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Video Equipment for around $500

First off, it is so difficult to recommend one particular set of equipment that is going to work for everybody. A few things you have to account for are:

  • Skill level of the person using the camera
  • Quality of the picture
  • How good is the camera in low light
  • Do you need a wide angle lens for shooting in small areas
  • How is the audio, do you need to plugin an external microphone
  • What does the camera record to - internal memory vs removable media
  • Are you going to be sitting down or moving around
  • Indoors vs outdoors
  • What kind of lighting there is where you are filming

Video Camera

What you want to get all depends on your budget, skills, and needs. The main reason I chose these three cameras was because they all had microphone input jacks for recording with an external microphone. They say sound is half the picture, and this is especially true for web videos and for videos where you will have someone talk to the camera quite a bit. You don't need to get a camera with a microphone input jack, but if you have two cameras with the exact same specs and picture quality, I'd go for a microphone input jack. If you decide to go with a cameara without the microphone input jack, I would definitely recommend buying a external audio recording device, such as the Zoom H1 (which I talk about later on).I've offered up three video camera choices:Kodak Playsport - $175

  • This is a "pocket" camera, meaning that you can put it in your pocket and pretty much press record and go. They are the most basic of video cameras
  • Don't require much skill to use
  • Doesn't have many options - less flexible in non-ideal situations
  • Low light not great - so not good for indoors
  • No flip screen so that you could see yourself if you are self-recording
  • Limited battery time and can't replace battery
  • Microphone input jack - but no headphone jack to monitor audio

If you are filming outdoors a lot, this camera would probably perform not incredibly different than a camcorder that was a few hundred dollars more. Also, if you are indoors with lots of light, it will also perform ok. If you are going to be filming in multiple locations that require you to have more battery record time and have the flexibility of filming in dark and bright areas, this may not be a good choice.This camera does have a microphone input jack, so you can use an external microphone with it to get better audio, but as the audio is recording you can't monitor it, so you don't know if the audio recording is going well or not. However, if you are recording yourself, this is not an essential feature since it would quite hard to talk and monitor yourself at the same time.SONY HDR-CX160 or Canon Vixia HF R20 - $399

  • The cameras look like standard, modern consumer video cameras
  • Flip screen so you can frame yourself when self-recording
  • Better low-light for indoor shoots
  • Replaceable battery
  • Better white balance (Canon has manual controls)
  • Canon has headphone jack (although when self-recording, not an important feature as you will need to play back your video to yourself to really judge your audio levels)

There are so many different camera choices out there. The important thing is to find a camera that works for you and your budget. You could have another person come along and recommend completely different cameras.As mentioned above, my main reason for recommending these cameras was for the microphone input jack. You can find camcorder reviews on where they score camcorders on a standard set of measurements. However, all my real choices when choosing a video camera, whether it be a camcorder style camera or a DSLR camera, were not the ones recommend in their buying guides. I think I made great choices and couldn't be happier with what I chose.The best case scenario would be spending 15 minutes with each camera you are looking at, recording the footage, and then comparing the footage on a computer (footage always looks different while recording, especially with the different monitors on the different cameras). Getting some place to allow you to do this may be tough though!


  • Zoom H1 - $99: This microphone is versatile, as it can record straight to mini-SD card memory, and doesn't need to plugin to a camcorder. This is important, as all camcorders don't have a plugin for an external microphone. And, if your camera does have a external microphone plugin, this can connect to your camera as well. The best of both worlds.
  • Audio-Technica ATR-3350 Lavalier - $20: If you are plugging your microphone directly into a video camera, you could choose this cheaper option. It is nice in that it is small, has a 20ft cable, and can clip on your clothes close to your mouth. The closer a microphone is to the sound source, the better.

