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!

Advertisements

Whither to aim…

…high?  Low?  In between?

Like I used to tell my students, you gotta know your target audience before you even think about creating a visual story.  Well, the same thing applies to writing a book.  In this case, The Basics of Videojournalism.

Our original demographic was high schools…then we realized there was a wider potential audience, so we have adapted to that.  And we’ve also finally settled on some of the finer points about our audience, including what level of gear they need.

Roughly we’ve broken gear into four basic groups.

 

1. Point and shoot cameras. Flip type cameras with no zoom or a very short distance zoom (or worse yet, optical digital zoom) and no microphone input.

2. Consumer level camcorders with one smallish chip, a decent zoom and no microphone input.

3. Prosumer/low end professional level camcorders with three chips and either XLR or mini-jack mike inputs.

4. DSLRs.

So we are taking aim at a target audience who fits in levels 2 & 3 – but we don’t plan to forgot those above and below. While the bulk of the learning will cover all levels of gear, most of the technical advice will help out those in the middle. However, we plan to have specific advice targeting the P&S and DSLR crowds.

For instance if you’re doing an interview with your handy dandy three-chipper and a wireless mike, no worries. Good clean audio, on a tripod, great composition. But what if all you have is a burning desire to learn and a P&S? We got ya covered with shooting tips which will work for both you and your gear. DSLR? Different issues completely, but once again, we’ve got ya covered with workarounds to get good audio and more.

This is more than a generic how-to book – I’ve got decades of broadcast news in my past, plus a short gig shooting videos for a newspaper AND I know my way around a lesson plan pretty well. And co-author Larry Nance has the practical technical background balanced with an artist’s heart and soul (and tempered by a very hard business head). So stick with us – teachers, because we WILL have lessons to help your students learn. And students too – cause what could be MORE fun than having fun learning?

Pondering predictions…


…in this case, one I made more than a decade ago. The Internet was young and fanciful thoughts about what might happen to news were being bandied about when I came up with my wild concept.

Imagine a news organization that only employed a few anchors and reporters, but a ton of writers and producers. Imagine a breaking story…a plane crash. Rather than sending a team out, a producer does an Internet search (not even sure if Google was around at this point) and manages to locate a home across the street from the crash. Makes a phone call and tells the person who answers to hook up their video camera to their computer, point it out the window, and describe what they see. Almost unimaginable.

So what do we have today? Skype. Live streaming sites. Uh…it has happened, just not yet completely the way I guessed it might.

All this brought about by a discussion on b-roll.

What began as a discussion of the National Press Photographers Association contest and magazine has evolved into a discussion of the place of broadcast (read TV) members in the organization, how they are being served by NPPA (or not), and how the quality of broadcast has gone downhill – in terms of production values and equipment.

Sigh. There are a lot of anguished folks out there…who remember the “good ole days,” when a camera(wo)man could feel good about what they produced at the end of the day.

But financial hard times are a reality and we don’t always get what we want.

One of the lessons to be learned is from a very old, very tiny camera – the 35mm camera. For more details, check out the information on photo.net.

1914: Oscar Barnack, employed by German microscope manufacturer Leitz, develops camera using the modern 24x36mm frame and sprocketed 35mm movie film.

THAT was just the beginning. The camera became commercially available in 1924 (Leica) and took off in the years just before WWII. By the 1960s it had pushed the standard high quality cameras into the background and for forty plus years became the standard in print news photography – and there it reigned until the advent of digital.

We seem to be poised on the cusp of another change in standards…whether broadcast shooters like it or not. While there will always be room for big bucks, high end, expensive cameras, I am convinced that the news broadcast standard is the 1/3 inch three chip pro-sumer camera…with of course, the requisite bells and whistles. XLR, manual controls, shoulder mount, good glass.

The audience may love high-end high-quality in their movies. But I suspect they will settle for excellent quality video in news and general programs. I just hope they also demand the highest production standards to go with it.

Incompatible…

The saga continues…

My senior with a new Sony hard drive camcorder reported back (as mentioned in the update below) that he could not import and edit with his new camera on his older computer with Windows Vista.

After trying to open and convert with QuickTime Pro (four year old version) we opened up iMovie9 and had success. Seems his camera shoots to Blue Ray ACHVD…DVD files of all things it seems (yeah, more research).

Then after school one of my senior’s wandered in with a similar sad story. She had a Panasonic still camera that shot to Quicktime, but could not open the video files she shot with it in Windows MovieMaker. Since QT is native to Macs, any of my programs could handle them…so overnight I’ve converting her files to .wmv files to work with her computer, although she may choose to use a friend’s Mac and iMovie and import the QT as is – she really loves the quality.

And yeah…MovieMaker does take .avi files, but we did a quick conversion comparison, and QT is best, followed by .wmv and at the bottom the very pixelated .avi.

Lessons
1 – know the vintage, processor speed, RAM of your computer.
2 – know the vintage of your operating system
3 – know the capabilities of your editing program(s)
4 – do the research BEFORE you buy anything new

What will tomorrow bring? Hmmmm….

