For the novice videographer, getting video gear tends to be a
piecemeal effort. He makes purchases one at a time–sometimes
based on necessity, sometimes on impulse. Professionals, on the
other hand, take a more systematic approach. They look for things
that work well together. They speak in terms of "acquisition
systems." Simply, that means everything you need to
"acquire" quality video and sound.
Whether you’re a video newbie or a seasoned pro, it’s wise to
first consider your needs and options before you go shopping for
equipment. An informed, methodical approach to equipment purchases
will not only save you cash, it will guarantee you have all the
right tools you need to get the job done.
In this article, we’ll look at the four basic levels of video
acquisition and the essential equipment you should have for each.
We’ll consider the casual user, serious amateur, small-budget
professional, and professional.
This category includes the occasional weekend snapshooter as well
as the designated documentarian of family birthdays, bashes, and
bar mitzvahs. For the casual user, the approach is pretty much
"point and shoot," and the number-one priority is convenience.
If you’re a frequent traveler or one who enjoys adventures in
the great outdoors, a small, lightweight 8mm camcorder is a good
choice. It takes up minimal room in a suitcase or backpack and
you can stash three 8mm tapes in the space of a single VHS cassette.
One of the most affordably priced models in this category is
Samsung’s SCA12, which has a suggested retail price of $399. For
slightly more, there’s Sony’s TR series and RCA’s Pro line which
both offer a variety of models in the $500 to $800 range. Top-shelf
8mm units include Sony’s TR-96 ($799) and Canon’s ES970 ($799).
A number of 8mm camcorders now offer built-in LCD viewscreens,
which provide a comfortable alternative to the typical viewfinder.
Two such models include Hitachi’s VM-E625LA ($999), Sharp’s VL-E750U
($1099) and Sony’s TRV-52 ($1099).
The convenience of 8mm camcorders is offset by the fact that,
to view an 8mm tape, you either have to cable your camcorder to
your TV, dub all your footage to VHS or buy an 8mm VCR.
For this reason, the casual shooter may prefer to go with a standard
VHS camcorder. Simply pop the tape out and it’s ready to play.
At the low end of the price scale for full-size VHS is Hitachi’s
VM6300A ($499). Mid-priced units include RCA’s CC431 ($599) and
Samsung’s SCF35 ($599). At the upper end is Panasonic’s BTS model
For those who want both the portability of 8mm and the convenience
of VHS, there’s VHS-C. These camcorders use a compact version
of the VHS cassette that you can insert into an adaptor and play
in any standard VHS VCR. The main drawback of VHS-C is the maximum
30- or 40-minute running time of the tapes, compared to standard
VHS and 8mm’s 120 minutes. You can extend recording time by shooting
at a slower speed, but image quality suffers. VHS-C camcorders
include Quasar’s VM-575 ($500), JVC’s GR-AX710u ($850), and Minolta’s
Even for the most casual of casual shooters, a video acquisition
system is really not complete without at least two important accessories:
a camera-mount light and a camcorder carrying case. While
today’s camcorders are quite effective in low-light situations,
the addition of even a small amount of fill light, especially
on a subject’s face, makes a noticeable improvement in video quality.
For the casual user, a small camera-mount light in the 10- to
30-watt range will do just fine. A good buy is Britek’s 20-watt
CV-20H for $33. There’s also Sima’s SL-6, a 15-watt mini video
light which lists for around $40.
As for camcorder luggage, LowePro and Coast both offer a wide
assortment of soft, padded bags in which you can carry your camcorder
and assorted accessories. Prices range from about $50 to $100.
Some models come with adjustable dividers so you can arrange your
equipment any way you want.
Up a notch from the casual user is the serious amateur, a video
hobbyist who takes a decidedly more creative approach to shooting.
At this level, you tackle more challenging assignments, like shooting
a full-length school play or dance recital, or perhaps even an
occasional wedding. With the goal of producing better-quality
pictures and sounds, you’ll want to be able to override your camcorder’s
automatic functions. At the very least, you’ll want to be able
to perform a manual focus.
Panasonic’s AG-196U is a full-size VHS camcorder that offers
manual control of focus, white balance, iris, and shutter speed.
The unit lists at $1,595. An 8mm camcorder with most of the same
options is the Minolta 8-761C, for $970. The only non-manual function
on this model is white balance.
An absolutely essential item in any serious videographer’s
acquisition system is a tripod. Few accessories improve the
overall quality of your shooting so simply and effectively, especially
when you zoom in on your subject.
