Today, I’m going to answer the #1 question I get when it comes to making technical videos: “What gear do I need to make my own videos?” I’ve put together three lists based on different levels of experience and production quality. These lists cover gear only, not essentials of producing a high-quality video, so keep in mind the more high-end list won’t create better results unless you have the skills to go along. This list also assumes you’ll be shooting in an indoor space (as opposed to shooting outdoors or on location).
Before you go shopping
You need to ask one very important question before you open your wallet:
Are you planning to shoot studio VIDEOS, WEBCAST, or both?
Making studio videos means:
- More attention on you (or your props) as the presenter
- Increased importance on visual elements like lighting, scenery, and depth of field
- More eye contact expected as you present
Making webcast-style videos means:
- More attention on the content shared on screen and less on you as the presenter
- Decreased importance on lighting and scenery
- Less frequent eye contact is okay
webcast (left) vs. studio style (right)
Your choice(s) here will drive what equipment you need to buy in order to produce a high-quality video on a reasonable budget. You don’t want to overspend on lighting and camera equipment if you’re never going to be shown bigger than a 240×180 pocket in the corner. Likewise, you may not need a USB microphone if you’re going to shoot mostly studio video.
Entry Level (< $250 budget)
This list is for you if you’re just trying out technical videos, not sure you want to make a significant investment, and are willing to buy better gear later on.
Your smartphone or tablet. No, really! Virtually any smartphone made in the last three years will have a camera capable of at least 720p video. This is perfectly good as a starting point, and it costs you nothing except a grip to hold it (like this one) and a tripod to mount it on.
Unless you want to rely on natural ambient light (subject to weather and time of day), you definitely need additional light sources you can move around. Fluorescent light kits are inexpensive, easy to work with, and don’t get burning hot even after hours of use. While softboxes are great for dispersing light evenly, avoid them at this price point unless you don’t intend to take them down. Low-end softboxes are very fragile, and repeated setup and takedown will shorten their lifespan considerably. I recommend you get a light kit with umbrellas instead.
Depending on your camera, you may be able to capture audio directly using an input jack and external microphone. This is very likely the case with your smartphone or tablet. If you decide to go with the webcam instead, whatever you use to record the webcam video should accept a USB microphone.
Anything, and I mean ANYTHING is better than the on-board mic of whatever you’re filming with. This is true of even the higher-end cameras. You want people to hear you, not your surroundings. On-board mics are omnidirectional, meaning they don’t focus in on any single direction.
You can go a couple of different ways depending on how much moving around you intend to do. If you’re going to be relatively stationary, a lavalier (lapel) mic will work well, even at a longer distance from the camera. The Polsen MO-PL1 lavalier microphone can be plugged into your computer or smartphone and has a generous 12-foot cord. If you are going to be moving your arms a lot and don’t want the mic to get bumped by your shirt, a shotgun mic is the way to go — something like the Rode VideoMic Go.
Enthusiast (< $1,000 budget)
This list is for you if you are:
- Reasonably confident in your commitment to making videos
- Willing to make a significant but not semi-professional level investment in equipment, and not interested in upgrading gear for a while
As soon as you leave the entry-level space, equipment costs escalate quickly. Production quality will be easier to improve because you’ll have more control over the audio and video capture process. Your gear will likely hold up a little better too.
You can go a few different ways here, buying either a camcorder like the Canon Vixia HF 600, a compact digital camera like the Canon PowerShot ELPH 300, or a DSLR camera. The camcorder will have one big advantage over the compact digital — a rotating LCD screen. Having a LCD screen you can see while you’re in front of the camera is a big time-saver because you get instant feedback on the framing of your shot. Without one, you won’t know if the top of your head was cut off in the shot until you record and play back. Make sure you get a camera that can shoot 1080p; most cameras are capable of that these days.
If you time your purchase right, you may be able to get an even better camera like a Canon T5i DSLR for just a little bit more than a compact digital camera. If you get that chance, pounce on it. The T5i and T6i offer high quality and user-friendly operation while giving you more creative control over your video.
For this level of investment, it’s worth getting better quality lights that will last longer during operation and survive repeated setup and breakdown. You probably also want to move from umbrellas to softboxes, which distribute light more evenly and produce less edgy light than umbrellas. The more of you that needs illumination, the bigger your softbox should be. Unless you’re doing close-ups, get at least a 24″ softbox, like these softboxes & lights from Interfit.
Like the entry-level setup, your choice of microphone depends on your own movements in your videos. If you aren’t going to move around much, you can go with a lavalier like the Sony. If you plan on moving your arms a lot or can’t be wired, the Sennheiser MKE 400 is a shotgun mic you can mount directly to the top of your camera.
Semi-Professional (< $2,000 budget)
This list is for you if you want to make videos with outstanding production quality, and are willing to invest in equipment for the long haul.
You don’t need to overspend to get an outstanding camera capable of sharp, colorful video at 1080p. The Canon Rebel T6i is the latest in a long line of T_i cameras that are incredibly popular among YouTube personalities for their ease of use and beautiful images. Seriously, there are YouTube celebrities with 100k+ subscribers that swear by them and are still using models as old as the T3i. They’re that good, and they’re very affordable.
