Video Equipment: Guide to Selecting and Use
by Scott Pennington and Dean Rehberger
Equipment for gathering oral history can be a large part of small budget projects, a small part of large budget projects, or anything in between. For gathering quality oral histories and narratives, however, projects need not have a Hollywood blockbuster budget. By making a few key decisions about how much a project has to spend, and by looking closely at best practice recommendations, oral historians and folklorists have an opportunity to collect rich, well-documented histories and narratives with far less expense than in previous decades.
The recommendations in this article are basic and primarily designed for individuals and small cultural heritage institutions collecting materials.
Section I: Putting Together a Video Kit
A basic video equipment package should include a camera, tripod, and – for shooting indoors –a small light kit.
Choosing the Right Camera
With so many options available, choosing the right camera can be challenging. Most of a project’s equipment budget will probably be spent securing a good camera. However, no matter the budget, a project can look professional with a video package that meets some basic requirements. As a first simplification for selecting equipment, all newly purchased equipment should have:
- Microphone input
- Headphone monitoring
- High definition recording
- Removable card video recording
- Tripod mountable
- Popularly supported video format
Newly purchased equipment should optionally also have the following capabilities:
Each of the specifications will be discussed in detail, with explanations of the more technical aspects of the specifications simplified.
As a special note, consider the portability of your equipment. On location shooting can require hours carrying your equipment. Consider a carrying bag, and pay attention to comfort and shooting requirements. Will you be outside, in wet or snowy conditions? The equipment bag should be able to handle the conditions your project will face. If possible, make an appointment with a local supplier to take everything out, pack the gear into a bag, and try carrying the weight around the store. If necessary, also consider airline carry-on requirements. Checked bags full of equipment, sent to the wrong airport, may seriously affect project efficiency.
While video is important for presentation, video without good audio is difficult to enjoy. The built-in microphones on most cameras are good enough for home movies, but their sound quality is rarely acceptable for collecting oral histories and narratives. Internal microphones can provide a backup source, but they should not be used as a primary sound recording device. Cameras with two separate input channels are preferred.
consumer grade sound devices. For example, iPods have a ⅛ in. headphone jack and most electric instruments- like guitars- use ¼ in. jacks to plug into an amplifier. Professional grade headphones also use ¼ in. jacks. These are fine to use, as long as you get a good microphone. Ideally, however, you want a camera with XLR inputs. Quality microphones use XLR inputs, as seen at right. XLR is a preferred industry standard since they provide a better more secure connection and generally have less noise and interference in the line. Audio cable adapters can be found at almost any electronics store. Microphones are covered in “Understanding Microphones” by Charles Hardy III and Doug Boyd
As an alternative, if a project budget does not allow for XLR inputs on a camera, there are converters (as long as the camera has an external audio input). Many consumer-grade cameras have ⅛ in. input, and several companies make camera-mountable converters (check out a review of XLR adapters).
As insurance against great video with poor sound, the primary key to successful audio is to always monitor the
audio recording. When shooting in the field, there can be so many distractions, especially noise, that make it impossible to tell if the levels are correct unless you are wearing headphones. Make sure your camera has a sound-out monitoring port. Again, headphones will come with ¼ in. or ⅛ in. jacks, but adapters can be bought to adjust to whatever is available.
Picking the right headphones is often a matter of personal taste. Yet like all parts of the good video puzzle
investing in quality headphones for monitoring sound is important. Poor headphones can give you and inaccurate sense of the sound quality. It is always best to avoid earbuds and clip-ons and other types of open headphones that let in surrounding sound. It is best to have closed, circumaural headphones (the type where the padding goes around the ear). These are often most comfortable allow for accurate monitoring of the sound. To find out more about headphones check out the latest reviews at headphonesreivews.org.
Traditional standard-definition (SD) video records and plays in a 4:3 format at 654×480 pixels. High-definition, which is now most cameras on the market, comes in various flavors: 1,280×720 pixels (720p) or 1,920×1,080 pixels (1080i/1080p). As we all know, pixels are the little squares of color that creates the image on the screen. Thus higher resolution = more pixels = better image quality. In designating high definition, you will often see (p) or an (i). This is where things can get confusing. We often think of the “p” standing for pixels but it most often designates “progressive” scanning. The “i” designates interlaced. Suffice it to say for now that it is better to stick with the “p”s.
Shooting in high definition may not always be the right choice. If you need to capture long performances or are doing an extended life history, and you know that the final goal is not to make a broadcast quality video, then using standard definition video may be the best choice (high-definition video creates much larger files and thus demands a lot more storage capacity). Yet the point is, it is nice to have a choice when you are doing your work.
Removable Card Video Recording
There are three basic media storage types available for video cameras: tapes, internal memory, or memory cards (or a combination).
