I want to make documentary films. What kind of video-camera should I get?
August 3, 2008 2:41 PM   Subscribe

I want to make documentary films. What kind of video-camera should I get?

There are some people in my family who've been through some pretty interesting experiences over the last century, mostly involving World War II, and in preparation for a non-fiction film class I (hope) I'll be taking next semester, I want to get a camcorder.

The question is, what kind? I'm not really looking to do anything complex, but I also don't want something that I'll have to replace as soon as I get into it because I've reached its limitations. I want it to be of a high enough quality that projects I present don't just feel like a hollow home-video, but I also don't mind a little of that kind of DIY-aesthetic. I want to be able to transfer relatively painlessly to digital (Windows or Ubuntu, probably Windows) for editing--and in case you're wondering, I won't be doing heavy editing (hough there will be cross-fading, text, music, etc...simple stuff).

I've been pointed to something like this but I have to believe that that's low-end and/or limited. Like I said: I do want to get some life out of this thing, because I know I'll be using it a lot. Then again, I might be deluding myself into thinking I can get anything other than something simple for a middle range price--I'm thinking <$500, preferably much less.

I saw a handful of threads suggesting mini-DV in the archives, but with technology, you never know--things could change or become cheaper in only a years time. So I thought I'd play it safe and ask.

Can anyone point me in the right direction?
posted by softsantear to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not going to suggest a particular camera or brand, but the things you really really want to look for are manual white balance control (no orange or blue people), some way of connecting an external microphone (you want clear voices and not the hum of your camera in the background), the ability to mount to a tripod (shaky video is usually not good). The audio part is especially important. I would invest a little bit of your budget into a decent microphone because the voices are going to be key in recording these experiences.

I'm sure others can add further thoughts, but these would be my absolute base requirements for a suitable camera.
posted by stefnet at 3:53 PM on August 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Forgot to add that I personally think mini-DV is fine right now. I actually like that I have a "tangible" storage for my footage on the tapes as well as what I digitize. The tapes are cheap too, esp. if you buy in bulk.
posted by stefnet at 3:56 PM on August 3, 2008

Best answer: Make sure to think about audio if you can. Many times the on-the-camera-mic can be less than good for recording your subject. If you can get a camera with a Mic port/jack that would be good.

I would also guess with such type of film, "interviews/documentary," that audio would be top priority for me.

Also, stay away from the cheap flash based cameras. Even if they say they do HD, the quality won't be that great, and from what I have seen the audio is normally horrible and picks up everything in "sight". And in some cases they use a proprietary video codec that can make it harder to use without special software (that they provide, but sometimes only for one platform, etc)

Some of Cannon's low end cameras give passable video quality and also have a Mic port. It uses Mini-DV tapes that are cheap and easy to find. They are good for getting lots of footage etc. Check out the ZR930, ZR900 or ZR800. I have a ZR800 and it works pretty good. I also have an Audio-Technica ATR-35S Lavalier Microphone. They work good together.
posted by OwlBoy at 4:05 PM on August 3, 2008

Best answer: If you have the skillset to tell a story, it won't matter how good the gear you have is...and ultimately, you may develop this skillset, or you may not.

I'd recommend you purchase something inexpensive, so that if you determine this isn't your thing, you can get back out without having spent a lot of money. If it turns into a love affair, then you won't mind spending more to get the "good" camcorder when you're ready for it. Try to spend that money now, and even if it works out, you don't know what makes a "good" camcorder yet for you, and we can't fully help there. Plus, if you spend that money now and it doesn't work out, you might find yourself discouraged from trying new things in the future because of all the money you feel you've wasted on the camcorder.

Having said that: here are a few key features that I consider a must to avoid becoming frustrated.

1. A connection for an external microphone. The very first thing you're going to learn about camcorders is that the internal microphone sucks, not because it's cheap (although it is) but because of the placement. Microphones need to be near the sound source, not attached to the lens. Even if you start with the internal microphone, you'll quickly want to move into wireless lavalieres and boom mics and such, which are available for rent very cheaply ($10-$15 a day, typically) when you need them. And you will need them.

