Today I got a very nice email from a fan of my work who wanted to try his hand at a little amateur documentary of his own. He asked me the following question...
“What video camera should I buy? I want to be sure that my video is high quality.”
That’s one of the most asked questions on video forums all over the internet. I see it very often and my answer to it is this...
It doesn’t matter.
The best video camera for you is the one you can afford.
Here's why I say that...
The elements of a quality documentary are not necessarily to be found in the equipment. The best equipment in the hands of someone without the knowledge of how to use it won’t produce anything worth watching, whereas someone like Martin Scorcese could use a cell phone and make a movie that would make you laugh and cry.
What gives a documentary quality is summarized by what I call The Three S’s.
Story. Stability. Style.
Something worth watching has to happen and you have to be able to present that in a way that keeps the viewers attention.
My first DVD, Raising the Bar was shot on an inexpensive $500 Canon videocamera. The images are not the greatest but the story was so strong that people around the world have been able to enjoy it.
I recommend buying the book Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. It is a handbook for screenwriters, but the methods of storytelling it outlines translate well to documentary.
Shaky camerawork is the mark of the amateur video. Learn to stabilize yourself if you are shooting handheld. Practice panning smoothly. Use a tripod whenever possible. Don’t try to walk and shoot.
Learn about lighting and composition. Why are certain things positioned where they are in the frame in great movies? What makes a good composition? Google “the rule of thirds”. Learn what it is and then learn how to break the rule. From which direction is the light coming? Where should I position the camera? When should I shoot the entire scene and when should I move in for a close up?
All of these things are incredibly important in making something look professional and keeping it interesting.
Visit a museum and notice the compositions of paintings by the great masters. Get photography books and magazines and begin to dissect the way elements are placed for maximum dramatic impact. Where is the subject placed in the frame and why?
Learn about editing. The best shot video, if edited poorly, will fail to hold attention and everything will go to waste. Pacing is very important. How do we know what to include and what to leave out? Under what circumstances should we we condense time and when do we stretch time?
I recommend reading In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch (Editor of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now). It’s a great introduction to some of the basic philosophies of film editing.
Having filled your head with all that I will tell you that I use small Canon HD video cameras for my work. I like the Vixia HV 40. It has a great picture and is small and unobtrusive. That’s an important quality to have when shooting fly-on-the-wall documentaries like I do!
You can get them online for anywhere from $600 to $800. I also attach a shotgun microphone to all my video cameras. I use a Rhode or Azden shotgun on my Canon. Sound is VERY important and the on-board mics on most cameras don’t really do that good of a job of shutting out unwanted noise from the background.
I personally recommend that whatever camera you buy that you get one that uses mini DV tapes. One of the most important things to consider in shooting documentary is that need to safely archive footage. I find a box of tapes to be much more inexpensive and reliable as a long-term backup than a finicky, expensive hard drive which can fail unexpectedly.
Tape vs card is a controversial subject these days but I'm sticking to my guns!!
So that's my advice. Learn how to shoot great footage and how to edit it effectively and whatever camera you buy will be the best camera for you!