Getting Back to Basics
Video cameras seem to be getting more and more complex, which can be a blessing and a curse. Even the basic "record-your-son's-football-game" camera seems to have features today that were unimaginable only a few years ago. Sony now has a camera that can detect whether or not someone is smiling. Sounds more like science fiction to me. While these new features can be useful in a variety of ways, getting the best possible footage is always paramount. The truth is that the most critical settings are always the most universal. They include white balance, shutter speed, and audio levels.
White balancing a camera correctly will ensure that all colors are recorded accurately. Grabbing a set of waterproof white balance cards is never a bad idea. Cards don't have to be extravagant either; using anything uniformly white will suffice. It's best to use material with a matte finish since excessive glare could render a white balance card unusable.
Advanced users often elect to use white balance cards with different hues, which can either warm up or cool down the image. On most prosumer camcorders, such as the Panasonic AG-HMC150, Sony HDR-FX1000, and Canon XH-A1, users will find color can be manipulated through a series of color temperature settings, most of which can be found in the camera's electronic menu.
There are two primary ways to adjust and maintain exposure; adjusting f-stop (iris) or applying a built-in neutral density (ND) filter. Iris control can vary depending on camera model. The Sony HDR-FX1000, for example, has a full-manual iris ring, which is pretty cool. The iris ring resembles any standard focus or zoom ring. However, most cameras have a thumb-wheel, such as on the Panasonic AG-HMC150. As a rule of thumb (pun intended) it's good to keep the f-stop in the middle of its range. While opening the iris all the way can be useful in low light, it usually doesn't yield the sharpest results. The same can be true by stopping the camera too high in bright sunlight. In daylight situations, that's where ND filters come into play.
Most prosumer cameras have 2 to 3 neutral density filters built-in. NDs function like sunglasses: the "darker" the filter, the less light will hit the camera's lens and sensor. By using both the iris and ND together, achieving proper exposure becomes quite manageable. True, it takes some elbow grease to get used to, especially in uncontrolled environments. With a little practice, it doesn't take long to realize that it's hard to live without them.
Shutter speed settings can create a variety of aesthetically pleasing motion effects. By increasing shutter speeds, temporal motion usually appears to get sharper. Motion will appear deliberate and sharp and appear to have a "flip-book" effect. Keep in mind, changing a camera's video shutter will significantly reduce the amount of light the camera can capture. For this reason, ample light is always recommended when shooting at high shutter speeds, such as 1/250 or higher. Stick to daylight or studio settings for any high shutter speed.
Getting that "film-like" look appears to be gaining more momentum every year. Glancing at the feature-set of most cameras, all the way from the Canon HV30 up to RED Digital Cinema's RED One camera, 24p seems to be the direction. While shooting 24p footage, it's recommended to keep shutter at 1/48 or higher. By reducing the camera's shutter to 1/24, you might find that images don't appear nearly as ‘film-like'. Lower shutter speeds tend to introduce more motion blur. Shooting at 1/24 isn't without a few key advantages. Reducing shutter speed at 24p, users will find they're able to get brighter footage in dimly lit situations.
Capturing high quality audio is also extremely important. Studio-level headphones are something I always keep in my equipment bag. Sony manufactures the MDR-V6 and MDR-7506, both of which I particularly like because they fold up and save space. The golden rule is to keep audio from clipping. Audio "clipping" sounds a little like someone puffing into the microphone over and over. This phenomenon can be extremely distracting and very hard to fix. Making sure it doesn't happen initially is really the way to go. Try to keep levels out of the "red zone" of the audio meter. It's usually a bad sign if audio always appears in the red.
On the flipside, keeping levels too low can be just as troublesome. Audio can be amplified only so far before introducing a tremendous amount of noise. Have no fear! Many cameras have software controlled audio limiters to handle everything automatically, so I recommend checking the manual
While cameras seem to be getting more and more capable with each passing year, it's important to keep these basic settings in mind at all times. Most problems that arise during post-production can usually be attributed to a problem with the "fundamentals". While researching can be extremely valuable, trial and error seems to be the best way to learn. My advice is… Practice, Practice, Practice!