Things to bring on your next vacation

I bring some video gear with me every time we take a trip. Camera, batteries, media, etc. Typically heavy on technology, but short on planning. Hey I'm an amateur!

Doesn't it make sense that, if I'm willing to go to the trouble of capturing precious memories on video, I might as well plan to capture them in a memorable way? is all about turning my horrible amateur video into something that's fun to watch; but I've collected a few ideas that might make the raw video from my next vacation a little less horrible.

This is not an exhaustive list; just a few ideas that I've found to be helpful.  I'll add more when I think of them, and probably talk about them in the blog.  But If you want more, I encourage you to search the web for video shooting and cinematography advice.

(1)  Walking-Stick Monopod
Of all the amateur videographer sins, perhaps keeping a steady camera is the easiest to fix.  A few years ago I bought a telescoping walking stick on eBay (similar to the one pictured below) which has a threaded grip on the top.  Remove the ball and thread it into the camera's tripod mount.
Regardless of our good intentions, it's inevitable that we will decide to capture video while we are walking.  This is almost always a mistake, but I've had some success using the monopod as a quasi-steaducam. 
With the leg partially extended, I grip the stick with thumb and forefinger just under the camera. With a little practice, I can use the stick as a counterbalance while walking.  The usual jerkiness of handheld walking video is not completely eliminated, but it becomes a smoother sway.

(2)  Shot-List

When you get home and start to edit, what sort of content will you need?  Wide shots & close-ups, interviews, colors, B-roll to cover jump-cuts, still photos, location signs, etc.
I don't expect to remember all of that stuff while I'm having fun on vacation.

Carry a checklist

(3)  Off-Camera Microphone

My Panasonic miniDV camcorder (PV-GS250) has a 1/8" input for external microphone.  This really makes a huge difference!  I've tried and recommend:

Azden's WMS-Pro, an inexpensive wireless unit which comes with both lavaleir and handheld mikes.  (~$160 at Amazon)
Note, unlike more expensive equipment the WMS-Pro operates in the more-cluttered VHF frequency range. Test it to assure there is no radio interference.

Rode's Video Mic is a small shotgun that comes with foam windscreen and shoe mount.  It works well for separating the narration of a tour guide from background noise.  (~160 at Amazon) 

Professionals might scoff at these mikes because they have only 1/8" mini-plugs not the Holy-Grail "XLR" connectors.  My opinion is that if I'm lucky to have a consumer camcorder with an external mike connector, it's going to be 1/8" anyway.  And I've never had a problem with audible interference from a mini-plug extension cord up to 25 feet long.

Recently I acquired a Zoom H1 handheld digital recorder.  It records high-fidelity stereo sound onto mini-SD cards, using built-in or external microphones.  Simple controls are easy to learn.  Still experimenting with it, but impressed so far!  (Less than $100 at Amazon)

I recorded narration for a recent video on the H1, you can listen to it here:

(4)  That expensive Video Camera probably won't make a big difference! 

Let's face it, we're amateurs!  We haven't been to film school.  We've never worked on a professional production.  We're just trying to have fun and we love it when others "praise" our videos.  Even the fanciest high-definition movie camera isn't going to compensate for big swinging pans, crazy zooms, and backlit subjects.  

In my opinion it's better to have affordable equipment, use it wisely, and shoot with the edit in mind.

I've owned a number of camcorders, beginning with a Sony 8mm analog unit in 1989.  
That was dropped and broken, insurance compensated me so I stepped up to a relatively smaller Hi8 Canon.  
The Canon stopped working a couple of years later.  I invested in a Panasonic miniDV AG-EZ20 just before leaving on an expensive trip to Antarctica in 1995.  I loved that camcorder!
Sony invented Digital8, a technology that records DV video on 8mm tapes.  As a bonus, Digital8 camcorders play back analog 8mm tapes through Firewire.  This is a perfect way to digitize old analog videos; I still use my DCR-TRV120 today for that purpose!
In 2001 the AG-EZ20 was stolen by a pickpocket on a bus in Paris.  I replaced it with a very compact upright-format Canon that was a disaster.  The extended warranty people wrote it off and sent me a check!  
It's miniDV replacement was a Panasonic PV-GS250.  This is a three-chip model with optical image stabilization that I really like.  Unfortunately it has been sitting unused on my shelf for the past two years.

My wife and I used our iPhones to shoot video and stills during a recent trip to Buenos Aires.  I also used my Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 point 'n shoot.  
If the lighting is good, iPhones shoot very nice fixed-focal-length1080p video.  
The ZS3 shoots beautiful 720P at 30fps, is more adaptable to low-light, and has a 12x Leica zoom lens with image stabilization.  There are many program modes for specialty scenes like fireworks or back-lit subjects.  Video is saved to an SD card as either AVCHD or M-JPEG.  (I've found that editing software is more responsive with M-JPEG files.)
Both the iPhone 4s and DMC-ZS3 record surprisingly good sound from their built-in microphones.

In my opinion, these inexpensive cameras are all we need to capture outstanding memories of our travels!  Good news, the latest iteration of  Panasonic's DMC-ZSxx cameras has a longer zoom and shoots 1080P video at 60fps.  It's less than $300 at Costco.

(By the way, in the above photo you will notice a pink flexible mini-tripod.  That's a Gorillapod look-alike that I bought on eBay for less than 99 cents, including shipping!) 

(5)  Anamorphic Widescreen Format

Although it's "only" standard definition, my Panasonic PV-GS250 has given me some nice widescreen shots when set to "anamorphic".   This is different from cropping; the camera uses the full resolution of its sensors and your editing software knows to "squeeze" the pixel height to remove distortion.  If you're still using a miniDV camcorder, give anamorphic a try.

(6)  Zoom With Your Feet

Keeping the lens at maximum width will minimize shakiness.  Get as close to your subject as possible, use a little zoom to frame the scene, steady the camera, then shoot!

(7)  NO Panning and Tilting?

If you didn't bring an $800 tripod with fluid head, you will never get that nice smooth panning shot you were hoping for! 
Set the camera for a steady wide shot to establish interest.  Now get steady shots on the left and right ends.
The same applies for tilt shots; you'll be happier with nice steady video at the top and bottom.

(8)  Go ahead!  Try that crazy shot anyway!

I admit ... the temptation is too great.  I am always going to zoom, pan, and tilt.  I am always going to attempt to walk while the camera is recording.  It's too much fun;  and I always think, "This time I'll do it well!"
Later I have even more fun laughing at myself as I toss those scenes onto the virtual cutting room floor.

(9)  Capture ambient music and sounds with your camcorder's microphone

Sometimes you shoot some video of a street performer.  After a few seconds, you have all the video you need.  But consider keeping the camcorder running to just to capture the sound!  Perhaps there's music, street noise, or even horses walking past that can be used for this video project of added to your inventory of stock sounds. (10/31/2013)

....more to come

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