The new decade approaches…

…and it’s time to look at cameras. Again. Sometimes looking for the right equipment is like trying to ride an avalanche. There is so much to look at and technology is changing so rapidly, it’s hard to stay on top.

Due to my ever shrinking budget, I bought two Aiptek (ISDV 2.4) cameras to fill in the holes created by old cameras going down. The students aren’t breaking them. They are wearing out. Three years of constant use can take down any consumer camcorder. Two worst offenders are the tape carriage and the tripod holes…the latter is a quick fix by cementing in new bushings and the former means I have still cameras.

Stand by for a quick overview of what’s out there today, December 29, 2009. As usual, my idea classroom camcorder would have:

Microphone input
Headset out
Manual iris, focus, white balance
Decent zoom (10x or more)
Metal tripod hole (Yeah – learned that one the hard way)
Removable media

As mentioned in other postings, my preferred method of research is on the B & H Photo site. Quick tip – go there and then click on Camcorders, then Camcorders a second time. Now you can choose your options.

I’m not brand loyal when searching, although I prefer to stick with Canon (since that is what I have now) if the accessories carry over to new models. Price and features are what drive me.

I do have six year old eMacs, so need to stick with standard def if possible…not too sure if the new high def will play smoothly on old slow computers.

For media – as mentioned above I prefer removable media so each student can keep their work separate from others – I’ll check both mini-dv and flash memory.

Leaving the Camcorder Type alone…I want to see what pops up. Optical zoom 10x or more. LCD display – not a biggie, so will leave that up to the search engine.

Price…hmmmmmm. As much as I would like the cheapest, I also need to check the possible range…so will choose $50 to $1000. Final click is to arrange choices from lowest price to highest…now let’s see what’s out there.

First shock – only five items to look at. Three Samsungs (2 models, one with two color options) and two Panasonics (same model, different colors). I may need to change the zoom option to widen the search….later on.

Here’s where you have to do the homework. Click on the Specs tab – this is where you look under the hood to see what you are actually getting for your money.

Samsung SMX C-10 prices in at $199.99/to be real – $200. 10x optical zoom (NEVER include digital zoom in your specs) and shoots to H.264/AVC (720 x 480/60i) format. Has the usual built-in mike and speaker, no inputs and no manual controls. Outputs through USB cord. A basic dumb camera for the masses…my students need more.

Next up the food chain is another Samsung – the SMX C-14 for $280. Main difference between this camera and the C-10 seems to be 16GB internal memory.

Now on to the Panasonic(s). The SDR SW-21 comes in at $306 and is waterproof to about six feet. Records to standard def with built-in speaker and mike. No manual controls/no mike jack. So back to searching.

By unclicking the zoom selection, I’ve widened my choices to sixty-three items. Will report back once I’ve checked them out.

(About 30 minutes later…)
I’ve condensed this down to a list – 12.29.09 Camcorder List – with a total of 36 different models. Since I don’t need specialized cameras, I’ll eliminate the GoPro series, the Vievu (wearable cameras), hidden micro cameras and any underwater cameras.

Now the list is a more realistic 23 – with only one tape camera, the remainder being memory card cameras. I’ll check out the Canon ZR960 first – at $250 it is in the middle of the pack price-wise. 37x optical zoom. Manual focus, exposure, white balance, shutter speed. Mike input and firewire out. It says no headset out, but from experience with past ZR models I’m willing to bet the menu can be set so the AV in/out can operate as a headset out. No still capability.

Before we go any further, I’ll be eliminating cameras along the way that do not have the options I want/need…so from here on you’ll only see those that meet my specs. This includes eliminating the two Aipteks I purchased – they were an emergency fill-in because they do NOT have mike inputs or manual controls…they can be used on a number of my beginning assignments though.

Much later…
Disappointing. Only the tape camera – the Canon ZR960 – met all my specs. The next closest are three Canon (FS200, FS21, FS22) flash card cameras with mike/headset jacks but no manual controls. Only three cameras – all Sonys (DCR SX40, DCR SX41, DCR SX60) – had any type of manual control and that was just focus. The price ranges on the Canon (tape and tapeless) runs from $250 to $500 and for the Sonys from $227 to $329.

To get all of the features I want, I’d need to spend over $1500 per camera. For that I can get six low end cameras.

A quick check of the hi-def camcorders turned up the Canon Vixia JF200 with mike and headset jacks but no manual controls.

At a more reasonable price, but with only a 5x zoom but still with a mike input is the Aiptek Action HD GVS 1080p for $170.

Some Sonys have an accessory shoe that takes mikes by the way…check out the Sony KDRXR200V for $650. You may find this holds true for some of the low-end Sonys.

Here’s an old favorite…the flash card version of my Canon HV20 – the Vixia HF20 for $655. Includes mike input but I’m not seeing any manual controls.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this tour and also learned how to do your own research. Remember that before beginning you need to know your budget and your requirements. And before making that final decision, check out compatibility between the camera and your computer and software so you can avoid surprises.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