Good quality video


The Red One from Red

This article is a follow-up to my post, “Good quality audio”. Here, I’ll give a few tips aimed at new-comers to recording video for the web and how to get the best results. I’m assuming that, as a new-comer, you have very basic, low-budget equipment or are about to buy or borrow some. Obviously, something like the industry standard “Red One” from Red, starting at $17,500 for the body alone (not including lenses or recorder, although I’m sure they’ll give you a free t-shirt), is out of our budget.

A little personal video history

My introduction to recording video came when I was very young and my American uncle came to visit us in the UK. He brought an enormous VHS camcorder with him to record his visit for posterity and gave me, aged 13, the responsibility of being his documentary cameraman. Later, I went on to use the (enormous) old industry standard U-Matic video tape recorders, had some basic video recording and production training at art college, and eventually moved on to digital video with 8mm MiniDV recorders. The jump in picture quality from VHS, Betamax and U-Matic to MiniDV was astonishing. I’ve tried other formats since but, for the moment at least, I find that this format offers the best results for the money.

Why do I recommend MiniDV?

It’s an old format and surely the newer SD-Card or HDD video cameras are better, aren’t they?

In my opinion, it depends what you mean by “better”. The newer consumer camcorders are cheaper (sometimes), smaller, lighter, more robust and often, you can take video shot on them and upload it directly onto video sharing websites like YouTube, with no editing or conversion software necessary. It’s wonderful to be able to do that. The downside is that these camcorders use an extremely high rate of digital video compression so while the footage shot on them looks good in its original format, once you start to edit it and, necessarily, recode it, it degrades rapidly. The end result is often unwatchable. MiniDV, on the other hand, uses a low rate of compression (MPEG-2) so that it’s possible to do more editing, recoding and adding special effects and still maintain reasonably good picture quality. Apparently, the BBC still use MiniDV for a lot of its mobile “rough ‘n’ ready” video.  Be warned though, when you come to download video footage onto your computer, you’ll quickly fill up a good few Gigabytes of hard-disk space. You may want to consider installing bigger, faster (7,200 RPM minimum) hard-discs on your computer if you intend to do a lot of editing.

Some of the new hard disk drive and SD card camcorders now include higher bit rate recording in the newer H.264/AVC (Advanced Video Compression) format currently being promoted by Sony and Panasonic. It promises double the rate of compression for the same olour depth and image quality. Although it’s popularly being hailed as the new de facto CODEC, most professionals are still using the older MPEG-2 CODEC simply because it’s more mature, there’s much better software support for it and it takes much less time to render edited videos into a final master copy. For example, most of the Blue-Ray disc movies available today are MPEG-2 not H.264/AVC.

What should I look for in a video camera?

A budget 3CCD MiniDV camcorder
A budget 3CCD MiniDV camcorder

Since we’re on a low budget, my advice is to get the best MiniDV camcorder you can. Something that surprises me about a lot of consumer camcorders, even quite expensive ones, is the lack of microphone inputs so that you can use external microphones to record sound. Some consumer camcorders come with the label “semi-pro” and they usually have microphone inputs and sometimes a “shoe” on which you can attach specialised microphones. Sound is one of the most important parts of the video recording as it contains the speech and the sounds that objects might make. It often carries the “story” of a presentation. Of course, it is possible to record audio separately and manually synchronise the sound and video streams while editing but this is a time consuming extra task that you could really do without. Ideally, you want a stereo input jack so that you can use a stereo microphone or a pair of mono mics. See my article on good quality audio for more details about this.

Another important point with video cameras is the quality of the CCD (charged coupled device) chip. This is the light sensor that converts the light coming in through the camera lens into a digital video image. Needless to say, if the CCD chip is poor quality or has low light sensitivity, no amount of extra features or professional editing software can give you good quality video. The best quality chips use 3 CCD devices which give the best image quality and the best sensitivity, which is useful for shooting in low light conditions such as indoors.

You can find a number of suitable MiniDV 3CCD camcorders of various ages, conditions and prices on shopping sites such as Amazon and eBay. I’ve seen good cameras on eBay for as little as £40.

