Make your video better, without breaking the bank!

Video doesn't have to cost a fortune to make. Let's find room to improve.

5K Flares...
5K Flares... Courtesy of Rampant Design Tools

Shooting video is fun and rewarding, and completing small projects can be a real joy. Historically, this hasn't been the cheapest hobby around, and in some cases, it still isn't, but there are some good options these days for making decent looking - and sounding - video without breaking the bank.

So let's start by looking at the elements that combine to make a video watchable. To start, the visuals have to be great! This means a bright, clear, stable image. Audio needs to be good as well. This means having a strong, clear audio signal.

So, that's it. Good videos need good audio and video. Sounds simple enough, right? Every camera on the planet boasts about having great video, and many of them boast great audio as well.

Unfortunately, the reality is that many cameras can't deliver on the promise of great audio and video straight out of the box. You can buy a Panasonic GH4 or a Canon 5D Mark IV and shoot bad video. Heck, you can buy an RED WEAPON 8K and Zeiss Master Primes and still shoot bad video. It's just like the world's best nail gun building a rickety house. The tools of the trade are just that: tools.

The truth is, great video production is a combination of a handful of elements to create the best possible outcome from the equipment available.

So where do we find improvements?

Let's start with visuals. Getting a great image starts with the camera and works it's way out. The first thing to do when shopping for cameras, or examining your existing ones, is to look for a decent image sensor. If you're using a DSLR or mirrorless camera, not only should your camera have a high pixel count, but the size of the sensor itself makes a huge difference. The bigger the sensor, the bigger the pixels. With camcorders you'll see terms like Super 35, 3-chip 1/3" CMOS sensor, Micro 4/3 or APS-C. Do a bit of research as to which sensor size will give you the most bang for your buck. These days, however, camera tech is so good that it's tough to go too far wrong. Just opt for the largest sensor you can afford.

Aside from sensors, some cameras come with special features that will greatly enhance your shooting experience and save you money elsewhere. If you are using a large format pro camcorder with optical image stabilization, you may be able to get away with shooting your video handheld with great results. Check the spec sheets when shopping for cameras, and then ask to try the ones that are piquing your curiosity.

Working out from the camera, we get to lenses. Many camcorders will have fixed lenses, but that doesn't mean there isn't a difference between them. Look for things like how long the optical zoom for that particular camera model. Digital zoom is fine (think zooming in on a still photo - the image just gets lower resolution the closer you get), but optical zoom is an actual lens adjustment to allow the camera to get closer to a subject. Go for the longest throw you can find!

Also, take a look at the relative aperture number on the lens. It will be represented by either a fixed f-stop number in the case of a prime lens or pricier zooms with fixed exposure, such as f2.8, or it will show a range that changes depending on how far the lens is zoomed out, such as f3.5-5.6. There is a lengthy, ultimately valuable explanation of these numbers and why you'll want to know them, but the short version is this: the lower the number, the larger aperture of the lens. This means more light is allowed through the lens, and ultimately onto the sensor. This means a number of advantages, but primarily, the lens can perform better in lower light. It also allows for far greater depth of field (subject in focus, background out of focus), but that's another article.

What else is important when shopping for lenses? If you're going for fancier lenses and wonder why similar looking lenses cost vastly different amounts, there are a variety of reasons (materials, construction, etc.), but one key reason is the number of aperture blades that exist inside of the lens. The more blades that move in and out of sync depending on your aperture choice, the rounder background out of focus light - or bokeh - appears. Cheaper lenses, such as Canon's nearly-ubiquitous (and highly capable) $100 50mm f1.8 has five aperture blades, where pricier lenses like their 100mm f2.8 has nine blades. More blades, sexier bokeh.

Ok, we've chosen our cameras and lenses. So what's next? How about lights?

When we spoke about lenses and sensors, the recurring theme was light. Light is good. Having plenty of light is great. Shooting with a proper amount of light allows us as shooters to configure our cameras, dial in a perfect shot, and capture without fear of digital noise from a lack of light and other issues that can arise without a proper lighting environment.

