Buying a Camcorder for Documentary Filmmaking
Question: I need advice buying a camcorder. I'm going to be doing some interviews that I'd like to video record. Initially they'll appear only on the web, but they may ultimately be incorporated into a movie that would be burned to DVD, distributed, etc.
I've been looking at this: Panasonic HDC-HS900K Camcorder but I don't really know what to look for in a model. I'd go less if I could, but I want something "decent". The only advice I've been able to glean, thus far, is to insure that it has the ability to use a lav-mic. Thanks for any help!
Desktop Documentaries: The advice you've been given about being able to use a lav mic is sound advice. When doing interviews, audio is king. Without a good audio recording device, you run the risk of not being able to hear what your interviewee is saying due to a wide variety of environmental challenges.
If you are doing an interview outside at a busy construction site (loud noises in the background) you need to isolate the voice of your subject. A lav mic can do this very well.
In order to use a (decent) lav mic, you'll need a camera that is able to accept an XLR input. (XLR is a term used to describe a particular type of cable and connector.)
Most consumer cameras, like the one you shared, don't have an XLR input therefore making it impossible to use a quality lav mic. I would not recommend using a mic and camera system that allows for a mini input. (Mini inputs are like the inputs you may have on your phone or iPod). Typically, most headphones use a mini connector to plug into the phone or portable music player. While this type of input may be good for listening to audio, it's not the best way to record audio.
If your interviews are going to be inside (or in a controlled environment where you know the microphone won't be challenged by distracting sounds like cars, wind, construction, large crowds, etc) you very well may not need a lav mic. Many consumer cameras do a decent job of recording audio in a controlled audio environment as long as you keep the camera within 2-4 feet of your subject.
At the price level you've indicated, it will be hard to find a video camera that has XLR inputs allowing for a lav mic to be used. In addition to that, you will need to buy a lav mic (if you don't already have access to one).
A decent lav mic will cost around $100 (at the low end price). Of course, if you want, you can spend thousands of dollars just on the microphone itself. But you aren't asking about mic, are you?
Based on the information provided in your questions, you may enjoy something like this Sony camera Sony HXRMC50U. The shotgun mic that comes with this camera may be all you need to record good audio for an interview (depending, of course, on the environment you are shooting in). This camera utilizes a mini input, which is not the best, but will work if you're trying to keep costs to a minimum.
Another great option to consider within your price range is a DSLR photo/video camera. I'm biased to Canon, but Nikon, Sony and others are taking advantage of this growing video market. The Canon Rebel T2i (and others in the Canon Rebel series) offers the videographer the ability to change lenses, have more control over camera video settings and of course, you can take incredible pictures too!
The thing about most of the DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) cameras is that you can't rely on the in-camera mic. In most cases, it's not going to give you audio performance that matches the video performance of the camera. You may want to consider buying a DSLR camera (between $500 and $700 at the entry level), a lav mic and an audio adapter that allows for better audio than the in-camera mics will provide. This set up is not as simple as a point and shoot video camera or a video camera dedicated only to video and audio recording, but you do get a bang for your buck in this category.
Here's a Suggested DSLR Documentary Camera Pack:
The cost of this package puts you close to the budget range you have.
Keep in mind that you can buy cheaper microphones and adapters, but from my experience, you truly get what you pay for in this category. You can buy mics for under $50, but you, most likely, aren't going to get a sound that's any better than what your camera's mic will provide.
For super low budget filmmaking, the Flip camera is a great choice. I have used this camera on construction sites and it works well (as long as there are no loud noises happening near the interview). The Flip camera shoots in HD and costs substantially less than $1,200. You can find a Flip camera here Flip MinoHD Video Camera
. It's important to note that Cisco, the maker of the Flip camera, has stopped producing this camera. This is why you can find it for such low prices (under $100 in most cases). If you are interviewing indoors, in a controlled environment, the Flip works well. You may also want to check out the Kodak Zi8 point and shoot video camera. They cost a little bit more than the Flip, but still way under $1,200 Kodak Zi8
In the end, you need to know how and where you will be doing your interviews. If possible, do it inside! (or at least no where near a highway, construction site or at a football game.) If you do your interviews inside or in a controlled audio environment, your need for expensive audio equipment diminishes. But just remember, audio quality and lighting separates the professionals from the amateurs.
For further exploration on this topic, here's a Basic Filmmaking Gear Check List
Or this article: How To Choose A Camcorder
I hope this has been helpful.
Anyone else have ideas or suggestions? Please leave comments below.