Video 101 – Part 1: Cameras

As promised a few weeks ago, I will share some thoughts from my first experiences with dSLR videography, which are intended as guidance to those who are either brand new to videography, or are still contemplating the move and might be wondering what it takes.

Since there is a lot to cover, I will break this into four parts as follows:

  1. Cameras: Pros and cons of the basic types of video capable cameras
  2. Other equipment: Tripods, microphones, lights, computer equipment, etc.
  3. Software: Editing software, other programs and plugins, tutorials
  4. Still photography vs. videography mindset

So, let’s get started with Part 1: Cameras. There are at least four common types of video capable cameras: ultra portable video cameras, consumer camcorders, prosumer or professional video cameras, and video enabled dSLRs. Here are some of their respective pros and cons:

  • Ultra portable cameras: You probably have one of these in your pocket right now: Yes, your cell phone. While video recording has been a feature of mobile phones for years, some recent cell phone models, such as Apple’s iPhone 4, record remarkably high quality video. Their basic advantage is the old saying that the best camera at any given moment is the one you have with you. Cell phones can hardly be beat in that regard. Point and shoot still cameras have also included video recording for years. Other cameras in this class might be the (now retired) Flip models, or the popular GoPro sports cameras. Cameras in this class are usually the easiest to operate, often down to a single button press, and they also tend to offer easy web sharing on YouTube, Facebook, or other popular websites. On the other hand, their controls are rather limited, so for the budding film maker they are probably not the right choice in most circumstances.
  • Consumer camcorders: Consumer camcorders (e.g., the Canon Vixia line) are an extremely convenient choice for many “household” video applications, such as vacation videos, videos of your children, etc. Many high definition consumer camcorders cost less than a $1000. They have generally good ergonomics, good auto focus, offer easy to use auto modes, but in many cases also include fairly sophisticated manual controls. Two of their fundamental disadvantages both relate to their small sensors: they have large depth of field (i.e., it’s hard to isolate a subject from the background), and their low light image quality cannot compete with professional camcorders or dSLRs.
  • Professional camcorders: You could think of professional camcorders, e.g., from Canon, Sony, Panasonic, or JVC, as consumer camcorders on steroids. They are bigger, heavier, more expensive (typically over $3,000 for high definition models), offer more controls and better image quality. A fundamental advantage of these camcorders (and the same could be said to some extent for the consumer camcorders) is their superb ergonomics. They have been refined for many years to have every control in the right place. An easy to reach variable speed zoom rocker might be a prime example. Their sensors tend to be larger than consumer camcorders, but still smaller than dSLRs, so their depth of field and low light performance lies in between those two other categories of cameras.
  • dSLRs: If you have bought a digital SLR in the last two years (e.g., from Canon or Nikon), chances are excellent that you can also record video with it. Some other interchangeable lens cameras, such as Panasonic’s G, GF, and GH lines of cameras, also fall into the same class. These cameras are perhaps the most exciting video technology in decades. It’s no exaggeration to say that for a few thousand dollars (camera, lenses, tripod, lights, etc.) you can record video at such high quality that a few years ago only motion picture cameras costing more than $100,000 could have possibly competed. The biggest downside of dSLRs as video cameras is their ergonomics. They were simply never designed to be video cameras. Controls are not in the right place (e.g., zoom), auto focus is probably barely usable (although this is starting to change with the latest models), and hand holding them is out of the question without expensive after market solutions. Whether this is a deal breaker depends on your application. If you want to record video of your kids running around your house or backyard, then a dSLR is a bad choice. On the other hand, if you are a film maker, shoot from a tripod and carefully plan your takes ahead of time, then a dSLR is almost impossible to beat. Indeed, some prime time TV shows and full length feature films have been recorded with dSLRs, such as the Canon 5D Mark II.

Alright, that should be enough for one post. In the next part, I will talk about other pieces of equipment such as tripods, lights, microphones, etc. In many cases, these will be an absolute necessity, so it is important to figure them into your budget.

Happy Fourth of July!

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One Response to Video 101 – Part 1: Cameras

  1. hemp says:

    The options for video cameras for underwater use are relatively small. Video cameras range from consumer camcorders to professional cinematic models.

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