Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Budget Video Equipment Guide

Video costs money. I hate to break it to you. But hopefully this guide will help you to stretch your pennies, getting the most quality for the least money. The main components are: camera, audio equipment, lights, computer, and software. Feel free to start out with cheaper equipment, and upgrade as you go. No one ever has the equipment he wishes he had. I don't even have all the stuff in this guide yet – it's kind of a wish list for me too!

Just remember: the thing that will save you the most money is: education. I'm not saying you need to go to film school or anything. Just learn as much as you can. One way is by carefully watching TV. Another way is to start a video, run into a problem, and look for help on the internet (this is the most common way for me). I did go to school for video production, but I've learned far more by reading stuff on the web. In fact, why go to college when you can buy the text books and learn from them? The ultimate test of your knowledge is the quality of your videos, if you ask me, not the diploma on your wall.

Let's start with the camera. The camera is where I'd spend the most money. There are lots of articles where people try to make video look like film. I think it's far more worthwhile to get a great camera. Sure you want to do your best to make the footage look great after you're done filming - but that's no replacement for a great camera. Ideally you want a camera with a great professional lense (i.e. something in the +$2000 range). It's also great to have 3CCD's (or CMOS), and you want them to be as big as possible. A 0.5 inch CCD is better than a 0.25 inch one. Line in or microphone in is good to have because it's usually not the best to use the one mounted on the camera. I use the mic on my camera for emergency backup only.

While all those things are great to have, get what's right for your budget. If you're only doing web video, don't feel bad starting out with a single CCD cheapo model. You can start making videos and getting experience while you save for a better one. Halfway between cheapo and professional is the Canon HV30. It's about $900 (though now it's on sale for $625), can shoot HD in progressive mode, and has 3 CMOS sensors that are a whopping 1/2.7 inches. And if you really have money to spend, go for a prosumer camera. Whatever camera you have, educate yourself on how to use it well. Warning: always buy from a respected vendor, like B&H or Amazon. Don't fall for the price-watching "deal" sites - or you may be ripped off!

Audio equipment. Rule #1: almost anything is better than the mic on your camera. Even a $20 mic in some cases. Ideally you'd want a mixer, a few microphones (lavalier, handheld, shotgun) and a field recorder. But to start out, if you have a laptop you could buy a mic and record with Audacity. Or you could buy a field recorder like my Zoom H2 (around $180), which has built in microphones, line in, and mic in. With a 4GB memory card, it can record hours of CD quality WAV files. And it fits in the palm of your hand. I use it all the time.

For lighting, you can start out with some work lights from the hardware store – for as little as $20. You could light with car headlights if you want. Just be sure to light your scene well so your image doesn't look snowy. Lighting can get complicated. My advice: research lighting, then go out and learn from experience. Learn to see like a camera sees. What your eye sees a slightly darker area, a camera could see as a harsh dark shadow. To avoid shadows try using diffuse lights rather than directional ones, or aim your light at the ceiling and let it bounce off the paint and fill the room. Cloudy days are a goldmine if you're not good at lighting. If you've ever filmed on a bright sunny day and seen very dark shadows in your footage, you'll see what I mean by diffuse light vs. directional light. Of course there are lighting kits you can buy to (try photography stores), but feel free to experiment with cheaper alternatives.

Computer. If you're on a limited budget, I recommend a PC. The PC you're using right now is probably good enough to get the job done. PC's are cheaper and there is more software, especially free software. True, Macs are great with video, but you'll pay the price and be limited in your choices. Don't get me wrong; if you can afford it Mac is great and you'll find it to be very user friendly. But getting back to my point of educating yourself: you can save a lot of money by understanding as much as you can about video. AviSynth, for example, can accomplish very specific tasks that otherwise would only be possible with software well into the $1000 range. And a final word of warning: if you rely on easy point and click programs, you're depriving yourself of valuable knowledge that can save you cash and make you a more skilled videographer.

Things to look for: a dual core processor, extra RAM, large hard drive, a 1394 Firewire card (if you're using a DV camera). My computer is not a high end PC. I just have to wait longer for videos to render. And I'm willing to wait to save an extra $1500. You don't need to go nuts. A computer in the $500 range should get the job done. But do get a large hard drive. You won't regret it.

Software. If you're really on a budget, try Sony Vegas. If you've got the money, go for Adobe Production Studio (it comes with Premiere, After Effects, PhotoShop, Encore DVD, and Illustrator). For tweaking colors and doing visual effects, After Effects is king.

As you can see, there are many options. Of course you just need to do what's right for you. With more money, there's always some great new tool you can buy. No matter what your budget, do your best to make the most of it! My biggest piece of advice is: get in the habit of creating. Not every video you do has to be a masterpiece, but it will give you experience. And the more experience you have, the better you'll do when you do get your big idea. Now go get a job at WalMart, or start begging your parents for money!

Possible start kit:
HV30 ($900)
Sony Vegas (starting at $55)
Hardware store lights ($20)
Zoom H2 Field Recorder ($180)

Total: $1155


Darrell said...

Derek, it doesn't seem like you've attracted commenters, yet, but I appreciate what you're doing. I, too, am a dedicated self-learner, currently learning about video. I am assembling a collection of links, tutorials, reviews, etc. and adding original material. I linked your blog entry on widescreen HQ for YouTube.

Keep up the good work!


Darrell said...

At your suggestion, I took a quick look at Avisynth, but I got stuck right off the bat. I was unable to get Windows Media Player to recognize or play a .avs file. At the avisynth site, under troubleshooting, I noticed:

"open it in Windows Media Player 6.4 (it is a file "mplayer2.exe" located in "C:\Program Files\Windows Media Player", other versions of WMP will not work)."

I'm running V11 of MediaPlayer. What player do you use?

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