by Clay Baird

You just bought a new high-definition video camera so you could document your son's first duck hunt. You couldn't have picked a better morning. The sunrise was glorious. The birds cupped up and decoyed beautifully, and your son finally shot his first greenhead. Best of all, the proud parent caught it all on tape. You couldn't wait to get home and show everyone.

After gathering the family around the television, you plugged up the camera and pressed Play. As the morning unfolded again on screen, you felt your heart sink. It looked nothing like you remembered. The sunrise was green. The birds were blurry. The shaky footage was nauseating, and the sound was abysmal.

Your first instinct was to blame the camera on which you'd spent a small fortune, but is it really the camera's fault?

Like many amateur videographers, you made a common assumption that a professional camera would churn out professional footage. But a camera is only as useful as the person behind it. Here are a few pointers that could boost the quality of your footage from amateur to professional regardless of your camera.

Invest in a tripod

Prices vary greatly depending on different features, but all you truly need is a set of "sticks." Even the cheapest tripod offers solutions to common problems. First and foremost, the tripod keeps your camera steady. It also allows you to maintain a balanced horizon in your frame, which means your footage won't look like it's been shot from a boat. A tripod will give you more flexibility as a shooter because your hands will be free to perform camera pans, tilts and zooms. Zooms, in particular, require a tripod because as you zoom in on a subject, whether it's the birthday girl or a blue heron, any camera movement will be magnified exponentially. If you don't have a tripod on hand, it's best to avoid zooms.

White balance your camera

White balancing refers to the process of adjusting your camera so that it reads the color temperature of your light source properly. If you wear a white T-shirt, you'll notice that it looks different under your office lights than it looks in sunlight. Furthermore, it looks different in sunlight at dawn than it does at noon. Light sources vary in color temperature, and it's up to you to tell your camera how it is supposed to "see" this light. A proper white balance insures the color of your footage is representative of the surroundings in which it was shot. Most cameras these days have presets for white balance, but you should learn how to set this manually.

A quick white balance is simple. Take a white sheet of paper and place it next to your subject. Zoom in on the white paper with your camera until the viewfinder sees only white. Locate the white balance button on your camera and press it. You should see the difference in your viewfinder. If the color isn't accurate, keep experimenting until you find the color quality you want. Remember that every time you change lighting conditions, you will need to white balance again.

Set your focus

Viewfinders can be tricky and rarely should be trusted. Often, when looking through the viewfinder, your subject may appear to be in focus, but larger monitors may display the footage as "soft" or "fuzzy" slightly out of focus. Focusing is easy. Just zoom all the way in on your subject and adjust the focus wheel until your subject comes into focus. Zoom out to the full frame again, and you'll notice that your subject looks crisper.

Mind the sound

A telltale sign of amateur video is bad audio, but it doesn't have to be. With some monitoring, you can capture listenable audio. It's as easy as putting on a set of headphones and plugging them in to your camera. This allows you to hear what your audio will sound like when played back from the camera. You'll soon discover if your camera is set up too close to the flea-bitten mutt lying near the grandfather clock because the ticking and scratching will dominate your audio.

Your audio will improve as you move (or point) the camera microphone closer to your subject. Find your audio levels and adjust them accordingly. Your ears will thank you later when you review the footage.

A few minutes of preparation will make a world of difference in your footage. Apply these pointers next time you get behind the camera, and say goodbye to amateur video. Remember, you control the quality of your footage, so take matters into your own hands and stop blaming the camera.