Full HD and is what you want for the best quality. Depending on your camera, you might also see options for interlaced or progressive, shown as 1080i or 1080p. Explaining the difference is beyond the scope of this column – just choose 1080p, as it’s more cinematic.
In Australia, the standard video frame rate is 25 frames per second (fps), while in the US it’s 30fps. For good-old film, it’s 24fps (also shown as 25p or 50i occasionally) – choose 25p unless you have a good reason to do otherwise. There are other variants, but they’re the basics.
Codec quality settings
Video is almost always compressed to save on file size and bandwidth. All modern camcorders use the AVCHD codec. This is a version of H.264/MPEG-4 and is how the video is compressed within the camera. It’s the same with smartphones and almost all low- to medium-range cameras, and even some high-end ones. Among pro cameras there’s a confusing range of proprietary codecs available. Just be sure that whatever camera and codec you choose, your editing software can handle it.
Most consumer cameras give you low- and high-quality recording options. This controls how heavily compressed the image is, trading off image quality against file size. Always choose ‘high’ when possible.
You’ll find this on pro cameras that offer XLR audio connectors. It provides 48V of power down the XLR cable to an external condenser microphone. Don’t enable this if you’re using a dynamic mic. Some condenser mics can also be powered by a battery in case your camera doesn’t offer phantom power.
Don’t use them, as they can’t be undone. Visual effects can be added in your editing software later, and with much greater control. The exception to this might be shutter speed effects, which are actually best done in-camera.