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Thursday, April 11, 2024

The Gear and Tips You Need to Make Studio-Grade Home Videos

Just using The best video gear isn't enough to catapult you into TikTok's hall of fame. You'll also need a good idea for a video. (Really.) But if you have something in mind, you're more than halfway there. You just need some good gear for recording your video.

These days, a smartphone will do the job well enough. But having great gear makes creating a professional-looking video much easier. I have some general tips and buying advice to help you get started. I've spent more than a year testing photo- and video-making equipment (and making our own videos), using everything from tripods to lights to microphones. I've listed some of my favorites below, along with some picks from my colleagues here at WIRED.

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Consider Your Camera

It all starts with the camera. Thankfully, you don't need to spend thousands of dollars to get great video quality. But your choice of camera should depend on the kind of work you want to do. Are you making TikTok videos? Want to make travel videos for when we can all zip freely around the globe again? Or are you filming something more professional?

For casual shoots: Start with your smartphone. If you have a model that launched in the past two or three years, you're in a pretty good place. Our favorite phones for video recording are recent Samsung and iPhone models, but the previous generation of devices are also good choices.

For on-the-go videos: The GoPro Hero9 Black (9/10, WIRED Recommends) is our top pick for shooting sporty action videos or other outdoor adventures. It's rugged, lightweight, and even has a screen on the front so you can see if your face is in the frame. Our Best Action Cameras guide has more recommendations.

For a professional camera: The Panasonic S5 is the best mirrorless camera for video. It's expensive (around $1,700 new) but it has an array of video features that set it above the competition. The Panasonic GH5 is also a good option and slightly more affordable at $1,300. We have more picks in our Best Mirrorless Cameras guide.

The camera is just one part of the story. You'll want a nice lens. For phones, even attaching third-party lenses like those from Moment (which snap into a Moment phone case) will give your footage a slicker, more professional look. We've rounded up more mobile camera accessories here.

Lenses for mirrorless cameras or DSLRs are more complex. Which lens you should use depends on what camera model you have, as lenses have mounts made for specific brands. There's no one-size-fits-all mount. You'll also want to think about what you're shooting. Trying to capture a faraway object like a bird? Get a telephoto lens. Are you mostly filming indoors where you won't have a lot of light? You'll want a fast lens, something with an f/1.8 or wider aperture (the lower the number, the more light your lens can allow in). 

Camera lenses deserve their own dedicated buying guide, but if you're going to use a lens for video, do some research and make sure the lens won't make noises when it autofocuses. Older lenses (or cheap ones) can have noisy motors that spin when the focus needs adjusting, and that could ruin your video's audio.

The Microphone

Aside from your camera, the microphone is arguably the second most important tool in your arsenal. Good-quality audio makes a lackluster video watchable, and poor audio can ruin even the most beautifully shot clip. 

Top Pick

Røde SmartLav+ Lavalier Microphone

$79 at Amazon$79 at B&H

What's great about Rode's SmartLav+ is its plug-and-play nature. I've plugged this microphone into my mirrorless camera and to my iPhone, and it worked like a charm (for professional cameras, you'll need to add this adapter). It's a lavalier mic, the kind that clips to your shirt collar to capture the sound of your voice. The quality isn't amazing, but it's a big step up over the built-in microphone on your phone. Just know that connecting it to an Android phone is tricky—it doesn't always work. And if your phone doesn't have a headphone jack, you'll need a dongle.

Upgrade Pick

Røde Wireless Mic Go

$199 at Amazon$199 at B&H

If you're willing to spend more, this wireless system is fantastic. I've been using it for all my WIRED videos. Plug the receiver into your camera's mic input or your phone's headphone jack (you will probably need a dongle), and clip the transmitter somewhere near your collarbone. Turn both on, and they should automatically pair. That's it! You can start recording with no pesky cable running between you and your recording device.

The microphone quality is excellent, but having a tiny box on your shirt can look a little awkward. I hooked up Rode's Lavalier Go ($79) to the transmitter, which I put in my pocket for a more natural look. Rode has a newer version, the Wireless Go II ($299), which includes an extra transmitter if you're making videos with a friend. 

Other Great Mics:

  • Deity V-Mic D3 Pro Shotgun Mic ($199): Standing directly in front of your camera? Then consider a shotgun mic. I like this one from Deity. You can pop it onto the shoe mount on the top of a camera, plug it in, and you're ready to go. (Yes, it plugs into phones too.) It picks up audio really well and recharges via USB-C.
  • Rode VideoMicro ($59): Trying to spend as little as possible? This shotgun mic will satisfy. It'll beat any phone's built-in mic, and it's super lightweight and compact.

The Tripod

Don't spend hundreds of dollars on a solid camera-and-mic rig and then balance the whole thing on a stack of books. A stable tripod is a smart investment. This is one area where you might want to spend more, because a good tripod will keep your equipment from crashing to the ground. 

