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Is Brand Name Gear Worth the Price?

Graphic of a dollar sign

There’s a general assumption that video production equipment bearing the name of a recognized high-end manufacturer or originating brand creator is more expensive, but necessary for quality control. That’s not always the case, as many third-party products, knockoffs and copycats in the video equipment field are not only more affordable but often deliver design improvements over OEM technology.

We all dream of unlimited budgets, top-of-the-line brand name gear from the video equipment manufacturing giants in the industry, often wishing we could go OEM on everything. With or without the dollars to spend, is it always wise to stick with OEM, avoiding some choices and options that could fit within our primary equipment budget while providing excellent utility at bargain prices? This article offers a bit of hope for the budget-strapped professional or the video enthusiast seeking to set up shop with limited funds.

OEM: When Should I Buy and When Should I Walk Away?

Is it worth the extra money to buy everything you need from an original equipment manufacturer (OEM)? The short answer is: it depends. This article is the longer answer. Much consideration goes into identifying value options outside expensive OEM choices. The discerning shopper or budget buyer will utilize three steps in selecting off-brand equipment over OEM.

  • Budget: Gear expenses that depend on your immediate needs and video production plans.
  • Needs: Your current needs and your expected vision for the future.
  • Research: Going off OEM means researching, comparing and getting first-hand input from other videographers.

Not everyone among your clients is going to recognize OEM from the next-best-thing. From wedding and event to corporate and industrial, clients might recognize camera brand but just about everything else is essentially unimportant to them.

You want your equipment to look professional for commercial clients, probably, but homemade doesn’t have to look homemade. Nor does off-brand have to look inferior. What you want to be sure about is, looks aside, does it perform well? Is it equal to the task? Will that equipment play well with your OEM camera?

Big Name Computer vs Boutique, Off-Brand?

Well, you have Apple and a whole slew of options on the PC front. The former is way out of your budget zone and what you’d like to have in Sony or some of the other big name computer manufacturers are budget breakers as well. Is there any hope for an affordable computer that will handle the basic editing you want to do?

The short answer is just about any computer will let you edit some video. Even your smartphone may offer video editing options. You might not cut the next award-winning feature film on a sub-$1000 Avatar or Hansung, but both offer affordable options. Alienware, Lenovo and Samsung are not off-brands but they do offer lower-priced options.

Boutique brands like Boxx don’t always equate to savings; with units going for $3,000 and more. Gaming plays a huge role in some of the build-it-yourself kits and boutique options available, so if you know your way around the PC platform a build-your-own can have budget appeal. Video editing system and software prices range from free to out of sight but do your research, compare power options, platform recommendations and pricing, check the warranty and ask your Videomaker buddies, you’ll find a fit. Just remember to research, compare and get reviews or input from your videographer friends.

Camera Support Systems, OEM?

There’s Benro, Induro, Manfrotto, Miller and other well-known and not-so-well-known brands. Some, like Induro and Benro, and Manfrotto and Gitzo come from the same house, with affordable, high-end and higher-end products. Some are budget breakers for the event videographer or video hobbyist, sometimes costing thousands more than the cameras they support.

Again, research, compare and get reviews or comments from other videographers and the guys who hang out on forums or belong to your local professional videographers association (PVA).

Do-it-yourself projects enable the most budget-strapped to develop serviceable camera supports, from stationary, to a myriad of stabilizers for making smooth moves. Do you want a Steadicam, Glidecam or Varizoom system or do you need one? If you have a one-shot opportunity to acquire some smooth-moves video, with no need for the distant future, OEM may be overkill. A few dollars and sweat equity could accomplish your creative needs without spending thousands on a system that might sit in your closet for a year before it gets used again. OEM? Probably not.

Many of the systems with lesser brand recognition offer affordable options as well, so a homemade system might still be a last resort. That doesn't mean, however, that an OEM product should be the first choice.

You can save money on camera support, DSLR grips and more by buying from companies based out of China, but rather than allowing price to dictate your choices, always research beyond the advertising hype. It might be better to go OEM, keeping you in a consumer comfort zone while stepping out of your budget comfort zone. Most of us have more time than money, so research is job one.

From tripod to stabilizer, crane to jib, OEM isn’t always the solution. Research, compare, check reviews and remember to scope out the do-it-yourself possibilities. A search for handmade stabilizers on YouTube will get you a host of affordable options that aren’t half bad.

There’s Plenty of OEM Lights, Systems but...

Should you go with inexpensive lighting options? Or is OEM the only way to brighten up your production day? Depending on your familiarity with your camera—while it is nice to have a full-featured lighting system or even a range of systems—there are affordable workarounds, as well as off-brand options that can serve your needs without breaking your budget. And yes, continue the research, comparison and reviews approach.

For a variety of affordable lighting systems that are not OEM, a simple Google search for “video lighting systems” will get you a long list, as well as links to an assortment of how-to and do-it-yourself features and videos.

What about that brand name you can’t pronounce or spell? Where was it made? Are the systems safe to use or are they likely to fall over, explode or fry the electrical system?  A primary concern should be safety. Look for the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) mark. You should avoid products that don’t carry this ubiquitous seal of safety.

