When your craft goes beyond home video projects to professional gigs, you need pro gear to keep up.
I own an economy car for my commute to work every day. It didn't cost a lot, but it gets the job done. In fact, on a good day, I bet I could get that car close to 100 mph (albeit downhill with a tailwind). Now, if I wanted to go 150 miles an hour, I would have to spend a whole lot more cash for just a modest bump in performance. It always seems that to achieve a bit more, it'll take more money.
Cameras are no different than cars. Anyone can buy a good, serviceable video camera and come away with a product that would perform just fine in ideal environments like a bright, sunny day or a well-lit room - the "commuter car" of cameras. And just like that high-performance car purchase, for a little bit more money, you can buy a professional quality DV camcorder from manufacturers like Canon, JVC, Panasonic or Sony. For the purpose of our discussion, we'll limit the price to $15,000 or less - anything above that price is strictly high-end broadcast. And while 15 grand seems too far out for many of us, the technology you see today on the best video cameras or professional camcorders will soon trickle down to more affordable products that can still be considered pro video equipment.
The first place a professional video camera excels above its entry level cousin is the lens and the glass in the lens. In more modest cameras, the lens is often plastic, albeit a high-quality plastic, to limit distortion of the image. The reason is always cost and ease of manufacturing as plastic doesn't require grinding, polishing and special coatings on the glass to limit scratches. A larger lens with high-quality glass is one of the primary ways to achieve crisp images that are well-lit and cleanly defined and you'll almost always find these on the pro camcorders.
If the consumer camera happens to have glass lens elements, they are often very small. While this is commonly a function of the size of the appliance, they're also cheaper to produce. The downside of small size is the inability to let in as much light as possible. In a brightly lit scene, this is not much of a factor as there's more than enough illumination to provide a clean image free of noise and harsh shadows. A professional quality lens is far larger, and this bigger window allows far more light to strike the sensors and creates higher quality video under a wider range of lighting conditions, from ideal (full sun, bright lights) to mediocre (dense overcast, sunset, poor interior lighting) to nearly non-existent (night-time, candlelight, etc.) Panasonic AG-HPX370, at $12,000 fits this category.
Zooming into a subject also reduces the light going to the sensor as the lens elements contained within the barrel of the lens (there could be many) retract away from the lens opening and, like a car entering a long tunnel, the deeper you go, the darker it gets. A larger lens size provides a bigger "window" for sufficient light to get to the sensors so things don't get so dark to affect image quality. When camera shopping, be sure to look for a larger lens than a typical consumer camera as you strike your balance between budget, value and your intended use.
Sensors are, in a sense, the "eyes" of the camera. They collect information about the image before the camera sorts out things like colors, color intensity, illumination and other factors before sending this information to the camera's memory storage for later viewing.
Most typical consumer cameras rely on one sensor to provide all of this information and when you think about a sensor that's smaller than a dime to do all of these tasks, it's easy to imagine that while it can do all of them, something has to give when it comes to quality (especially using the smaller lenses we just discussed). The quality may appear to be okay under ideal conditions, but ideal conditions are rare and that's why pro cameras are well designed to accommodate less than ideal situations and still return great video.
While it's true many of the less-budget-straining pro quality cameras have one sensor, it's almost always the case that this sensor will be far larger than a budget camera that is meant for casual use. A larger sensor has much more area for light to strike. This provides more information for the camera to process and results in a substantially more data intensive image that allows the camera's internals to process and account for pixel errors, poor light, movement and correct color.
Ideally, look for a pro video camera with three sensor chips, such as the JVC GY-HM710U at $5,600. Each sensor is engineered to pick up a certain color - red, green or blue. Since only one sensor is needed for red, then all available light in the red spectrum can be used to create the truest colors possible. Also, for reasons previously covered, three chips means there is three times the surface area for light to strike. This might be a bit of overkill for a YouTube video camera, but for DVDs or broadcast, they are the professional's choice.
While it's often overlooked for consumer cameras, audio in a pro camcorder is far more important than the little dot microphone mounted next to the lens in most casual purchases. In fact, it's vital for professionals to have the cleanest, purest sound possible.
Look for audio input connections on the specification sheet. On the lower end of the budget spectrum, you might see ports listed for using with an 1/8-inch connection. These connectors are the same ones you would see at the plug of MP3 player headphones. Microphones with 1/8-inch plugs are out there for purchase and use. There's nothing wrong with these connectors, but the available microphones or other sound gathering accessories is limited in both selection and quality and you would be better off looking for the letters XLR on a camera's spec sheet.
An XLR connector uses three prongs arranged in a triangle configuration and is the audio connector of choice for video professionals. The highest quality mics all have an XLR connector and you should look for this when researching features on pro camcorders like the Canon XF305, $8,000 . Normally, pro cameras come with two XLR inputs - one is normally for an always-connected camera mounted shotgun mic to pick up ambient sound like the roar of the crowd, traffic noises or simple generic background white noise that provides depth to video productions. The second input is usually reserved for specialized uses like with a hand mic, lapel mic or other specific audio need. News cameras are built this way - normally there is a large, cigar-shaped microphone near the viewfinder and the second XLR input is the one pro videographers use for the reporter's hand mic.
Professional video operators want complete control over exposure, sound and most other settings on the camera. When the final product is on the line, it's just too risky to leave the decisions to a tiny chip and a bit of software loaded on the camera. Primarily, most pro cameras have easy to reach manual controls for the lens and audio levels. These should not be buried in a menu system within the camera's software, but must be accessible via externally-mounted switches and buttons for instant access.
Allowing the camera to ride along on automatic is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as the most critical functions of the camera are readily available to deal with things like a bright light in the corner of a room or loud, sudden noises that might confuse the auto function. It's pretty much a certain thing to say that most of the news or documentary footage shot with a pro camera is kept on the manual settings full-time. Again, this is not to say that auto settings are not a good idea, but to provide the video creator with options to craft the exact production in a precise way.
While the cost of professional video gear often surprises those new to the industry, it's important to remember that in order to provide the highest quality video possible, Current year cars are similar to professional cameras which must use every last bit of technology to wow the audience, realize the creative vision of the video producer and to provide the tools in order to make that dream a reality. Cutting edge is expensive, but in the end, when the lights come up and the audience cheers, it's worth every penny.
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Randy Hansen is an award winning photographer and editor and is photo chief of a major market TV News station.