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Buy the Best Video Gear: A $2,000 and $4,000 Buying Guide

When I got a query from OnlineVideo.net's editor Eric Schumacher-Rasmussen asking "what would you recommend for a camera and mobile light solution for future interviews?" I didn't give an off-the-cuff answer. I researched, compared and shopped, and then several hours later respond with some recommendations. Since I knew Eric wasn't the only one asking this question, I suggested that we turn it into an article and Eric agreed.

The premise is if I had a budget of $2,000 or $4,000, what would I buy? The table below shows my recommendations. Basically, if I didn't have experience with the product, I did what I would do if I was shopping: check for reviews on authoritative sites like Camcorderinfo and VideoMaker, and browse user reviews at Amazon and B&H Photo and Video. The prices in the table are the lowest available on either Amazon or B&H.

$2,000 Budget
Camera: Panasonic HDC-TM900, $999
Tripod: Dolica AX620B100 62-Inch Proline Tripod and Ball Head, $40
Shotgun Microphone: Audio Technica ATR-6550 Video Camera Condenser Shotgun Microphone, $50
On-camera Lights: Bescor LED-60K 60W LED Compact Light & Battery Kit, 85
Case: Kata D-Light Capsule-181 DL Case (Black), $70
Total: $1,244

$4,000 Budget
Camera: Panasonic HMC 150
Tripod: Manfrotto 501HDV, 547BK Video Tripod System Kit
Shotgun Microphone: Azden SGM-1X Shotgun Microphone
On-camera Lights: Litepanels Micro LED On-Camera Light
Case: Kata OMB-72 One Man Band on Board Bag, Extra Small
Total: $3,856

I considered a number of factors in my camcorder decision. From a specification standpoint, buying an SD camera at this point makes no sense, and if you're shooting short form interviews, you want a camera that stores video on an SD card so you can easily get the video to your computer. This eliminates DV, HDV and hard disk based camcorders. You want decent on-board audio, which eliminates DSLRs.

In the under $3,000 price range there isn't a lot of variety. The Panasonic AG-HMC150, which I own and really like, is long in the tooth for a camcorder (about 2.5 years old), but produces good picture quality and offers excellent audio connectivity, a waveform monitor,  a vectorscope for white balancing and exposure control, and all the other bells and whistles of prosumer camcorder.

You can read my review of the unit). Don't take my word for it, however, as the unit averages about 4.5 stars out of five at B&H Photo with 165 reviews, and 4.5 stars out of five with 27 reviews on Amazon. My only concern about recommending this model is that it feels like Panasonic should be about ready to replace it. It's also a football sized unit that screams serious video shooter, so it's too big for most casual uses.

If the HMC150 isn't for you, consider the Sony NEXVG10 ($1,998), which I haven't tested, but rates well at B&H (4 stars, 45 reviews), which is a more professional audience than Amazon, where the camera had an average rating of 3 stars with 8 reviews. The high-level value proposition of this unit is a digital SLR in a camcorder body with detachable lenses. I personally feel that the blurry-background filmic look that digital SLRs are famous for is over-rated in many instances, and since these shots take longer to setup, they aren't well suited for run-and-gun interviews.

In addition, this camcorder doesn't have a motorized zoom, so you have to manually turn the lens to zoom in and out. This isn't a big deal for interviews or other static shots, but it could be tough for live event shoots, especially under changing light conditions where you have to control exposure on-the-fly, as well. So it may not be a great general purpose camcorder. In addition, audio input is 3.5mm stereo mini, not XLR, which is another negative if you'll be working with a variety of pro microphones or connecting to sound boards.

On the plus side, the NEXVG10 has two accessory shoes, so you can mount both lights and a separate microphone on the camera body. While it wouldn't be my first choice at the high end, it's a camera to consider, especially at $1,000 less than the HMC150.

At the low end, I own a two-year old Canon Vixia HF S10 that I use for family holidays and low profile work-related shoots, particularly if I'll be traveling. This is a much smaller camcorder than the HMC150, which you can easily carry in a briefcase or backpack, and it shoots up to eight megapixel digital stills, so it can substitute for a digital still camera as well. On the other hand, audio connectivity is limited to 1/8-inch inch stereo input, low light performance is weak and manual controls are spare and all driven by menu controls, rather than on the camera body. So, I wasn't about to recommend this without further research.

I checked with Camcorderinfo.com, my go-to site for in-depth camcorder reviews, to see how the Vixia stacked up currently, and the highest-rated camcorder in the class is the Panasonic HDC-TM900 ($999), which easily bested the newer Canon that replaced my Vixia. The camcorder averaged 4.5 stars at both B&H (out of 7 reviews) and Amazon (out of 11 reviews), which tells me that it should perform well. If I was buying a new camcorder in the $1,000 class, this is the one I would try.

Go to page 2 for tripods and microphones

Next up is tripod, which is a tricky area. If you spend the $40 for the Dolica AX620B100 62-Inch Proline (4 stars out of 5 on Amazon, 380 reviews, no reviews on B&H), you get an easy-to-carry tripod (four pounds) that can support up to 13 pounds of camera, microphone, and light kit, with a bubble gauge to keep things level, but no tripod bag. While great for shooting static interviews, the ballhead tripod will likely be useless for following live action around. Plus, at 4 pounds, it's easily kicked and moved in a crowded room.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Manfrotto 501HDV, 547BK Video Tripod kit ($279), which costs several times as much, but is a solid all-around tripod for static and live event use. Though it comes with a padded case, at 11 pounds it's probably larger than you'd like to lug on an airplane, though if you're driving to the shoot, it's an easy carry. It's the kind of tripod you may hate getting there, but will love when you actually use it, as evidenced by the 4.5 star ratings on both B&H (33 reviews) and Amazon (19 reviews). I've had one of these systems for about 3 years now, and it's a great piece of gear.

