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When asked about the difference between a €300.00 Sony HDR-CX130 consumer HD video camera and a €1400.00 HVR-HD1000 HDV Shoulder Camcorder, a broadcast product manager of one of the two major broadcast equipment manufacturers once told me there are only two differences: guarantee and sound. With a camera labeled as “professional” the conditions on the guarantee are stricter, like repair within 24 hours. And sound should be better too, with support for XLR phantom-powered microphones.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” he said, “If you can’t spend around €3,500.00 to €5,000.00, you might just as well buy the cheapest consumer model money can buy. With the low-end pro cameras you do get manual controls but no visual quality upgrade whatsoever.” Coming from a product manager, that made me think about a high-quality approach to video gear using a low-end camera.
If you shoot interviews, corporate video, wedding videos and other not-too-artistic footage for output to YouTube and Vimeo, the only reason why you should buy a low-end pro model video camera is because these cameras look professional — as with many things, the way something looks is sometimes as important as its quality.
A pro model will look like you know what you’re doing, but in essence it’s money thrown away. Vendors like Sony take a mid-range consumer model and re-wrap it in a professional housing. Presto: your customer thinks you’re Steven Spielberg. However, quality wise and even controls wise, nothing has changed.
You may not have won anything in the customer satisfaction department either. If the video you create sucks, the customer won’t be happy, no matter how expensive your equipment may look or actually is.
The first lesson therefore is: if you seriously believe your customer will come back to you because of the looks of your camera then by all means spend €1,200.00 or €1,500.00 on ‘looks’ and that guarantee. But it’s probably a safe bet he doesn’t care what you create your movie with, as long as the results are stunning and he believes he has spent his money on a quality end-result.
The dSLR video hype
Now many of you will argue they don’t need the gear I’ll be discussing in a moment, because they shoot pro quality video with their brand new dSLR camera. There’s a point to that, but it doesn’t convince me and I’ll tell you why. A dSLR is a photo camera. That means it has a shutter. Having a shutter means you’re actually recording video with each frame recorded not from a snapshot of a single point in time, but rather by scanning across the frame either vertically or horizontally. In other words, not all parts of the image are recorded at exactly the same time, even though the whole frame is displayed at the same time during playback. This is in contrast with global shutter in which the entire frame is exposed for the same time window. This produces predictable distortions of fast-moving objects or when the sensor captures rapid flashes of light. (Source: Wikipedia)
Of course you can get rid of the artefacts and distortions created that way. In Final Cut Pro X and Media Composer 6, there are specific tools for this purpose. But there’s not just rolling shutter. There’s also problems with the size of the sensor, the filters placed in front of that sensor to alleviate moiré, and more such irritating effects that you’ll have to filter out in post-production.
dSLR sound quality is usually abysmal too, but to be honest: good sound quality never comes from a camera. If you want the best, you’ll always use an external audio recorder.
If you’re charging for post-production work, it’s sheer impossible to charge for the extra time removing these flaws take without making your customer unhappy. And why should he have to pay more for fixing things after the shoot if you can avoid them in the first place?
There might currently be one dSLR that is up to the job, and that’s the Nikon D800, but even that beauty has its own quirks. And if you are unlucky enough to live in the EU, there’s always the EU tax rule that states no stills camera can record one continuous clip of 30 minutes or longer or it’s classified as a video camera and therefore in a higher tax fork.
Cinema or just good enough for broadcast?
You won’t create broadcast quality with a €300.00 video camera by itself, but you don’t have to shell out more than €3,000.00 on all equipment to get good results that can compete with broadcast quality. Sure, having a Sony NEX-FS100E or a Panasonic AG-AF101 worth around €4,000.00 to €6,000.00 will ensure you can output anything you want. These cameras are capable of cinematographic quality and have the controls and features to match. And if you really want the top, you’ll go for an Arri or a RED Epic. You’ll be broke before you know it, but at least you’ll be shooting the best available quality — if you can still afford the batteries, that is.
