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Video Cameras for Activists

I need to get a video camera and I was wondering if there are preferred video cameras to videotape protests or actions? I need to know what I should get and where I should get it.
I have heard Sony and Panasonic are the best brands? Are there certain models that are better than others? What video camera do you use?

some thoughts 24.Jun.2007 17:51

Jim Lockhart jglockhart@comcast.net

A lot depends on what you intend to use the camcorder for and what you wish to do with the footage.

Originally the entry level, consumer products used mini-dv tapes; now the majority of consumer cameras use either a dvd recording format or record directly to a hard drive unit.

I prefer the mini-dv format, as it is more versatile and actually provides better quality video. All formats are currently being sold by most big box outlets, Circuit City, Best Buy, Fry's, etc. I really can't suggest a place to buy. Possibly smaller stores, like Home Video Library, though they may be a little higher in price due to buying in lower volume.
Obviously, the larger stores will offer a better selection as well.

***The main consideration to me is whether the camcorder has an external microphone and head phone jack. This is a must if you're going to tape interviews, especially if doing so in high noise areas, say downtown, during actions, for example.
Also, it allows you to set up your own audio if you want to tape a presentation given at any local places, like First Unitarian Church, etc.
Indoors, the on-camera mikes will pick up an echo. This echo really sounds bad if one is wanting to use the footage for a documentary or cablecasting.

This external microphone option reduces your selection greatly, as most brand names now don't offer cameras with this option. Sony is the main brand that still does. Some models of Panasonic and Canon do as well. There may be more but you'll have to check these out on a case by case basis.

To sum up, my advice is to stick with a mini-dv format camera, make sure it has an external microphone jack AND a head phone jack. Make sure it is equipped with a fire wire port as well, though I'm pretty sure all digital cameras do.
Shop around, a lot. There is a wide variance in prices out there as well as the potential for open box buys, discontinued items and sales. Electronics is a cut throat, high volume market; use this to your advantage.

Depending on what you intend to do with the camcorder, all cameras also feature the ability to take still shots. This may or may not be of interest to you, but check it out, at least to know what each camcorder offers.

I hope this helped you out. Send me an e-mail if you wish to discuss this further. Always glad to assist people getting on board with video.................

feedback 24.Jun.2007 20:25


I might recommend if your on a budget- a Cannon powershot S3IS it can record Pretty decent video at a high framerate and with a 2g card, a solid hour of it. Also it has the ability to shoot full on 6mp pictures stills (while shooting video!)

"Nightshot" 25.Jun.2007 09:39


I have to say, I've noticed that for activism (some of which happens at night) Sony's videocameras have a far more useful night mode (Night Shot) than others, which is essentially infrared night vision, sometimes with some color information added (Color night shot). That's what I've found most useful. YOu should also get something with a large optical zoom capacity (e.g. around 20x) --- digital zoom doesn't really matter much because it looks so shitty.

THat's my two cents, as much as I hate to recommend corporate wares (but then, you never said you were intending to PAY for you camera, did you?)

My suggestions, for what they're worth.... 26.Jun.2007 12:23


Well, it depends on your budget/accessibility to cameras, and how you want to use the cam. First, Jim Lockhart's suggestions are really valuable, as he has been doing this kind of work for years, and knows what he's talking about. Here is what I would add.

If you intend to get in the middle of the action, I would suggest an inexpensive (aka "arrestable") cam, because the police do target video activists. They like to "arrest" the camera, thinking it will take you out of circulation for the year or so it will take you to get it back. Ha. They also like to hit your cam, and especially to spray it with pepper spray. Show them you are unintimidated. It is possible, believe it or not, to get a decent, fairly cheap cam. The trick is to go everywhere and to try out every cam you find. Hold it, see how it feels in your hand, check the picture quality, see how it handles fine detail and light. Try the zoom -- is it smooth? You won't want to be zooming in and out freakishly, like some videographers, but you will want to have good zoom capability for when it's actually necessary. You don't need a lot of bells and whistles. (All that effects crap is really more of a nuisance than a benefit. You can, and should, add any effects you may want during the editing. Leave them alone on the cam.) However, manual focus, manual zoom, manual gain, and as many manual controls as you can get is good. Some cheap cams and almost all expensive cams have manual controls for just about everything. The camera should be sturdy and tough. One of my favorite cams (the street cam) is an old, d8 sony. People laugh when I say that, but it fits in my hand, it's just the right weight to carry all day, it's tough as nails, and it takes beautiful, rich, detailed pics. It's been drenched in rain, pepper sprayed, spit on (by a corporate media asswipe!), hit with a club, dropped, and used for self defense. And it's still working.