Tape is quickly becoming obsolete and is not recommended and adds extra work to your processing time. Plus you need to deal with the preservation of the tape. On the whole, avoid this option.
While cameras with internal memory are often easier to use, this system limits recording time. Many consumer-level cameras, when recording at their highest settings, can record no more than 45 to 60 minutes on built-in memory before the card must be cleared to a computer or external drive. This can cause long pauses in your work and generally provides you with no back up in case the internal memory fails.
SD card and compact flash (CF) are two of the most common formats associated with recording video from a camera. Micro-SD and other types can be found but should generally be avoided. Storage cards are lightweight, portable, and generally have a low failure rate (if you stick to reputable brands). Compact flash cards are particularly sturdy. We have known them to be cracked, abused, and run over by a truck and still function (although this type of abuse is generally discouraged).
Removable recording media increases time spent with interviewees, does not disrupt the flow of an interview, and provides extra recording for the unexpected moments when an interview may progress longer than planned. Memory cards come in a variety of sizes. It is not unusual to find cards as large as 128GB, and the newer SDCX standard has the promise of reaching 2TB. Not only do cards have large capacities, but they are easy to change – reducing the time needed to pause your work – and can provide you with relatively inexpensive backup for your work. You can, that is, after moving your files to your computer, put your card in a secure, well labeled, place as back up (not unlike the good old days of putting tape on the shelf rather than reusing it).
The catch to SD cards is that they come in different speeds. That is, different cards can be written to faster by the camera than other cards. Speed is important when it comes to video. Generally, it is wise to avoid using SDSC cards when doing high definition video. They are relatively slow and can cause you problems. SDXC and SDHC do tend to be faster and generally work better. But here is another catch: speed standards are determined by the manufacturer, and actual card speed can vary from stated speeds (I guess we shouldn’t be surprised).
Saying all this is not to scare you away from removable storage. On the contrary, it is your best bet. But two key things to do. One, take time to read reviews before you buy. Reviews by customers and professional are easy to find online using google. Two, test out your cards. Don’t take your card fresh from its plastic wrapper into the field but make sure that it will produce quality video for you by doing some test shots and loading the video into your computer and video editor. You would not buy a brand new camera or recorder and take into the field without testing; that is, think of storage media as a mechanical device because it is.
Handheld recordings are shaky and difficult to watch; many audiences may stop paying attention to your interviewee. Best practice is to use a tripod for steady shooting so an audience’s focus remains on the subject and never notices filming techniques. Tripods are inexpensive, and investing in one makes the difference between amateur and professional filming.
For today’s small video recorders, even the tiniest of tripods make for a very stable shooting platform. Almost every camera today is tripod mountable, but it is always good to check the camera before you purchase it.
Popularly-Supported Video Format
This is pretty self-evident. It makes little sense to purchase a camera that does not support well-known and
popular formats. Getting a camera that uses proprietary and less known formats can lock you into particular vendors and their products. This can make things needlessly expensive and problematic when it comes to preservation. But unlike audio where we have come to rather definite conclusions about popular formats, video is still finding itself. In short ,this is a big topic and we highly recommend that you turn to Kara Van Malssen important discussion of video formats in “Digital Video Preservation and Oral History.”
Now we will turn our attention from the highly recommended to some strongly recommended options. Okay, not much of a difference. Yet if it comes down to a matter of funding, these are options you need to worry about less to get great video.
Mid-range, prosumer cameras often come with three sensors instead of one. This allows color separation, high
accuracy, reproduction of light, and a larger price tag. If a project’s budget allows for the extra expense, these cameras are well worth it. They are also much more sensitive in low-light situations, allowing you to forgo a light kit. But good lighting is always recommended. Check out Doug Boyd’s The Art of Lighting for Recording Video Oral History Interviews.
SMPTE Time Code Input and Output
SMPTE is a standard to time code video and film. SMPTE actually stands for the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (http://smpte.org). Having SMPTE allows you to record the audio separately from the video on a high quality recorder and then put them together during the editing phase. SMPTE synchronization greatly simplifies post-production workflow.
If project personnel are not familiar with SMPTE, advisable practice would be to record audio with the video camera, provided the camera has an external audio input.
Manual focus, when enabled, allows a camera operator to lock focus onto the subject. Anything else changing in the frame will therefore not adjust the focus, shifting attention away from the speaker. That is, automated new model cameras are amazing. Then can make mediocre camera operators seem like geniuses as they stay in focus following dynamic action. But this can be a problem for an interview where you do not want hand gestures or other incidental movements to shift the focus. Of course, this does mean that shifting to manual focus does put more emphasis on having a full-time camera operator.