So, pick your poison, portable or practical. If you decide to freelance on this and choose a different model, make sure the tripod you choose can carry the combined weight of your camera, lighting gear, and microphone (and associated batteries); offers a leveling gauge; can boost your camcorder to eye level; and comes with its own bag.

Next up is a microphone, and the simplest approach here is to buy a shotgun microphone that mounts on an accessory shoe on your camcorder, or directly to your tripod. Shotguns are great because the pickup pattern is focused on where it's pointing, while the microphones on the camera body have a more general pickup pattern, and tend to pick up camera noise from your zoom or other control adjustments. Plus, if you're a one man show, you can mount the shotgun and forget it, unlike handheld or lavaliere microphones which you have to futz with throughout the shoot.

Beyond pickup pattern, when choosing an onboard microphone, you should consider connectivity and power. The $49.99 Audio Technica ATR-6550 condenser shotgun microphone has a 3.5 mm stereo connector, which should work perfectly with the HDC-TM900, as well as the Sony NEXVG10. It's powered by a separate AAA battery, which saves drain on your camcorder. This popular model averaged a four-star rating on both B&H (20 reviewers) and Amazon (26 reviewers).

With audio, you usually get what you pay for. For a step up in quality with the same 3.5 mm stereo connector, check out the Rode VideoMic Directional Video Condenser Microphone with Mount ($149), which averaged a 4.5 star rating at Amazon with 85 reviewers, and the same score at B&H with 293 reviewers.

For XLR connectivity, I recommend the Azden SGM-1X ($148), which is also powered by a AAA battery. You can read a Videomaker review, with the reviewer concluding "Azden's SGM-1X would make an excellent choice for any videographers who would like to add a quality mike to their audio arsenal. Videographers will find the SGM-1X to be an excellent mike for the money." Amazon customers certainly agreed, with ten reviewers rating the microphone an average of five stars, while at B&H, 77 reviewers rated the microphone an average of 4.5.

This unit does not come with a cable, so if you don't have a short one in your bag, pick that up as well. If you buy an inexpensive boom microphone stand and a longer cable, you can also use the microphone to record studio interviews. If you want an XLR microphone that takes phantom power from your camera, so you don't have to worry about a battery, consider the Azden SGM-PDII ($174), which averaged a 4.5 rating at B&H with 28 reviewers, but wasn't reviewed on Amazon.

Go to page 3 for lights and cases

On-Camera Lights

On-camera lights are a must for interviews, and now-affordable LED lighting, which runs cool and is easy on the eyes, is the obvious choice. At the low end, I'm recommending the Bescor LED-60K 60W LED kit ($84.95), which is unrated at Amazon but garnered an average 4.5 rating from 12 reviewers at B&H. When you buy an LED kit, you want to make sure that you get variable light control, jells for diffusion and matching incandescent light temperatures, and an articulating arm that supports forward and backward tilts and swiveling.

The LED-60K supplies all these basics but doesn't swivel, though Bescor sells a $15 mount that does, and the unit comes in a convenient case. It's powered by a dedicated 6 volt rechargeable battery, which saves battery costs and gets three hours on a single charge, but could leave you hanging if you run out of juice during the shoot. Speaking of hanging, the battery doesn't fit behind the unit, so you'll have to hang it on your belt or tripod while shooting.

The more expensive Litepanels LP Micro Compact LED ($259) runs on easily swappable AA batteries that fit behind the unit, which is more self-contained. Like the Bescor, the native light temperature is around 5600 K which approximates daylight, and the unit includes a 3200 Tungsten converter that matches incandescent lighting, plus a 1/4 warming and diffusion filter for softening the light. You can see the dimmer knob at the top of the unit.

Besides compact operation, the Litepanels unit also includes a number of attractive options, like camcorder battery adapters, so if you have spare rechargeable camcorder batteries available, you can use these to extend lighting time. Or, you can purchase a separate power supply. There's also a separate base plate for mounting the lights on any flat surface, which could work extremely well with webcams. However, the light kit doesn't come with a protective case. This unit averaged a 4-star rating at Amazon (with 11 reviewers), and also a 4 at B&H with 177 reviews.

Speaking of cases, if you buy a light kit and microphone you're going to need one to carry everything, plus your camcorder, of course. My favorite bag vendor is unabashedly Kata, which has roots in protective products developed for the Israeli special forces. The cases are designed for durability and maximum protection, and the one that I have is nearly indestructible.

For your small camera kit, I like the Kata D-Light Capsule-181 DL Case ($69.95), which averaged a perfect five-star rating on B&H with four reviewers. For the bigger camera, I like the Kata OMB-72, which retails for $175, but can often be found on special at much lower prices. This model averaged 4.5 on B&H with 8 reviewers: neither model was reviewed on Amazon.

So, there you are. At the low end, where the kit ended up costing around $1,250, I tried to find the lowest cost option that offered solid performance and usability. If you step up to the Rode microphone and the Litepanels light kit, you're at about $1500, which should leave some spare changes for cables, connectors, and the like. At the high end, we came closer to the target, but you still should have enough left over for incidentals.

Since I haven't tested all of these products, I'd love to hear any feedback from those that have, even (gulp) if you disagree with my recommendation. So don't be shy: leave a comment and let us know what you think!

Jan Ozer's article first appeared on OnlineVideo.net

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