Choosing a camera 4.0…

It is probably about time to update this.  Not to buy a camera, mind you, but to revisit a topic that must continually be updated, thanks to techno-changes, which NEVER seem to slow down.  A good and a bad thing.  Good cause those little babycams seem to get better and better.  Bad cause…well, who really wants to know the camera they got just last week or last year is already out of date?

A quick review  of prior posts on this topic will give you an idea of what has changed and what hasn’t.

January 2007
July 2009
January 2011

First, the ground rules. Our focus is affordable (now there’s a topic to debate) cameras for Videojournalists. Run and gun style…this means zoom lens, professional manual controls and audio inputs, although I may dip down to prosumer for the latter (will explain that as I go along). This is for camera only…you’ll need to review prior posts (Oh look! There’s one right down there!) for supplemental gear such as mike, lights, tripods.

The camera is the mainstay of a VJ’s bag of tricks. It has to be durable, easy to use (if YOU supply the knowledge, skills, and talent), and not over-the-top expensive. For the sake or fairness, this time I’ll take a look at several levels of cameras: under $1K, under $2K, and under $5K. (FYI: the “K” stands for thousand, not kazillion.)

Now I’m not advocating you buy from any particular store…I try my best to buy local when I can…but some of my needs are more specialized than local can handle so I hop online…and I’ve found that certain sites are not only safe and reliable, but also have really snazzy search functions when you aren’t quite certain what you want. Top of the list here (and, again, you choose your site…don’t follow my lead blindly) is B & H Photography.

I’ll be explaining how to conduct a search using this site (official disclaimer: nothing exchanges hands between us except my cold hard cash with no discounts for whatever it is I want…just like you and everyone else) so you can pick it up to search for whatever it is you want.

So…click on “Video Professional.” That will get you out of the confusing realm of consumer cameras and into cameras with a bit of heft and functions. Next, click on “Camcorders.” On this date there are 103 choices…way too many to inspect closely.

So next we will begin selecting features and at the same time, cutting back on the number of cameras to check out. Um…and since I tend to be VERY budget conscious, I’m gonna change the “Sort By” function from “Best Sellers” to “Price: Low to High.” Although popularity is often an indicator of a good value with all the features, I’m not one to be lead by the herd…and herd thinking isn’t always thinking.

The 103 choices range from a little Sony number for around $1,000 (with no lens mind you) to $80,000 plus for another Sony camera – again, with no lens. Yep…for the price of a home in your average little Mid-Western town you can own a camera body.

So let the sorting begin! I never begin by selecting a brand…frankly the six companies listed are all reputable and make solid equipment. I’m going to skip “Camera Configuration” because I can predict that the broadcast cameras are going to be too pricy…and they are. Although many (many many) TV stations are purchasing babycams and low-end broadcast cameras, this category runs the gamut from $45,000 to that top-end Sony at $80,000.

My first sort will be for resolution, and I’m choosing HD. Our list is down to 90 choices.

The next choice will be for Media Format – a can of worms if ever there was one. This gets personal, but here’s how I choose. I will not choose a tape camera…tape is getting harder to find off the shelf and is a fading technology (my opinion). Also skip Internal Memory…again a personal choice cause I like to trade out memory cards to hand off to others or to download while I continue shooting. The six remaining choices are all variations on memory cards. Being the practical tightwad that I am, I would go with SDHC…because the cards are commonly available if you need them and affordable to boot.

If you’ve got the cash, check out the other cards. SxS, P2, and memory sticks are common choices, although you’d better have a supply on hand. Again, you can’t just run over to Walgreens and pick them up.

There are 42 camcorders that use SDHC cards. Price points from that no-lens low-end Sony at around $1,000 to upper end to a Panasonic (no lens) model at $15,000.

Let’s keep looking.

We’ll look at the upper end choices first – between $3,000 and $5,000. (Go to Price and type in the range of prices you are looking for.) There are 17 in this category.

Here’s where you have to know your stuff to winnow the list down further. So, from the top.
If you’re interested in free shipping, rebates, or want to buy immediately (in stock) click those. Since I’m just looking for features, I won’t click those right now.
We’ll skip brand again, although you’ll notice we are down to the three: JVC, Panasonic, Sony.
NTSC or NTSC/Pal? If you are only shooting in the US of A, doesn’t matter…the format here is NTSC. If you are going overseas to countries that use PAL, you may want to click that box.
Next choice is CCD vs. CMOS. Another can of worms..each chip has it’s merits and issues, so I’m not going to choose either for you. (Will tell you that the single CCD camera is the one I purchased myself a few years back though.)
There’s a slew of features to choose from, but at this price range the only thing I’m really interested in is the audio input – XLRs. That gets us down to 15 cameras.
Digital Interface – this category pretty much deals with cameras used in-house and plugged into studio and live setups. Since we’re out in the field on our own for now we’ll skip that.
For Codec I’m choosing mpeg-4. Again, latest codec/most commonly used.