Other factors include stability, materials and underrated electrical cords rather than heavy-duty power cords that won’t melt the minute a lamp or housing rubs against them. Lightweight stands, dull reflectors and bulbs that fade and burn-out quickly are common in cheap lighting kits.

There are many OEM systems on the market, many of them offering lower-priced options. NRG, Smith Victor and even your local hardware store offer affordable options or alternative lighting appliances that can save you a bundle.

Depending on the dominant color temperature of your lights of choice, you may be able to white balance the lights, offsetting warm, green or cool tones. There are always gels that can be utilized to adjust color temperatures but depending on the heat generated by your off-brand option, that might also create a hazard.

Litepanels may well be the recognized OEM for LED-based systems but they too have seen less expensive competitive brands show up. As with any lighting system, when shopping for a bargain or an affordable option, you want to research, compare (not just price) and follow up on reviews.

Options are many, so are the dangers from heat, electrocution and fire. Always opt for safety when it comes to lighting and always use common sense when working with even the highest rated OEM lighting systems in any video production.

Hey Now, What’s that Sound—OEM?

“Half of your video is the audio.” Videomaker tries to teach this idea through our website, magazine, workshops and conferences, yet many people still don’t seem to account much for audio when planning their shoots. Don’t expect the internal microphone on your DSLR or even most camcorders to acquire quality audio. With rare exception, you will need an external microphone. Even better might be a standalone digital audio recording system.

You’ve heard of Edirol, Tascam, Yamaha and the Zoom series of digital recorders. Some of these OEM systems offer reasonable prices but you’ll likely run into even cheaper options if you dig down deep. If you can’t afford an OEM mic or digital recording device, by all means shop around. While some, like the Olympus brand and Livescribe Smartpen, are not as familiar, they may be worth investigating.

There are many inexpensive units that can do an excellent job and fit into most budgets. There are much more expensive recorders and although they’re nice to have, the lower-priced audio recorders will generally do quite well.

There’s a wide range of quality and styles of mics. The first thing you need to do is determine the mic you need to start with. Check out the Videomaker Microphone Buyer’s Guide, a great article to help decide what you need.

Inexpensive mics are all over the board, with widely varied quality. What makes an expensive OEM AKG, RODE or Sennheiser better than a knock-off? The build, design, engineering and functionality—usually, but not always. You can spend much more than you need to if a handheld external mic from your local Radio Shack will suffice.

If your budget allows for a high end OEM mic you almost can’t go wrong. But there are affordable systems by Azden, Samson and others that will do the job, last longer than you can imagine and cost way less.

As often as you can, try before you buy. Check equipment reviews for your target OEM or off-brand mic. Research is easy with Google and Bing search engines. Between Videomaker and countless other forums, the Internet will get you informed. Check with your video friends, to see what they suggest. We’ve had many fellow videographers share awesome products, bargains or sources for OEM and off-brand at equally awesome prices.

Research, Compare, Reviews

There are options for nearly all video equipment and accessories. From batteries to memory cards, lenses to filters, the secret to discovering OEM quality products without the usual OEM price tag is researching, comparing and checking for reviews. Only then can you effectively decide if brand name gear is worth the price or if that bargain you found is a better deal.

SIDEBAR 1

Get Out the Tools

Just as OEM products and pricing may not offer you a suitable solution, the off-brand options might not be all that appealing either. What’s a videographer to do? Do it yourself!

You love making video and it’s a really awesome hobby and profession. But making video can also be quite expensive. There are times when you must cut some corners or forget about trying that special shot. Maybe, with the help of a few good tutorials, some frustration and a bit of sweat equity along with a little money, you can make what you need.

Create a PVC rig to glide your camera, hold your lights and your mic boom pole. Make a tripod that actually works using a stepladder, some threaded pipe and barbell weights. Videomaker offers a multitude of how-to articles than can save you money and still get the job done. From a diffuser, to backdrop frame, to reflectors and even cranes, you can do it yourself.

Projects from simple to complex can be found on Videomaker as well as YouTube and other video forums on the Internet. So, if OEM is too expensive and an off-brand solution too risky, there’s always D.I.Y. If you come up with something new, better or cheaper, share it with the rest of us at the Videomaker forums.

SIDEBAR 2

What is OEM?

An original equipment manufacturer (OEM) manufactures products or parts that are then purchased by another company and sold under the purchasing entity's brand name. OEM identifies the originating manufacturer. Refrigerator manufacturer Whirlpool might sell its products to Sears to be sold under the store's brand Kenmore. For another example of parts within a brand such as a company that produces a finished computer — think Dell — using Intel or other OEM components under its own branding.


Contributing editor Earl Chessher is a full-time professional video producer, writer and published author. John McCabe has written and directed numerous short videos and is in pre-production on “A Nerd’s Tale,” his first feature.

Tags:  March 2014
Earl Chessher and
John McCabe
Thu, 12/26/2013 - 1:58pm