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What Teachers Need to Know When Upgrading an Instructional Camera

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If you’re going to teach with video, you’re almost certainly going to need a camera to record some of that video. While it’s possible to get away with providing students with purely screen-recorded instructional video, that production technique is unlikely to engage any but the most highly motivated learners and only for a few screen-centric domains like software tutorials. Not making good use of a camera is a missed opportunity. An instructional video should take students beyond what can be accomplished in a traditional classroom, and a good camera is an excellent tool to create special experiences for them.

So what kind of camera is advisable for a teacher? The best camera is the one you have with you when you need it, so the camera on your phone is ideal for opportunistically shooting out in the field, and a webcam is ideal for recording when teaching from your desk. There may come a point in your career at which studio-narrated smartphone camera inserts and talking-head video must be replaced by more deliberate and high-production video recording. When you reach that point, there are a wide range of features available in professional video cameras to consider. For a teacher, the most important feature is versatility—a sneaky way of saying the most important feature is having as many features as can be packed into the camera before rendering it uncontrollable.

My camera of choice today is the Sony FS5 II because of all the boxes it checks for versatility. It’s lightweight enough to use on most jibs and gimbals you’ll find for stable shots to walk students through, over, or around a scene. Designed for the shallow flange depth Sony E-mount system, it can be adapted to almost any photographic lens for specialty detail shots. It can shoot up to 960 fps at NTSC resolution for showing students high-speed processes that the naked eye can’t keep up with. The large Super35 sensor provides great low-light recording capabilities. There’s a surprisingly effective feature using facial recognition to set focus, which would be useful for teachers recording themselves in a scene where they would move closer and further away from the camera.

Sony cameras have long offered professional-quality audio inputs, as does the FS5 II, although they are in unconventional places. The FS5 II has the usual benefit of all 4K cameras: being able to crop-cut to simulate multiple cameras in editing or to “enhance” parts of the frame. My only major gripe with the camera is that the very useful handgrip controls connect through the only LANC remote port on the camera. To also use a tripod handle-mounted remote control, you need to split the remote port with a 2.5 mm TRS to TRS splitter, and the only two ways I’ve found to acquire one with a 90° male connector to avoid interfering with grip buttons are by making a franken-cable or using the one that comes with the Atomos Shogun Inferno accessory kit.

To get all the features of the Sony FS5 II, you will have to spend upward of $5,000. If you only need to add a few of those features to your toolkit, you can get the job done more frugally by upgrading gear you may already rely on. If you need super slow motion, most modern smartphones can get you great footage for a high-speed demonstration. Amazingly, the Samsung Galaxy S10 can shoot 720p video at 960 fps in bursts of 0.4 seconds. Most smartphones will shoot at 120 fps or 240 fps, which gets you 4x or 8x slow motion, respectively. Likely, that’s enough to help the students better comprehend fast-action demonstrations. Since most modern DSLR cameras will shoot video in addition to still photographs, you can get excellent-quality field footage with them so long as you’re willing to compromise on the ability to record great sound at the same time.

Still, while a smartphone or a DSLR camera may make an adequate substitute for a professional video camera or even offer more utility at a lower cost, the teacher is the only part of a successful educational video for which there is no substitute.

[This article appears in the June 2019 issue of Streaming Media Magazine as "Upgrading an Instructional Camera."]

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