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Video Camera Recommendations for the beginning Video Blogger

Paul Colligan is dipping his toes into the video blogging waters, and asks what kind of camera he needs to get. Below is what I wrote as a comment to his post, which grew into kind of a long list, so I’m reposting it here, in no particular order.

What advice/recommendations would you give?

Digg!

Just about any digital camcorder that writes to MiniDV tape is what I’d recommend. I have a Sony DCR-HC40 – it’s tiny, and it works great. Make sure it has a Firewire port (also called IEEE1394 or i-Link) – Ignore whether it has a USB port or not, because you can’t pull video off of the tape over USB (even USB 2.0). And you’ll need a firewire card and cable for your PC. I paid $10 for a firewire card from NewEgg.com – don’t pay much more than that. And don’t pay more than $10 for a firewire cable. Retail outlets will try to rob you – get a cheaper cable from NewEgg or someplace like pchcables.com here in Portland/Hilllsboro (see my post on the outrageous price of cables). For a laptop, you could go with a PCMCIA firewire card if your laptop doesn’t already have a port.

With cables, be aware of the difference between 4-pin and 6-pin connectors. Most camcorders have the smaller 4-pin connector. Most firewire cards (and Macs) have the larger 6-pin connector (the two extra pins are for power, which doesn’t matter on a camcorder). Purchase your cable with the right ends.

I’d stay away from hard-drive based models – too new and too expensive. Ditto for DVD-based models – the media is expensive. When you think about it, MiniDV is a darn good deal for media. For $3, you get 60 minutes of 720×480 digital video, which works out to be around 30 GB or something per tape. I buy 6-packs of TDK tapes cheap at Costco.

Most camcorders have a “nightshot” mode, but that makes everything look like the Blair WItch Project, and is really only useful for dramatic effect. Like digital still cameras, more optical zoom is nice (20x is common), but digital zoom is basically useless. Image stabilization is another common feature, which is desireable, especially if you’re not going to use a tripod.

Speaking of tripods, I had a heck of a time finding one in the Portland area (west side). Magnolia HiFi and Video Only didn’t have any, and the ones at Best Buy were really expensive (I ended up getting a little $60 one). I later discovered that Fred Meyer has a great selection of tripods, all cheaper than Best Buy.

Ignore HD for now, unless you want to spend $1500+. For video podcasting, HD is not worth it yet, since you’re most likely going to be transcoding and distributing the files at a smaller resolution (like, say, 320×240 for the iPod).

I spent $500 on my camera new a few years ago, could have found it cheaper if I tried (I had some store credit, so it didn’t matter). You could find a good Canon or Sony MiniDV camcorder for less than $300.

Remember that in a pinch, your digital still camera can probably take decent video, especially if it’s less than a year old. I’m really impressed by the video I get out of my Canon SD700 IS. It doesn’t compare to my camcorder, but it’s very usable for video blogging, and even if the quality of your camera isn’t great, it can be better than not getting the video at all.

Get something with an external mic jack (powered, if possible), because the built-in mic on the camcorder isn’t great for interviews, etc., where you’ll want a lav mic or something you can get closer to the person speaking.

MiniDV tape quality doesn’t matter, since it’s all digital. Either the bytes are stored, or they’re not. There’s no picture quality difference between cheap and expensive tapes, like with analog (VHS, 8mm, etc.).

Oh, and camcorderinfo.com is the place to go for in depth reviews, etc. They’re super picky, so if they complain about the image quality or color, etc., just remember that they’re videophiles.

Update: Media wizard Jake Luddington has a post on 10 Tips for Buying a Digital Camcorder.

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7 thoughts on “Video Camera Recommendations for the beginning Video Blogger

  1. Matt Davis says:

    I’m the purchasing department for my dad’s little videography business, and I’ve had great luck with the low-end Sony Mini-DV cameras. DCR-HC21 is a fantastic little camera that can be had for around $250- my dad’s had several cameras in that line that he uses for outdoor and on-water work. He just beats the crap out of them on fishing trips and they keep ticking. A couple of tools for videoblogging/self-recording that you didn’t mention are a remote and a wireless lapel mic. I know some of the very lowest-end models don’t include a remote, but it can be pretty handy if you’re working by yourself. Same with the wireless lapel mic- models with great quality for voice can be had for less than $100, and as long as you’re not wearing a nylon or corduroy jacket, can actually end up with cleaner sound than a tabletop or handheld wired mic, especially if you have “happy feet” or other tendencies that might transmit noise down a mic cable. :)

  2. Hi Josh.

    Great advice… Or is it?

