We all work in eLearning, and unless you work for a large corporation … or an enlightened one … video production is not important to many managers. But video itself is ubiquitous and a fact of life in eLearning. And that means your budget for equipment and production is important. What can you get within your video budget?
But what if you just hit the jackpot? Your manager wants you to put a little video rig together to make eLearning video! You’ve been given a budget to buy equipment. It’s probably between $1,000 and $2,000.
Is $1,000 enough? Is a smart phone enough?
Most times I hear a number closer to $1,000. I used to believe good video equipment for eLearning could be had for $1,000. While you can purchase and make a darn good studio for $1,000, and it can be more than marginally adequate, is it what you need? Does equipment at the $1,000 level have the capability to make beautiful video? Unequivocally Yes!
Smartphones are getting smarter and more capable all the time, and they are now at a level we could only imagine a few short years ago, even at $1,000. If your budget is $1,000 or less, I’m going to make a very strong suggestion that you consider using your smartphone as your camera. However, that’s not where I’m going with this article. That’s a topic in and of itself, for another time. For now, the key word is “flexibility.”
Flexibility is the key to match equipment to budget
Good as they have become, smartphones may not give you a lot of flexibility and room to grow as a video creator. If you’re going to make real video, flexibility isn’t just a good thing, it’s a necessary thing. Flexibility means the ability to record great video under different conditions, to have more than one microphone, or enough lights for four or five people or for a larger space. Great eLearning video is like any other kind of video. If you want to make great video, you’d better have equipment with enough flexibility to let your creativity soar. So, equipment type by equipment type, what kind of flexibility can you get for a budget of $2,000 or less?
Cameras and lenses
The obvious place to start investing your budget is the camera. It’s the most expensive part of your video set-up … about 60 percent of your budget. If your camera costs $1,200, that would leave $800 for the rest of your gear. Where do you start?
Dedicated video camera or still/video camera?
First, you need decide if you want a dedicated video camera or a still camera that doubles as a video camera. A still/video camera would look like a point-and-shoot or a mirrorless camera or a DSLR (digital single lens reflex). If you get one of the last two, remember they will require a separate lens. It can be confusing.
I highly doubt it you’ll need a camera with 4K recording. It’s the latest tech in consumer video recording. Do you need it for eLearning video? No! Your IT department will probably put their foot down, especially if you try to stream 4K to your learners. 4K video is not only bandwidth intensive when playing back, it’s a resource hog when you’re editing. And, when you take a 4K video file and place it into Storyline or Captivate, it gets scrunched down to 640 X 480 and all those beautiful pixels you’ve worked so hard to make perfect will be lost.
Sensor size is another factor when selecting your camera. Expensive DSLRs have full-frame sensors. Full frame is about the same size as an old 35mm frame. There are also lots of less expensive DSLR cameras that have what’s called an FX sensor, about the same size as an old Kodak Instamatic image (remember them?). Do you need a large sensor that has 30-40 megabytes or more pixels? Consider this; HD video is 1920 X 1080 pixels. That equals 2,073,000 pixels ... just over two megapixels. 4K video is four times the size of HD, so about 8.1 megapixels. When you’re using a sensor with 20 megapixels, all the left-over pixels from 8MP to 20MP (or more) are lost! A larger sensor allows some selective focus and a few other nice things but that’s just icing on the cake for video production.
Still capabilities still count: The Micro Four-Thirds (MFT or M4/3) system
That said, if you shoot a lot of stills for your training, and some organizations do, you need to look at the still capabilities of the camera as well as the video. It can get complex. There are also mirrorless cameras that are functionally close to what a DSLR can do. Some of these cameras use specialized lens mounts, but most of them use a “micro four-thirds” (MFT) mount, which is a universal mount for M4/3 systems.
