Choosing the right camera for a streaming-related shoot is a critical task, impacting both budget and production quality. In this video camera guide, we’ll review some common production types and discuss the features you should look for in a camera to shoot each type. For the sake of simplicity, we won’t discuss cameras with detachable lens, and/or studio cameras like those from Blackmagic Design. In addition, since 4K has little relevance outside of premium content for OTT distribution, we’re also not including 4K cameras in the discussion. We will cover both live and on-demand productions, starting with a quick overview of how the requirements differ for these types of shoots.
Live vs. On-Demand
So that we’re all on the same page, let’s start with the basics. To stream live, you have to send a video stream into the cloud for distribution to your viewers. This makes camera connectivity a critical feature for live events. That is, if your capture system requires HDMI or HD-SDI input, your camera must supply that output, or you need to have a device to convert the output supplied by your camera into the required format.
Similarly, if you’re looking for a camera that can directly stream to the cloud via Wi-Fi or 4G connectivity, you need to make sure that your camera offers that feature and can communicate with your selected service provider. When shooting for on-demand production, video is captured by the camcorder and connectivity is irrelevant. Otherwise, the requirements for live or on-demand production are pretty similar. Let’s start with our first production type.
Talking Head Webcasts
Lots of productions involve close talking head shots, whether for instructional materials, company broadcasts, or a webinar. In these cases, webcams do a credible job, and investing in a traditional camcorder will add lots of hassle but not much extra quality. That said, this doesn’t mean that the webcam embedded into your notebook is the best option. You can get a noticeable upgrade in quality if you purchase an external webcam such as the Logitech HD Pro Webcam C920 (around $60, 4.6 out of 5 rating on Amazon), which offers up to 1080p recording and runs on Windows, Mac, Chrome OS, and Android systems.
Beyond an external webcam, you’ll get the biggest bang-for-your-buck in terms of quality by purchasing a clamp light to supplement ambient lighting during the shoot. Just be sure that the color temperature of the bulb in the lamp light matches other lighting. In addition, consider buying an external microphone rather than relying on the microphone in the external webcam or your computer.
Testimonials and Interviews
Here you’re shooting one or two people from close range, and smartphones or their larger siblings can do a fabulous job, though again you’ll need to supplement indoor shots with lots of lighting, and strongly consider an external microphone. Also consider a tripod or other camera support device, since smartphones are hard to hold still, and the shakes are distracting and scream amateur video.
It’s hard to say how many smartphone users would dictate their phone selection based upon video quality, but if you are in this group, note that the Samsung Galaxy 6S Edge Plus always seems to gravitate towards the top of all reviews that rate smartphone video. Another intriguing product is the HTC Desire Eye, which features a full HD camera on both the front and back, simplifying high-quality selfie videos or even interviews.
When you have to shoot beyond three to five feet from the subject, you’re best off abandoning your mobile phone in favor of a traditional video camera. Assuming that lighting is acceptable, inexpensive models such as the Panasonic HC-V770 HD (around $550, 4.4/5 stars B&H/4.5/5 stars Amazon) offer the basic required feature set, which includes 1/8-inch microphone input jack and headphone jack for monitoring, some level of manual exposure control, and a 20x optical zoom lens which really comes in handy when you have to shoot across a meeting room or from the back of the auditorium.
Like many camcorders in this class, the HC-V770 offers Wi-Fi functionality that lets you preview and control shooting operations from your smartphone or tablet. This lets you preview and start shooting from in front of the camera, which is ideal if you’re serving as both camera operator and interviewer. It also lets you setup the camera on a tripod, then start and stop shooting from your seat for much less obtrusive operation. Note that not all Wi-Fi controls are created equal; while all let you start and stop recording, many don’t provide access to exposure, focus, or other similar controls. Before dropping $500 on a camcorder, download the manual and check how features like Wi-Fi are implemented.
Conferences and Large Meetings
The issue with lower cost camcorders is typically low light quality, which comes into play whenever you’re shooting in a meeting room, conference, or other indoor area without separate video lighting. Cameras that perform poorly in low light inject gain (or noise) into the video to brighten the appearance, which looks bad and makes the video hard to compress.
If you don’t control the lighting for all of your shoots, it’s worth paying more for a camcorder with better low light performance. One indicator of this is sensor size, where bigger sensors almost always perform better in low light conditions. In this regard, the Panasonic HC-V770 has a 1/2.3-inch sensor, which is about average for camcorders in its class. In contrast, a camcorder such as the Sony HDR-CX900 (around $1,300, 4.5/5 B&H, 4.3/5 Amazon) has a 1-inch sensor that delivers less noise quality in low light conditions.
The CX900 also delivers a host of other features that enhance usability over the typical consumer camcorder. First, there are dedicated manual controls on the camera body for functions including aperture, gain, and shutter speed, which are easier to access and operate than controls in the menu of typical consumer camcorders. Second, the CX900 provides configurable zebra stripes to assist setting exposure, an essential feature rarely found on consumer camcorders.
Third, there’s a manual focus ring, plus focus peaking and zoom to enable faster, and more precise manual focusing. Finally, you can record in AVCHD, XAVC S, and MP4, with the first more friendly for video editing, and the latter suitable for immediate uploading to an online video platform (OVP) or user-generated content (UGC) service. Sony’s proprietary XAVC S format enables recording in higher data rates than AVCHD, which should result in better video quality.