For starters, there’s Bescor’s TX7 model, priced at $39, Velbon’s
VideoMate 400 for $22, or the Slik U5000 which retails for around
$50. Inexpensive tripods are fine as steadying devices, but if
you want to perform smooth pans and tilts, you’ll have to spend
a bit more. Choices include Bescor’s TX25, for $89, or a step
up, Slik’s Master Classic tripod which runs about $190. If smooth
camera moves are your heart’s desire, make sure you buy a tripod
with a fluid head rather than a friction head. For a demonstration
of tripod features, visit Videomaker‘s MPEG page at www.videomaker.com/edit/other/mpegpa.htm.
For greater mobility, you might consider a monopod, a single-legged
support that telescopes and collapses quickly and easily. One
such device is Slik’s EZ Pod, which sells for about $85.
At the third level of sophistication, you enter the world of the
small-budget professional–the "prosumer"–the person
who combines consumer gear (and some professional gear) to produce
professional-looking programs for paying clients. Since you’re
editing your videos, your acquisition camcorder needs to be one
that provides high-quality video and audio all the way through
the process–in other words, Hi8, S-VHS or possibly even DV, the
new digital videocassette format. You also need additional gear
to help you more-carefully monitor and control both sound and
Sony’s CCD-TR930 ($1,099) is a Hi8 camcorder that offers manual
control of focus, white balance, exposure and shutter speed. It
also sports an external-microphone jack and headphone jack. Another
good Hi8 model is the Canon ES4000 ($1,199), which includes RC
time code for editing accuracy and a handy built-in editing feature,
which allows you to build an eight-segment edit-decision list
right in the camera. Some Hi8 camcorders, such as the Sony TRV-81
($1,599), also have LCD viewfinders.
In the S-VHS category, several good prosumer-quality cameras
are available for only slightly more than you’d pay for a high-end
consumer model. If you’re looking to get into the video-production
business in a big way, you may want to consider investing in a
Panasonic AG-456U ($2,795).
Many, however, have opted to go with the superior resolution
of the DV format. When looking for a DV camcorder, one of the
most important features to consider is the IEEE-1394 FireWire
digital interface, which enables virtually lossless copying and
easy transfer to a FireWire-equipped desktop computer.
Entry-level DV camcorders have only recently dropped to the $2,000
point with the Panasonic PV-DV700 ($2,000), a unit that boasts
a high-resolution color viewfinder, 100:1 digital-zoom capability
and a FireWire in/out port. Another good DV camcorder with a relatively
low price is Sony’s DCR-TRV7 ($2,699), which includes a FireWire
jack as well as a four-inch swivel-screen LCD monitor.
At the prosumer level, a reliable, well-built tripod is an absolute
must. Companies that manufacture professional models usually offer
tripod legs and heads as separate
components. That way, you can put together the ideal combination
for your shooting needs and budget.
Bogen offers several moderately-priced head/leg combinations
ranging from about $200 to $1,000. The Bogen 3190 tripod with
3066 fluid head runs about $950 for the pair.
If you’re going to be shooting interviews, demonstrations,
or any activity taking place on a controlled set, you’re going
to need lights. The best place to start off is with a kit
or two. They usually provide the basic instruments you need to
light most common set ups.
The Beseler Photoflood 500 kit, comes with two lights, two reflective
umbrellas, and two light stands ($235). Another two-light system
is the Smith-Victor K42U, for $300, which comes with efficient
1,200-watt quartz halogen lamps and adjustable barn doors for
more precise control. Lowel offers several lighting kit configurations,
but two of the most popular for videography at this level are
the ViP Jet Set kit ($650) and the Ambi kit ($1,775). The ViP
kit comes with one spot and two broad lights and several accessories.
The Ambi kit has two spots and two broads plus accessories.
Once you have acquired all this equipment, you soon realize you’re
going to need a way to carry it around with you safely and securely.
Fortunately, there’s a solution: professional video carrying cases.
Professional-quality video cases are designed to stand up against
years of wear and tear. They are constructed of rugged, water
resistant nylon and heavy duty hardware. Tamrac and Porta-Brace
are two of the better known manufacturers of these items.
Porta-Brace, in particular, offers a vast assortment of camera
cases, accessory bags, protective covers, and utility pouches.
The company’s Camcorder Special, for $180, is
designed to fit professional Hi8 and S-VHS models, while their
"Run Bag" line, from $139 to $147, accommodates any
variety of equipment and accessories.
The small-budget professional needs many items to round out his
acquisition system. The list can really go on endlessly, but the
basic necessities are: a good pair of headphones, extra batteries,
audio and video cables, a couple of good microphones, a portable
audio mixer, a professional-quality tripod, a lighting kit, and
some sturdy equipment cases to carry it all in. Additional items
might include a wireless mike system, a portable color field monitor,
and, if your business is doing well, maybe another camcorder or
two. Since a lot of these items are common to both the small-budget
professional and professional videographer, this provides us with
a nice transition to our next segment: the full-blown video professional.
