Film Like a Professional on an Amateur's Budget

by Jeff Grundy

Professional-grade equipment used by big movie studios to produce commercial films often costs tens of thousands of dollars – or more. When shooting mega-budget movies for the big screen, most directors and producers demand only the latest (and often most expensive) cameras, microphones and other video equipment to ensure that their footage is crisp and delivers the desired effects. When a film has a multi-million dollar budget, you'd expect nothing less. On the other hand, if you are an amateur video enthusiast or your budget is smaller, you might think that you cannot create high-quality films with budget-priced equipment. While it’s true that you usually get what you pay for with video equipment, as is true of everything else in life, it actually is possible to film like a professional on a limited budget using modern digital equipment and software tools.

Choosing a Camera

Modern consumer video cameras, or “handycams,” are great for recording home movies or filming activities and events that you want to immortalize on video. The main reason that consumer cameras often don’t work well for creating professional-grade videos is the small CCD or CMOS sensor installed on most of these cameras. Although modern sensors are being produced with improved sensitivity, their relatively small size tends to create video that is somewhat grainy when compared to professional video cameras. In addition, many consumer cameras adjust light temperature, focus and white balance automatically, which is great for the novice camera user but it delivers less than par results for the professional. Therefore, select a camera with at least two 1/3-inch sensors (1/2-inch is even better) and that offers manual as well as automatic adjustment for focus and white balance. Ideally, the camera will also support true HD formats such as AVCHD FX (24 Mbps and 1920-by-1080 resolution). High-end cameras of this type will set you back $10,000 or more, but more moderately priced cameras in the $1,500 to $2,500 range – such as the Sony HDR-FX7, Panasonic AGHMC150 and JVC ProHD GY-HMZ1U – provide excellent video quality if you are on a budget.

Additional Microphones

Most high-quality movie cameras come with a good extended microphone for recording unidirectional sound in the field of vision of the lens. Recommended budget cameras such as those listed above also have extra inputs for connecting additional microphones to record sounds out of view of the lens. Various microphones are suitable for creating your movies, but you should always choose a durable microphone with an XLR connector instead of one with a mini-3.5 mm connector type. You can purchase good quality unidirectional or omnidirectional mikes for less than $100 online through sites such as or If you are recording a music video, however, invest in a large-diaphragm condenser microphone such as those made by AKG, ART and Shure. These microphones usually run between $200 and $500, but the recording quality for music and subtle ambient sound is significantly better in most cases than cheaper models.

Editing Software

Regardless of the other equipment you use when shooting video, the one product you should never skimp on is the editing software. Many free and low-cost applications are available for making quick video mashups and picture videos, but these programs just do not offer the features that a professional or power user needs. When it comes to editing software for enthusiasts and professionals, only a few choices warrant consideration. Apple’s Final Cut Pro is the choice for many Mac users and sells for about $300 on the website. Adobe produces a Windows and Mac version of Adobe Premiere, which is highly rated by professional videographers; the stand-alone version of Adobe Premiere Pro runs about $500. If you are a Windows PC user and your primary focus is creating high-quality DVDs for personal use, Sony Vegas Pro is an excellent application, although it lacks support for some ultra-high-end video formats such as AVCHD FX. Sony Vegas Pro will set you back around $380. Any of these applications have transitions, lighting filters and plugins that allow you to create high-quality footage from your raw video.

Storage and Compression

Most high-end video cameras have slots for USB, SD, microSD and other flash media types; however, high-end cameras normally use integrated hard drives as the primary storage device for raw video. Whenever possible, you should shoot your video directly to the camera’s hard drive and avoid saving it on flash media. Video cameras typically compress video a bit when saving it to flash media, whereas most cameras save raw and uncompressed video when writing to an internal hard drive. This provides the highest quality video but may limit the running time available due hard drive size constraints. One solution is to purchase a couple of high-quality USB external hard drives to free up space on the camera’s internal disk drive. Buy the largest capacity hard drive available from quality manufacturers such as Maxtor, Seagate or Western Digital. All three manufacturers produce external USB hard drives with 1 terabyte of storage for about $120; 2TB drives are even better deals at around $180. Shoot shorter clips if possible and then transfer them to the external drive. Your footage will be much less grainy and will have greater detail, delivering all of the resolution the camera is capable of producing.

Essential Accessories

While your camera, sound recording equipment and editing software are the core components that you’ll need to create high-quality videos, these only form a good base. To create truly professional video, you must have at least a few essential accessories. First is some sort of tripod or other stabilization device for your camera. A basic tripod is fine for many shooting scenarios, and you should be able to find a decent one for less than $200. If you need completely still shooting stabilization while recording moving shots, consider purchasing a Zacuto Target Shooter that does wonders to prevent shaking during filming. The Target Shooter costs about $475 at many online shops. You should also consider investing in a simple card stand or lens loop for your white-balance card, so that it is always available right next to you and your camera. Simple stands and loops should not cost you more than $50.

Realistic Budgeting

Shooting high-quality video requires high-quality equipment, which means it’s not reasonable to expect professional results with a $200 handycam and free software. Still, that does not mean you have to purchase a $20,000 video camera or $5,000 microphone set. If you set a realistic budget of between $3,500 and $5,000, you should be able to purchase the hardware and software you need to create your first professional film. Of course, talent and other intangibles will add to the cost of your project. With some creativity and an understanding of how to make the most of your equipment, you can create cinema-quality video for a lot less than you might think.

About the Author

Jeff Grundy has been writing computer-related articles and tutorials since 1995. Since that time, Grundy has written many guides to using various applications that are published on numerous how-to and tutorial sites. Born and raised in South Georgia, Grundy holds a Master of Science degree in mathematics from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Photo Credits

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