2. Variable-speed zoom, and not the digital kind. A good lens is the most important part of a good camera, but you can't spend money on that right now. Instead, focus on a lens that allows you to manipulate the speed at which you zoom, smoothly. Try it out in the store; can you gently transition from one focal length into a zoom, maintain the zoom at not-full-speed, and then bring it back to rest gently, all in-lens (and so no pixelized digital zoom nonsense?) If so, that's a good one to get.

3. Manual zoom and focus options. Yes, a variable-speed zoom is important, but a prerequisite for taking good video is the ability to zoom in on a subject, focus, and zoom back out to start shooting. This is especially critical in documentary filmmaking, even if you're just doing interviews, because people get bored quickly waiting for you to set up the shot; that, plus losing a beautiful interview line because the camera's auto-focus got confused or you were in the middle of transitioning the shot when they said it, well, that's misery. In fact, if you do a lot of talking-head interviews, you'll quickly learn to transition between tight and loose shots in between sentences, during small pauses so that you increase your odds of being able to cut between sentences (removing the crap between) without having to dissolve or cut away to something to cover the cut.

4. Mini-DV is great for transferring to computers. It's digital, it's good quality, and it can be converted to DVD-compatible footage with the right software. Nothing wrong with this choice. Just remember that your picture quality in this case will be limited by the available light and the lens on your camcorder, not the format you select. That wasn't always the case, but nowadays with everything digital, it largely is. Now, you either drop big money for the HD camcorder (not advisable at this stage!), settle for a digital device with solid-state storage (and so limited storage space and quality) or you grab a mini-DV or recordable DVD camcorder and get unlimited (to your budget) storage capacity and a good SD picture. I prefer mini-DV because I have experience with it, if someone else here says they've tried both and prefer recordable DVD, listen to them instead of me.

Again, the limitations you're going to hit will be with your own experience and talent, but as you learn how to tell a story and frame a shot and select interesting things to shoot, the above advice will (hopefully) ensure you have a camcorder that can grow with you until you realize you're willing to drop $2000 on something awesome.

Have fun!
posted by davejay at 4:12 PM on August 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

Oh, and yeah, forgot manual white balance -- that's a mandatory option, the first commenter is 100% right there.
posted by davejay at 4:12 PM on August 3, 2008

Agreeing with everything said so far. The choice of camera is a minor issue; get a Mini-DV standard definition camera with manual white balance. You will get excellent results with such a camera in your price range. They will all perform well - if there is sufficient light at least.

The things that differentiate a "home video" production from a professional-looking one are primarily these:

* Good lighting

* Colour balance

* Good composition

* Ruthless editting

If you pay attention to those things, no one will know whether you used a $500 camera or a $5,000 one. They can all be done pretty much for free, though you will certainly have better lighting options if you can afford to buy some equipment.

(One last thing: switch off the "digital zoom" gimmick on your camera, because it is an evil lie. Don't zoom further than you can optically.)
posted by standbythree at 7:12 PM on August 3, 2008

Right now the very best camera anywhere near your price range is the Canon HV30. The Canon HV20 is very similar and slightly cheaper (as it's older - the HV30 replaced it).

OwlBoy is right on with his recommendation of the ATR-35S lapel microphone - you'll get much better sound with an external microphone than with the onboard one, and a lot of people have reported very good results with that specific model. They're super cheap and incredibly good value.

Whatever camera you get, it's more about how you use it than what you use, framing the shot, setting up the camera correctly, getting the lighting right - which could just mean making sure the camera is between the subject and a window or other lightsource, rather than the light being behind the subject.

These are all things you can't really fix in the camera, and that will make footage from any camera suck if you get them wrong.

Search for HV20 or HV30 on Vimeo to see the quality that people are squeezing out of these puppies, some of them are quite incredible. Have a look at HV20.com to see the strength of the community, advice on camera setup, and comparison with other cameras.

(For optimum results you'll be needing to colour grade on your computer, I know you said you don't want to do much editing, but depending on your software this is a really easy process. And I bet that once you get into it you'll really enjoy the editing stage.)
posted by The Monkey at 11:51 PM on August 3, 2008

Look at this list from 1999:


Many of these once top-of-the-line video cameras should be found used in your price range.

The Sony DCR-VX1000 yielded particularly grainy and luminous b&w in 'The Cruise.'
posted by skywhite at 5:34 PM on August 4, 2008

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