Video production on the professional level includes every camcorder
format from Hi8 and S-VHS to Betacam, MII, Digital S, DV, DVCPro,
DVCam, and others. For purposes of this article, however, we’ll
limit our discussion to professional production in the Hi8, S-VHS
and DV realm.
Professional S-VHS and Hi8 camcorders are more sturdily constructed
and sport more sophisticated controls than their consumer cousins.
Time code, VU meters, precision optics, and professional-style
XLR audio and BNC video connectors are common features. The best
ones have three CCD chips and removable lenses. Professional S-VHS
models include the JVC Pro GY-X3U ($4,950) and GY-X2b ($7,999)
and the Panasonic BTS AG-456U ($2,795) and AG-DP800 ($8,500).
Sony’s BP EVW-300L is a similarly equipped Hi8 camcorder.
On the consumer DV front, two excellent three-chip camcorders
rule the roost in this category: the Panasonic PV-DV1000 ($4,200)
and Sony’s DCR-VX1000 ($4,200). A good choice for a palm-size
portable secondary DV camera might be the JVC GR-DVM1 ($2,800)
or the Sony DCR-PC7 ($3,200), both of which have small flip-out
Bigger, heavier camcorders require bigger, heavier tripods–something
like Sachtler’s Pedestal 14 II tripod ($2,265) with the Video
14 II fluid head ($2,275). The unit features a pneumatic center
column which allows you to raise and lower the camera without
adjusting the legs. An extra $525 will buy you Sachtler’s "rolling
triangle" dolly wheels which attach to the bottom of the
Other makers of fine professional-quality tripods are Vinten
and Miller. Both companies offer numerous tripod/head combinations
with prices ranging from about $3,000 to $10,000.
When it comes to audio, professional videographers have a huge
assortment of high-quality products to choose from. Standard equipment
in the broadcast field includes such items such as the Electro-Voice
RE-16 dynamic microphone ($450) and Shure M267 audio field mixer
For professional lighting applications, a good kit to have is
Lowel’s DP Solo TO-96 ($2,750). The kit comes with two Tota broad
lights, four Omni focusing spots, stands and numerous lighting
Whatever level of videography you find yourself at, novice to
professional, it always pays to do your homework. Consider your
current needs as well as your future plans. Read up on the various
models that are available and the different options that come
with each. Whenever possible, go to a dealer and test out the
equipment first hand.
Remember, also, that you can produce quality video at any level.
The limitations of your equipment do not have to limit your creativity.
In the final analysis, talent and vision have more to do with
videography than the price tags on your equipment.
Robert Borgatti is a video producer and writer for a community
Bescor Video Accessories
244 Route 109
Farmingdale, NY 11735-1503
1600 Lower Road
Linden, NJ 07036
Bogen Photo Corporation
565 East Crescent Avenue
Ramsey, NJ 07446-0506
12704 Marquardt Avenue
Santa Fe Springs, CA 90670
Canon Video Products
One Canon Plaza
Lake Success, NY 11042-1113
One Executive Boulevard
Yonkers, NY 10701
600 Cecil Street
Buchanan, MI 49107
Hitachi Home Electronics
3890 Steve Reynolds Boulevard
Norcross, GA 30093-3012
41 Slater Drive
Elmwood Park, NJ 07407
140 58th Street
Brooklyn, NY 11220-2516
3171 Guerneville, Road
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Miller Fluid Heads
216 Little Falls Road
Cedar Grove, NJ 07009
101 Williams Drive
Ramsey, NJ 07446
Panasonic Consumer Electronics
One Panasonic Way
Secaucus, NJ 07094-2914
Panasonic Broadcast and Television Systems Company
One Panasonic Way
Secaucus, NJ 07094
Porta-Brace/K&H Products, Ltd.
P.O. Box 246
North Bennington, VT 05257
1707 North Randall Road
Elgin, IL 60123-7847
RCA/Thomson Consumer Electronics
10330 North Meridian Street
Indianapolis, IN 46201
55 North Main Street
Freeport, NY 11520
Samsung Electronics America Inc.
105 Challenger Road
Ridgefield Park, NJ 07660-0511
Sharp Electronics Corporation
Mahwah, NJ 07430
222 Hartrey Avenue
Evanston, IL 60202
140 Pennsylvania Avenue, Bldg. #5
Oakmont, PA 15139
300 Webro Road
Parsippany, NJ 07054
301 North Colfax Street
Griffith, IN 46319
Sony Electronics, Inc.
One Sony Drive
Park Ridge, NJ 07656-8003
Sony Broadcast and Professional Group
3 Paragon Drive
Montvale, NJ 07645-1735
9240 Jordan Avenue
Chatsworth, CA 91311
2433 Moreton Street
Torrance, CA 90505
709 Executive Boulevard
Valley Cottage, NY 10989