A Camera Kit for Web Documentaries

In Resources by Doug3 Comments

Recently, a friend asked me for some advice on the best beginner camera setup for the shooting web documentaries. Her parameters were:

Documentary/interview series. Probably be about an hour long. Uncut, raw, conversational. Distribution via the web.

Initially, she was looking at the Canon Rebel T3i. Her logic was sound as the video DSLR can, with the right accessories, be a solid video capture platform, with the added bonus of making an excellent still camera. However, her planned shooting style, particularly the planned shot length, makes the video DSLR a bad fit.

With that in mind, let’s examine the pros and cons of DSLRs as a video platform.

  • Interchangeable Lenses
  • Greater Depth-of-Field
  • More Cinematic Footage
  • Greater Control of Image
  • Better End Product, Visually
  • Doubles as a Still Camera
  • Unusable Native Audio
  • 12-30 minute max record length
  • Substandard HDMI out
  • Some post/edit workflow quirks
  • Hidden Costs of Accessories
  • Steep Learning Curve
  • For the experienced shooter, all of the pros of the DSLR can allow one to create a far richer, more cinematic image than any consumer camcorder. Full-frame DSLRs produce better results than many professional camcorders. So, there are distinct advantages to going the DSLR route. However, for my friend, the cons very much outweigh the pros. Let’s explore each con in greater detail.

    1. Unusable Native Audio: Most, if not all, video DSLRs come with an onboard microphone. The problem is, it isn’t very good. The DSLR form factor doesn’t allow a lot of room for quality microphones. In addition, there is no cheap way to plug in a professional microphone for better results.

      The least expensive solution is something like the Sennheiser MKE 400 or Rode VideoMic, both of which get’s the job done, but are still far from ideal. Tools like the BeachTek DXA-SLR or the JuicedLink CX231 allow one to add pro mics to your DSLR, but they also add a considerable amount of bulk.

      Ultimately, the best solution is to use an external recorder like the Zoom H4N to capture quality audio from professional mics. In this case, the onboard audio of the DSLR becomes very useful as “sync audio” which will allow easier syncing of the high-quality audio in post. With software like PluralEyes, this sync process can be almost automatic.

    2. 12-30 minute max record length: Video DSLRs have limited capture lengths; from 10 minutes for the first model to 30 minutes in the new Canon 5D MKIII. There are lots of opinions as to why this limitation exists, but there is no firm answer. Regardless, the shot length limitation is a real problem for long form interviews and or event recording. Essentially, it requires multiple cameras to capture the entire event and that means more work in post.

      If one is not capturing one long take, this limitation has dramatically less impact. Most shots can be broken up into smaller takes and the shooter, whether a documentary or narrative filmmaker, can reassemble the disparate cuts in post, usually to greater effect than on long, uninterrupted shot.

    3. Substandard HDMI out: One possible work round for the the short shot length is external capture. Most DSLRs have an HDMI out, which means one could pass the video signal out the camera to and external capture device like the Atomos Samurai or the Sound Devices Pix 240.

      There is only one problem, this HDMI out is only intended for external monitoring and the HDMI signal is usually not full HD and is often compressed, which produces substandard footage, at least from the professional point of view.

    4. Some post/edit workflow quirks: From rolling shutter, to non-standard capture codecs, shooting with a DSLR introduces some extra steps in post-production (post). In most cases, this might be as simple as a format conversion with something like Magic Bullet Grinder. Still this is an extra step and, depending on one’s shooting ratio, it may add considerable time and cost to post. Newer non-linear editors (NLE) like Final Cut Pro X and Adobe Premiere CS6 have much better native support for DSLR footage, so this concern is diminishing, but not yet entirely gone.
    5. Steep Learning Curve: Learning how to produce, shoot and edit video can be daunting in and of itself. The complexity added by shooting with a DSLR will only add to that learning curve, which may ultimately dissuade the new shooter from … shooting. The less one shoots, the less one learns.
    6. Hidden Costs of Accessories: Between lenses, additional software and external audio capture, the things you need to create and work with HDSLR footage can add up over time. For the new shooter, that can quickly mean a blown budget, which may erase many of the DSLR’s inherent advantages.

      In this case, that money would have better spent on a higher-end camcorder, like the Sony EX-1 or the Canon XF 105, which would produce solve all many of the DSLR’s problems while providing a suitable image, while offering both a simplified post process and a greatly reduced learning curve.

    If not a DSLR, then what?

    There are so many options, it really depends on one’s price point. Given what my friend’s needs, I’ll provide the best solution for her. But, if you are looking for something more, please drop me a line and I’ll be happy to help you find the best solution for you.

    With that said, here is the kit I recommend for the budget-conscious, first-time shooter.

