How do I choose a camera?

Panasonic AG-HMC150 and Samsung NX-1000

Panasonic AG-HMC150 and Samsung NX-1000

Dangerous ground…especially if you don’t know enough to know what you should be looking for.

This blog posting is for those who want to stretch their knowledge and move beyond simple P&S (point and shoot) folks who just use their cameras to take family photos or video or LAMIGABEC! (Look at me – I’ve got a big expensive camera!) types who are all about impressing folks.

This blog posting is for those of you who just know somehow you’re missing out on the real secrets of shooting and editing video…what makes the magic. As mentioned in a previous posting, it’s not the wand…it is the magician waving the wand that makes the magic. But you do, after all, need a wand…and right now it seems you’re ready to move up to a more powerful one…

Before anything…you must consider what you will be using the camera for. Are you into news video? Documentaries? Movie-making? Event videography? Although this may not affect your decision a lot, you should have some idea of where you want to take your journey.

Next – budget. Don’t even think about buying gear until you have a rough idea of your budget. The low end is not the problem – it’s the high end you need to set. And set it firmly. Once you start shopping you may find yourself wanting to stretch that budget “just a little bit more” for a slightly better camera…and then want to stretch it again…and again. I went through the same throes about three years when I set a camera budget of $3000 and found myself looking at $10,000 cameras. A quick reality check and I had to back off. Finally got a Panasonic AG-HMC150 for around $2700 and had enough left for spare batteries and cards.

Part of the reality check includes a few things you will need to budget for in addition to media and accessories. Media tops the list after the camera. Hopefully you’ve already picked up a (somewhat workable) tripod somewhere. You can get by with one battery initially. But you will need a microphone other than what’s built-in to the camera. And you WILL need to pay taxes and shipping (which can run you over budget if you’re not thinking).

Now…on to choosing the camera. Fist, think about form. The choices are pretty simple: DSLR, Micro 4/3 – basically still cameras and camcorder/video cameras. If you’re serious you want a camera/camcorder with a microphone input, headset out (to monitor audio) and some way to manually control aperture, shutter speed, ISO.

Video cameras are meant to shoot video. Prices for a camera with the features mentioned above generally start at a higher price point than the still camera choices. On the low end they have attached lens and controls accessible by menu. On the higher end the controls are located where you can see and access them on the camera body. The camera itself is meant to be hand-held (or tripod-mounted). You can monitor your visuals through either the LCD or a viewfinder (for shooting in bright sunlight). The camera has a built-in microphone/usually a shotgun or directional mike. But you can also plug in an external mike through either 3.5mm/mini-jack inputs or XLR/professional connectors. On the lower end of the price range the lenses are part of the camera…as you hit mid-range pricing (say around $3,000 to $4,000) you can get cameras with detachable lenses, giving you more options for shooting extreme wide angle or tele shots.

Still cameras are meant to shoot still photographs, but many today also shoot video. Again, you want the same features if you’re serious. Mike input, headset out, manual controls. One of the primary advantages of this category of camera is that even with the lower end cameras you can get detachable lenses or buy adapters and use old film lenses and get shallow depth of field – meaning you can selectively choose what is in focus and what is not. Although the same effect can be achieved with camcorders, it takes more knowledge and is not always as effective (until – once again – you get into being able to detach and choose lenses). The form factor of still cameras does not always lend itself to handheld…these cameras are designed to be held while following and shooting stills. It is more difficult to hold them steady for video clips. So you may need a rig – a contraption that helps you hold the camera steady while hand-holding. The built-in microphones on still cameras are not as effective as those on video cameras. You need to search and make sure you purchase a camera with both an LCD and viewfinder…preferable an orientable LCD so you can slap that camera on the ground or hold over your head and still be able to monitor your images. Still cameras with mike inputs all use 3.5/mini-jack inputs. Or (if your budget is low) there may not be an input for an external mike at all. So…more choices. If no mike input, purchase a digital audio recorder…something you can place or hold out to get clear audio. Of course you’re going to have to synch the audio and video up in editing, which adds to your production time. Next – purchase microphones with mini-jack terminals. Third, get an XLR adapter so you can use professional mikes. Regarding manual controls…still cameras tend to be menu driven, although at the higher end there are more options for external control.

Now I’ve shot with both video cameras (a lot) and a micro 4/3 (a bit) and the images are stunning on both. The micro 4/3 I have does not have any mike inputs so I’ve had to resort to holding a little DAR/digital audio recorder out the same way I would hold a stick mike to do interviews. It works fine…and for around $280 for the still camera vs. $2700 for the video camera…I can do that.

If you’re on a learning curve…look at all of the alternative affordable options and work your way up the food chain of cameras.
Happy trails!

One thought on “How do I choose a camera?

  1. Pingback: 50 blogs for journalists, by journalists 2014 « BLOG do SAMPAIO

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