Buyer's Guide: Cameras
This article appears in the February/March issue of Streaming Media magazine, the annual Streaming Media Industry Sourcebook. In these Buyer's Guide articles, we don't claim to cover every product or vendor in a particular category, but rather provide our readers with the information they need to make smart purchasing decisions, sometimes using specific vendors or products as exemplars of those features and services.
When it comes to producing video for streaming, choosing the right camera is Priority #1. The challenge is to choose the camera that is right for your application, at the right price, without short-changing your ability to do better work in the future. For those who are buying a camcorder in 2011, let's turn these goals into features to look for in a new camcorder.
Let's start with some givens. If you're shooting primarily or solely for streaming, shoot in progressive mode, which delivers better quality than interlaced footage. So make sure that whatever camcorder you buy can shoot in 30p at up to 1080p resolution. Virtually all camcorders do at this point, but it's worth a check. (For a chart comparing three leading cameras, see page 2 of this article.)
DSLR vs. Camcorder
Beyond this absolute, the biggest choice facing most streaming producers is whether to buy a DSLR for video or a traditional camcorder. In general, DSLR cameras feature much larger CMOS sensors than the CCDs or CMOS used in traditional camcorders. This translates to much narrower depth of field, or the ability to focus on specific components in the frame while other regions are out of focus. Shallow depth of field is a great technique to focus your viewer's attention and also makes the video easier to compress, since the blurry regions have very little detail. For these reasons, manipulating depth of field is a very popular technique among high-end web producers.
Another benefit of the large CMOS sensors is low-light sensitivity, so DSLRs can typically capture higher-quality video than camcorders in low-light conditions. The final benefit is interchangeable lenses, which helps pros get the look they want under a variety of shooting conditions.
Balanced against these advantages are a host of negatives; none insurmountable, but many worth considering, particularly by video newbies. For me, the lack of feedback like zebra stripes or a waveform monitor are very significant deficits, particularly when shooting live events where light conditions frequently change. Both forms of monitoring show which regions in a frame are properly exposed, and which are too light or too dark. Stray too far in either direction and the damage can be irreparable. Experience helps, and lots of pros shoot live events with DSLR cameras, but most shooters will feel more comfortable with zebra stripes guiding their real-time exposure adjustments.
Next up on the DSLR con-list is generally poor audio connectivity and audio monitoring tools. For example, most prosumer camcorders offer XLR connectors with manual gain control, volume meters, and headphone jacks, which lets you connect to and effectively monitor professional microphones or sound boards. Most DSLR camcorders offer only stereo inputs, and though there are volume meters, there usually isn't a headphone jack. You can record using a separate device, but that adds more gear to buy and worry about during the shoot, and another synch-step during editing.
If you're a relatively new shooter, you'll probably bemoan the lack of continuous auto-focus, though this is starting to appear in newer DSLRs. You can engage auto-focus during setup, of course, but once you start shooting, if your subject moved or you moved the camera, you may have to focus manually. This can be a huge deal during live events, particularly since DSLRs typically don't have "peaking" feedback that shows when your subject is in crisp focus.
Another issue with DSLRs is powered zoom. With many traditional camcorders, you can set zoom speed, so you can smoothly zoom in and out at any speed. With DSLRs, all zooming is manually controlled, which is great for quick adjustments, but much harder to accomplish smoothly.
Finally, many DSLR camcorders have recording duration limits, some as short as 12 minutes. Again, while this isn't a big deal for many shoots, it can be a significant production hassle for live events, since you'll have to keep track of and synch five files per camera per hour of production. Sure, some third party programs can help automate this synching (Singular Software's PluralEyes), but working with fewer files is certainly easier.
Don't get me wrong; there are plenty of shooters using DSLRs for live event shoots and getting great results. In addition, the DSLR market is fast-moving, and we're starting to see cameras without these issues. Overall, though, where it's easy to recommend a DSLR for use in customer testimonials, interviews and other controlled shoots, if you're buying for live production you'll probably be happier with a traditional camcorder.