You can use any of a vast range of devices to make YouTube videos. A laptop with a built-in webcam is probably the easiest option, but the obvious alternative is a smartphone. Most digital cameras can now shoot video as well
The fact that so many people have the equipment must be partly responsible for the huge number of videos uploaded to YouTube – 300 hours-worth per minute.
Watch a few and you’ll notice that the quality ranges from execrable to professional. However, poor videos can’t always be blamed on poor equipment. In fact, professional video makers can produce good videos with indifferent kit, while beginners can produce mediocre results even with the best equipment.
Doing it right
Good YouTubers pay attention to things like image stability, lighting, picture composition and sound quality. They start by mounting the smartphone or camera on a tripod, because a stable image looks better than one created with an unsteady handheld camera.
They also make sure that their subject – especially if it’s just one person speaking to camera – is well lit. Digital cameras produce good results when there’s plenty of light: your sunny holiday snaps probably look great. They struggle in low light conditions, often producing images that look grainy due to digital “noise”. They also struggle with high-contrast lighting, though experts can use manual controls to exploit that.
If you’re a beginner, the best free option is a well-lit, white-walled room, but try to declutter the background. Putting a desk lamp above and behind the camera is better than nothing. If the result looks harsh, put some greaseproof paper or tissue paper in front to soften the light. (Keep paper well away from incandescent bulbs: they get hot.)
Neewer makes a range of dimmable, battery-powered LED light arrays that you can fit into a camera hot-shoe or mount on a tripod. They’re cheap – they start at around £20 to £30 – and work well, but there are several alternatives. (Batteries are usually not included: buy rechargeables.)
Serious YouTubers often work hard to capture good quality sound, and high-end microphones like the Rode NT1-A and Heil PR40 are often conspicuous. However, even a cheap lapel mic like the Boya BY-M1 (£14.99) will produce better results than a built-in mic, partly because it’s much closer to your mouth. Alternatives include gaming headsets and some earbuds, if you don’t mind wearing them.
You can also use a camera, make a separate digital recording, and combine the sound and visuals later. Most video editing programs, including Windows Movie Maker, can do this.
Use what you have
Rather than buying a new camera, get your son to experiment with devices that you already own. Any laptop with a built-in HD webcam – one that shoots 720p video – should be good enough to start with. If it doesn’t produce good results even in decent lighting (some of them don’t), you can buy an external USB webcam. If it’s the sound that’s the problem, try an external microphone such as the BM-800 (£17.99) or Blue Microphones’ Snowball iCE (£48.98).
When buying a webcam, look for Full HD resolution – one that shoots 1080p video. The Logitech C920 HD Pro is popular with YouTubers, and reasonably priced at £57.98. There are cheaper alternatives, such as the Papalook PA452 (£19.99). The Logitech C525 (£30.79 or £44.99) would also work well, though it only does 720p video.
Most smartphones can do the job, too, especially if you can add an external microphone. The smartphone should be mounted on a small tripod, such as the Everesta Flexible Octopus (£11.99), for stability. Amazon has lots of alternatives. Either way, it must be horizontal. On YouTube, vertical videos are an abomination.
Digital cameras generally produce better-looking results, and from a photographic point of view, they are more versatile than smartphones.
They have three drawbacks. First, they’re relatively – and sometimes absolutely – expensive. Second, not many have microphone sockets, so you may have to record sound separately. Third, you can’t see yourself talking, unless you get one with a hinged screen that flips up or swivels around to face the front.
I asked Gordon Laing, of CameraLabs fame, for advice. I’d just watched a YouTube review that he did with Doug Kaye, a professional photographer who uses a top-level system. Gordon said that, for his end, he’d used the webcam in his laptop, with the mic built into his earphones. It’s good, but the video shows the difference in quality between the two approaches.
Unfortunately, I can’t find any cheap digital cameras with microphone sockets and articulating screens. The old Nikon Coolpix P7800 looks ideal if you can find one second hand. I picked up an original Canon EOS M mirrorless when Argos was clearing them out for £200, but it doesn’t have an articulating screen.
The GoPro Hero 2 also had a microphone socket, and you can add an external mic to some of the Hero 4 cameras. This should appeal to YouTubers who make action videos, but it’s not the best thing for talking heads.
Asked for a good compact, Gordon suggested the Canon PowerShot G7 X, which you can find discounted to £379 now the Mark II version is out. At that price, you might as well get a DSLR that shoots professional-standard 1080p YouTube video. There’s a huge selection with mic inputs.
Gordon adds: “For me the holy trinity for high quality one-man vlogging are a screen that can flip to face you, an input for an external microphone and a decent-sized sensor that can smoothly track and refocus on a face. Most modern cameras have two out of three, but surprisingly few complete the hat trick. Canon’s triple-digit EOS DSLRs manage it, but there’s no need to go for the latest 750D or 760D: the earlier 700D and even 650D have everything you need.”
Start with a laptop or a smartphone. If it’s a laptop, try the built-in webcam, and upgrade to an external webcam such as the Logitech C920 HD Pro when you need it. If it’s a smartphone, mount it on a tripod and look for a good external microphone. In both cases, think about buying an external light such as one of the Neewer models.
In theory, you could buy a digital camera, but affordable ones don’t have microphone sockets. However, you might be able to find a cheap second hand Nikon Coolpix P7800 or Canon EOS M for use with an external microphone.
A DSLR can provide professional results, but it may be several years before it’s worth buying this sort of kit. Happily, successful YouTubers can earn enough to pay for it themselves.
Have you got another question for Jack? Email it to Ask.Jack@theguardian.com
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