You can actually combine the Zoom H1 audio recorder and the Audio-Technica lavalier microphone to record as well, which is something to consider, depending on your set up. For example, if you are walking around, a Zoom H1 won't be able to follow you around, unless you are holding it, but that might ruin the natural look of a shot. Instead, you could clip the lavalier microphone to your shirt and then walk around (just don't film the cord coming out of your shirt or pants!)Are there other devices you could buy? Certainly. If you want more options or have more budget, go to a audio-specialist store to get advice (not a electronic generalist store as they often have never used the equipment they would recommend to you).I stayed away from recommending any USB microphones, such as the Blue Snowball. That's because the USB interface means it has to plug in to your computer, which means you always need a computer. Additionally, the endless combinations of computer settings and devices means you will be stuck playing around with your computer for a while before getting an acceptable setting.Something to note, is that I used a Zoom H4n (a more expensive / versatile version of the Zoom H1), to plug directly into the computer via USB and got bad results. When I used the mic plug-in (the red circle) the audio was still not great (in comparison to the recording I was getting by directly recording onto the Zoom H4n). I then used the line-in (the blue circle) and the audio was much better when using the free audacity recording software.Although, recording to the Zoom H4n was still better than the computer line-in.Recording via the line-in to Camtasia, screen capture software, resulted in not-so great audio again.That's why recording direct to your computer can cause some issues and take some time, skill, and experience to figure out. Much easier and better quality to record directly to a device such as the Zoom or video camera.


You can negate the need for a more expensive camera if you have good lighting. You'll notice that most cameras shoot gorgeous video on a sunny day. If you bring the camera into a poorly lit room (rooms in most homes), you'll see this is where the better cameras shine.So, what's good lighting? For the purposes of filming a video in a home or office, I'm going to say lighting that is the same color and that is soft.

Same color?

The light from the sun is a different color than the light from an incandescent bulb, which is different from a fluorescent.

  • Sun - Blue
  • Incandescent - Orange
  • Fluorescent - Green

I tend to go use lights that are "daylight bulbs", because they give off a blue light, which is roughly the same color as the light coming in through the window. If you use any other color of light in a room with windows, you'll be mixing the color of your light sources, which can throw off the colors recorded by your camera.You can literally use any light that you want, it doesn't have to be a specialized light bought from a camera shop. What you do want to do is diffuse the light so that is it soft and pleasing vs. hard and shadow-causing. The cheapest way to diffuse light is to shine it off of something, like a ceiling or wall. You can also put things in front of the light source, such as parchment paper. Parchment paper works to diffuse the light as it is semi-transparent and doesn't get burnt easily.

A good set-up

  • Use the light from windows - control the strength by adjusting the blinds or shades
  • Use "daylight" light bulbs to match the color of the light coming in from the windows
  • Diffuse the light by pointing the light at ceilings, walls, or putting parchment paper over the lights
  • More light the better

You can use any lights hanging around your house. You can also go to a hardware store to pick up some inexpensive work lights.


As long as you have something level and steady to put your camera on, you can get away without the need for a tripod. You can pick up an inexpensive mini-tripod to make adjustments to your camera. Something like the UltraPod will work and costs $10 to $15. You can also get a mini-tripod that allows you to re-position the camera, something like this Vanguard tripod.You can also get a cheap regular size tripod, as long as you don't plan on moving the camera while it is on a tripod. For any of the cheaper tripods, I would recommend not moving the camera while it is recording. It takes skill to do this well (in addition to good equipment).

Editing Software

I struggled with recommending an inexpensive video camera and I also struggled with recommending editing software. The reason is that I use Adobe Premiere CS5.5 which is $800 (I actually have the whole suite which is more like $1,800). If you can get this software, than I highly recommend it. For my purposes, it easily and quickly does what I need it to.I tested out the pre-installed software on both Macs and PCs, iMovie and Windows Movie Maker. If you play around with it, you can get it to do roughly what you want. If your videos contain only a few shots and you don't need to adjust much, these programs will do the trick.If I was going to pay for software and only had $100, I would get Sony Vegas Movie Studio HD Platinum. This software feels and mostly acts like the software that professionals use. This also means that there is probably a steeper learning curve to this software than others. However, you'll be able to have greater control over the final output.The thing I like about this software is multi-track editing, meaning you can easily have multiple things going on at the same time (a sound effect, background music, narration, audio from the video - as well as a photo over top of a moving background). How often you will need to do this, who knows. But I can say that my editing style would be severely cramped without multi-track editing.The choice of Sony Vegas surprised me, as I thought I would go for Adobe Elements (because I use its pro version Adobe Premiere). However, Elements was more similar to iMovie than Premiere.


When making your choices, you really have to choose based on what works for you. Ideally, that would mean finding someone who makes the type of videos that you like and ask them what set up they use.If you want some tips on how to create a good video with your equipment, look no further than my article.