Tim Smith (Camcorder Training Specialist) gives expert video advice on: What does the "spotlight" function on my camcorder do?; Should I use my camcorder's "widescreen" mode?; Do consumer camcorders have slow-motion capabilities? and more...
What does the "backlight" function on my camcorder do?
You may find that you have a button called BLC on your camcorder. Essentially what that means is backlight control. Backlight control is really for when the lighting behind the subject is brighter than the light on the subject and your subject ends up being silhouetted because the exposure is improper. Engaging the backlight button, or the BLC button, usually shifts it by what's called two f-stops. It brightens up the foreground a little bit, darkens the background a little bit and tries to give you much more even exposure under some pretty challenging lighting conditions.
What does the "spotlight" function on my camcorder do?
Camcorders have different types of exposure modes and one of them is called spotlight. Spotlight's really handy whenever you're shooting, say, a stage environment. You could shoot in spotlight, let's say you were shooting it in just an automatic. The way an automatic function works is really the camera has to take two readings. Typically, but not always, they're weighted this way; 70% to center, 30% to percent to the outside, meaning that it's giving 70% of its exposure to the center of the image, and then averaging it with the outside to give you an average exposure. Well in spotlight mode, it's no longer averaged anymore, it's 100% from whatever the brightest image in your viewfinder is. So, let me give you an example. You're shooting a stage show and you have a performer in front of a black curtain, and that performer is in a spotlight. Really, the ideal exposure is for that spotlight to recieve 100% of the exposure, meaning the correct exposure would be for the light that that person is standing in. If you're in auto, it really would be trying to average something that didn't need to be average, it would be trying to brighten up the curtains when you didn't want them bright and it would be trying to darken up the spotlight when you don't want them dark. So spotlight is really handy anytime there's a spotlight, or anytime that you have an exposure that really is no longer center weighted.
What is "low light" mode, and what does it do on my camcorder?
That is the ability to shoot in practically no light or almost sometimes in total darkness. The way low-light mode works is it takes the apeture, which is what controls the amount of light that to your chip, and it opens it up wide open so the lens can gather as much light as possible. Then it takes what's called the shutter, or the amount of information that's coming off the chip, and it gives you the optimal shutter speed for a low light environment. In addition, low-light mode turns the gain circuitry or the electronic amplification (the brightness level of your chip) up as high as possible. It's taking all of the factors into consideration, brightening the image as much as it possibly can for low light environments. Sometimes it's called night shot or low-light shooting mode, but it really looks at everything that's coming through the lens and says "I need as much brightness as I can" and puts it all on the chip at one point. There's one particular type of mode call "night shot," which is an infra-red emitter. Infra-red is a spectrum of light that you and I can't see but the camcorder's chip can. It bathes the room in what's called infra-red light and allows you to see an image pretty much in total darkness. The image may be green, it may look like something out of a military type application but the image is there nonetheless. So, if you need to shoot in zero light, low-light mode is the feature you want to use.
What is "aspect ratio"?
An aspect ratio really is how is the image going to lay out. Is it going to be wide or is it going to be tall? The most common is 4:3 or 16:9. 4:3 is what we've seen on television for years, but now widescreen sets are coming into popularity and they're typically 16:9 sets. So am I shooting something that's wide or am I shooting something that's more squared off, like a 4:3? You've got to decide what you're delivering it to: am I watching it on a normal TV or on a 16:9 TV? Then make the aspect ratio decision based on how you're going to watch it.
Should I use my camcorder's "widescreen" mode?
You're thinking about shooting in 16 by 9, or widescreen. That's great. If you really want to get that widescreen feeling, that big movie feeling that you get sitting in a theatre, that's a great thing to do. Widescreen is very creative. But there's something you need to know. Manufacturers, even inside the same company, sometimes produce that image in a different way. Some camcorders will give you a sharper image in 16 by 9 than 4 by 3, which is conventional television or almost a square image. With other camcorders, it's just the opposite. Depending on the camera you want, you want to look at how that image is produced. Either way, if you've decided to shoot in 16 by 9, or widescreen, you probably should do it. It's a creative choice even though it might cost you a little bit in picture quality. Sometimes it will, sometimes it won't.
What is my camcorder's "letterbox" mode?
We probably see this term a lot when we're renting films, maybe we rented the letterbox version of it. Essentially letterbox means that the image you're going to see is going to kind of look like it did when it was in a theater, the image is going to be wider than it is tall. With letterboxing typically you will always see these black bars at the top and bottom of your screen. Really what that is doing is allowing for the new aspect ratio, the 16 by 9 aspect ratio, to fill up your screen and give you that wide screen feeling. Now if you where watching something that was shot in 16 by 9 and you had a 16 by 9 television, or it was shot in a wide screen mode like that, you wouldn't see those bars anymore. It wouldn't be letterbox, it would be what is called a true 16 by 9 or true widescreen image.
What do the special "program" modes or "scene" modes in my camcorder do?
You've got a lot of choices on your camcorder in terms of how to get the best exposure, and sometimes manufacturers have tried to simplify that for you by creating what's called 'scene modes' or 'programme modes'. You can see these typically listed as things like 'sand and snow' or 'spotlight mode' or even a 'fireworks mode'. Those are there to optimise your exposure for exactly the type of environment you're in. 'Sand and snow' is simply that: everything is very bright; the camera has to deal with a lot of brightness. In 'spotlight mode' you're shooting a spotlight performance. The fireworks mode couldn't be more self-explanatory. It's difficult to shoot fireworks and get just the exact exposure because of the way they light up and how fast they go off. So, the manufacturers have programmed things into these cameras to make that easier for you, and we call them 'programme modes' or 'scene modes'. They're a good choice; sometimes they can take all the guesswork out of it. Pick the one that seems like the right thing for the right environment.
Do consumer camcorders have slow-motion capabilities?
You've been looking for that slow-motion function on your camera and you haven't been able to find it anywhere. That's because video cameras, at least the ones I know of, don't have a slow-motion function. That's something that's done later on in the edit, maybe on your computer, where you can slow things up and really look at it. The important thing to know about slow-motion is if you really want detail, the higher the shutter speed when you're shooting, the better it's going to look when you take into your computer and then move it into that slow-motion function. If you're interested in slow-motion, shoot for slow motion by raising your shutter speed, and then do the slow-motion in your edit process later on.