And we’re down from 103 to 13 cameras. A few final eliminations. I will not choose a 3D camera so cross that off the list. Also, since we’re on a budget, the camera must come with a lens. Oh – and skip the “Field Acquisition Backpack.” Not going there.

So we are down to 9 choices…and all of them are possibilities. Here’s where I place the burden back on YOU. Choose a camera. Any camera. For convenience I’ll walk you thru the first one on the list. The Sony HXR NX70U at $2,800. Choose it.

Go ahead and read the overview…but your real meat is on the Specs sheet. There you’ll see that it has a single half inch CMOS chip, shoots to both memory sticks and SDHC (and more). Personal concern: filter size is only 37mm and that tells me this is a small camera and I might not want it.

Check out “What’s In The Box” to make sure your get a complete package – camera, lens, battery and charger as well as necessary cables.

Now cruise through the Reviews to make sure there aren’t any nasty surprises. And read those with the proverbial grain of salt. Generally the pros reviewers will be more on point than the casual users. If you read all of the reviews you can at least discern a pattern of pros and cons.

Your homework? Check out each camera. I have some personal preferences…generally like three chip cameras for higher quality. I look at the location of the manual controls for focus (on the ring), audio (where I can access them quickly), iris (again…easily accessed and used) and white balance (rarely if ever use auto WB). Built-in neutral density filters help you hop from dark to extremely bright scenes without having to screw on an external filter. A switch to increase gain lets you shoot in lower light situations.

Now, very quickly, I’ll check out the under $2,000 cameras and move on to under $1,000.

The former – just hop down to price and change the numbers to $1,000 to $2,000. Oh – and unclick XLR audio. In this price range you may be looking at prosumer mini-jack audio. There are eight contenders that fit my specs in this price range (after eliminating those w/no lens and other factors). Again, check them out individually and read the reviews.

Now for the final category – under $1,000. For these we’ll have to enter the wide open consumer Camcorders area. Once you’re in, choose Camcorders again and right away enter a price range of 0 to 1,000. The original 195 choices will drop to – 185??? Way too many, so let’s start narrowing again.

Let’s choose a resolution of HD-1080 and get our choices down to 133. Under features choose Mike Input. Down to 30 cameras. Going to eliminate under Factors the Sports type by choosing Palm and Pocket and then for Media SDXC/SDHC/SD cards. Down to 22 choices with prices ranging from one Toshiba on sale for $149 to an upper end Sony at $898.

Again read the reviews and specs to really get a handle on features and performance.

One feature I notice I cruised through above is single vs. three chip cameras. The latter are pretty much standard in the professional field…and the bigger the chips, the better for higher resolution and low light ability. I will say that a single 1/2 chip can put out and amazing picture…but multiply that by three and you are in Nirvana!

Here’s a Happy New Year to all of you out there and wishing you the best in finding the camera of your dreams. On a budget or otherwise. Questions? Fire them off.

Addendum January 19, 2014: Note to those who are upgrading or changing cameras. Please keep in mind your mikes and tripod when you get a new camera. Your mikes will generally have either XLR/professional three pin connectors or mini-jack/3.5mm connectors. If you move to a camera with a different mike input you may have to get adapters for your mikes or purchase new audio gear.
The same applies to other accessories…the first coming to mind being your tripod. Tripods are rated by the amount of weight they can carry. If you buy a significantly heavier camera, your tripod may struggle with the weight. When considering weight don’t just count the camera body…you’ll need to include the weight of battery, lights, and anything else you attach to the camera.
Oh…and if you’ve archived all of your stuff on to mini-dv and you’re moving to another format, you’d better either convert that old stuff to digital on a hard drive or disc or keep the old camera around in case you want to access the archived material.


Line & mike levels and more audio tales from the darkside…

I’ve always said that audio is just as important as video when producing visual stories. If an audience has to struggle to hear sound, they will tune out and turn off (or skip to another site).

How you get sound into a camera (or story) can vary.

The most obvious (and worst) mike is the built-in mike on the camera. Generally this is an omni-directional mike. It picks up sound from every direction…with the closest noises recorded at the highest level (don’t cough – oh no!). That means the person holding the camera trumps the person being interviewed. (NOTE: if you MUST do an interview w/an on-camera mike, get in as close as you can. That means FILL THE FRAME with their face (no – DON”T zoom). Put them in an environment where there is NO distracting background audio. Even an air conditioner or dog barking in the background can ruin your interview audio. I told my students to reach out and touch the person they were going to interview…and back up no further than that.)

