DV Dilettante Buyer's Guide

Jonathan writes:

My brother has uttered his semi-annual wish that someone would just tell him what DV camera to buy.

My reply is: I live to serve

People use their DV cameras for producing different types of work. Since I don’t know what, exactly, your brother is interested in doing, I’m going to construct an ideal consumer and write my advice to him. My ideal consumer wants a DV camera because he wants to produce some body of work. He wants to produce finished product (by which I mean, not just take a bunch of raw footage of his cats and then occasionally watch an hour of it, unedited). He wants that product to have some level of professionalism, although he is not a professional. In other words, he’d like to produce something that a complete stranger might look at and say “hey, this was pretty nicely done,” although not necessarily at the level of something one might make part of a portfolio for getting a job (hopefully, a person who is aiming to make their living as a videographer doesn’t need my advice on equipment). (1) First, come up with a budget. For the sake of this example, let’s say your initial budget is $1000. Whether one is talking about cameras or computers, you’ll always be able to find something to spend “just $200 more” on. So it’s important to know what we’re working with before we begin.

(2) Go ahead and look at the cameras that cost $1000.

(3) Cut your camera budget in half – in this case $500 – and pick up pretty much any camera in that price range. Don’t spend more than half a day thinking about it. Consumer-level cameras are mostly interchangeable. This is more or less true of “prosumer” (a Japanese word that means “has too much money”) cameras as well.

(4) Now take the money you have left over from your initial budget ($500), and spend it on lighting, a good tripod, and balanced microphones/audio equipment.

If you follow my recipe, you have a chance at making far superior films (footnote 1) than you would if you blow your entire budget (or more) solely on the videocamera. The videocamera is just one tool in the filmmaking process. It’s certainly the most obvious tool, but it is arguably not the most important one. The cheapest balanced lavalier mic will get you better sound quality than the most expensive camera’s on-camera mic. Furthermore, your audience will notice that difference more than they will notice the difference in video quality between the most expensive prosumer 3-ccd camera and the cheapest miniDV device you can find. As a culture we are very finely attuned to subtle differences in audio. Poor video quality can be dismissed as a stylistic issue, and we are accustomed to accepting a variety of different video qualities in our day to day viewing activities. Poor audio is intrusive and jarring, because nearly all of the things we listen to, apart from AM radio, are of a standard professional quality. A poor audio track can make an otherwise fine video unwatchable. Therefore, I say: get a real balanced mic. (I actually wrote an article last year about what to do when your soundtrack sucks, but you’re much better off avoiding having that happen in the first place.)

There is one situation in which you can skimp on the mic, and that’s if you know in advance that you won’t be using the audio track from whatever videos you shoot (for example, if you will be overdubbing later, or setting your work to music). But if you intend for your movies to have sound recorded at shoot time, get a mic. Below, I’ll provide a link to Jay Rose’s book on producing audio for digital video, which is a worthwhile investment if you want your sound to be good. And you should.

Most consumer (and prosumer) cameras compete not on basic quality-of-video issues, but on “features.” Most of these features are completely superfluous to making good videos. Also, if this is your first camera, you probably don’t yet know what features you actually need. For example, 90% of the camcorder reviews talk about “low light performance.” But we’ve already established that my hypothetical consumer wants to make something watchable. Watchable films have lighting design. Ergo, you could care less about low light performance, because you’re going to use the money you saved on the camera to buy some real lighting. Obviously, I’m giving this as an example. If you’re determined to charge in to a darkened gothic cathedral and use your Panacanony’s super infrared feature, well, I can’t stop you. But if the Paris Hilton video isn’t enough to convince you that “low light” cameras are a bad idea out of the starting gate, you need to watch it again. Er, solely in the interests of Art.

So in my mind, the feature list is more or less a distraction that you want to ignore when evaluating cameras. The only things you should care about are: does it shoot video? Does it feel comfortable in your hand? Does it have the inputs and outputs I need? That’s about it.

Things you should specifically not care about: whether it takes still photos, and at what resolution. Whether it does dubbing. The “in-camera” editing features, which no one, in the entire history of video since the beginning of time has ever, ever used. Digital zoom. Digital image stabilization. Low/no light mode. Camera motor noise (you are using an external mic, right?).

HAD CCD verticle smear

Photo credit: David Reuther

The one thing to concern yourself with at the low end is “Sony vs. Everyone Else”. That’s what the decision comes down to. Many of the Sony DV cameras use a CCD that causes vertical “striping” on bright light sources that I find very distracting, whereas the Canons, for example, don’t. The photo to the right is an example of vertical smear. It looks like lens flare, but isn’t – it’s entirely due to the characteristics of the HAD CCD that some camcorders use. That was one main reason I avoided the Sonys. My personal pick when I had to make this decision was to find a used Canon Optura Pi. But that being said, the guidelines are simple: figure out what you want to spend, don’t spend more than that, spend as little as possible, and worry more about the process of shooting and editing than about the equipment.

I’m not being flip. My honest recommendation is that you figure out what you think you want to spend on a camera, and cut it in half. Get a camera half as expensive as you think you need, and spend the remainder on sound and lighting (and, start saving up for a moderately inexpensive or a really expensive non-linear editor software package). All of those things will be more important to the quality of your finished work than the camera you buy.

But, if you’re going to wrest a recommendation out of me, I would say, assuming your budget isn’t unreasonably large, get a Canon Elura 65. It is lightweight, inexpensive, and isn’t loaded with 800 stupid features that you’ll never use. I recommend this model instead any of the various Sony ones because I really dislike the “vertical lens-flare” effect from Sony’s CCD’s. Also, the Canon has a top-loading tape, so when your tape runs out in the middle of a shoot, you don’t have to remove it from the tripod to change it, as you do on some of the Sony models. I would have recommended the even cheaper Canon ZR models, but the most recent revisions of that line lack a mic input, making them little more than toys. An older used ZR with a mic input would be a good choice for a bargain hunter. If you’re absolutely, 100%, positively sure that you will never need to do in-camera recording, then the Canon ZR-80 becomes a reasonable choice, saving you over a hundred bucks and a few ounces in weight over the Elura.

Additional Resources

Footnote 1: Yes, I am well aware that works that are on video are not, in fact, “films.” In the name of international peace and goodwill I can only say: bite me.