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Finding the Best Video Camera to Shoot a Documentary

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    With thousands of camcorders to choose from, finding the one most suitable for your project can be frustrating. To help you sift through the hype, we'll look at quality optics, battery technology, inputs and outputs, recording media, and controls. Using this information, you should find a camera that will help you to make your documentary a reality.

    Video Transcript

    Camcorders aren't cheap but they're incredibly important. So when it comes time to rent or buy one for your production, knowing what to look for can save you money and help you get it right the first time.

    With thousands of camcorders to choose from, finding the most suitable one for your project can be both mind-boggling and extremely frustrating. To help you quickly sift through all of the hype, we'll show you what to look for such as quality optics, battery technology, inputs and outputs, recording media, and controls. Using this information, you should be able to quickly find a camera that will help you to make your documentary a reality.

    The first place to start with any camcorder purchase is to figure out how your documentary will be distributed. If you'll be making the documentary for internet use, a camera that films in standard or high definition should do the trick. On the other hand, playing your film in front of theater audiences will require a camera that costs 10,000 dollars or more and can shoot in resolutions of 2048x 1152 pixels or above. This is because theater owners don't want to disappoint moviegoers by showing footage at resolutions lower than film. This requirement limits the options for cameras to models that are fairly expensive. That's why if you plan on releasing your documentary in theaters, it would be best to include more money for cameras in your budget. Otherwise, you'll want to consider releasing your project on Blu-Ray or the internet instead where you can keep your camera budget below 10,000 dollars.

    Of all the parts of a camera, the sensor is the most integral. It is where the magic of turning light into electricity, then into ones and zeroes happens. That's why it's really good to know what makes a sensor great.
    i.There are three factors to look for in a sensor: size, resolution, and speed. Cameras with larger sensors are expensive for a reason. Larger sensors give you a shallower depth of field, which can help you to keep the focus on your subject, and give off less noise in low light. This is incredibly useful for documentaries that require a lot of night shooting or indoor shooting where light may be scarce. The best sensors are those that are close to 36x24 mm across, which is the size of traditional 35mm film. This is also because most lenses are built for 35mm sensors which gives you a much wider image. Interestingly enough, many DSLR cameras that can shoot video have much larger sensors than camcorders that with similar costs. This is typically because these cameras lack many of the features that professional camcorders can offer such as XLR inputs. However, there are ways around the limitations of DSLRs and due to their film-like images, many cinematographers are opting to use DSLRs instead of traditional camcorders in their productions.
    ii.Resolution is another important factor in good sensors. Since most televisions display images in the 16x9 aspect ratio, you'll want to make sure your sensor can capture widescreen footage. It's also best to get a camera that can film at a 1920x1080 resolution. This is because it's always easier to shrink a high resolution image than it is to make a low resolution image look good. Another advantage of filming at 1920x1080 is that it is very close to the 2K resolution that most theaters require. With a little scaling, this footage should be accepted in these theaters. In this way, you won't have to break the bank to shoot a documentary that will be playable on the big screen.
    iii.Lastly, the speed of a sensor is another important factor for your camera. This is because the faster the sensor images are processed, the higher the frames it can shoot per second. The advantage here is that with a higher frame rate, you'll be able to record high quality slow motion footage for your documentary. Finally, since all Hollywood films and high-end documentaries shoot their video at 24 frames per second, you'll want to make sure the sensor you choose can shoot at that frame rate. This way you can give your documentary the "film look" that audiences have come to associate with high-end productions.

    Many documentary crews frequently find themselves either on the road or away from power sources so having a long lasting battery can be a lifesaver. Most batteries are rated in milliamps per hour. This means the higher the mAh, the longer the battery will last. If you will be going on a shoot at a location without power, it is a good idea to purchase several high mAh batteries. Most people find that it's better to spend a few hundred dollars on batteries than to not get the shot you need to sell your documentary.

    The next factor to consider is the inputs and outputs that your camera has. Some of the most important inputs to have are XLR inputs. Most professional microphones use XLR inputs so by not having one on your camera, you'll be limiting the microphones you can use. When it comes to outputs, it is essential to have an HDMI, composite, or HD-SDI port so that you can use an external monitor while shooting. External monitors help several people to see a preview at the same time and allow an operator to easily determine focus. If you plan to have producers or directors on your shoot, having these outputs are a necessity. It is also good to have either FireWire or USB outputs on your camera for computers that do not have card readers.

    There's nothing worse when you're in a hurry than having to wait. That's why it can be very helpful to record your footage on either SD or CF cards. Both of these formats are fairly inexpensive, can be put on your editing computer faster than real time, and can capture more footage than mini-DV tape. You can also capture directly to hard drives, but with a lack of moving parts, SD and CF cards are still the medium of choice.

    Lastly, it's important to make sure that the camcorder you rent or buy has a bevy of external controls. It can be very frustrating to have to browse through a menu to do the simplest of corrections so the more you can do externally, the better. Of all external controls, the most important are a ring for focus, zoom, and the iris, and a dial for shutter speed. Including these features on camcorders makes them more expensive, but the time they save on a shoot makes them worth every penny.

    Though all of these factors are helpful to have on a camera, there are still instances where smaller can be better. Big cameras tend to intimidate people and attract attention so for interviews and large crowds, a smaller camera is best. Also, if you're planning on doing a lot of travel, having a more compact camera can help you to conserve energy. Even so, with the right cases and good planning, having a larger camcorder with many of the features we covered will always work best.

    New cameras come out almost every day. So hopefully, with the information we've shown, you'll be able to find a camera that can take your documentary to the next level.