Choosing the right (video) camera…

…yeah, this topic is one that NEVER dies and seems to need tweaking every few years. So I did the original in 2007, with an update in 2009 and a final look when I was hunting for a camera for myself last year.

A lot changed between the first and last postings…but even more has remained constant. We’ve moved from tape-based to card-based shooting. Quality has skyrocketed from SD to HD. The task of matching camera with nonlinear editing program and computer has become a bit more muddied. But you still have to have knowledge of the exposure triangle: aperture, shutter speed, ISO. You still should have mike inputs. You will forever have to know the limitations of your camera and your own skill and ability to use said camera.

And that said, let’s move on and see what’s out there for today’s VJs.

I’m taking a slightly different approach this time…realizing that not everyone has the big bucks for a higher end camera or the technical know-how for more than a point and shoot. (All this part of the content of The Basics of Videojournalism.)

So let’s divide cameras into a couple of levels of use.

1) Point and shoot Flip type cameras. No real zoom, no mike input, pretty much automatic. (But don’t worry…you can still turn a mean story if you know what you’re doing.)
2) Consumer camcorders. A zoom, probably no mike input, minimal or difficult to use manual controls.
3) Low end prosumer camcorders…these will have a decent zoom a mini-jack mike input and manual controls (most likely menu-driven).
4) Prosumer camcorders – zoom, XLR mike inputs OR mini-jack inputs, easily accessible manual controls
5) Professional camcorders – if you’re using one of these, you’re either working in the media or a production house and by gosh I’m betting you have a pretty good handle on what gear is all about (if not…wait for the book to come out bucko).
6) DSLR. Not a tool I’d put in a VJ kit, but preferred by some for ability to create shallow depth of field. Mini-jack mike input, ability to change out lenses, manual controls. Ergodynamicaly difficult to handle in gun-and-run situations.

You may have noticed a common thread above…zoom, mike input, manual controls. Professionals like to be on control. They know the relationship of shutter speed to iris to everything else. That’s not to say the automatic switch isn’t thrown every now and then…but infrequently.

So…to go over these terms. A good zoom will allow you to frame up a shot in multiple ways. Wide, medium, close-up. Oh – and it can also be used (again, infrequently) as a zoom…a way to get closer to/further away from something.

Mike input – your on-camera microphone is generally omnidirectional – it picks up sound from everywhere, with the closest noise getting priority. Not recommended for interviews…but don’t worry, there ARE ways around that. If your camera has a way to plug in an external mike, you can “stick it to” your interview subject and get clear audio.

Manual controls. These include the big four. Focus, aperture, shutter speed, white balance. The latter is less of a problem with today’s cameras, although there are times manual white balance will make a difference.

To understand the need for manual white balance, you need to know that light comes in many colors…your eyeballs and brain work together to make all light equal, but in reality daylight has a blue cast to it, tungsten/indoor lights stray to the orangish hues, and at times fluorescents can confuse the heck out of you, being balanced for daylight or tungsten. Let’s not even get INTO arc lights. If you use automatic white balance, 95% of the time your color will look good. It’s only when you encounter mixed light scenarios you may want to go manual. Unless you’re a pro – then you want to manually white balance constantly so that your video matches clip t clip.

Focus and aperture face the same problem, in different ways. When you shoot in automatic mode, anything that appears in front of the lens can suddenly cause a focus or aperture shift, resulting in lost of focus on your subject and a sudden lightening or darkening of your image.

Let’s tackle aperture first. Aperture, or iris, is how the camera controls how much light gets through the lens to the recording media. A small aperture lets in a small amount of light…a large aperture opens up wide to let in a lot of light. Delving deeper into the subject, light going through a small aperture is forced into focus, creating deep depth of field. Everything from front to back in focus. The magical shallow focus is created by a wide open aperture. (Of course there’s more to it than that…chip size is a big part of this, but I’m not going there for now.)

Shutter speed can be used on conjunction with iris to control depth of field and also to allow you to shoot in brighter or darker venues and more.

So, let’s hop on over to my favorite online store and do some comparisons. For now let’s pretend we have a budget of $1,000. We need a camera, media, tripod, and mike. The basic tools of a videojournalist.

Let’s toss $150 towards the tripod and oh, the same for a mike. Shipping will probably run around $30 or so, leaving us with around $670 for the camera…somewhere in there we’re gonna hafta take care of taxes too, but I’ll let you worry about that one.

Transparency first. While I shop at B&H (and locally whenever I can), in no way do I get anything out of referrals to their site. Go ahead – just ask them. I’ve just found their site easy to use when trying to narrow my search down.

So click on that cute little “Camcorders” icon, and let’s get going. Your three choices now are “Camcorders”, “Professional Video”, and “PAL camcorders.” Unless you plan to work outside the US, avoid PAL. Unless you have more than $2,000 (or much more) to spend, avoid Professional. Click on “Camcorders.” You now have more than 200 cameras to choose from.

In the left side column, scroll down to price and at the bottom of that category, type in the range of prices you can afford. (I’m putting in $400 to $650.) Wow – down to 22 cams to choose from.

I’m kinda an advocate of tapeless cameras, so I’m clicking SDXC/SDHC/SD…and we’re down to 19 choices. Why this format of media? It is easily available and not too expensive.

If you take a look at the brands available, the big four remain: Canon, JVC, Panasonic, Sony. All reputable companies, although that’s not to say you can’t do well with a Samsung or Kodak or some other brand.

I know I want a mike input for plugging the new mike in I plan to purchase, so I’m clicking that in the “Features” category and am down to 14 cameras. Much easier to make my selection with 14 than 200+.

Being a bargain hunter, I go up to the top and arrange the choices by price, from lowest to priciest, with the low end a Canon at $450 and the high end a Sony at $650.

This is where you actually have to go look at each camera…and do me a favor. Don’t just read the Overview…read the specs AND (if appropriate) the reviews. The specs will give you details about chip size (the bigger the better and three is better than one) and inputs and technical details. The reviews will let you know how folks who’ve used the gear hands-on feel about it.

Don’t assume the most expensive is best or the lowest price will have what you want or need. Unless you are purchasing a computer and nonlinear editing software to go with your camera, make sure what you purchase works with what you already have. Some of video formats will not play well with older computers or software. Some older systems may work better with mini-dv tape than cards.

Um…and almost forgot. We’re gonna hafta cut another $100 off our camera cost, getting it down to less than $550. Why? We need media, something to record onto AND maybe an extra battery to ensure we have lots of power to keep shooting (sorry bout that). We’re at 9 choices, which will make your search easier. (If you’re gong with mini-dv tape, make sure your kit includes a firewire cable to capture to computer.)

Final note – I am NOT recommending any of the cameras remaining – I would guess they may all be useable for a beginning VJ. If your budget is higher or lower, you can use the same process to narrow the search down enough to make an educated choice. This column is not about me telling you what to buy, but more about you learning what features you need to have to do the best job possible in telling visual stories.

Questions are welcome…so shoot away!

PS – if you are stuck on DSLRs, begin your search on the “Photography” icon.
PPS – used is good if you are a careful shopper. eBay works, but beware of scams, stolen items, and gear that may not work as advertised. Ditto craigslist. Ask questions…and return items promptly if not as advertised. I’ve had one bad experience in that area even after asking questions…but an honest seller repented and returned my money when I returned the camera (which did NOT record or play back).

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