Top Pick

iFootage Cobra 2 C150-II

$179 at Amazon$179 at B&H

I tested a slightly different version of this monopod, which is being discontinued and replaced by this newer model. This new one can extend up to 59 inches tall, a full foot more than the last version, yet it weighs the same amount. I love how compactly it packs, and you can even convert it into a mini tripod at a moment's notice if you don't need the extra height. It has three little feet that extend out at the bottom so you can use it hands-free, and the design is great for tight spaces. It usually takes me mere seconds to set it up and start shooting. And since it's made of carbon fiber, it's a lightweight travel option too. (It weighs less than 3 pounds.) 

I recommend pairing it with the company's Komodo K5 Fluid Head ($149) if you plan on panning, tilting, and capturing a lot of B-roll (more on the Komodo below).

Phone Tripod

Lume Cube Mobile Creator Stand

$60 at B&H$60 at Lume Cube

The Cobra 2 above might be a bit much if you're using a phone, so snag Lume's mobile tripod instead. It's very stable, but the best part is that the ends of the clamp double as cold shoe mounts, so you can hook up a microphone (like the Rode VideoMicro or Deity above) and a compact video light for a full on-the-go studio. My only gripe? You can't adjust the height. But it is fairly comfortable to grip and carry if you are moving around as you film. 

Upgrade Pick

Peak Design Travel Tripod (Aluminum)

$350 at Amazon$350 at B&H

This option is for when we're all going to be traveling again. If your videos aren't restricted to your home, this is one of the most compact tripods on the market that can deliver the height and stability most people need, yet can fit in the bottle pouch of your backpack. It's relatively lightweight (the pricier carbon fiber version sheds even more weight), and there's a built-in phone mount. If you want to attach a fluid head for smooth pans, you'll need this universal head adapter

Other Great Tripods:

  • Joby GorillaPod 1K ($35): You can make do with a tripod like this one from Joby if you're trying to spend as little as possible. It doesn't get very tall, but you can contort the bendy legs to keep the whole thing attached to various surfaces.
  • Benro TMA27A Series 2 Mach3 ($156): This is a traditional tripod that's weighty, sturdy, stable, and all-around reliable from a well-established brand.
  • SwitchPod Tripod ($99): I like using the SwitchPod when I'm moving around and talking to the camera. You can hold it selfie-stick style, and its curvy design keeps the camera away from you and pointed at your face. You can open the magnetic legs in one swoop to make it stand up on a table. Each leg has threads you can use to attach accessories like a video light or a mic. I also recommend grabbing the ball head mount to easily move the camera around.

The Light

Light is a crucial ingredient for making your videos look professional. Pro tip: If you think your current ambient lighting is enough, there's a good chance it isn't. Unless you're filming in your backyard in the middle of the day, your cameras will need a supplemental light source.  

Top Pick

Godox SL-60 LED Video Light

$134 at Amazon$120 at B&H

I film most of my WIRED videos in a tiny, dark bedroom. This 60-watt Godox LED has been a godsend. There's a knob on the back to tweak how bright it gets. You can also use the included remote to change the light's color temperature, making it appear more orange (warm) or more blue (cold). I paired it with this light stand ($55), which worked well for me.

You'll also want to use it with a softbox to diffuse and direct the light. You can get something as affordable as this one from Godox ($40), but it takes forever to set up and put away. I much prefer using this 48-incher from Angler ($124), which intuitively collapses like an umbrella. It takes only a minute to hook it up to the light, and when I'm done I take it off in seconds and stow it in the included bag.

A More Compact Light

Boling P1

$139 at Amazon$139 at B&H

The Godox lighting system above can be tricky to move around the home and is more suited to a fixed shooting location. If you're more often filming on the go, I like this video light from Boling. It gets remarkably bright despite the compact size, has multiple color options and effects (like a fun effect that mimics a lightning strike), and you can match the color temperature to your lighting conditions. It comes with a cold shoe mount so you can attach it to the top of your camera or other compatible gear. 

It's been my go-to mobile light for several years and has held up well. Even better, it recharges via USB-C. Just know that battery life on a mobile light like this (or the others below) isn't going to last for several hours at a time. 

Other Great Lights: 

  • Lume Cube Panel Pro ($159): This is a solid light that's similar to the Boling P1, but there's an app you can pair it with via Bluetooth to control it remotely.
  • Aputure MC ($90): This light is the Swiss Army knife of video lights. It's magnetic, so it can attach to a variety of surfaces for easy mounting. It has a dizzying number of effects and color options, and you can either recharge it via USB-C or with a regular Qi wireless charger. It's compact too! However, it won't get as bright as the Boling.
  • 12-Inch Ring Light With Tripod Stand ($37): Several members of WIRED's Gear team use these ring lights to illuminate themselves on videos. You can attach your phone in the middle of the light, which makes for a great all-in-one and affordable solution.

