Which cameras and sound equipment are suitable?
August 14, 2007 5:40 AM   Subscribe

Let's say I want to film an amateur, feature-length documentary. One can assume I'd use a digital camera for relative cheapness and expediency, but which cameras are good enough to do a professional-looking job? I'd be on a very tight budget. This does not take into account the sound equipment, but perhaps you could also comment on that?

What sort of digital camera do the professionals use when shooting digitally? Assuming excessive price, what might be some cheaper alternatives to the top-end products that would still provide decent enough resolution for a large screen, or a transfer to film format?

I have browsed the products at camcorderinfo.com, which go all the way up to about 14 grand. This and anything over a thousand dollars is out of reach. I would prefer to spend even less.

I will be using a fairly cheap tripod and I will improvise a steadicam for the necessary shots.

Lastly, (and perhaps most importantly), what is the viability of renting the appropriate equipment, i.e. a camera plus sound equipment plus (possibly) lighting apparatus?
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: PS: it might be in my interest to intentionally give it an amateurish look, as long as it doesn't descend into "my cousin's eighth birthday" territory.
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 5:42 AM on August 14, 2007

I've used a Canon XL-1 and been pleased with it. My friend was able to find the camera used for about $800. (Trivia: the full-length feature Personal Velocity was shot with an XL-1, to good effect).
posted by ourobouros at 6:25 AM on August 14, 2007

Personally, I don't think it is worthwhile to worry too much about equipment as long as you have a good story to tell. The story will transcend the quality of your equipment if it's compelling enough.

For cheaper DV cams, make sure that you can manually adjust the white balance and focus. Good focus and good color will take your shots out of home movie territory. Good lighting will do that as well.

I'm not sure what sort of sound you are looking to record, but for interviews, a simple boom mic (that would plug into the camera) should suffice.

You don't mention what you are planning to use to edit the film. Make sure that consideration is in your budget as well.
posted by stefnet at 6:46 AM on August 14, 2007

If you plan to shoot quickly and know what you're doing, you can always rent quality gear. A quick google shows one example.
posted by chairface at 7:20 AM on August 14, 2007

No specific advice, but there are a few entries on Jason Scott's weblog about how he chose the camera that he's using for his next film, and his experiences with it. He's the guy behind BBS: The Documentary, and is now working on two docs: one about text adventures, and the other about arcades. If you search the blog for "panasonic", you'll see some of those posts. He also has some other posts interspersed in there with his thoughts on documentary film making.
posted by Emanuel at 8:24 AM on August 14, 2007

For under $1000 it's hard to beat Panasonic. They have several models with 3 CCD chips and Leica lenses right around and well under your budget. I've really enjoyed using our PV-GS300 (around $600).

After looking just now, it seems they actually offer a few HD cameras for about $1000, the HDC-SD1 and HDC-DX1. With my prior experiences with Panasonic products, I would probably buy one of those.
posted by sanka at 8:49 AM on August 14, 2007

For a documentary, sound is going to be the real expense. Most prosumer DV cameras will get you a good picture, but you'll want to rent some quality equipment for capturing audio: lav mics, shotgun, mixer, etc.

Technique is more important than technology. As someone else mentioned, a good story is paramount. Framing shots, multiple takes, and b-roll footage are next in line, along with white balance, focus, etc.

Good luck!
posted by strangeleftydoublethink at 8:53 AM on August 14, 2007

Only buy equipment if you're going to make money off it. You're making an amateur feature-length documentary? Then you're not going to make money. So rent.

Really. I just don't understand this desire to own a camera for the amount of time you're going to need it. If you do your prep work right, there's no way you'll spend more in rental than you would buying. And the money you save would be better spent on lights and sound equipment (again, rental).

I do professional video production (small scale TV commercials, industrial videos, that sort of thing). My company does own one camera, because we're always doing little projects. But for medium to large projects we also rent up to three extra cameras, because it's just not worth it to invest all that money long-term in cameras. The technology changes too much, so today's $50,000 camera will be outclassed by a $14,000 camera tomorrow.

No matter what, don't go below "prosumer" level models - those are the ones with manual white balances, manual exposure settings, and XLR audio inputs (among other key differences). High-end consumer stuff might look and sound good to you, but put it against a prosumer and it comes out like crap. That's not to say the prosumer level is high quality, but it's at least not embarrassing.

Check to see if there's a film co-op in your area, or a local film school. They can help you find rental places and get more direct advice. Plus you might make contacts with a budding lighting crew or audio engineer, looking for projects.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 11:28 AM on August 14, 2007

HD or SD? Even if you intend this to be shown on a big screen, you may be better off with standard definition rather than HD: you'll get better quality for your budget, and resolution isn't everything.

