How to Choose Your First Video Camera (Part One)

This article explains what you need to look for in your first video camera, why you need it, how it’ll come in handy many years from now, and how you can make it pay for itself!
Sony A99
You already know cheap DSLRs shoot good video, but will they give you the best training, or simply turn out to be a crutch? Before I get into it, I want to give you the answer right now:

Always get gear better than yourself.

I play a lot of chess, and one of the things I learnt early on was that in order to get better at something, you need to practice against a stronger opponent. Of course, I’ve seen the same principle deliver in every other sport I played, or anything in life for that matter. Always surround yourself with people and gear better than yourself.

To ignore this is to walk the road of frustration, envy and stagnancy. Too many people have access to cheap cameras today. Everyone’s a videographer. Do what everyone else is doing, and you will never stand out.

Do your own thing.

The Definition of a Video Camera

Define your terms – Socrates

A video camera

  • is a camera that is designed to shoot video,
  • provides customization and reliable feedback, and
  • does not hinder the full utilization of points one and two

What’s the meaning of the second part of this definition? A camera that cannot technically judge what you’ve shot is worthless. In this respect the camera can be a teacher, providing enough tools for video monitoring and display that not only covers your mistakes, but sets a target you can aim at.

A good tool must provide room for customization, so that you can fine-tune your skills to the point of perfection. However, due to the trend of digital cameras becoming redundant in three years, your newly acquired skills shouldn’t be limiting when you upgrade or move on. What’s the point of perfecting a tool when you have to start from scratch every time you change cameras? It shouldn’t teach you bad habits.

GoPro Hero3

What’s the meaning of the third part of my definition? Simply this, that a video camera that isn’t designed well is not going to allow you to make full use of this functionality. You want a tool, not a toy.

A budding videographer or filmmaker must know that audio is an integral part of video. If you think otherwise for some strange reason, stop reading. I see far too many videographers who think they can record both sound and image equally well. A human being cannot focus on two things at the same time:

  • A Director watches the performance for emotional impact (the technical part has already been designed before the shot)
  • A DP watches the image for technical correctness (the emotional part has already been designed before the shot)
  • A Sound Recordist or Production Sound Mixer listens to the audio for technical correctness (the emotional part has already been designed before the shot)

An aspiring videographer must learn the importance of sound, but it is not necessary for him or her to learn how to perfect it, let alone assume he or she can do both.

Should your first video camera avoid audio? Of course not. It is invaluable training to understand its importance, just like a videographer must also understand editing to see the bigger picture. Why deprive yourself? A camera that has poor audio ability isn’t a good tool to learn with. I will never recommend such a tool.

Don’t underestimate the power of good design, customization and feedback. It will save you days of ‘relearning’.  Just for fun, take a look at the 15 most beautifully designed cameras ever.

What a Video Camera HAS to do

Now that we’ve understood what I mean by a video camera, let’s list the priorities:

  • Full Manual Control
  • Excellent Metering
  • Good Ergonomics
  • Adjustable Settings
  • Cheap

Notice some of the stuff I’ve left out – Resolution, Dynamic Range and 4:2:2? Want more resolution? Get closer. Want more dynamic range? Schedule your shoots and learn lighting. Want 4:2:2? Whatever for?? Get your priorities right.

Humans learn writing with pencils, not gold-plated fountain pens. And neither hinders your ability to put words on paper.

In Part Two we’ll break down each feature to understand why they’re critical. We’ll also cover how you can make your first video camera pay for itself. Finally, I’ll list my recommendation.