Hollywood-Style Travel Videos on a Shoestring

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We list 12 ways to produce your own slick, professional-looking vacation videos, wowing your friends for next to nothing

Anyone who's ever sat through a friend's amateur vacation video knows how far a little filmmaking ability could go: "If only they didn't shake the camera...had added voice-overs to explain what we were seeing...cut out all those boring parts..." But such skills are only possible with professional equipment that costs thousands of dollars, right? Wrong. As a documentary filmmaker who has produced travel and adventure programs all over the globe, I've learned that expensive equipment is not the secret to creating compelling videos. In fact, many of my s hows have been made with consumer cameras on shockingly low budgets. All you need to do is follow the 12 simple tips listed below and you can transform those clumsy home movies into professional-looking travelogues worthy of the Discovery Channel.

What to buy

1. Go digital

Forget about camcorders that come in VHS or Hi8 formats: They're the dinosaurs of the video world. While they may cost less, you'll end up spending far more in the long run, because the flimsy tape and internal parts will break down quickly. (Plus, they capture the worst picture imaginable.) Instead, go modern and purchase a mini DV (digital video) camera, often for around the same price. Not only do they offer broadcast-quality images, but many retail for well under $450. Two of the best bargains are Canon's ZR 25MC and Panasonic's DV102. Making DVs even more economical, you can create excellent still photos from any frame you've shot-so you can leave your 35mm camera and all that expensive film at home. To compare and shop around for the most competitive prices, log on to cnet.com, or visit well-stocked electronics chain stores like Best Buy or Circuit City.

2.Buy tape stock online

Although digital tapes still cost a bit more than VHS or Hi8 (which retail for about $2.50/$3.50 each, respectively), if you buy them in bulk or through an Internet wholesale site you can often cut your costs in half. Try taperesources.com (800/827-3462), where 60-minute tapes cost $4.79/$6.89 apiece for professional, broadcast quality.

3.Get a collapsible tripod

Without a doubt, the most glaring mark of an amateur videographer is shaky, handheld camera work. But a professional video tripod can be a cumbersome, pricey thing to drag around. Instead, consider buying the collapsible six-inch table tripod from Bogen for about $30. Because it's so small and lightweight, it will fit easily in your daypack. Again, cnet.com highlights and compares all available brands and prices.

4. Don't forget the microphone

Most consumer cameras only come equipped with built-in microphones that are useless if the subject is out of range. To solve this problem, Radio Shack sells a tiny clip-on mike (also called a lavaliere) for about $25. With this tiny gadget, you can pick up sounds from up to ten feet away. Clip it to the lapel of your tour guide as he shows you around a site, or place it in the center of a table when your travel mates are discussing their next plan. Your viewers will instantly notice how the crisp difference in sound quality makes the video come alive.

5.Invest in a good camera bag

At first glance, professional camcorder bags seem to be a luxury item. But remember, you've just spent a good amount of money on a camera and other fragile accessories, and you want them to last. Shop around for a bag that has lots of pockets, good padding, and strong zippers. Some of the best are made by Tamrac (800/662-0717, tamrac.com). They carry a whole line of r ugged bags, some costing as little as $39. And always make your camera case one of your carry-on pieces of luggage, as lazy porters will treat it with the same disregard as they do heavy-duty plastic suitcases-and dishonest ones may decide to have a peek inside.

6. Charge your batteries and buy a voltage adapter

You don't want to run out of battery power during your one trip to the Taj Mahal. Even if you've barely used your camera that day, be sure to fully charge it at your hotel in the evening. (If you can afford it, buy a second battery as a backup-they cost around $30 to $40.) Also, know the voltage of the country you'll be traveling in, and buy an adapter plug before you go. You can usually pick up an effective universal adapter for a few bucks at a luggage store, or at travel stores in major airports.

Shooting tips

Unlike still cameras, camcorders need a lot less light to render an image. Before you leave on your vaca tion, however, test the limits of your camera by shooting in a dark location. If the low-light indicator goes berserk, open the iris until the warning goes away. While the image may appear grainier, the trade-off is often worth it. For example, harsh on-camera lights are often obtrusive to others in crowded museums or sensitive locations like churches and mosques, where your bright light can ruin the mood.

8.Keep the camera steady

Even without a tripod, you can shoot Machu Picchu without making it appear as if it's the epicenter of an earthquake. Simply find a wall, mound, or some other raised surface to set your camera on while shooting, or even your friend's shoulder-making sure they stay steady and keep breathing to a minimum Another drawback to handheld camera work is shaky pans and tilts. (A pan is a shot that moves either left to right; a tilt is one that travels up or down.) Generally a shot should be slower rather than fast, and should end on the most significant element in the scene. For steady pans, first decide where you want the shot to end, firmly plant your feet in that position, and then twist your body back to the start. This way, the movement will become more comfortable and natural as you pan rather than the opposite, and the grand finale will be clear and steady.

9.Hold that shot

Another common error is to turn the camera off as soon as you reach the end of the pan or tilt. Don't be afraid to hold the shot for five or six seconds after the movement is finished, so your audience can fully take in the image you've led them to.

10.Don't start shooting as soon as you arrive at a location

Instead, first enjoy the site as a tourist-after all, that is why you're there in the first place. Then, when you've got a feel for the place, set up your tripod in the three or four favorite spots and capture the scenes that most impressed you. Remember to change your shot scale, the distance between you and the subject. Start with a wide shot of the entire area, move in to a medium one, and finish with a few close-ups. That way, if you do edit your video when you get home, you'll have something fresh to cut to, creating a living scene rather than a static postcard snapshot.

11.Pay attention to the sun

Since you're not relying on expensive lighting gear, the quality of the natural light is of great importance. Don't shoot when the sun is at high noon: There is very little interplay between shadow and light, and the images come across as flat and boring. Consider shooting early in the morning, or better yet, late in the afternoon, when long shadows will add character to your subjects. (And remember: Never shoot directly into the sun-it can ruin your lens!)

12.Always ask permission before you shoot

In some foreign countries, randomly pointing a camera could get you into trouble. Many famous sites are next to military installations, embassies, or other sensitive places that local authorities may not want doc umented on video. When in doubt, ask. The same goes with videotaping people. Most people will respond warmly if you take the time and courtesy to ask permission first. Remember, you're a guest in their country.

Now that I'm back home, what do I do?

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