The old gentleman in hiking boots chided me for asking if he was German. "No, we're from the Netherlands," he harrumphed, as I apologized. He and his companions had walked to the Plain of the Six Glaciers, up the winding path through thick pines, stumbling over the jumbled rock moraine that ringed the backside of Lake Louise and picking their way along the hairpin turns that followed the steep cliff faces.
My husband Ray and I had come up the relatively easy way, perched on stolid ponies who, it seemed to me, enjoyed walking on the outer three inches of the steep, well-worn path. We met at the little stone teahouse on the trail, where all creatures rested their feet in one of the most beautiful settings in the Canadian Rockies.
It was a perfect time to take some pictures, and so Ray lined me and our newfound acquaintances up against the almost laughably dramatic horizon. I hadn't thought it a particularly great idea to bring our new camcorder along on horseback in the drizzle, but Ray insisted. As it turned out, I'm glad he did, for when he began to tape, we heard a telltale hushed roar across the valley. As we turned to look, a great veil of snow unfurled from the top of a cliff, falling surely a thousand feet, like a sudden waterfall. It broke the unearthly quiet of the mountain amphitheater with a huge, shuddery whisper that grew and echoed around us.
I took a snapshot, but I knew even an avalanche would be lost in that vastness. It was the movement and the sound that made the avalanche what it was, qualities video could capture. And luckily Ray was ready. With the camcorder trained on our Dutch friends, he was on the spot for one of our most treasured sights of Lake Louise, complete with a round of appreciative oohs and ahhs in varied accents.
Privileged moments like that were just what we wanted to capture and keep when we got our 8-mm Sony. I had put off buying a video camera for several years. The first models required you to shoulder a separate, heavy recording deck as well as the camera. A couple of years ago, camcorders, which incorporate the recording features into the camera package, appeared, but the VHS and Beta models still weighed seven pounds or more, a considerable burden when hiking up Alberta's Mt. Assiniboine or just pounding the pavement on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Then along came the small format 8-mm, with camcorders that not only weigh five pounds or less, but can be played back on any television set from the camcorder itself, ideal for traveling. I was sold (choosing the 8-mm Sony over its competitor Compact VHS for its superior sound reproduction, longer recording time and sharper image). And last year we took the Sony on its first venture: a seven-week trip by recreational vehicle through the West, into Canada and along the upper Pacific coast.
We came home with seven hours of tape that bring back the places we went and the people we met with an immediacy even the most vivid memory doesn't have. I've always taken photos, and I will continue to do so, but my video scrapbook now seems to me the most valuable among my souvenirs.
Traveling with a camcorder takes some getting used to, however. At just over five pounds, the Sony is still a handful, not something I can slip in a pocket and forget. I had no problem finding a place for it on the road, since I traveled in a 30-foot motor home. But it takes a little foresight to leave room for one more thing in the back seat of a car and more than a little foresight to take a camcorder on a plane.
More so than with a still camera or even the small and fast-disappearing super-8 film cameras, the camcorder is an instrument I must decide consciously to accommodate on a trek. I never think twice about putting it in the car when we set off on a day's outing (except to wonder if it might be stolen), but I do consider carefully whether I'm willing to carry it for a couple of hours.
Sometimes the deliberation consists of persuading Ray to shoulder it. I wouldn't have taken it on our pony trek at Lake Louise, for instance, but I was willing to heft it at Expo 86 in Vancouver. Neither of us, however, was willing to take it on the log flume ride there; so, crossing our fingers, we left it with the cherubic teen-aged operator, and it was still there when we, soaking wet, got off.
We didn't quite work up the nerve to take it into Vancouver's English Bay Cafe', either, for one of the most breathtaking dinner views in the world, as the sun blazed down into the sea, perfectly poised between the misty peaks to the north and the curving spit of land to the south of that famous harbor. But as soon as we settled down we wished we had, and by the end of our trip we'd have taken it any place -- discreetly, of course.
There were few situations, in short, where it was too big, too valuable or too vulnerable to go with us, though there were some conditions that made it hazardous or futile to operate. Ray tried some shots from the back of his sturdy steed, for instance, and just watching the lopsided lurch of that footage makes me reach for the Dramamine. We would have had the same results if we had taken it out in the little fishing boat we rented on Lake Yellowstone, but that was early in the trip, and caution prevailed.
By the time we got to Canada, though, we were bolder. Even so, I had some reservations about Ray's leaning out of the gondola swaying a hundred feet above Sulphur Mountain to get some bird's-eye views of Banff from the aerial lift. He managed to hang on to the camera and his footing.
We accommodated the camcorder in other ways, learning its idiosyncrasies. For example, its capacity to take in so much about a scene threw us off in the beginning. When I muttered to myself while trying to zoom in on a bison calf in the Badlands, the comments were preserved for posterity, just like my advice to my spouse on whether to use the autofocus, and the sound of that 18-wheeler passing the wildflower patch, and the folks from Omaha threatening little Butch with a fate worse than death if he tossed that stick into the bubbling azure blue of Morning Glory Pool in Yellowstone's geyser basin. We both learned to clam up when the camera was running, and that was the only part of becoming a videophile that annoyed me.
On the other hand, I can indeed hear the bubble of Morning Glory Pool whenever I want, just by playing a tape. And sound sometimes ended up defining my picture when the visuals failed to do so. Above Lake Louise our pony party spotted some mountain goats high above us. At least I think that's what they were. Not even X-ray microscopy could pick them out of the fog and rocks a quarter mile above, but at least with video, as opposed to a still, you can hear everyone yelling, "Look at those mountain goats!" It gives the scene credibility, sort of.
