The hottest items in consumer electronics now are video tape recorders and cameras. People are shelling out up to $2,000 for them the way they bought Super 8 sound movie cameras and projectors five years ago. And video technology has improved so much year by year that photo enthusiasts (like me) can only marvel at it.
My primary interest remains in 35-mm still photography, but I've always been interested in movies and have owned anything from Kodak to Fujica 8-mm silent cameras to Canon and Beaulieu Super 8 sound cameras. I've sold them all and now have a portable videotape outfit.
I bought my first portable video cassette recorder (VCR) and camera in 1979: a Panasonic industrial (semi-pro) version that recorded only two hours and weighed almost twice as much as my current consumer version Panasonic 2-4-6 hour recorder (plus tuner-timer) and companion camera. Purists would contend that my first outfit was better. But, alas, I'm not involved in serious video -- documentaries, tdraining tapes, etc. -- and my present outfit fits my needs (and most consumers') quite nicely.
Here are some tips I've picked up along the way:
* In deciding on a VCR purchase, be aware that the two competing formats on the market are not compatible and that one holds, at present, a big lead over the other in units sold. About 70 percent of the market is now in the Video Home System (VHS) format, which includes, among others, JVC, Panasonic, Philco, GE, Magnavox, Quasar, RCA, Hitachi. Among those in the Beta format are Sony and Zenith. It is splitting hairs to say which format is technically better; purists, however, seem to lean toward Beta.
* The six-hour mode may be marginally OK for recording programs from your TV set but should be sparingly used for live shots with your camera (forget the four-hour mode almost entirely -- unless you have old videotapes you recorded when four hours was the maximum built in). You'll generally get far better color-picture (and sound) quality in the two hour mode -- even though most machines, unfortunately, have their special effects (slow-motion, freeze- frame, visual search, etc.) linked only to the six hour mode.
* If you've never used a TV camera or even a Super 8 movie camera, there are a few fundamentals you should understand:
1: Don't shoot a series of very short scenes; try to lengthen each to at least 15 seconds so as not to subject the viewer to a hodge-podge of blurred activity.
2: Use the zoom lens only when absolutely necessary; in fact, try not to zoom at all -- nothing is more distracting to the viewer. You seldom see zoom shots in Hollywood films or network TV. Use the zoom almost entirely for fixed telephoto, wide-angle and normal lens shots.
3: If you must pan with the camera, pan very, very slowly.
4: Buy a good paperback book, such as Lenny Lipton's, on fundamentals of Super 8 photography.
* Never buy cheap videotape; it's almost never a bargain. Stick to well-known brands (among the best are TDK and Fuji). And if you have videotapes recorded on an earlier VCR, be prepared for "dropouts" in the picture when you play them back on another VCR -- unless yours is an industrial (semi- pro) version that has a dropout compensator built in. Dropouts are those streaks of white lines that flicker across the TV screen occasionally; often they are caused by poor quality videotapes.
* When shooting a series of scenes with your video camera, allow a few seconds at the end of each scene that are potentially erasable. Reason: most newer VCRs commendably now have built into them something resembling "automatic assembly edits" of the more professional machines. This means that when the recorder is instructed to begin recording a new scene, after being put in the STOP mode, it automatically reverses the tape a very short distance so as to eliminate those "glitches" (annoying picture breaks) that were common in video machines only two years ago -- including the semi-pro model I had.
* If your video camera has a fade-in, fade- out control, use it creatively but sparingly. It certainly should not be used after every shot within the same general scene. That control -- which, incidentally, fades the audio as well as the video -- is one more remarkable technological advancement in home video in a very short time, but is only sparingly employed in broadcast TV or Hollywood movies.
* If you've been accustomed to taking Super 8 movies of sunsets or of other very bright lights, forget about them entirely with video cameras. Otherwise, you'll instantly ruin the expensive picture tube in your video camera, or create a hard-to-remove burn on the tube. Even if you shoot a Redskins game and include the stadium lights in your viewfinder, you're going to get distracting streaks in your finished tape -- streaks that will stay in subsequent scenes for a while. At present, that's inherent in the technology.
* Always keep the lens cap on after you've finished shooting -- and even try to close the lens iris all the way down, if possible. A video camera tube can be ruined even just by being accidentally pointed at the sun -- even if no pictures are being taken.
* Even though the manufacturers tell you that their video cameras can take good indoor pictures under low light, be aware that color quality under those conditions (such as a living room lighted only by ceiling and end table lamps) won't approximate pictures taken outside. Some cameras have a built-in AGC (automatic gain control) switch for such low-light conditions, but generally it's better to employ movie-type floodlights for really good indoor pictures.
* Remember that video picture-taking, as opposed to Hollywood movies and even 35- mm still photography, is better suited to close-up or small-scene shots rather than broad scenic vistas. There's just too much information to be compressed into the typical 19-inch TV screen. That's why most shot-for-TV movies have few wide-screen, expansive scenics in them. So take a hint and keep your scenes compressed; in the viewfinder, remove every extraneous detail you can.
* Don't forget that your VCR has an audio dub switch on it. That's good for adding sound to videotape afterward. Not every scene, while being shot, has appropriate audio; many, in fact, have distracting traffic or wind noise. However, in most VCRs, the audio dub switch erases the existing soundtrack while it records your new commentary. Still, there are many uses for this switch.
All in all, home video tape recorders and color cameras are remarkable achievements in so short a time. And they're going to get even better.