You don’t need to spend a lot to get started in online video. People distrust that, but it’s true. You can record with a $150 pocket-size camera, edit with the free software that came with your computer (or skip editing completely), post your content on YouTube, then embed it on your site. You’d be surprised at how many companies do just that.
If you want to the polish and professionalism that comes with higher-priced equipment, see our Guide to High-End Cameras. But if you’d like good results with only a small investment, you’re in the right place.
To help shape our list, we spoke to Antonio Bille, a sales professional at New York City’s esteemed B&H Photo and Video. Bille has years of experience at B&H (where they don’t work on commission and never try to up-sell) and was a film student before that. If you’re in the neighborhood, stop by and tell him OnlineVideo.net sent you.
Pocket-sized cameras such as the Flip UltraHD are popular with absolutely everyone, says Bille, because they’re inexpensive, each to use, and easy to carry. While a Flip video camera will cost you $150, Bille recommends spending a little extra for the Kodak Zi8 ($180). Unlike the Flip, it has a microphone input, and “you can’t have good video without good audio,” Bille says.
The Kodak also separates itself with two different HD modes and a higher frame rate that delivers a smoother image. If you’re going to do a lot of shooting at one time, you’ll like that it records to SD memory card, unlike the Flip, so you’re not limited to onboard storage.
As for that microphone input, Bille recommends that you pair the Kodak with an inexpensive lavalier microphone (about $20 to $30) or a small shotgun mic (about $55), to make sure your audio is loud and clear.
MiniDV tapes are on the way out for consumer cameras. How bad has it gotten? B&H carries only three consumer miniDV cameras. That doesn’t mean you should overlook the format, though. It’s still used by professionals (in cameras that combine tape and flash storage) because it records uncompressed video at 25MB per second and the results are stronger to the trained eye than digital formats. People also like the security of recording to tape, says Bille, knowing that they can always re-import the footage if they need to.
Of the few miniDV cameras around, Bille says the Canon VIXIA HV40 is the tops. While its $650 price is higher than some, it offers phenomenal results thanks to its professional-style frame rate modes. The video looks like it was shot by a pro cam. Bille has one customer who wanted something smaller than his $5,000 professional camera for shooting B-roll and reshoots, and chose the Canon HV40. After trying it, he was blown away by how well the footage from both cameras meshed.
The HV40 offers manual settings, which you don’t often find at this level, for advanced user control. It’s strong in low light and delivers terrific image quality.
Budget Flash Storage
There are many advantages to going with a flash memory video camera, such as being able to record for long durations without changing tapes. You can also import footage to your computer far faster than with tape. If you’d like to go with a budget-priced flash camera, Bille recommends the Canon VIXIA HF S100 ($690). It has no built-in memory, but lets you add SD memory cards for storage. It also has a large image sensor and a DIGIC processor that produces more accurate and richer color than higher-priced cameras.
Other pluses to the HFS100 include its comfortable grip, strong image stabilization, and autofocus sensor which cuts down on the time required for autofocus. If you want built-in memory, some higher-priced models in this line offer the same features but with on-board storage.
What do you get if you spend a little more? Well, the Sony HDR-CX550V ($1199) offers a big 64GB of stored memory, and can also accept the Sony Memory Stick Pro Duo or an SD card. It’s the large image sensor and the wide Sony G lens, however, that really makes it stand out. You’ll get an especially wide angle right out of the box. It’s a strong choice for those looking for more professional results.
The consumer line maxes out at around $1200, so if you need more features and a richer image, you’ll need to look at a prosumers camera. Bille likes the Sony HDR-FX7 ($1999), which offers a 3CMOS sensor for especially rich colors. It can shoot in full HD, with a 1080i resolution, and lets you get in close with a 20x optical zoom.
It also has pro looks, and that matters to a lot of buyers, Bille has found. “They want people to look at them as say, ‘Wow, that person knows what he’s doing,'” he jokes. People paying $2,000 don’t want a camera that looks like it could be used to shoot home movies.
You might also consider the Panasonic HMC40 ($1899), which has manual controls and professional frame rates.
That’s the range of consumer video cameras. If you think you’ll need to spend more to get the features you want, look to our high-end camera buying guide.