You have to try them all, though. Because there are plenty of sony d8s out there that take crappy, harsh, alias-y footage. Yuk. The one I use is a freak of nature. I just happened to find it somewhere, and I don't know why it takes such beautiful footage. It does, though. And the weight is important. It's heavy for its size, which makes it sturdy and steady. But it's not too heavy to carry all day. I don't care for those teeny weeny little cameras that feel like a deck of cards or something. Too hard to hold still, and not substantial enough. Oh! And something to think about for an activist cam: How does the tape pop in and out? Can you do it one-handed? Does it load from the top, as would actually make sense? Or is it one of those stupid little cams that you have to take out of your shooting hand and actually turn UPSIDE DOWN to load the damn tape??? You would not believe how frustrating that can be when you're in the middle of a police riot. ALL cameras take WAYYY too long to load and unload in my opinion, but those that load from the bottom are just stupid. ARGH.

If you have a dream budget, and you really care about quality, you can go for a much higher end model. I like the sony pd170, and the sony vx2100 is nice too. Both have good picture quality, manual controls, external mic options. The pd170 is really heavy though, and a little unbalanced. Making it a really good studio cam, but a bitch to hold all day while running along in the street. It's also way too expensive to risk out there, if you ask me. (And... at least one of them has proven pretty vulnerable to damage by a deranged cop wielding a nightstick.) But it's really good for shooting interviews and things. The vx2100 is considerably cheaper, though still much more expensive than a lot of cams. It's also a little lighter, and not so front-heavy. You can probably get a good deal on a used one. If you go this route, either way I suggest you make sure you have a little extra budget room for a good macro set, and a telephoto lens. The cheaper cams seem to have more leeway for shooting close up and far away... though there is a trade-off there, because the spendier ones have better lenses even if not as wide a range. I find the street cam is a lot better for getting tight CUs when needed than the pd170, unless there is a telephoto extension on the pd170. And I like to shoot a lot of ECUs using an inexpensive macro set as well. The macro set is cheap, the telephoto lens is NOT. You may or may not wanna consider that, again depending on how you wanna use the cam.

Someone mentioned nightshot. Yes, a cheaper cam should have nightshot and/or super nightshot. A really good sony, like the pd170, though, will not have it or need it. They shoot beautiful footage, even in really low light. (But you know, I really like the weird, creepy, streamy green nightshot images sometimes. I shoot with that a lot, and it can be really cool. Not always the best for copwatching, but really cool for emotional impact. :-)

There are some awesome 24p cams out there as well, which I would LOVE to get my hands on. They shoot really beautiful, film-like footage. But they're extremely $$$, and probably too delicate for street work. I only throw that out there because, well, they're just so pretty.

Whatever you get, make sure to get a polar filter to fit over the lens. They're cheap, and will save your lens from spitty fingers, dirt, dust, scratches, pepper spray, hits, and all manner of assaults. You can get them to fit virtually any lens, and they are essential equipment for a street videographer.

One more thing. I think Jim mentioned this. But make sure it has a firewire port, so you can capture the footage easily to a hard drive for editing, or make cam to cam copies on the run. Check for video in/out too. Some only have video out. You want to make sure it has both, for editing and outputting. External mic capability is ideal, since on-board mics usually (but not necessarily always) suck. Avoid "digital zoom" if you can. Zoom capability is good, but go for optical only. Digital zooming is a stupid feature that I just can't figure why anyone would have put it on any cam. Blek. If you get a cheap cam, chances are it has this "option." Make sure you can shut it off, so you never accidentally use it. (Try it. You'll see what I'm talking about. Blek.)

And I concur with Jim's preference for mini dv. D8 cams, if you can still get them, are cheaper, but it's going to get harder to find that format I think. Mini dv is cool, though the tapes are grossly expensive. (Cheaper if you can get them in bulk with friends.) There are some cool cams coming along that record straight to a drive, and I think that's gonna be an awesome feature at some point. For now, though, they just seem a little scary to me. Delicate, not real reliable yet, and no tape backup. Scary....

BTW, I really hate to have to recommend Sony. Sony corporation sucks. But, well, their cameras kinda rock. There's 1 panasonic 24p cam that I like, and some people swear by Canons. Canons do have detachable lenses, which is way great. And they make rockin still cams. But I find the colors kinda weird on Canon video cams (all kinda red and white and black), and they usually have aliasing issues. ew. I get footage from all kindsa cams when I am editing, and I can tell Canon footage a mile away by the weird color issues and the aliasing. Bla. So yeh, I usually use Sony cams. But if you can find a good non-sony cam, go for it. And then tell me what it is. I keep looking. Cuz again, Sony corp SUCKS.

Can't wait to see what you do with your cam. See you out there in the streets!