As you may have guessed, I’m not about to make grand edicts about what gear you should use. Instead, I’m going to tell you about the gear that I use. I will talk about a few cameras, a few microphones, and various other pieces of gear. I am not suggesting that you use any specific item on this list, I am trying to provide a framework from which to evaluate the gear you have available against the goals of your production.
A bad tripod will get you a better shot than a good cameraman. If you’re in a position where you can use a tripod, consider doing so.
We got all of our tripods from local thrift stores for just a few dollars each, and they are fine. Most big box retailers also sell very cheap tripods, and some even have cellphone stands that can be mounted to a tripod.
Eventually, you may find yourself looking for a better tripod, this is the first piece of kit that I really got frustrated with. I was lucky enough to find a better tripod at the thrift store, but I frequently see deals for used tripods on craigslist, ebay, etc. Don’t overthink it.
Arguably the most important tool needed to make DIY TV is a camera, but we live in a weird age where most of us are, at any given moment, carrying a single device that can be a camera, an editor, a transmitter, and more. Any advice about cameras must start from the very true statement that the best camera is the one you have with you.
If you don’t have anything better, use your cell phone. Academy award winning director Steven Soderbergh has used iPhones to shoot multiple motion pictures over the last 10 years. I’m no fan of Apple (but I’m no less of a fan of Apple than of any other major corporation) and this is not an endorsement of any particular phone. Use what you have.
The most important parts about your camera are:
- you have it with you
- you know how to use it
- you can keep it powered
- it has enough storage for your shoot
Beyond that general statement, here are some of the cameras that I use.
This makes a great livestreaming rig, backup camera, or primary camera on a shoot.
I have five or six EIAJ-1 sony PortaPaks (and dozens of other EIAJ compatible cameras and equipment) from circa 1970 to sometime in the mid 80s. These cameras produce a very particular look of video, and it’s not a good one. I capture the output of these cameras directly in to a small cheap recording monitor (see “other stuff” bellow) or live stream from them in to a knockoff easycap.
Some of these cameras were broadcast cameras when they were new. Some were home video cameras. Regardless, the footage that results looks like it was shot on a camera from the 1970s or early 1980s. Sometimes that’s what you want! Sometimes, it’s all you can get. In either case, it’s fine. Use what you have.
I have a Cannon XA10 that I acquired second hand at a yard sale. The footage it produces is fine. It’s “HD” and has good color out of the box. I like the XA10 because it has XLR jacks, so I can use real mics with it. I have access to real mics, so this is helpful. There are other ways to use real mics with a camera beyond integrated XLR jacks (see Other bellow), but it was cheap and available and I bought it.
The Kodak zx1 was released in 2009 to compete with the Flip video camera. Unlike the Flip with it’s fragile integrated USB port, the zx1 shoots to a standard SDXC card, and will happilly shoot dozens of hours of mediocre 720p footage on to a 32GB microSD with the appropriate adapter.
The footage does not look great, but it’s fine. There’s nothing specifically wrong with it. The integrated mic also sounds fine, most of the time. The cameras used to be waterproof, but I don’t know that I would trust that today. They run on rechargeable AA batteries for hours at a stretch, and you can swap in alkaline or lithium AAs in a pinch.
I like gear that uses commonly available open standard parts like SD cards and AA batteries. I also like gear that’s cheap. I have at least half a dozen of these zx1 cameras, and I didn’t spend more than $20 on any of them (some of them were free!)
Using old digital cameras can be a really cheap way to get access to a second or third camera, or to have a camera that you feel comfortable using in situations where you wouldn’t want to risk a cell phone or a nicer camera.
If you’re going to pick up an old camera, make sure it at least supports SDXC and that it uses a common battery. There are a lot of otherwise great cameras that only use batteries that are no longer made, or only shoot to memory stick duo or top out at 4GB SD cards. The 00s and early 10s were a weird boundary time in technology, full of a lot of promising products saddled with unforgivable fatal flaws. Often those flaws have grown even more fatal with the passage of time.
My point is not that you need a zx1 (although, hey, maybe you do?) but that you should use what’s available.
This is an expensive cinema camera that I have access to through the Ellijay Makerspace. I have used it two or three times, and the footage it produces is beautiful.
But it is heavy, cumbersome, and confusing, and I don’t like using it.
Use what you have.
I got the DJI pocket as a gift. It’s an action camera with an integrated gimbal made by a manufacturer of quadcopters. It’s fairly expensive, but it does take some great looking footage, and it includes a wonderful wireless mic. I use it all the time.
It is designed to be used with a cellphone app. This is a real pain in the ass, and I carry a separate cellphone or tablet that is not connected to cellular networks specifically for use with this device on those shoots that I expect I will need it. I do not trust the application to be installed on my primary cellphone. So it goes.
Being able to remotely control the camera from a phone, and to use the phone as a remote monitor is a neat trick. If there was a way to do it safely I would recommend this camera more explicitly. As is, I use it because I have it, and I use it in situations where I can’t use something bigger, where the integrated gimbal is helpful, or when I need to be able to shoot on my own, and it’s helpful to be able to adjust framing and zoom from a dedicated device.
Do you need a quadcopter with a camera on it? Probably not. But there are times when the DJI mini was the only way I could get the shot I wanted. It produces beautiful footage, it’s fairly easy to fly, and doesn’t require any special clearance from the FAA.