Other Helpful Gear

There are so many other tools I use when making videos, from external monitors to fluid heads. Here are more items you might want to check out. And if you need a way to tote your equipment around town, read our Best Camera Bags guide.

An External Monitor

Lilliput A7S Full HD Monitor

$159 at Amazon$169 at B&H

I film with my Nikon Z6, which doesn't have a display that tilts out toward the front. That makes it harder to film with when I'm in front of the lens, as I constantly have to go behind the camera to see if the framing is correct. If you have a fully articulating screen then you can skip this pick, but if not, get an external monitor like this one. (You'll need to grab batteries.) I mounted it to the top of my camera and connected it via HDMI, which allows me to see my framing and whether the focus is accurate.

A Variable Filter

Moment Variable ND Filters

$140 at Amazon$130 at Moment

When filming with a professional camera, you'll want your camera's shutter speed to stay at double the frame rate for the most natural-looking clips. So at 30 frames per second, your shutter speed should be 1/60. But what happens if you're shooting outside and the camera is receiving lots of light? Get a neutral-density filter! It screws over your lens so you can better control the amount of light your camera takes in without forcing you to change settings. I like these variable ones from Moment; rotating the filter different directions adjusts how much light is let in.  

Tip: Make sure you check the thread size for your lens when buying a filter. You can find this information on the front of a lens or on the lens cap. (If you can't find it, just look up the lens model on the web.)

A Fluid Head

iFootage Komodo K5 Fluid Head

$149 at Amazon$149 at B&H

I make videos about products, so I need to take a lot of supplementary footage of the products themselves. But just shooting an object head-on without any movement is very dull. You may as well just show a still photo! Fluid heads let you smoothly pan and tilt your camera so you can add some motion to your B-roll footage. The Komodo K5 fluid head does this really well. 

If it's too pricey, the Magnus VPH-10P Pan and Tilt Head ($45) is a cheaper alternative. Your footage won't look as smooth, but it's better than going hands-free or using the ball head mount on a tripod.

A Camera Slider

Axler Carbon Fiber Camera Slider

$140 at Amazon$140 at B&H

Once you nail down panning and tilting, you'll want to branch out. Enter: the slider. It essentially moves your camera from one end of a stationary track to the other, but quality sliders make sure this happens very, very smoothly. This one from Axler has spruced up the clips in my videos, and it's easy to use.

A Teleprompter

Glide Gear TMP100

$199 at Amazon$199 at B&H

If making up words as you sit in front of the camera isn't working for you, then try writing a script. You can use your phone or tablet and a teleprompter app to read it while your camera's rolling, but it will probably be obvious to the viewer that you're not looking directly into the lens. That can give your video a weird vibe. The best workaround is something like the Glide Gear TMP100. It mirrors the text from a tablet or smartphone and displays it on a piece of glass that sits in front of your lens. This lets you read and stare at the lens at the same time, all while keeping the scrolling text from appearing in the image. Your viewers will think you really did memorize Hamlet's soliloquy.

Handy Tips

I learned how to make videos by trial and error, by collecting feedback, and (mostly) by looking at YouTube videos in the dead of night. Seriously, there's a wealth of free tutorials and tips you can find on YouTube for almost any question you have about improving your video output. Search away. That said, here are a few parting tips I try to adhere to (and sometimes struggle with) as I film.

  • Position Your Key Light Properly: You usually don't want your key light (the main light source) to face your subject directly. Put it off-center, which means a part of your subject will be in shadow. You can use other lights to “fill” in those shadows if you like.
  • Keep an Eye on Reflections: I wear glasses, and it's easy for the key light to reflect off of them, which creates a distracting effect in the finished video. The way to handle this is by heeding the advice above, and by tweaking your light's height and angle. Run a few tests to see what position nails the fewest glares.
  • Monitor Your Focus: The last thing you want to do is film a whole video and realize your focus was completely off. External monitors or cameras with flip-out screens have features like focus peaking, which lets you easily see where your lens is focusing. If you're using autofocus, you should run a few tests to see how well it works before you use it for the first time. Your camera might have face detection or eye detection to help with autofocus too.
  • Listen to Your Audio Levels: I usually keep a pair of earbuds plugged into my camera while filming so I can listen back to my clips instantly and make sure the microphone is running and I don't sound too loud or too soft.
  • Get the Right Framing: Reviewing your footage and realizing half your head is chopped from the frame is a terrible feeling. Don't worry, it happens to the best of us! Just make sure to look at your framing before you hit record.
  • Make the Cut: If you're editing your video on a desktop PC, make sure your computer has enough brawn for the job. We have some guidance on how to upgrade your PC for video editing, even if you're on a budget.

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