The first option is buying lights. There are MANY options for lights for purchase. Tungsten, halogen, fluorescent, LED, house lamps, powerful work lamps, iPhone lights, camera mounted, tripod mounted, lighting stand mounted, C-stand and clamp mounted....the list goes on and it can get confusing quickly. A great place to start is with some inexpensive one foot square LED panels. These have been dropping in price for years, and are now creeping into the sub-$300 price range. Most of these panels will have controls for changing color temperature, changing brightness, and some will have options for attaching a battery for wireless power.

If buying lighting isn't an option, consider the time of day you're going to be shooting. The first hour after dawn and before sunset is called "Magic Hour", or "Golden Hour". This is when Mother Nature's wonders come into sync and provide us with absolutely glorious natural light. Sky light is redder, warmer and less harsh, the sun isn't blaring directly into our Zacuto EVF, and cameras absolutely gobble that environment up. No lights? No problem. Just get up early to shoot, or wait until just after dinner to get out there.

We must be almost there, right? We've got a camera, a lens, and a light. What the heck more do you want from us?!?!

Stable shots. That's what. We've all seen shaky camera footage. Heck, The Blair Witch Project made a fortune off terrible footage. But for most of us, watching shaky footage isn't enjoyable. Some of us - and this is more prevalent in 360 footage - even get nauseous watching shaky footage. Our brain knows we're not moving and the footage really is, so we get sick.

So let's get stable. The obvious first choice for stability is a tripod. Available everywhere with prices ranging from almost nothing to over $18K for a loaded OConnor or Cartoni model. The beauty of the tripod is that is easy, affordable and really works well. Things to look for are quality of construction, fluidity of the head (do some test pans and tilts before you splurge) and cost. Don't buy the cheapest thing you find - buy the best feeling model in the price range.

Aside from tripods there are plenty of other stability options for video. Manfrotto makes a steering wheel shaped device called a Fig Rig, which was decent enough for filming the bulk of 8MM. There are also handheld stabilizers that will balance the camera and make movement smooth by dangling a counter weight on a pole below the camera mount.

If relative mobility are a factor, check out monopods. Light and affordable, monopods can serve two purposes - act as a stand for your camera, and, when their bottoms are off the ground they serve as a quick and easy stabilizing counter weight for your camera.

The final piece of the puzzle for great looking video is software. Using the color correcting features and visual effects of a nice piece of editing or motion graphic software can make good footage great. Starting out with an excellent image is key, but bring your footage into something like Adobe Premiere or HitFilm 4 Pro (or their excellent and free express version) and you'll be able to edit shots together seamlessly, use transitions for scenes, color correct and grade your production and output it in a variety of formats for your own use or to share on social media and video sites like YouTube.

Visual Effects packages such as Adobe After Effects or Apple Motion are wonderful tools for creating visual and special effects in videos, though if that's too advanced for just yet, check out Rampant Design Tools' collection of style effects. The took a three-time Emmy Award winning visual effect artist and had him create pre-baked visual effects. Fire, snow, dust, transitions, mattes, etc, and set them up so they can be dragged directly over your footage to add an effect. They've even created them with an alpha (transparent) channel, so if you add an effect to your clip and change the blend or transfer mode of the clip in Premiere, their effects will have a transparent background and blend with your clips. Awesome!

The last piece of the puzzle is audio. While most cameras have microphones built-in, or in the case of some prosumer cameras, there might be an external shotgun microphone, but don't put too much stock in these microphones. Most of them aren't of very high quality, and it's for good reason. Most of us are going to want to buy microphones that fill a need in our videos. If you're going to make interview videos, look at lavaliere (or lapel) microphones. If you want to shoot dialogue, check out high end shotgun and boom microphone setups.

There are countless options for audio capture, and they don't all have to feed directly into your camera. External devices can capture beautiful audio, which can be synced up with your video once you're back in Premiere or HitFilm.

If that seems like a pain, why not check out the all-in-one solution - Zoom's latest audio device is actually a small camera as well. The Zoom Q8 is a better-than-HD camera with one of Zoom's amazing audio capture devices built in. An X-Y microphone sits atop the little powerhouse and allows you to capture lossless WAV audio or lossy AAC audio.

All in all, there are plenty of great options for video production. If these options don't cut it for you, check out lens filters, and tracks and dollies, and cranes...we work and play in a fun space, so don't be limited by anything other than your own imagination. If you dream it, you can likely do it. If you can't afford it, build it.

Good luck, and happy shooting!