Gear — Cameras
Camera ranges and models change so fast, it’s hard to keep on top of things. We’ll do our best to note significant developments over on the Blog (see the Equipment section in particular). But here’s some general advice about types of cameras, and our favourites as of February 2011.
Check your cupboards
The best type of camera is the one you’ve already got. Most schools have a camera of some sort kicking around, even if it was bought by the English department ten years ago for a drama project and hasn’t been seen since. If the batteries still work — great, use that!
It’s also worth exploring all the fiddly little buttons on your stills camera — most digital compacts and newer digital SLRs have video modes, and they can be excellent. Don’t forget your mobile phone, either.
Cheap flash-media cameras
We’re big fans of the mobile phone-like ‘stick’ cameras, with the most familiar probably being the Flip range, of which our favourite is the Ultra HD. They’re small, light, relatively cheap (from around £80), and getting video off them and into your computer is a cinch.
Drawbacks? They tend not to be very good in poor light, which in video terms means ‘indoors, especially during the winter.’ They’re also designed for filming people at parties: if you stand further back so you can see the demonstration someone is presenting, the microphone’s too far away to work effectively. Also, if you move the camera closer to see detail of the demonstration, the picture goes blurrily out of focus. You can’t beat the convenience and value of these cameras, but it comes at a price.
Our favourite of this sort is actually the Zi8 from Kodak, for a whole host of reasons. Firstly, it’s remarkably cheap — as of early 2011 it’s usually available for around £75. It also records a decent picture, with a helpful smidge of anti-shake processing. There’s a switch on the top which puts it into ‘macro’ mode. You then have to hold the camera very close to whatever you’re trying to film, but it works very well.
Then there’s something that’s almost unique in this market: a socket for an external microphone. Which is great. Except that it doesn’t work as well as we’d like. But hey — cheap, right?
One last thing about it: you’ll need to buy it an SDHC card. Out-of-the-box, it’ll record for mere seconds.
There’s a newer and oddly-named ‘PLAYTOUCH’ model from Kodak, too, but the reviews we’ve seen have been distinctly mixed and it’s considerably more costly. We’d stick with the Zi8.
…or, maaaaaaybe, we’d take a look at the Zoom Q3HD. From what we can gather the video it records isn’t as good as the Kodak, and it’s more expensive. It looks ugly as anything, too, but that’s because it’s packing a pair of terrific microphones that ought to produce far superior results to anything Kodak or Flip can offer you. Interesting.
There are several ranges of cameras marketed specifically to the education market. Some of them are quite impressively chunky and robust, but everything we’ve seen so far has been woefully poor in terms of the pictures and sound it records. We’d love to know if any of these products are any good, but at the moment, we’ve not seen anything we could recommend.
miniDV and DVD cameras
There used to be a section here about cameras that used spinning discs or moving tape to record images. My, how times change.
If you have such a camera, and it works, carry right on using it. At SciCast Orbiting Headquarters we still use an old brick of a Sony miniDV camera, and we love it to bits. But the future’s all solid-state, it seems, and as their batteries die these cameras will go to the great bit-bucket in the sky. Sad.
Fancier cameras, HD, and all that
If you’re starting to push against the limitations of a little Flip or Kodak, you’ve basically two choices: convenience, or ultimate quality.
Convenience means ‘things that look like video cameras,’ from the likes of Canon, Sony, Panasonic, and JVC. They all make vast and ever-changing ranges of cameras, and to be honest most of them are pretty good. They all have their strengths and weaknesses.
Ultimate quality, however, is to be had from — of all things — digital SLR stills cameras. Their large sensors can produce amazing video images, with Canon and Panasonic making some particularly wonderful models. There are, however, big compromises involved too, and you’ll want to do some reading up before spending the sort of money involved. Good blog to start at include EOSHD, Philip Bloom, and Cinema5D.