    Ok, a videoblog is on the computer, so that is where you watch it. Lots of time people download videoblogs to portable media devices with small screens. If it is viewed on a small screen, is the picture quality important? Lots of times, the video is so small, that you can’t really tell if the video quality is not “the best”

    I would say that 90% of videoblogs are presented in flash (.flv). This totally degrades the video. Flash is quick and easy, but it does not look good.

    So, you have someone visit your videoblog. Your video is hosted by (xxxxx), lets say blip.tv. You embed the flash video in your site, and have a link to the downloadable file. If your visitors are on the computer, they will just press play and watch the flash video. Quality does not matter. If they want to download, it is probably because they want to view it on a portable media device. Then quality does not matter.

    Sooo, if this is the scenario, then how about going with a still camera that shoots video?

    The still cameras these days save the video file in either .mov or mpeg or whatever. This saves so much time in creating a videoblog. You dont’ have to capture the video through the firewire onto your computer. Now, you just take your quicktime files and drop them straight into Final Cut Pro. (or if you are like me and only have windows movie maker, you convert the .mov into .avi and then dump it into windows movie maker)

    By not having to capture the video over the firewire, you save yourself a lot of time.

    Also, the mics are pretty good on the still cameras these days. Sure, you can’t plug in an external mic, but I have found that most times you don’t need it.

    Check out my videoblog. All the footage (except for “Chaos Lounge” playing) is filmed totally on my Nikon Cool Pix. The Nikon does it all, interviews, nature videos, low light situations, etc.

    The thing works great, and it was only $200 at Circuit City.

    It makes videoblogging quick and easy and I highly recommend it. Way quicker and easier than DV. Of course I would not play my footage captured on my Nikon on my TV, that is what my DV camera is for. However, for internet vlogging, a small still camera can’t be beat.

    Just thought I would share my experience. (40 something vlogs and counting!)

  3. My advice posted in his blog:

    I have been investigating this for a while and set the bar pretty high in order to future proof myself with the Sony HDR-SR1, had everything I wanted HD, Hard Drive, Mic input, Headphone out, storage card simultaneous write for quick offloading of media, which I realized I didn’t need for the price of $1500 and the fact that it isn’t available yet… Also HD video takes up a lot of storage space not to mention download bandwidth.

    I decided to go with the Sony DCR-SR100 3MP 30GB Hard Drive Handycam Camcorder w/10x Optical Zoom and it came with a free Bluetooth microphone when purchased from Amazon for almost half the price. The Bluetooth microphone allows me to conduct interviews, record my children’s performances/concerts just by clipping it to them and without having to invest in an expensive wireless microphone system. I can also monitor the audio out of the Bluetooth microphone with headphones with the adapter. The Hotshoe also allows for other accessories like a light (if you plan on lots of indoor shots, but external lighting is still the best way to go) shotgun microphone that adjust range with the zoom, etc. Reviews on Amazon,Circuit City, and CameraInfo rate it up there. I tried all the prosumer cameras at Frys and other stores and found the image quality from the Sony was the best. It also had a color viewfinder so if you are outdoors an LCD screen is almost usless in direct sunlight and a view finder is key, plus it saves on battery life. It can record up to 7hrs of video if without changing tapes or other media that adds up in price over time, but I highly recommend downloading frequently.

    The touch-screen allows for easy use by all family members and allows for quick easy review with thumbnails. Nightshot I don’t really plan on using, but it is there if I want to do some weird video at night, but is a feature I don’t plan to use. Fast quick zoom with great quality video from the Carl Zeiss T* lens, fits nice in the hand, no whir of tape mechanism picked up by the built-in 5.1 surround sound microphone. Sounds awesome in a home theatre. Looks great shot in 16:9 mode on an HDTV set. Has a quick to DVD button for quick burning of video, but I recommend editing all video first. It is small enought to fit in a coat pocket and backpack and easily fits in the hand. And it comes with a free remote control.Has a quick startup time.

    MPEG2 allows for easy fast transfer over USB 2.0(with my mini-retractable USB cable) with DV tape you have to transfer in real time. Great for easy editing and quick uploading. The JVC Evario series records in MOD and needs conversion.

    Only cons so far, no microphone in or headphone out remedied with Bluetooth microphone, no use of third party batteries-Infolithium from Sony only, no USB passthrough so you can’t use it as a webcam(this could be remedied by Sony with a simply flash upgrade), but you can if your computer supports video in this is a work around.

    So far I like my choice.

    Hope this helps.

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  5. I had a Canon ZR100 and now I’ve got a ZR800. Both have worked quite well for light video blogging and chatting. I’ve run mine through my Mac which I use with iChat or direct capture through iMovie. They don’t have the best low-light correction, but at the price, it’s not a big deal especially if you just keep your workspace well-lit

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