Update (19th July 2009): Now it looks like HDD camcorders are coming onto the second-hand market at an affordable price. I looked on and found quite a few good cameras selling at around the £200 (€230 or $330 US) price range. Before buying any camera, check with the camera manufacturer about what video compression settings the camera has and if they’re suitable for high-quality editing.

Don’t forget to budget for lighting

Even the best of video cameras can only work with the light you give them. Low light conditions give you poor, flat, grainy image quality so it’s well worth investing in at least three good lights. I say three lights because subjects lit with only one or two lights tend to look rather flat and lifeless. Most people who work in photography understand the three-point lighting system. It’s effective and with a little experimentation and trial and error, you can bring your video footage (and studio photography) to life. The principles are simple. You have three lights: a fill light, a key light and a back light. This arrangement ensures that every area of the subject is lit and not in shadow and also gives a 3D effect, making the subject look more life-like. It’s an advantage if the lights give off a broad spectrum of light (i.e. fluorescent lamps or something similar) and even better if you can control their luminosity (i.e you can dim them). You may even want to consider setting up something similar for your webcam if you do a lot of VoIP and video conferencing.

Three-point lighting
Three-point lighting

What about video editing?

When choosing the best video editing software, I think there’s a trade-off between usability and editing features. Professional video editing software allows you to do just about anything you like with your video rushes to get some really impressive results. You usually have the option of using “keying”, also known as “green screen”, to remove the background. Even things like good-looking custom titling can only be achieved with professional software but the problem is that it’s difficult for a novice to use. If you’re new to video editing or have only ever used software packages such as Windows Movie Maker (included with Windows) or iMovie (included with most Macs), professional editing suites like Adobe Premiere Pro (Windows and Mac), Sony Vegas Pro (Windows only) or Final Cut Studio (Mac only) can be daunting and can take weeks or even months to get to grips with. Luckily, they all do consumer versions with intuitive, easy to use features that allow you to start creating your mini epics within hours, if not minutes. The trade-off is that most of the features are set up as pre-set combinations, for ease of use, and are either difficult or impossible to adjust individual feature settings in them to get the specific results you might want. If you’re technically minded and willing to spend the time and money and you want complete control over your editing features, then the pro options are the ones to go for. For fast and not bad looking results, go for the cheaper consumer options. Almost all video editing software has a convenient option for producing video for the web. Even Quicktime pro*, currently at $29.99, can convert a number of compatible formats to MP4 (H.264) for web deployment on Flash Player or the Quicktime browser plugin. By the way, I don’t recommend publishing your videos to the WMV (Windows Media Video) format used by Windows Movie Maker. It’s very difficult to deploy on the web reliably and a lot of people using Mac or Linux operating systems won’t be able to view it at all. I’ll write another article on video formats and media containers soon.

* If you have Quicktime installed on your computer, you already have Quicktime Pro. All you need to do is buy a serial key from Apple to activate the media converter functions on it.

Plan and storyboard your presentation

I think getting physically good results in video is somewhat easier than in audio recording. Most camcorders today capture pretty good quality video so I think the most important thing to concentrate on is the storyline or how you storyboard your video presentation. It’s important to establish a context before going into detail. For example, if you’re doing an interview with a representative of an organisation, start with a short clip of the outside of their headquarters or something with their logo on before showing the interview. Also, don’t forget to introduce the representative and give a little background information about them before launching into the interview questions. All this is setting the context and it makes it much easier for your audience to follow who the person is and what is going on.

Your video clips, no matter how short, should also have a beginning, middle and end. I think it’s best to think of it as taking your viewers on a journey. Whether it’s a visual journey or a spoken one, it’s still a good idea to let your audience know where they’re going to go, then where they’re going and then where they’ve been. Try to maintain a sense of continuity and a logical progression from one scene to the next.

If possible, I recommend attending some kind of introductory course to video recording and editing. An experience professional can get you started, give you hands-on practice, teach you how to storyboard and edit, teach you the finer points of video technique, answer your questions and guide you toward producing some high quality and captivating videos.