Lesson #1
Don’t purchase a camera that only has an on-board mike.

Not to worry – there is a workaround. If you’re into simple editing and have patience.
Just pick up one of those little digital audio recorders (I got mine for about $65). You can either place it near your subject (or noise source) or plug in a clip-on mike and tack that onto your willing subject. Much cleaner audio. Problem is, you have to match up or synch(chronize) the audio in a non-linear editing program.

Which gets us into what a clapboard really is. It’s not just something to bang around in front of the camera or make note of which scene and take you are up to. The matched visual of the clapper hitting the board along with the ensuing sound are what enable you to synch up audio and video later. (First workaround – just clap your hands right in front of the lens/camera. The cheapest “clapper” I know of/have used.)

Failing that…hope that your subject at some point used a “P” or a “B” or even a “W.” Those consonants have very distinctive audio cues…
The “B” sound can ONLY be made by putting your lips together and pulling them apart. (Yeah – just TRY to say baby without putting your lips together).
The “P” sound is similar. Lips begin pressed together.
“B” sucks in…”P” pushes out.
And if your interview subject says “welcome” or “why” or “whatever…”, the lips once again begin pressed together, but then open up and down.
Find those B, P, and W words and then try to match the lip action with the sound. Piece of cake. (And you can try it with other letters of the alphabet too – these have just been easiest for me.)

Lesson #2
Moving along…let’s say you were smart (or lucky) and have a camera with audio inputs. Today’s camera basically use two types of audio connectors. XLR (professional) and 3.5mm (mini-jack, consumer & prosumer).

(First let’s get the dirty little language lesson out of the way. There are male and female connectors. The boys have prongs. The girls have holes. End of lesson.)

The mini-jacks come in either stereo/two channel (left & right) or mono/one channel. This is a tiny connector you plug into your camera. Beware: it can come loose easily.

XLRs are grounded and balanced and locked. This means they are hot swappable (no noise when plugging in/unplugging). A balanced cable allows you to run longer cable runs without noise. And locked? The mini-jack can be pulled free but an XLR locks into place…no fear of losing audio if the cable pulls loose.

XLRs don’t come in stereo or mono. Most cameras with XLR inputs have two. Channel one and channel two. You can choose to record on both channels with your on-board mike, or plus in another mike and record from the camera on one channel and the plug-in on another…or even plug in two mikes and record separate sound on each channel. Wow. (That’s professional for ya.)

Now thanks to the wonderful world of adapters (and Radio Shack and its kin), you can actually interchange mini-jack and XLR mikes. There are screw-on interfaces which allow you to run a mini-jack out of your camera and plug XLR cables into it. And you can go the other way – although why, I can’t imagine.

OK – so now you know what kind of input you have on your camera. Hopefully you know if it is stereo or mono. Final step: what mike are ya gonna use?

Lesson #3
Microphones. I’m going to overgeneralize, just to keep this simple.

First – there are wired and wireless mikes. Well, not mikes, but systems.

A wired mike uses a cable to plug into the camera. You are limited in range to the length of your mike cable.

A wireless mike is actually a transmitter with a mike plugged into it and a receiver, which is plugged into the camera. This increases the range of the mike from the length of a cable to the distance the signal can be received.

So what exactly ARE you gonna plug into your camera (or wireless transmitter)?

Shotgun mike.
Stick mike.
Clip-on mike.

One. Two. Three.

A stick mike is the tool of choice for many TV cameramen/reporters. It is omni-directional – it picks up sound from nearly every direction. It allows the user to choose who/where they will point it. It allows the user to control the interview by pulling the mike back as needed. And most stick mikes (the professional grade again) are solidly built. My Electovoice 635 could be used as a hammer.

Clip-on mike, aka lavalier microphone. The word “lavalier” is French in origin and refers to a pendant worn around the neck on a chain. The original lav mikes were placed around the neck of the interview subject with a cord. Today’s lav mikes are tiny and can be clipped on unobtrusively on an interview subject (or reporter). Most lavs are omnidirectional.

Shotgun mike. Now this has always confused me. A shotgun actually sprays out it’s projectiles in a widening pattern. However, a shotgun mike is a unidirectional mike. It has a narrow range it can pick up audio from. Perfect for aiming across a room at someone speaking or getting interviews with several subjects in a fairly noisy venue.

Which do you use in which situation?

1. They can all be used for interviews.
2. The stick and shotgun mikes allow you to interview several people at the same time, just by pointing the mike at the person you want to hear speaking.
3. The lav mike can only be pinned on to one person at a time.
4. The stick and shotgun allow you to control the interview by pulling the mike away from the interview subject and asking new questions. A lav mike gives the power to the subject, who can just ramble on.
5. Stick mikes are generally solidly built and can outlast cameras.
6. Lav mikes are generally be delicate.
7. Shotguns can be used on booms (long poles) and operated by a sound person, who points it at the desired sound source.
8. Generally speaking, stick mikes are least expensive, followed by lavs, followed by shotguns.