It also requires a special app (and a different one from the DJI pocket.) It’s also too expensive.
There are lots of other drone style cameras, and some of them are much cheaper. If you find yourself in need of something like this, ask around. Chances are good that someone in your community has one they rarely use.
Please keep in mind that regulations around when and where you can fly a drone style camera are strict and changing all the time. There are lots of areas (national parks, for example) where you can’t fly, and with larger model drones you will need a license and to clear your flight plan with the FAA. This is less cumbersome than it sounds, and almost no shot is worth going to jail.
Consumer video cameras reached something approaching professional quality video well before consumer storage technologies caught up to them. I have dozens of MiniDV and HDV cameras that all produce really great looking HD or SD footage.
I use the ones that have clean HDMI or RCA out to livestream, or to record to a dedicated external recorder. The ones that don’t have a clean HDMI or RCA output do not get used, because I will not trust any tape mechanism.
When I personally got serious about shooting DIY TV, I bought myself a Sony ZV-1. It was expensive. It’s the only camera on this list that I purchased intentionally, for myself, to use for TV production. It is a compact point and shoot camera that shoots good looking video to SD cards, that lasts for a while on a charge, that charges over a standard port, and that uses a somewhat common battery.
It also came with a good shotgun mic and, even though it’s legally a still-camera and not a video-camera, it does not have the 10 – 15 minute recording limitation that plagues many point and shoot cameras (it’s a tax thing, and it’s annoying.)
Basically, it’s a simple, reliable, good looking camera that I can use when I want to make things that look good. I didn’t need something this nice for what I’m doing, but I could, so I did.
Use what you have.
I’ve heard good things about the blackmagic pocket line if you want to get really fancy. I don’t, so I haven’t.
What good is a picture without sound? (Not very much!)
Getting good sound is hard in a documentary setting, and it’s hard in a studio setting, and it’s hard outdoors and it’s hard indoors and it never really gets easier! It’s also, arguably, even more important than getting good video. Viewers will forgive a multitude of sins if your audio is good.
So, quick tips:
- use a wind sock if you’re outside
- use a lav mic, even just a 3.5mm one, if you can
- check your sound, don’t just live monitor but actually check playback before you shoot too much
- Shotgun mics are good
- The shure sm57/sm58 is fine for most tasks, durable and cheap.
- Never depend on a single mic, have other options for safety
A lav mic, or lavalier microphone, is a small microphone that clips to the subjects clothing. They are frequently used in television productions.
I bought a kit of 3.5mm and 2.5mm wired lav mics, and I use them all the time. No one cares if it’s visible in the shot. It is the best option in a lot of cases. Any brand will do.
I don’t like wireless mics, because batteries die, and you won’t notice that you’re suddenly not getting sound. There are times to use them. I use the one that came with the dji pocket, for example, but I always keep a backup.
These have XLR output and need a mic pre-amp, but they’re sturdy and they sound okay, and they look the part. I use them with the cameras that have XLR inputs when we’re doing things where it makes sense to have a person holding a mic.
Shotgun mics are for pointing at far away sounds. They pick up a cone of sound directly in front of them, and reject off axis sound pretty strongly. This makes them great for field recordings or for use as boom mics.
Ours needs phantom power, that’s a pain in the ass. It’ll run on battery power (which is great until the battery dies silently.)
My little Sony point and shoot came with a shotgun mic, and it’s great. I use it as our safety mic at a lot of shoots, and it has saved my ass on several occasions.
I worked with an electronics recycler to get a handful of older thinkpad laptops. I installed Ubuntu Studio on them, and they power my live stream and editing workflows. I spent less than $200 on each of them. Any computer is fast enough for this work these days, and many cellphones are too. See software bellow, and don’t think about it too hard.
I have a Zoom PodTrak P4. It has 4 XLR inputs. I use it for doing live sound for a variety of situations. It makes a great external audio capture device, and I will frequently use it as our primary audio capture, using the on camera audio for sync and safety.
This device was specifically designed for doing podcast recordings and panel interviews. If you’re in a situation where a group of people will be sitting around and talking about something, this is a great way to make sure that everyone can be heard, and you can cut out any background noise without losing any speech.
It’s not a Need for a production, but they’re not super expensive and they’re handy.
To get video from a camera in to a computer in real time, you need some method of video capture. This enables you to pull the live feed off of your camera and in to a computer program like OBS.
For standard definition video capture– Video sent out using RCA/Composite cables– I use a knockoff Easycap that I got on Amazon for $10. It usually works. When it doesn’t, I use a different one.
For HD video capture I use a product labeled “USB 3.0 HDMI Video Capture Device”. It doesn’t have a brand name. It has a USB port and a USB-3 port. It does the thing, I don’t question it.
If you’re going to live stream with more than one camera, you might need a video mixer.
I have a couple of incredibly cheap Vestax hardware video mixers that barely function, and I use them for our live stream when I have more than one camera input. Prior to that, I used a physical A/V switch with physical buttons switch between Composite Video, which worked just as well. These are all Standard Definition mixers. HD mixers exist, but they are beyond the price I’ve been wiling to pay so far, and SD video is good enough for most live broadcasts.