Some of the unwanted sights and sounds can be fixed after the fact, in the editing stage, if I ever get that far (it's on my list right after sorting my slides of the Bicentennial). In fact, though, I found shooting home video required me to think beforehand about what I wanted these images for -- if not before starting my trip, then just about the first moment I watched those three minutes of tiny distant mountain goats. Should I plan to edit my whole trip into a mini-movie? Have a beginning and an end, record a bit every day as a travel diary, make little scenarios out of each destination?
The coward's way (but ultimately the most satisfying, I suspect) is to treat the video camera as a sketching and note-taking tool. Then when you get home, you can record the best bits onto a VHS or Beta tape for friends and relatives and for repeat viewings of your own (I plan to do that, too, as soon as I take down the Christmas tree).
That's basically how I used it, and because we could watch the "dailies" when we stopped at night, just as Woody Allen does, both Ray and I got better at obtaining the effect we wanted with the camera. It became a learning process. We could see what worked and what didn't in time to use that knowledge the next day.
We spent one glowering, cold night by the Athabasca Glacier along Alberta's Icefields Parkway, a place with its own blue fog on permanent sentry duty. When I pulled back the curtains the next morning, winter had arrived in September. Snow lay four inches deep on the campsite we had chosen and continued to fall, muffling the sound of an impatient crow looking for breakfast on our picnic table. Since we'd seen the result of shooting snow scenes on the Beartooth Highway, we knew we'd have to use the backlight button to compensate for the snow's meter-fooling brightness while taking a picture of that scavenger, and of the ranger who appeared at our door to assure us we could travel on the road.
We were able to spend most of our learning time on such refinements of technique, because the camera was so easy to operate. With automatic exposure and focus, camcorders are virtually point-and-shoot in most normally lighted situations. In fact, once you have mastered the art of holding the camera steady and seeing the sights while peering into the electronic viewfinder, video makes the amateur look like a pro much faster than a good still camera does.
Unlike a still camera, the video camera produces an image closer to what the human eye is used to seeing, so getting a good shot depends less on expert composition (not that you shouldn't try). Everyone who takes pictures has plenty of photos that seem to have no reason for being because the flower waving in the breeze, or the sputtering chipmunk, or the husband waving on the cliff is too far away or too indistinguishable from the background. Capturing the sound and movement that attracted my eye in the first place, videotape nearly always caught what seemed to me the essential in a scene. The zoom lens also helped me pinpoint my aim.
There were things to learn, of course -- how long to hold a shot (absolute minimum, about 10 seconds, or else don't bother, it will look like you turned the camera on by mistake). And how fast to pan (much slower than you think). And how often to use the zoom (less often than you are inclined). Instant feedback helped refine our esthetics, as well as familiarize us with the camera's capabilities.
Most camcorders will also let you play back your shots in the electronic viewfinder, providing some feedback on the spot if you absolutely must have it. We found that handy on those occasions, for instance, when we got confused in the excitement of getting that special shot of the sunset over Yellowstone River at Artist's Point. Did I push the record button or not, I thought as I panicked. Here was the sun going down, and I'd better find out. The camera showed me instantly what I had recorded.
The viewfinder also indicates when you're recording and when your battery is about to run down. All I had to do was stay organized, which involved faithfully labeling every tape with at least the date(s) shot, keeping track of how much of the tape was left in the camera (most viewfinders even indicate that), and making sure I had another battery charged and in my pocket. With an accessory cable, I could even charge camera batteries in the car, or operate the camera directly on the car battery.
We enjoyed the camcorder so much that we became ever more conscious of opportunities to use it. Some vistas could only be captured safely from the car, like lightning breaking over the Rockies in a cold, furious thunderstorm on the Beartooth Highway. The best shots of Expo were from the highway bridge as we approached downtown Vancouver, and punk kids on the streets of Victoria would hardly have been so candid for the camera if they could have seen it on the street beside them.
Generally the camcorder was so obvious that candid shots of people were impossible except from the car. Usually people were attracted to the video gear because of its uniqueness; they wanted to know how it worked and if we liked it. Since its operation was nearly silent, though, Ray discovered that people were often unaware it was turned on, and sometimes he taped conversations without looking into the viewfinder, so that strangers wouldn't be overcome with camera shyness.
People, in fact, are among our fondest video souvenirs. There was the former Washington editor taking care of the community museum in Red Lodge, Mont. She left the East, like all such pilgrims, for the uncertain but exhilarating reach of the mountains and high plains. We talked about possibilities and dreams on the spur of the moment, the way strangers sometimes do who find they have a little something in common and become fleeting friends. Incredibly, we ran into each other again a thousand miles north of her new home, deep in the little canyon of the Athabasca Falls south of Jasper. I still don't know her name, but I have her face and voice on videotape.
Humanity, of course, is the genre that you will find interests most of the likely audience for your videotapes. The relatives could care less, I find, about the cool, quiet scenes that fascinated me, the wind-rattled prairie with enormous hay bales scattered on the flat canvas of pastures, catching the afternoon Dakota sun and throwing long painterly shadows. And you'll find that, just as with home movies or even slides, the reverent 10 minutes you waited for that distant antelope to come closer will amaze your friends for far different reasons than it does you.
My folks enjoy the scenes of us standing over waterfalls (one of the very best subjects for video, with their music and twinkle of light), and talking about geysers before they burst. They like to see us, or, in home videos, themselves. They marvel at the living letter from the past that video can so easily be. And after my first trip with a camcorder, I think it produces the best treasures you can bring home from any spot in the world. I won't leave home without it again. Pat Dowell is a Washington writer who covers movies for The Washingtonian magazine and other publications.