What To Look For In a Video Camera: 7 Essential Features You Want In Your Next Camera
People ask me all the time what to look for in a video camera and what type of camera they should get. If you are just starting out and on a budget I’m going to recommend that you look at consumer or prosumer cameras. There are plenty of camcorders in the $300 – $500 range, like the Canon Vixia line we use, that have every feature you need and which make great videos.
These are the features you want to have in your camera:
- The camera must have an external microphone (mic) input. The built-in microphone on your camera will do in a pinch if the camera is close to the speaker, but it is seldom going to get high quality audio. It picks up the sound of the camera motors, the lens zooming and focusing, your hands on the camera, wind, your breathing and whatever noise is close to it. For the best audio you’ll want to use an external mic and it has to have a way to plug into the camera.There are other options for getting good audio without using the camera’s mic input. You can record your audio to a separate audio recorder, but this requires more equipment (see DSLRs below). I say not having an external mic input is a deal breaker. It must also have a headphone jack so you can listen to the audio you are recording.
- It must have manual audio controls and level meters. Assuming you have an external microphone and headphones you still won’t get the best audio unless you can control the volume manually. On automatic volume control the camera will try to get good audio by pumping it up in quiet spots and clamping it down when things get loud. This is annoying and does not sound natural.
To give you an example of the problem with automatic level control, imaging you are shooting a marching band passing by. At first you hear the entire band at a distance, than they get closer and you hear the flutes leading the parade. Not too loud, but as the band passes by you hear each individual section, the clarinets, trumpets, trombones and then the drum corps, which are almost unbearably loud and explosive. After the drums pass by and you get the tubas and at the very end, the soft sound of piccolos. I guarantee that on automatic your audio will pump up and down in an annoying way.
You want to be able to override your audio with manual controls. The best way to gauge your volume is with level meters. Try to set it to hit just above -12 db only on the loudest parts. Some TV stations insist that your audio not go over this level or they won’t run your video. This is important if you are shooting commercials.
- It must have the ability to focus manually. Just like you want to be able to manually control your volume, you also want to override the automatic focus at times. Most cameras are very good at auto focus but sometimes they guess wrong about what your main subject is or you may want to focus selectively on one object and change the focus to a different item. This is known as a rack focus and is a very effective creative technique. Also, cameras have a much harder time with autofocus in dark areas and may hunt for focus, giving a shifting in and out of focus effect. While not an absolute deal breaker, I highly recommend a camera with the option of manual focus control.
- Optical image stabilization is desirable, but not absolutely necessary. This is the ability of the camera lens to take some of the shakiness out of a handheld or otherwise unsteady shot. It is amazingly effective on better quality lenses.
- Insist on an optical zoom lens. Skip cameras with only digital zoom. This is a way to fake a zoom shot but the result is nowhere near as good as a true zoom lens. And while we’re on the subject of zooms, I recommend that you keep zoom shots to a minimum. They can be effective but are often overdone. Watch movies and you’ll rarely see a zoom shot. They move the camera, changes lenses or stop recording, zoom in or out and start recording again. It will give you a much more professional look.
- Manual white balance control is important. There are times when you will want to control the white balance of your camera for creative reasons or because the automatic feature is giving you poor colors. Most of the time I have found auto white balance to be accurate, but you still want to be able to control it.
- Looking at a tape camera? They are becoming rare. Look for one that records to some kind of flash memory too so that you have flexible options. At first I had reservations about cameras with only flash memory but that’s all I use now. You just have to be careful to back up your recordings.
- Looking at a Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera? Most brands are capable of making stunning feature film quality images but don’t rely on them for your audio (at least not yet in the lower price ranges). You will have to get a separate high quality digital audio recorder like the Zoom H4n digital recorder to record good audio and then sync your audio up with your video in the editing process. I’ve been shooting a TV series using the Canon 5D Mark III DSLR and am very impressed with the images. This is a more complicated way to shoot video but does result in very high-end images. It is also quite prices; the lenses we are using cost over $2,000 each. This isn’t really for beginners.
Another thing to note…most of these cameras shoot in high def formats, which demand more of your computer’s editing software and processor. Make sure your editing software will handle the type of file your camera produces AND that you have the computer power to process your files.
Once you’ve bought a camera you should spend a good bit of time practicing with it before shooting something serious. Under the stress of a real shoot is not the time to be figuring out a new camera. This can be frustrating and embarrassing. Menus can be complicated so take the time to learn where certain controls are and how to use them.
This is what I recommend you look for in a video camera. If you find one with these features, and many cameras have all of them, you will be in great shape.
Your camera is one of several essential tools you’ll need to produce videos. We cover all the essentials in Chapter 13 of our book Shoot To Sell: Make Money Producing Special Interest Videos and in Lesson 5 of the Special Interest Video Academy. If you want to get serious, you need to check both out if you haven’t yet done so.
Is there something you can’t live without on your camera that I may have missed? Please comment below and I’ll send you the download of my checklist so you can have it in hand when you’re shopping for your next camera.