This is a question I get frequently from new and seasoned camera owners. Technology changes so quickly it is easy to assume the rules for buying a camera change too. When buying any technology it is always a good idea to do a little research on the latest trends to see what is out there and their price ranges. But before you invest too much time pouring over technical specifications of a potential purchase, spend a little time listing your specifications. In other words, what do you want this new camera to do for you?
Your list should include everything and the kitchen sink. It does not cost you anything to simply put it all on paper. As you list your needs and price range you will begin to prioritize your specifications. A good camera will last you at least 5 years or more so invest wisely and look at the features you may want tomorrow, not just what you know you need today.
The days of capturing video to tape is obsolete. You will be hard pressed to find a tape based camera on the market and the only reason to buy one on the cheap is for the ability to backup archived footage to a hard drive. SD cards are the current future of video cameras. So as you surf the offerings out there look at each camera’s storage type and capacity.
How much footage do you plan to capture before transferring it to an external drive? The Sony Bloggie is a nice pocket size camera that takes good quality video and photos. But with only 8GB of space you will need to offload it to a hard drive frequently in order to make room for your next production. If you are going on an extended trip or do not plan to transfer footage to external drives frequently, consider upgrading to a camera with a larger storage capacity. For less than $300 you can get a small palm sized camera that can support a whopping 60GB or more of storage. With that kind of storage you can shoot everything in sight and edit the best later!
This actually goes hand in hand with video storage. Some of the smaller blogging cameras have small batteries that need frequent recharging. If you are the occasional videographer or shoot more close to home where you can recharge regularly this may not be a major concern. If you travel a lot or your occasional shoots last several hours then you want to look at a camera that is supplied with batteries that last more than 2 hours or invest in a few spare batteries.
SD, HD or Both?
Standard definition (4:3 aspect ratio) is still alive and kicking and a more efficient standard in terms of hard drive space and processing power when editing. HiDef video(16:9 aspect ratio) produces stunning video and has the file size to match. It also requires an extremely powerful computer to edit this footage efficiently. As technology evolves HD video will become as efficient to work with as SD and, eventually, replace SD video.
All that being said it would be worth your while to look at cameras that allow you switch between SD and HD recording if you are purchasing for your business or for a serious hobby. A camera that can straddle both standards will give you the most options to start.
Video and Audio Quality
Video has come a long way in a short period of time. For very little money you can acquire a camera that takes phenomenal video footage for work or personal use. There are some great cameras out there for under $300 that will take crisp, vibrant video images which, if you follow some of the basic principles for shooting video, you can edit later into a quality production. While the inexpensive cameras offer some stunning video quality under most circumstances, you may find yourself wanting more control over different lighting situations, shot composition and sound.
Let There be Light, or Less of It
Exposure is how much light is allowed to enter the lens of the camera and it affects the brightness and darkness of a shot. Too much light washes out a shot and makes the subjects too “hot”. While you can darken a shot in editing you can never get back the detail lost from an over exposed shot. On the flip side, too little light can darken a shot and make the video quality appear grainy. You may be able to lighten such a video in editing, but with mixed results depending on how dark it started out.
All cameras come with automatic features that adjust for different lighting situations to some degree. As you work your way up the price chain you will find cameras that offer more manual controls for adjusting exposure. In additional to manual controls present on the camera there are lens filters at reasonable prices as well as external lamps that can attach directly to your camera. These are great in situations when you are in close proximity to your subject and require just a bit more lighting than your surroundings provide.
I Can’t Hear You!
Most of the low end cameras on the market take phenomenal video footage in their own right but severely lack in their ability to capture adequate audio. Almost all cameras come with their own built-in microphone. These mics are fine for capturing ambient noise or for spontaneous narration by the camera operator but they will not produce the kind of rich, robust sound quality you will want for a professional video piece. If you are going to be filming a lot of interviews and narration then you will want a camera that can accept external microphone attachments. There are several varieties of external microphones built to handle different types of audio situations. (Another story for another blog). Owning a camera with a mic input gives you the option of attaching any one of these microphones to your camera.
Look for a camera that offers at least an eighth inch mic input.(Price range $900 +) Even an inexpensive, external handheld mic will yield better audio results in an interview than the built in microphone. For about $200 you can get and XLR audio adapter that will plug into the eighth inch mic input and give you 2 grounded XLR audio inputs. This gives you the option of attaching 2 professional level microphones to your camera or a mixing board for even more microphone inputs. There are other camera models out there that allow external mic hookups without the need for adapters, but their price range typically starts at $2500. Depending on your needs you may decide to allocate that $2500 to putting together a full compliment of field gear rather than just the camera piece of it.
Zoom. Zoom. Zoom.
There are 2 different types of zoom advertised for cameras; optical and digital. In the age of digital technology consumers mistakenly focus in on the digital zoom feature, which can often boast a 100 -200x zoom in of the subject. Digital zoom simply magnifies the pixels that create the image of a subject. The further in you zoom the more distorted the subject becomes. Like in graphic design and video editing, digital magnification has its place when use sparingly (and as a last resort) but it should not carry any weight in the decision process of buying a camera.
Optical zoom is the number you want to pay attention to. The technology of optical zoom allows you to zoom in closer to the subject while maintaining the crispness and overall fidelity of the image. Some brand cameras have always offered impressive optical zoom technology. A higher optical zoom helps you get high fidelity close up shots from further away without needing to purchase additional telephoto lenses. It’s a nice feature to have. However, if you know you will mostly be filming subjects within close proximity it is not a necessity. Other considerations to be weighed, maybe more heavily, are the chip size (bigger chips and more of them lead to richer images), the camera’s performance in low light situations and its manual options for controlling exposure and shutter speed.
If you are the casual videographer and have a few hundred dollars to support the hobby you really can’t go wrong with some of the great sub-$300 out there. If you are a serious hobbyist or needing a camera for business purposes and plan to invest equally serious money in the equipment do your homework first, starting with understanding what you expect from your investment today and in the future. Your camera will be the main hub of your production gear so plan with expansion in mind.
Copyright © 2012 Digital Design Digest