As usual, there are exceptions to all generalizations.

Um…in a later posting I’ll get into why cost and quality go hand in hand. Also why prosumer/professional cameras are a better choice simply because they allow you to control/mix audio coming into the camera.

Oh – and mike and line?

Those are refences to what level (how high/low) the audio levels are that come into the camera. Mike level is lower. Line level is high – at times overwhelmingly high. If you feed a line level into a mike input, you’re gonna get blown away. Distortion. Most consumer cameras don’t even need to worry about this…unless you for some reason want to link into an audio mixer to take a feed. A very unlikely scenario for the average consumer. Even potting (aka turning) the sound all of the way down with using a mixer won’t help. But professional and prosumer cameras often come with a switch that allows you to choose which level you want the audio feeding in at (mike/line). Plus controls to pot it up or down.

More later…I feel a roadtrip coming on…

Love at first sight…

My “last” camera arrived a week ago and I’ve been doing something I’ve never done before. Sat down, figured out a testing schedule, read the manual (now THAT was a first) and have been methodically going through the controls. Every other camera I’ve bought I just hit the ground running with.

But this little girl (gonna hafta think up a nice nickname for her) is special. My first non-tape camera in decades (of course that last one was 16mm). Panasonic HCM150.

When I pulled her out of her box and unwrapped her, I shivered. Sleek lines, sturdily built. All of the requisite controls on the OUTSIDE, not in some damn menu.

So here’s the agenda for checkout…something you might consider with your next camera. Keep in mind I’ve built up a good supply of accessories and need to check them out to make sure all is compatible.

First day – Pull from box, scan the manual. Shoot and play back some tape video, just to see how it looks. Review the manual again re the basics of setup and shooting.

Several days later…sat down with camera and manual and went through everything page by page to get a basic handle on what I need to know to shoot. Dumped a few files into my (five year old) MacBook, iMovie 9 just to see if I could. Imported fine, rough playback. Note to self: next time use a firewire external drive, not the USB drive. But it is nice to know I can get by for a little while longer with my current computer…will get the new one when a paying client appears.

A week later…met up with cohort Larry Nance and we reviewed and did a comparison to cameras we’ve used in the past. This one rocks. Not quite up to broadcast standards (smaller, lighter, 1/3″ chips, different media), but masterfully planned. Made arrangements to meet in a week and do side-by-side shoots with older cameras.

Today…ran audio tests. First, the on-camera mike. Next a wired stick mike (Electovoice 635) and then wired shotgun (Sennheiser ME66) and then each mike run on the wireless (Lectrosonics) system. All worked wonderfully…the shotgun definitely peaks higher than the stick mike and was able to run off phantom power when on the wireless transmitter. That and I walked to the back of my property and the audio was crystal clear at 200 feet on the wireless. Rock on!!!

Next week Larry and I will shoot and post side-by-side comparisons with our older JVC GY-DV300s and my Canon HV20.

Now I want a new carbon fiber tripod!

A word to why the above process is important for teacher/students/newbies: Unless you research thoroughly and even then, problems will develop with equipment. I knew in my heart that all of my older gear would hook up to the new camera. But the worst time to test new systems is when you are under the gun. Plug in everything you’ve got. Take notes. Check out every variation with every item. Be prepared to order adapters or make adaptions. Know your gear.

Oh…and Larry…I finally found the composite outs/RCAs. Hidden over the XLR outs in a well-concealed compartment. (Sneaky, that.)

Go to…

Nothing like being lazy. Yesterday I sent Angela Grant a response to one of her reader’s questions and she posted it, thus saving me some time and effort.

The focus: how to hook a prosumer camera into a “mult” box for a feed.

Explanation for non-newies and wanna-be newsies.
Prosumer (or consumer) cameras do not come with the high quality shielded cables and connectors of professional gear. They come with mini-jack audio and RCA audio/video inputs/outputs.
Mult box – basically a box or even suitcase that can take a single feed in from a camera and microphone which has multiple audio and video outputs. These are almost always professional connectors – so BNC video and XLR audio. The audio can be either line or mike level.
Feed – what is sounds like. Think piranhas in a feeding frenzy. Ya have a big story and only one camera is allowed inside…so they feed their signal out to the mult box and everyone else hooks in and records what the single camera is sending. I’ve seen mult boxes daisy-chained together so that up to thirty or forty media organizations can take a feed.

So take a meander over to Angela’s site today…and stick around for future posts. The lady has a good thing going.

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