It’s worth getting a light kit that allows you more control over how much light is produced, beyond just moving them closer or farther away from you. Get fixtures that have a dimmer switch, or in the case of fluorescent lights (that can’t be dimmed), multiple switches to turn some lights in the bank off. Having more control over light output will be helpful if you’re going to be doing chromakey (blue or green screen) work. The Flolight 110HM3 kit is a good option.
At this point, you’re better off not capturing audio directly to the camera, but instead to a separate device and then synching the audio in your editing application. The tradeoffs of having to sync audio are totally worth it. A dedicated audio recorder will have more options than your camera for adjusting the sound as it comes in. Higher-end microphones use something called phantom power, which simply means the recording device will supply the power to the mic (just like a USB device pulls power from the computer it’s plugged into). They also use XLR cables: thicker cables that are resistant to electrical interference. DSLR cameras don’t accept XLR inputs (roughly the size of a penny — too big) and even if they did, the input jack wouldn’t have enough juice to supply phantom power. Plus, you can have your audio recorder much closer to you than the camera, so your lavalier cord doesn’t have to reach all the way back to your camera.
With all this in mind, your best bet is to go for a portable audio recorder that accepts XLR inputs, like the Zoom H4n or Tascam DR-60D mkII.
With XLR inputs, you can go with a lavalier microphone, or with a shotgun mic mounted on a boom pole. With a lavalier, you don’t have to worry about the mic being in the shot because it’s perfectly normal to have it visible. With a boom-mounted shotgun mic, you can get it just outside the frame and still pick up great sound while having a little more freedom of movement than you get with a lavalier. Much more so than with the entry-level and enthusiast gear, the audio you capture will be crisp and clear. For a lavalier mic, a good option is the Sony ECM-44B. I used a shotgun mic, the Sennheiser MKE 600 (connected to the Tascam DR-60D) for my T-SQL Level Up videos and I love it.
Webcaster (< $500 budget)
If you prefer to make videos where you’re only a small part of the picture, you can get by with a smaller budget, especially for video. Proper lighting and clean audio are still important.
Go with the Logitech C930 webcam, especially if you’re on a Mac. The C920 has a nice picture but the software is only officially offered for PCs, not Macs. Both the C920 and C930 are 1080p capable.
Like the entry-level setup, a simple pair of lights and umbrellas will do the trick. Softboxes can be a little intense if you’re sitting at a desk and have them aimed right at you.
Whatever software you’re using to capture video and screen sharing will also capture audio. No need to buy a standalone device unless you choose to get a mic with an XLR connection.
The Blue Yeti is has excellent sound, provided you don’t aim it across a room. It’s wonderful for desktop recording from either mounted on the included base or hanging from a boom arm and shock mount. It connects using a USB cable, so no special connection is necessary.
What about software?
If you’re planning on doing any screen sharing, whether it’s flipping through PowerPoint slides or running a demo in a command prompt, you need something to record what’s happening on your desktop. The easiest option here is to get an application like Camtasia or Screenflow. Both have free trials, so test them out and see which one works for you. For what it’s worth, QuickTime has the ability to record desktop activity but from there, you still have to pull it into an editing app. Camtasia and Screenflow allow you to both capture and edit in the same app.
If you’re not doing any screen capture, you can go with the built-in applications for your operating system — either Windows Movie Maker or iMovie. Both are capable (though their features are limited) and easy to get the hang of. If you’re ready for a slight step up without going full-on pro with editing software, try Adobe Premiere Elements. It’s very affordable ($100 or less) and has a lot of the features you need without the complexity of Premiere Pro.
For more advanced users, Adobe Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro (Mac OS only) offer a lot more power and flexibility, but they come at the cost of a much steeper learning curve. I wouldn’t recommend starting with them unless you’re seriously committed to spending the next several years learning the application as you go.
What about 4K?
It’s easy to get excited about making ultra-sharp 4K videos, but I’m here to tell you there’s a lot that needs to happen before you think about investing in a 4K camera. Before getting a camera, you need to:
- Decide that making videos is something you want to commit to.
- Learn basic lighting and sound skills
- Learn basic camera work
- Refine your personal style and screen presence
- Refine your lighting and sound skills
- Refine your camera skills
- Upgrade lighting and sound equipment if you have entry-level gear
Plan on these skills taking at least a year, maybe two. The good news is by then, more people will have 4K-ready monitors. And you will have learned enough about video production to make a well-informed decision about which 4K camera is right for you.
No matter where you go, there you are
It’s easy to get carried away with buying video gear. Remember why you’re doing this — to share a message with your viewers. If you focus on great gear but don’t work on your content or delivery, you’ll be wasting your time and money. Don’t massively over-buy; get the gear you need for what you can do today and tomorrow. When your video-making skills have sharpened and it’s truly the gear that’s holding you back, you’ll know precisely what to shop for, and you’ll have some idea if your videos will support a higher budget.