Buyer's Guides

What Camera Should I Buy?


One of the most common questions I hear from educators looking to start producing video is one that I suspect a lot of readers have heard: “What camera should I buy?” On the surface it’s quite an innocuous query, seemingly simple to answer. Yet, bundled up in there is a very common and pernicious assumption, that the key to good video is all about the equipment you use.

Equipment matters, of course. I’m a gear-geek at heart, happy to spend hours reading about the newest cameras, carefully considering the minutest detail of their features and supposed superiority over competing products. When I was shooting every day in standard definition my heart was filled with lust upon the arrival of the first HD cameras. When I was able to make the HD leap, the additional resolution and latitude gave me some more flexibility in shooting and post-production. Several productions truly benefited from the sharper image. But I know I didn’t suddenly start producing better videos.

Even once I had become comfortable shooting in HD, I still didn’t retire my old reliable DV cameras. That’s because not every project is screaming to be shot in HD, nor is it economical to also have to deal with the additional data, processing power, and rendering time HD requires. Sometimes reliable and quick SD is the better choice.

Which brings me back to that pernicious question: “What camera should I buy?” The answer is always, “It depends.” Just to start, it depends on what kind of video you’re trying to shoot, whether or not you have any production experience, and what other kind of equipment you plan to buy. Too often I find that administrators and department heads are all too willing to allocate thousands of dollars to make sure to get a “good camera,” without considering any of these other issues. Requests to divide the budget to include essential gear like microphones, tripods, and lights are sometimes met with resistance, fueled by worries that their purchase will put the best camera out of reach.

When talking to a group just starting to get into video I often make two suggestions that don’t directly answer the question. After asking what the first project is, sometimes I’ll suggest not buying any equipment at all. Instead, I’ll recommend hiring an experienced videographer who owns her own gear and asking if she’ll be willing to let them observe her at work and ask questions. Not every videographer has the patience for doing this, but if she builds it into the budget it even can be a little fun and enlightening for everyone involved.

If there is no immediate project at hand—if the answer is along the lines of “we’d like to start recording lectures”—then I’ll suggest that part of the equipment budget should first be spent on some training for the folks expected to do the production. Introductory hands-on courses are offered many places, from community colleges to training companies. There are also books, DVDs, and online courses that do a good job of demonstrating the fundamentals. Most of these solutions cost significantly less than a camera, and actually make for a longer-lasting investment in producing high-quality video.

But what about the camera? Depending on the training you choose a decent camera might still be in the budget, and the freshly trained videographer will be in a much better position to evaluate what model best suits her needs. If it ends up that the right camera is too much, it can be smart to consider borrowing or renting until there’s the money and demand to buy one.

Once production ramps up it makes sense to have a closet full of equipment. However, without some training, practice, expertise, and purpose that gear will easily become like dusty exercise equipment stowed away in the basement—a painful reminder of great plans undermined by inadequate preparation and execution.

Paul Riismandel is the director of curricular support for the school of communication at Northwestern University. He blogs and podcasts at www.mediageek.net.




Discussion

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  1. Also, think beyond the camera. If you want to switch from SD to HD, keep your current editing system in mind. Is the new tapeless format on the new camera still compatible with your current editing system? How about all the connectors that feed into your editing computer? Does the new camera have Firewire. Some new units don’t.

    Posted by Newsbob | July 27, 2010, 2:58 pm
  2. This is the best advice I have ever read or received. As an amateur video person I love this article. I keep wanting to upgrade to HD and each time I take my little Sony – 3 year old mini dv camera into the video camera store and explain what I am doing, they always send me away without having purchased anything. There is still so much for me to learn about my camera and the video editing software is where I really need to improve. The camera is such a small part of the equation. Thanks for the great advice!

    Posted by Greg Gordon | July 28, 2010, 3:02 am
  3. Great advice Paul – I’ve be doing video and film production for 30 years and have been asked the same question dozens of times, and, I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen closets full of unused gear purchased without a plan of attack. I love the idea of hiring somebody to teach as well – these days everyone is hungry enough to be hired for about anything…

    Posted by Rick Raglow | August 17, 2010, 8:55 am
  4. The author must think all videographers are female: “… a videographer who own ‘her’ own equipment”. How about “…videographers that own their own equipment.” Get with it man!

    Posted by Raoul | January 11, 2011, 1:11 pm
  5. Hi Paul,

    This was a breath of fresh air for me. I am relatively new to shooting video, and with close to two years of unemployment under my belt, I chose a used Canon HC20 MiniDV (from eBay) over a Flip or Zi8.

    I must admit that I am very happy with the Canon’s quality “out of the box,” and now that I have tracked down a manual online, I can begin to learn the manual settings.

    I have an awesome imagination and a passion for the arts. With that said, it is not the pen in the hand of the master, but the quality of his signature.

    Regards,
    Bryan J Zimmerman

    Posted by Bryan J Zimmerman | January 29, 2011, 7:41 pm