In the dedicated video camera realm, there’s a ton to choose from, but there are only a couple of video cameras that use MFT lenses. My favorite is the Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera. It costs ~$1,200 and you need a lens. The images from this camera can be amazing. Most dedicated video cameras under $1,200 come with one lens that you can’t change. It will be a zoom lens and may or may not have good optical quality. Expensive lenses are usually single focal length. That’s not a bad thing, but if you’re not experienced, you’ll need to learn what different focal lengths do. If you’ve already got an investment in lenses and you’re a Canon or Nikon user, you may as well stay where you are.
The Micro 4/3 (MFT) lens mounts are mostly universal in mirrorless cameras. Mirrorless cameras look like point and shoot cameras but have much more capability. Mirrorless cameras can be affordable. More importantly, there are a vast number of lenses that can work on these cameras. You can also get an adapter that mates your Nikon, Canon, or whatever lenses to Micro 4/3 lens mounts. If you’re only going to shoot talking heads, you don’t need a telephoto lens. If you’re going to have to shoot from long distances, you need a telephoto lens. Many lenses today are also macro, which means you can get very close to the subject. Think before you buy and buy what you can afford and what will work in your situation.
Support is the tripod and pan (panorama) head (the part that tilts and swivels) that you need to shoot good video. I can shoot a good hand-held shot that is steady, but I’ve been holding cameras for over 40 years. When I shot news, it was almost always handheld unless it was an interview and even then it might be handheld.
What does good camera support look like? It depends on your camera. A big camera, because of its weight, needs heftier support than my Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera. The Blackmagic camera is small enough that I can use my regular DSLR tripod. Make sure your tripod has enough capacity (in pounds or kilograms) to hold about twice the weight of your camera and lens combination. I’m kind of keen these days on carbon fiber tripods only because they are very solid.
The part you attach your camera to is called the pan head. It is frequently sold separately from the tripod itself, but not always. You want a fluid head. Fluid heads can be very expensive. You can get a good fluid head and tripod for less than $200 if you shop. Look at Benro, Slik, or Manfrotto; many others make good tripods and video pan heads too.
The lighting landscape is getting complex. There are four major types of lights. Incandescent, tungsten-halogen, florescent, and LED. Which is best? If any one of the kinds of bulbs was best, you’d see all the other types of bulbs quickly disappear. All the different types of lights have plusses and minuses. For keeping costs and complications low, I’d find some LED arrays (each of these is just a bunch of little LEDs in a housing). They have a major advantage. You can power them with batteries which means no power cords snaking around your area. You can find some good arrays for around $100, so three of them would keep you in your budget. You could also look for a kit with stands included.
No camera records good audio, and that includes your smart phone. Audio is a big part of what you do. You’ll need some sort of recording device or microphone you can plug into your camera. My choice for our kind of work is to use a recorder like a Zoom or a decent microphone, or both, to record. These little recorders are capable of recording excellent sound. There is the second step of syncing the sound, but that’s easily done with a clap of the hands when you start recording. Yes, you do have two files (the video from the camera, the audio from the recorder) to import into your editing program, but that’s truly not a big deal or a time-consuming thing to do.
Your video setup won’t be complete until you round it out with reflectors, clamps, and batteries. Lots of batteries. You can’t have enough batteries. You also can’t have enough tape. Gaffers tape. Duct tape. Masking tape. You need tape to hold things down (or together) and you’ll use it. And you’ll be happy you have it. You might use tape to cover those cables snaking on the floor, so nobody trips over them. Personally, I’m an expert at tripping over cables.
Great video is more about the story than about anything else
Remember, there is no “best” in video. The thought process that goes into creating great eLearning video, no matter what the length, is the same as the thought process that goes into creating great Hollywood movies. You can take great video with your phone. It can be as good as video recorded with a $25,000 camera. We’re not making big video and, in all probability, you’re a department of one. Video is an essential part of eLearning. Little micro-learning videos sprinkled throughout our lessons can make a difference, especially if they’re good.
As you learn how to shoot better video, you’ll find it’s about the story and the quality of thought that goes into making it up. The point is less about the equipment you can get with this year’s video budget, than about the video you actually go out and make with that equipment.