If all you plan to use your video gear for is corporate videos, interviews and the odd creative project and your number one output medium will be YouTube or Vimeo HD, you can come by with a €300.00 consumer camera and still churn out high quality video. The secret? Buying and using the right peripheral equipment to enhance your camera.
The reason why spending more on peripheral equipment than on the camera itself is because peripheral technology may be ‘updated’ slower than the average video camera life cycle. New cameras are being released every six months or so, while peripheral recording devices are usually updated every one to two years. That means you’ll have state-of-the-art equipment for a longer period of time than you’ll have a state-of-the-art video camera.
With the right equipment, you can even breathe new life in old camcorders. Now let’s take a look at the list of equipment you’ll definitely need, how much that will cost on average, and what you may expect from it.
Video equipment list
The list below is what I used for the video interview with the signage service provider in Holland in March 2012.
The camera: A Sony HDR-CX130 with a Sony G-lens. The lens is important. You want a nice sharp lens. This is the cheapest consumer HD camera money can buy. It cost me €345.00. I didn’t buy any accessories, just a fatter battery. The remote on this camera is useless, but then again I never envisaged using this camera for anything more than plain interviews and pretty much static camera work.
Ideally, you’ll have two. As you’ll not be zooming in or dollying about much, you’ll want to create some interesting scene switching between angles instead.
A video field recorder: I use an Atomos Ninja. You could also use an Atomos Samurai. The field recorder allows you to bypass the camera’s recording to AVCHD. AVCHD is a nice codec but due to its compression algorithm some objects may display ugly artefacts. Recording to a Ninja, a Samurai or a Blackmagic Design Hyperdeck Shuttle 2 ensures you’ll be recording to ProRes, DNxHD or Uncompressed 10-bit video. No artefacts and faster workflows as you’ll be ingesting your footage in Final Cut Pro X’s or Media Composer’s native format.
The cost of a field recorder sits around €1,000.00 to €1,500.00. The Blackmagic Design Hyperdeck Shuttle comes without a field monitor so might be a worse choice as you’d have to buy one separately. The Hyperdeck Shuttle 2 costs approx. €258.00.
Audio recorder: Microphones mounted on a camera are fine but not for best quality sound. Take a Tascam DR-100MkII or a Zoom H4n with you. Plug in a good microphone, such as a Rode Videomic Pro or a studio phantom-powered sE Electronics sE2200 A and you’ll get clear, well-articulated sound instead of the “I had my head in a garbage can” audio. The audio recorder will set you back about €300.00, the microphone can be had for € 200.00 or less.
GoPro cameras: For more action driven video footage, there’s nothing like GoPro HD Hero2 cameras. Have two of these and always carry them with you as backup cameras. If you can afford it, buy the 3D housing as well, although not necessarily to shoot corporate video. For GoPros in particular you’ll need ample light. So, the next thing on the list is lighting equipment. The GoPros cost around €350.00 each.
Lighting equipment: You’ll need enough light to overcome the low-light noise every camera suffers from. It’s obvious a cheaper camera will suffer somewhat more from noise than an expensive one, but the difference is smaller than you’d guess. A flash light pointed at a white surface can do wonders if the flash light is bright enough. The XNiteFlashBFL unit seems like a good flash light to me. It outputs ten million candela and has a runtime of 3 hours. It costs €300.00.
Tripods: Because I use light weight equipment, I can do with light weight tripods. Personally, I favor Gorillapods — the heaviest models — with a Hahnel ball head. The Gorillapods add little weight to the Pelican case which is where I keep all my stuff. The Hahnel ball head is incredibly fluid, and allows smooth rotation so I can pan around just the amount I need for the type of videos I create.
Now all you need is software. You’ll have a choice between Apple Final Cut Pro X, Adobe Premiere and Avid Media Composer on the Mac. On a Windows machine, you might also opt for LightWorks. I’ll be discussing the software in a different article soon.