Not all lighting is equal, and not all white lights are the same color (temperature). For example, fluorescent lighting may easily confuse a camera, thus tinting a white wall light blue, or a speaker may have a slightly purple haze to them. By purchasing a camera with adjustable white balance (Often referred to as WB), and using the controls, your video will look warmer and more like reality. Check out Doug Boyd’s The Art of Lighting for Recording Video Oral History Interviews. And check out the Big Idea videos to see what controlling white balance and great lighting can do for the quality of your video: http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/thinkingbig/
To finish your camera starter-kit, here are a few bonus recommendations. These recommendations are focused on choosing cameras with good power sources and good lighting performance.
If you plan to shoot on location, buy a camera with a removable battery and purchase extra batteries. As with the removable media, this extends the time on location and can make unexpectedly long interviews possible.
Good Low-Light Performance
Even with advances in camera technology, the human eye can see many, many more details than a camera can record. If the environment looks light enough to your eye, the camera may not agree. To increase your chances of getting a good shot, look for a camera that performs well under low light. If the lens on your camera has an f number on it – for example, f/2.8 – then the lower that number, the better low-light performance your camera will have.
If you are new to cameras, here are some terms you should know in order to make an informed decision:
- Aperture is the part of a lens that determines how much light is let in. The more light let in, the brighter your image will be.
- F-stop: is a number that tells you how wide your aperture is. It is displayed as f/ and then a number, such as f/3.5 or f/11. The smaller the f/number, the wider your aperture will open. Each increasing f-stop allows half as much light in as the previous stop. In general, you should look for a camera with the lowest possible f-stop and the greatest range in f-stops that fits within your budget.
Section II: Demystifying Camera Advertisements
Now that we have made our recommendations; it is time to go shopping. Whether shopping online or in a local store, dealing with the technical specifications of various cameras- reading the overview of a camera from Web sites, reading reviews, talking to salespeople and comparing cameras- can become overwhelming. Even experienced video professionals can become lost in the jargon as new camera models come out, formats and recording media change, and manufacturer’s compatibility and specifications change. Using an example from one nationally known audio/video shop located in New York, we will look at an advertisement for a good example of a camera suitable for oral history work. Note that the red lines with arrows and numbers have been added for clarity and are not present on the website.
In the above advertisement, several of the key points for cameras have been described:
- 1920 x 1080i HD Recording: This camera records in high definition (1920 x 1080i). Usually, a second number of 720 or higher is also acceptable. The “i” means interlaced, rather than a “p” which would mean progressive. Progressive video is usually better, but interlaced is acceptable.
- 32 GB: This camera has 32 GB of internal memory. Depending on recording format, 1920 x 1080i HD video, will occupy approximately 10 GB /hour, so this should allow close to 3 hours of recording time.
- 2 x SD/SDHC/SDXC Memory Card Slots: This is the removable media highly recommended in this document. If an interview runs longer than expected, the interviewer can add more recording capacity to the camera. It is also nice that it allows for the higher speed cards.
- 2.37 MP 1/3” CMOS Sensor: Three sensors are better than one for video cameras, but the price for three-sensor cameras begins at nearly triple the cost of this model. For the sub-$1000 price range, this is a very good sensor. CMOS is preferable to the older, analog CCD sensors still in some cameras.
- Microphone and Headphone Connections: Without both, this camera would not be suitable.
Most online advertisements will have a more detailed specifications sheet than just the highlights presented with the product. Look around the Web site for a link to technical specifications or the like. In the above advertisement, clicking on the “Specifications” link will take you to more detailed information.
The more detailed specifications do help us to find out a few more things that keeps this camera within the acceptable range based on our recommendations. While not a large aperture range (the f/number), the smaller f/1.8 translates to decent low-light shooting capabilities. The 6.1 mm to 61 mm figure refers to the width of frame this camera is able to capture. The lower the first number, the wider the shot possible with this lens.
Moving to video is a big step, but one that does not need to cost a lot. If you follow the best practices (check out our video Equipment playlist), you can create great looking (and great sounding) video at a relatively low price. Before we do come to a close, one last recommendation: the best piece of equipment for your video shoot is a helper. This can add expense to a project, and it is possible to do great video on your own. Yet having a helper both speeds up the setting up process, and frees you to focus on your subject during the shoot.
Citation for Article
Pennington, S. (2012). Video equipment: guide to selecting and use. In D. Boyd, S. Cohen, B. Rakerd, & D. Rehberger (Eds.), Oral history in the digital age. Institute of Library and Museum Services. Retrieved from http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/06/video-equipment/.
Pennington, Scott. “Video Equipment: Guide to Selecting and Use,” in Oral History in the Digital Age, edited by Doug Boyd, Steve Cohen, Brad Rakerd, and Dean Rehberger. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2012, http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/06/video-equipment/
This is a production of the Oral History in the Digital Age Project (http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu) sponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Please consult http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/about/rights/ for information on rights, licensing, and citation.