Video Equipment Essentials

Video Equipment Essentials

By: Chris Gamel

This article first appears in the 2011 Spring Issue of Currents, the quarterly publication of the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA)


As nature photographers, we are used to carrying heavy equipment to the far corners of the earth.  That’s a good thing, because we ain’t seen nothing yet.  To shoot video requires a pile of equipment, and for those who want to capture both stills and video, that means there will indeed be a huge load to bear.  The question is what do you really need to get started shooting video?  At a minimum, a video camera, a tripod and a microphone will enable you to shoot quality video.

VIDEO CAMERAS

From broadcast-quality to cell phones, video cameras surround us.  The challenge comes in deciding which camera you should use.  Marketers have done a great job of making us believe that we need to own the latest and greatest to create good video.  The simple truth is that the best video camera to use is the one you can access.  If you already own a video camera or if you can easily borrow one, use it.  As you grow as a videographer you can start looking at other options, but start with what you have.

If you don’t have a camera or you are looking to upgrade, there are a few camera features that are essential.  Use the following as a guide in making your choice.  You may notice that autofocus is noticeably absent from my suggested list.  Professional cameramen (and camerawomen) manually focus.  In fact, most high-end video cameras do not offer autofocus.  If yours does, make sure you also have the ability to switch to manual focus when needed.

MUST-HAVE OPTIONS FOR VIDEO CAMERAS

First, decide between high definition (HD) and standard definition (SD).  HD has more resolution than SD and therefore displays more detail, but it offers some challenges.  The first challenge is that every mistake you make will be reflected in exquisite detail.  HD video requires you to check your ego at the door.  You will make mistakes, and they will be obvious.

Second, HD video files, requiring 1 GB of storage space for each minute, are about five times larger than SD videos, which can store five minutes in that same 1 GB of space.  HD video demands more of your computer memory during editing than SD.  Having said that, the future of video is HD, and I strongly encourage you to start shooting in HD as soon as possible.  The last thing you want is to capture the most amazing scene only to have it become obsolete because you shot it using SD.

Third, you want the ability to manually adjust the settings, a port to plug in external microphones, and the availability of shooting accessories so your system can grow.  Be sure that your camera shoots in the correct format.  If you are shooting in the United States, you will want to make sure your camera fits the NTSC format.  European videographers should use the PALS format.  Before purchasing a camera, make sure that it matches the accepted broadcast format for your country.

The fourth consideration is the ability to change lenses.  Still photographers are used to switching between wide-angle and telephoto lenses.  Most video cameras do not have interchangeable lenses.  Instead, they contain a single zoom lens that might not always cover the range you need.  For wildlife photographers, interchangeable lenses are preferable, but video cameras with interchangeable lenses are much more expensive than their single-lens counterparts.

The final consideration is how the footage is recorded.  There are four main options: tape, flash card, camera-based hard drive, or DVD.  Of the four, I recommend either tape-based or flash-card-based cameras.  Camera-based hard drives have moving parts that could easily be damaged during use.  Also, if you are out in the field and the hard drive fills up, you cannot switch it out.  Recording directly to DVDs is convenient if you plan on watching the videos right after shooting, but these cameras present problems when transferring footage to a computer for editing.  Tape has been the dominant recording medium for a long time and offers the advantage of providing hard storage of footage after it is downloaded to the computer.  Despite this advantage, the popularity of the tape system is waning.  Most camera manufacturers are switching to flash-card storage and I recommend that you look at flash-card-based cameras when considering your next purchase.

DSLR CAMERAS

Most nature photographers are shooting their images with a DSLR, and it makes sense to use the camera’s video capabilities as well.  DSLRs offer some distinct advantages:

  • Outstanding, high quality HD video
  • Interchangeable lenses
  • You already own it

There are, however, some downsides to using DSLRs:

  • Extremely difficult to focus in video mode
  • Limited recording duration
  • Not ergonomically designed for motion work
  • Poor sound recording

With luck, many of these limitations will be dealt with in future models.

TRIPODS

Tripods have long been touted as a requirement to produce better still images.  This is also true with video.  Unless you like the idea of your audience getting motion sickness, you need to use a tripod—and not just any tripod.  Video cameras must be mounted on a sturdy tripod that has a fluid head and a leveling base.  A ball head might be ideal for still photography, but it is terrible for video.  Video requires smooth pans and tilts and a fluid head is the best way to get these.  Also, to avoid crooked horizons it is important that the tripod have a leveling base.

There you have it—everything you need to shoot video.  But wait!  What about sound?  Do you need a microphone?  Yes.  What kind?  It depends.  Does sound really matter?  Absolutely.  All excellent questions and we will address in another article.