    Canon VIXIA HF M50 Camcorder $585
    Deluxe All In Lens Kit For CANON VIXIA HF M50 $50
    BP-727 Battery Packs (2) + Rapid Travel Charger $35
    Sennheiser MKE 400 Shotgun Microphone $200
    SanDisk Extreme 32GB SD Cards (2) $75
    Pelican 0915 Black SD Memory Card Case $20
    Manfrotto 785 Modo Maxi Photo Video Grip Head Tripod $50
    Manfrotto 709B Digi Table Top Tripod with Ball Head $45
    Kata KT DL-DR-467 Digital Rucksack $110
    TOTAL $1170

    The Canon HF M50 is a solid little camera that can be tucked into most backpacks or messenger bags, so it is easy to carry and easy to shoot with. At work, we are now migrating to this camera from it’s predecessor, the HF S21, for some of our clients with tighter budgets. In addition to being a great little camcorder, the M50 also takes stills. The lens kit adds 2.2x Telephoto Lens and a .43x Wide Angle Lens to the camera, as well as some filters. So, it makes the camera itself a little more versatile. The battery packs and charger make sure you always have enough juice to get the shot, even if you don’t have an electrical outlet nearby. Keep them charged at all times.

    The Sennheiser MKE 400 was mentioned earlier as a solution of unacceptable DSLR audio. While the on-camera mics of the M50 are better than that of the average DSLR, I recommend adding the MKE 400 or the Rode VideoMic (a bit pricier) to help you capture better audio at a distance. Camcorder mics are designed to capture decent audio at close range. If you need to be farther away, either of these shotgun mics will help you close the gap.

    I use Sandisk memory cards almost exclusively. You can get cheaper brands that work just fine, but I find that SanDisk just works. I’ve never had one fail. Get at least two, four if you can swing it, as you never want to miss a great shot because you ran out of storage space and HD footage eats up memory. Put them in the Pelican Case, you won’t regret it.

    The Manfrotto tripods offer a lot of versatility. The 785 will handle most situations and fits in your most backpacks or carry ons. The 709B is great for putting a small camera like the M50 right on the table or podium with your subject to get a more intimate shot with an interesting angle. And, it is tiny.

    The Kata bag may seem a little pricey, but the thing is a lightweight, versatile tank. Among our crew, they are practically standard issue. The only drawback is the Manfrotto 785 Tripod won’t fit inside, but it will strap on to the outside. And, it will carry your 17″ laptop as well.

    This kit provides the following advantages for the first time shooter. Will the footage be suitable for the Sundance Film Festival? Probably not. But if your target audience is on the web, you would be hard-pressed to find a better value.

    • Relatively low cost of entry.
    • High quality HD video for the web
    • Native digital capture, with expandable storage.
    • Low cost lens adapters for broader
    • Solid performance for documentary footage
    • Great “bang for your buck”

    If you’ve found this post useful or have any questions, please take a moment to post a comment below.


    1. Hey Doug,
      I first want to thank you for this post. It is exactly the type of breakdown I’ve been looking for.

      I was wondering if I could get your thoughts on my situation.

      I am a complete newbie with film/audio, though as a software/web programmer I am quick with new technologies.

      I am looking to shoot some documentaries for the web, like a video blog ( outdoor panoramics, low/slower action scenes, and probably a fair bit of sit-down interviews at cafes). I want something that is very portable and would be easy to pull out and quickly shoot with without a bunch of setup. Your recommendation here probably sounds like the best bet for me, though I have to admit I’ve been incredibly drawn towards the t3i and especially the GH2.

      My worry is the GH2 would be much more focused on narrative films with planned shots, etc, and not good for my spontaneous shooting plans. I do however want to buy something that will deliver a solid quality and allow me to learn and push my skills as I progress through better understandings of lenses/lighting/scene setup/manual control.

      My gut instinct tells me the HM50 is the way to go. My ambitious, perfectionist, self says GH2.

      What do you think for a complete beginner looking for ease of use and entry, but solid HD results for a video documentary blog.

      Thanks a ton and I apologize for a bit of rambling.

    2. Author


      I am glad you found the post helpful. Essentially, the answer comes down to budget. If you have the budget, a video-capable DSLR, like Canon T4i or Panasonic GH2, can definitely work, provided you also have the budget to compensate for their short comings, in this case sub-standard audio capture.

      There is a maxim in video production … “90% of good video is good audio.” You can have a beautiful image, but if the audio is terrible, no one will watch it.

      So, if you go the DSLR route, you’ll want to by an external shotgun mic (Senheisser or Rode), XLR interface (BeachTek or JuicedLink) and/or an external recorder (Zoom H4N) with syncing software (Plural Eyes). If you go the Canon route, they’ve recently released a 40mm “pancake” lens which is specifically intended for shooting smooth, quiet video on a Canon DSLR. At $150, the 40mm is low profile, so it makes your DSLR very compact.

      The other thing to be aware of is shot length. DSLRs are not intended for recording long-format interviews or presentation. So, you’ll need to manage that as you plan your shoot.

      As you plan to push your skills, a DSLR will let you do that as you skills & budget increase. So, the DSLR has a better long-run upside for the ambitious shooter.

      I hope that helps.


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