Note that unlike the Panasonic HC-V770, the CX900 doesn’t offer 20x optical zoom. Instead, it offers 12x optical and 24x “Clear Image” zoom, a technology for leveraging the extra pixels on the sensor to deliver optical-zoom-like quality. If you’ll be shooting from long distances, you may prefer a camera with true 20x zoom or more.
In this regard, one camcorder to watch is the new Canon Vixia HF G40 ($1,299), the sibling of the highly-regarded G30 (around $1,250, 4.6/5 stars B&H, 4.8/5 stars Amazon). Though the G40 has a relatively small sensor (1/2.84-inch), earlier models rated well for low light performance, and the G40 offers wide DR (dynamic range) gamma operation, which should improve picture quality under challenging exposure-related conditions. The camera also offers dual-slot recording with automatic rollover to the second SD card slot for extended recording time, a feature typically seen only on professional class camcorders.
Stepping Up the Professional Class
What’s missing in camcorders like the CX900? Several items. First is XLR audio input. All camcorders discussed above offer 1/8-inch microphone inputs, while most professional microphones connect via XLR and require 48 volts of phantom power. While there are equipment workarounds such as adapters from Beachtek that connect XLR audio gear and prosumer camcorders, if you’ll be working with professional microphones, or connecting to professional sound boards, you’ll want a camcorder with XLR inputs and the ability to supply phantom power.
Second is HD-SDI output, which no consumer or few prosumer camcorders support. As an example, all three camcorders mentioned above supply HDMI output, but not HD-SDI. As stated above, HD-SDI output is only critical if you’re streaming live and your video mixer needs HD-SDI input. Even then, there are multiple HDMI to HD-SDI adapters you can purchase from companies like Blackmagic Design. Still, if you know you’ll be connecting to HD-SDI switching gear, it’s worth spending a few hundred dollars more for HD-SDI outputs.
Third, most pro camcorders offer dual SD slots like the G40, enabling continuous recording. Some also offer dual codec operation, so you can stream one relatively low-quality stream (like 1080p at 5Mbps) over the internet while capturing a full-quality AVCHD or higher quality stream to SD card.
Note, however, that to access some of these higher-end features, some prosumer camcorders take a step back in terms of usability. Specifically, many don’t have all controls on the camera body to control operation, a problem if you’re shooting under changing conditions. In addition, not all use large sensors, which doesn’t automatically compromise low-light quality, but is a definite counter-indicator.
The Canon Line
The Canon line of low-end professional camcorders illustrates some of these trade-offs. For example, the highly regarded Canon XA20 (around $1,999, 4.7/5.0 B&H, 4.6/5 Amazon) offers two XLR inputs with phantom power, but only HDMI out. For optics, it features a relatively small 1/2.84-inch sensor but a full 20x optical zoom. The unit offers dual codec recording, so you record in AVCHD and MP4 at different quality levels simultaneously, and extensive Wi-Fi controls over configuration and shooting. The newly announced Canon XA30 (around $1,999) offers the same basic feature set, with a newer sensor that enables wide DR Gamma operation. Still, the bottom line about these units for most shooters is XLR-input, HDMI output.
Canon’s XLR-input, HD-SDI output version is the new Canon XA35 (around $2,499), which otherwise is similar in appearance and functionality to the XA20 and XA30. In terms of usability, all these cameras enable some manual configuration via programmable dials on the camera body, but none offers separate iris/gain/shutter speed controls, which is best for shooting under changing conditions, such as a live performance.
Sony’s low end professional model for XLR-input, HD-SDI output is the Sony PXW-X70 (around $1,999, 4.0/5 B&H, 4.2/5 Amazon), which looks and feels a lot like the HDR-CX900 with the higher-end input/output connectivity. That is, it uses the same sized sensor, with the same 12x optical, 24x Clear Image zoom, and the same controls on the camera body. On the plus side, the unit offers up to 50Mbps capture in MP4 format, close to twice the data rate of AVCHD, along with DVCAM recording for (way) backward compatibility.
Challenging Live Event Production
When shooting under challenging, rapidly changing conditions, you want dedicated controls for each critical function, such as separate rings on the lens for zoom, aperture, and focus, and multi-position switches for gain, ND filters, and white-balance. That’s because, unlike a static interview or meeting, you’ll typically have to adjust these settings on-the-fly, and often in the dark. For these types of shoots, you want an old school camcorder, with three CCDs for optimum quality and big glass on the front for maximum zoom. One camcorder that offers the best of both new and old is the JVC GY-HM650 (around $3,400, 4.5/5 B&H, 4.0/5 Amazon).
In terms of old school, the HM650 offers three 1/3-inch CMOS sensors, with a 24X Fujinon lens. Control placement and availability is excellent, and will be immediately familiar to experienced shooters. The camera supports XLR inputs with phantom power, and outputs both HD-SDI and HDMI for video mixing.
On the new side, the HM650 offers dual-codec recording and extensive Wi-Fi capabilities, including support for RTSP/RTP and RTMP transfers, as well as UDP, TCP and Zixi protocols. This means you can connect point-to-point to hardware or software decoders for live production or distance learning, or send video to most live streaming services.
One final piece of advice for our video camera guide: When considering a professional camera, it always makes sense to rent before you buy. We googled “Sony PXW-X70” and rental, and found several sites that rented the camera for under $40 per day. At those rates, if you’re only shooting video occasionally it might sense to rent instead of buy.
Editor’s Note: The article has been modified to correct product details regarding the Sony PXW-X70 camcorder.