A decade ago, one seldom saw a personal video camera in public. However, with the electronic revolution, camcorders have become one of the most popular consumer products on the market. There are now more than 14 million camcorders in the United States, and the number is growing like gangbusters.

And what technological wonders the new breed of camcorders are. The latest units are small enough to fit into the palm of your hand, yet they are capable of almost unbelievable performance when compared to camcorders of just a two or three years ago. Yet with all of this wonderful technology comes the big surprise. Most of the home video footage is very, very poor.A camcorder is a creative tool that is at its best only after the operator learns how to use it properly. Like learning to play the piano, there are procedures and techniques that, if followed, will allow your creative genius to show through.

This article provides a few hints that will, if followed, greatly improve the quality of the video footage you shoot.

MOTION: Camcorders are designed to record motion, not make it. If you watch many home videos, you will soon learn that the cameras are responsible for much of the motion. One of the easiest ways of immediately improving the quality of your work is by holding the camera still while recording. This is one place miniaturization does not help you. The older, heavier models tend to be more stable because of their weight, while the new lightweights are super easy to put into motion, even when you're trying to hold them still.

A good fluid head tripod is recommended. The fluid head is especially designed for video and allows for smooth pans. An added feature that you might consider is the quick release head. This allows you to screw a mounting shoe on the camcorder. The camcorder can then be placed on and taken off the tripod with the flip of your thumb.

Once you have a good tripod, use it. This will set your video off from those of the point-and-shoot crowd more than any other single technique. If you shop around, you can get such a tripod for around $100.

When a tripod can't be used, try to improvise. Brace yourself in some manner to guard against unintended movement as you record your video footage.

AUDIO: This is usually the weakest part of a home video production. You must treat audio as the fourth dimension and always be aware of the sound that is being recorded along with the video. Let people speak in complete sentences.

Remember, your camcorder takes about 2 or 3 seconds to start up after it is turned on. Take this into account when you plan your production.

Another point to keep in mind is that the mike on the camcorder is the weakest link in the system. If you want to set your video apart from the pack, a good external mike is a sure way to do it. You can get a good clip-on Lavaliere Microphone from Radio Shack for around $30.

These mikes plug into the External Mike port in most camcorders and make it possible to get rid of much of the background noise and other distractions when recording the audio portion of your video.

POWER: You will not shoot very many minutes of video before you find out that you need another battery. Get a spare battery pack up front. It will pull you out of a bind time and again. Costs vary according to the type of camcorder, but this is a must for anyone serious about videomaking.

STORY LINE: If you have watched many home videos or movies, you realize that they normally consist of a lot of footage, with little to hold your interest. On commercial TV you see the best in techniques. The first and most important thing to remember is that they always tell a story. Something that has a beginning, a middle and an end. With a little planning any birthday party or family video event can be made to tell a story. It then becomes worth watching because it captures the interest of the viewer.

PANITIS AND ZOOMITIS: The typical amateur is afflicted with two diseases. One is called Panitis and the other Zoomitis. Amateurs tend to pan and zoom incessantly, until it almost makes one seasick. If you watch commercial TV you will notice that they use pan and zoom effects only when there is a reason to do so. The Pan and the Zoom are both powerful effects if they have a place in the story. To do a good pan or a good zoom, start with a couple of seconds on normal video then smoothly pan or zoom to the desired position and then run the video a couple of seconds in the final position before pausing. Never pan or zoom back to the original position in the same shot.

VIDEO EDITING: Editing a video is normally considered the sole domain of the professional. But every time you press the pause button on your camcorder, you are selecting out what you do not wish to record on the video tape. This is editing. So if you plan your story and your shots carefully, you can actually compose and edit as you shoot. Remember, with video you can view what you have just taken and you can record over a scene you just took if you do not like it.

SHORT IS BEST: Every shot in a Hollywood production is short and to the point.

Most last only 5 to 10 seconds. Then it is on to the next shot. Watch TV and learn from it. Make your shots short and snappy. Get the action then quit.

Each shot should have a purpose and when that purpose has been served, go on to the next one. If you are doing a birthday party, the entire affair ought to be no longer than 15 to 20 minutes. This insures that only the high spots, and the action will be shown. By limiting your video to the action and special interest shots, it will be interesting to the viewers, which is why you are shooting in the first place.

SHOT COMPOSITION: A long shot establishes the scene. A medium shot shows what is going on, and a close-up provides the details. Use lots of close-ups. A cutaway is a shotthat is related to the main scene but not the center of the action. For instance, while a child is playing with a new toy, take a shot of mother laughing as she watches the action then cut back to the main action. By mixing up the shots, you add zest and interest to your production.

TV programs such as "America's Favorite Home Videos" have made it amply clear that TV programming no longer resides solely with the Hollywood Studios.

Creativity and imagination are healthy, and there is no place where they are more evident than in the video arena. That's what camcorders are for. They are tools that, in the proper hands, can lead to some really creative projects.

These tips only scratch the surface with a few of the basics, but if you concentrate on them and try to improve with every shot you make, it will make a great difference in the quality of your video productions.

And remember, the reason that you bought your camcorder in the first place was to have fun. So, have fun. Learn and try new things - but most of all, have fun!

- Brian T. Gubler is a freelance writer living in Bountiful.