Capturing The World

Gareth Mason finds a good way to make money from his holiday snaps...

Once we only had memories to bring home from our hols. But now, thanks to video technology our annual investment can stretch well beyond the ‘real-time’ fortnight away. Friends, relatives and mere acquaintances can see the wonders of the world through your eyes without the associated dose of dysentery. Who knows, if it’s good enough you could recoup some of that hard-spent cash by charging them for the experience. OK, maybe you’re just going to sit in a dark room alone watching endless reruns of the same footage. Either way, you’ll be glad for a little planning when shooting places you may never visit again.

Obviously, the quality of your footage is limited by the kit you use but before you blame the tools consider how well you know and use all the features on your camcorder. Stepping up the price ladder is the easy option for better videos – if you can afford it – but practice and experiment will ultimately make for more satisfying and better videos.

Even some of the gimmicky options such as Automatic Exposure (AE) modes and digital effects can add that startling effect that makes the shot. It’ll be worth it even if used only once. So, familiarise yourself with your kit and mentally see if you can marry various functions with the places you visit and shots you’re likely to be taking. Before you go, make sure you have everything you’ll need to suit the ambient conditions. Will you be travelling light? Make sure you have a bag suitable for the climate as well as your video needs.

Talking of climate, when moving from a cold to warm location give the camcorder time to reach a stable temperature before shooting. Keep it warm when cold and generally avoid extreme temperatures – below 40 degrees and 95 degrees Faranheit. Moisture from humidity, rain and particularly salt-water can all messily crash and ruin the perfect footage party as can sand, dust, suntan lotion and insect repellents. Thankfully, camcorder miniaturisation means you can pack in more handy accessories than before, as well as making filming easier and less obtrusive.

While you should have more than enough stock of tape and batteries – remember, these run down more quickly in the cold – don’t clutter it up with things you’re unlikely to need or which can be replaced naturally. A smaller tripod or even some stable natural object will make a lot of room without a cumbersome large one. Perhaps, now you can carry that rain shield for that spectacular waterfall shot or marine housing for the underwater paradise you can’t trust to memory.

A final warning on preparation. Camcorders can easily be spirited away by the light fingered. Take precautions, particularly if you’re roughing it, which also means having insurance or perhaps an alarm for all you Inspector Gadgets. Separating your finished tapes from your camcorder is not a bad idea – it’s easier to put a price on an insured camcorder than New Year’s Eve in Rio or your partner dancing to Saturday Night Fever at a disco in the Gobi Desert. Bring proof-of-purchase documents to avoid customs hassles and don’t buy abroad without a little research: with import duties and VAT it may not be such a bargain notwithstanding potential problems with guarantees and incompatibility.

The world is your studio so try and adapt it to your needs. If you can’t recharge batteries easily then save power whenever possible, using a power save feature, for example. Also make the best of ambient conditions such as natural light. Engaging night mode or manually opening the iris to let in more light might both work, but in different ways. A once in a lifetime shot is worth trying in several ways to get right as well as being a useful learning aid when you compare them. It’s also worth trying to capture the unusual – getting away from the standard postcard shot. Not many people know the pyramids at Giza are found on the edge of a sprawling Cairo suburb. You’re not working for the tourist board so get the shot nobody sees. The contrast between old and new is more honest and has more artistic merit.

A little location research is invaluable. If you have the chance to look around first, you can save yourself time and tape. If you know there’s a better shot of a snow-capped mountains just around the corner, a more beautiful church, a livelier time of day, you can save separating the wheat from the chaff later and have more time and tape to concentrate on the best parts. Local customs and events will bring flavour and personality to your videos which will stand out over more anonymous street scenes which don’t have a ‘hook’ to distinguish it, let alone reference to where it is. Always ask yourself: ‘Would my friends be jealous?’ If not, turn off the camcorder and keep looking.

Time of day is also important. Sunrise and sunset are often the most spectacular. This also avoids the problems of shooting in a bright midday sun. It’s also worth taking shots of one place at different times, not just for the contrast in light and colours but for the way it tells a story. By creating a beginning, middle and end to an event, say a weekly market, a complete picture can be presented to the viewer. It’s easy to forget how unusual new people and places are when you have become used to them. Try and look at things from the perspective of someone who’s spent their entire life on the Outer Hebrides. If six camels and a dog represents rush hour in the High Atlas then that’s your shot. What may seem mundane today will appear colourful and exotic back in Blighty.

With camcorder technology, sound quality has always played poorer cousin to that glamourous upstart, video. But the gap is closing and whether you have high quality digital audio from a DV cam or an external microphone you can add a lot of value with a complementary soundtrack. You may not be able to touch, taste or smell the jungle scene but if you can hear as well as see it your ability to bring the scene to life is doubled. You may be best making a separate recording and dubbing it on later.

It’s a good idea to look out for cutaways and establishing shots to signpost different sections of your video. These need only be brief; there’s only so long you can expect your friends to be interested in looking at video of a static road sign, beach or side of a mountain. The reason you’re not holding a camera is because you literally want to record a living scene. This means capturing moving living things ie people and animals. Small people, such as children, are the perfect players for such scenes and are usually more oblivious to being videoed than the older variety as well as being more animated. Be careful with American and French types – excess noise and bright colours may spoil the shot.

When filming locals it may be best to ask permission, some cultures believe you’re capturing their soul while others believe you should pay to have the honour of catching their dog in the corner of your shot. Zoom lenses tend to come into their own at such times.

Finally, there’s another reason why you should keep the camcorder in your bag when you’re planning your award-winning travelogue. Your footage should remind you what a great time and place this was. So, you better have some good times to be reminded of. After all, you’re on holiday.

VideoCamera magazine 1998