For standard definition cameras I highly recommend the Panasonic DVX100. It's 24p (which gives a nice filmic feel instead of interlaced video feel), it's good in low light (thus reducing lighting costs and saving time), reasonable dynamic range, and the colours are great. Good manual controls. If you want to shoot widescreen then use an anamorphic 16:9 lens, to retain the full vertical resolution.

Its HD big brother, the HVX200, is very nice, perhaps an option for rental. Otherwise, for prosumer HD rentals, I suggest looking at the Sony V1 or the Canon XH-A1. Both have progressive (24p), good picture quality and good manual controls.

Be careful with the cheaper consumer HD camcorders. You'll find that most of them are terrible in low light: grainy, washed out, and difficult to handle.

Sound is crucial. Sound is often more crucial than picture. The best option is a good shotgun mic, out on a boom, and someone to hold it who knows what they're doing. Either use a mixer or be very careful with your audio levels (and always monitor with decent headphones). Lavalier or radio mics will be useful. Don't try shooting with the on-board camera mic...
posted by leebree at 12:05 PM on August 14, 2007

Just to chime in on a couple points that have already been raised:
Rent! It's way cheaper, you'll get a better camera and lotsa people do it, so it's not hard to find a good place.
The Panasonic 24p cameras are great - the DVX100 or DVX100A are super cool, and relatively easy to use.
Sound is huge. Your project likely won't be ruined by bad picture quality, if you use any decent camera, but it will be unwatchable with bad audio. Find someone to help who knows what they're doing, or if you can't, rent the gear for a day or two way before shooting, and do some tests. Make sure to test the gear in similar situations to where you'll actually be shooting. i.e. if you'll be shooting near roads with lots of traffic, make sure to test there. And when you test, make sure to spit out your recorded audio into an editing system and check how it's turned out. It's not enough to just listen to your tests in-camera.

Lastly, you mention that it might be okay to have a low-fi picture quality. Be careful with that. An old adage is to shoot the picture as high-quality as you possibly can, and then if you want to low-fi it, you can do that with various filters in your editing system. Even consumer level programs like Final Cut Pro give you lots of options there. The idea is that if you shoot low-fi, you can't improve it...but if you shoot high quality, you can always downgrade it.

Good luck and have fun!
posted by Ziggurat at 12:22 PM on August 14, 2007

I'm getting very good and cheap audio with a 256 MB iRiver MP3 player/digital audio recorder ifp-890 that I got from Yahoo auctions new for the equivalent of $25 and an Audio Technica AT9642 lav mic for $15.

I second the panasonic cameras, I bought 2, a 150 and a DVC30, which is sort of the little brother of the DVX100.
posted by planetkyoto at 6:19 PM on August 14, 2007

Sorry for the late posting into this thread. I saw a link to my weblog, came in, read this, and then thought hard about how to answer. So here I am.

The problem here is that the question is poor. VMPV wants to make a "professional-looking" production while using whatever camera he can get under $1000, or by spending a miniscule amount of money renting. He wants to make a "feature-length" documentary but doesn't really make it clear how much he'd be shooting, where, what, and so on. I don't expect that amount of detail on an Ask Metafilter posting but the fact is that without it, everyone is forced to fill in their own answers and start answering.

I only rent when it makes sense to, and for the documentaries I've done and am doing it doesn't make sense because I film for years and travel to hundreds of locations to shoot. So for me, the rental costs would quickly balloon far outside of the ten thousand+ dollars I've spent on equipment. Plus, I often end up getting snagged into doing outside projects (I shot a music video recently) and so it's nice to have it around.

But that's me. I'm not you and I don't even know what you want to do.

If you're shooting for, say, two weeks, you could rent the camera I paid $10k for roughly $4k. If you didn't intend to shoot anything else, it would make sense and... oh, of course you already stated you want to make your movie with bubblegum wrappers and food coupons, so that's out. But as you can see, for a short-term run of 2 weeks of shooting, you'd save money. If you kept that rate going for a month, you're bucking up on just buying it.

To be honest, my gut says you're one of those guys who goes "I want to start a video arcade" and then a week later forgets he mentioned it, so my honest suggestion is go find a film buddy and offer to work with him and his equipment for either a split of the profits or so the guy can put yet another thing on his resume.
posted by jscott at 9:11 PM on September 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh, and because I can't just punch people in the face and walk away, here's an excellent Ask Metafilter thread about making a solid documentary.
posted by jscott at 9:38 PM on September 5, 2007

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