So you just got a camcorder -- now what?

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Steve Sande
December 25th, 2008
So you just got a camcorder -- now what?

All day on December 25, TUAW presents "Now What?" We've got first steps and recommendations for all the gifts you (hopefully!) found under the tree today. Happy holidays!

Did Santa leave you a camcorder for Christmas? If he did, you probably did what most people do -- ripped open the package, slapped a battery pack on it, and started recording the fun. Hopefully you're reading this post before you've succumbed to that temptation, so you can avoid issues later on. Here are some hints to make your future as a filmmaker as trouble-free as possible.

1) Read The Manual. Most people tend to toss out the manual with the wrapping paper, but for something as complex as a camcorder it's a good idea to keep and read the manual. Sure, with a point and shoot camcorder like a Flip Mino you can get away with giving the camcorder a quick charge and then going to town recording the kids bouncing off the walls in a sugar-induced frenzy. But if you were really good and Santa got you a high-end HD camcorder with a powerful zoom lens, image stabilization, and other cool features, you'd better learn how to use them.

2) Get plenty of media.
If your gift has a built-in hard disk drive or a fixed amount of flash storage, then this is a moot point. Camcorders that use removable media (SD, SDHC, MiniDV tapes, etc...) are what I'm talking about here. There's nothing more frustrating than grabbing the camcorder to take a quick movie and finding out that you only have enough space on a card or tape to record a few minutes. Be sure to buy enough blank media to give you at least an hour or two of recording time, and keep that stock replenished.

Small handheld cameras like the Flip Mino have a fixed amount of built-in flash memory, so you'll need to remember to transfer your work to a computer as soon as possible and erase the built-in storage.

3) Spare batteries are your friend.
Camcorders and cameras seem to have a built-in sensor that determines when you're filming a once-in-a-lifetime event away from an electrical outlet, and then forces the battery to drop to zero charge. You can get your revenge by having one or two spare batteries available at all times, fully charged up and ready to go.

Replacement battery packs for the high-end camcorders can be rediculously expensive, but if you or someone else has made the investment in a quality camcorder, you definitely want to have more batteries on hand. Once again, some small camcorders like the Flip Mino have built-in batteries that need to be recharged. If the battery is out of juice, you've got a 2-3 hour recharge ahead of you before you can start taping again. One possible solution is to have two of these small, inexpensive camcorders available for use.

Other models of the point-and-shoot camcorder ilk use regular old AA batteries, and you can keep yourself worry-free by keeping rechargeable or non-rechargeable AAs close at hand.

4) Protect your investment.
I've personally witnessed some horrible camcorder tragedies over the years; cameras dropped in the sand or into water, lenses smashed when someone swings the camera into an unyielding obstacle, camcorders soaked by sudden tropical rainstorms, and even one camcorder that a rather ignorant person (not me, thank you) assumed was waterproof and went snorkeling with...

Sand, water and shocks are the enemy of the circuitry and lenses of your camcorder, so do everything you can to protect your device. Always keep the lens cap on when you're not shooting, and think about investing in a padded, waterproof case to carry your camera in. One thing I always take with me on trips where I know I'll be doing a lot of video work is a handful of one-gallon Ziploc bags. Keep one in your pocket, and if it starts raining or you know there's a possibility of getting sand in your camera, plop the camcorder into the bag and seal it. It's cheap protection.

If you want a true sport housing for your camcorder, they're available from some device manufacturers and aftermarket companies. These are totally waterproof and can be used to protect your camcorder while snorkeling, diving, skiing, or wandering through a rain forest.

5) Consider how to edit and archive your recordings.
You can ignore this advice if all you want to do is look at raw video, but trust me, watching hour after hour of unedited video will turn you off of camcorder usage faster than you can say Steven Spielberg.

Both Mac and Windows users have some wonderful editing tools available. Mac users can use iMovie, which is part of the iLife suite of applications, to edit video, add titles, and then move the video to DVD or other formats for playback. If you'd like more control or results that look more professional, consider moving up to one of Apple's more comprehensive editing tools like Final Cut Express or Final Cut Pro. I personally use iMovie to get my rough cutting completed, then move the footage to Final Cut Express for finishing.

One quick way to make a DVD of your movie from a DV (digital video) camcorder is to simply connect it to your Mac, open iDVD, and select OneStep DVD. It just captures the video from the camcorder and burns it on the DVD, so you're not going to have editied video. This is, however, a great method of archiving information from your camcorder onto DVD for future editing.

For Windows users, consider using MovieMaker, which comes with many versions of both Windows XP and Vista. It is similar to iMovie in terms of capabilities.

6) Take a class.
If you really want to start making movies that are beyond the regular video snaps of the kids, consider taking classes in both videography and video editing. Videography is the art of capturing the raw video, and it's a good practice to know how to pan, zoom, and even hold the camera properly. You'll want to learn how to take short clips of video that can be edited into a coherent story line.

Learning about video editing helps you to create videos that you and friends will want to watch again and again. As I stated earlier, there's nothing more boring than looking at hour after hour of unedited video. If you ever want friends to watch your videos in the future, make sure that you give them something professional and exciting to watch.

Where can you take classes? Look at local community colleges, the Art Institute (with branches all over the USA), or consider taking online classes from places like

Now that you're done reading this quick overview of what to do with that camcorder, I hope you're not feeling overwhelmed. Like anything, the best way to learn how to become an expert is by doing. Get out there and use that camcorder, and have fun!

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