Creating Videos on a Small Budget: The Right Equipment for YouTube & Co.

Jan Tissler Last updated 08.07.2021
10 Min.
Low Budget Video Marketing
Last updated 08.07.2021

If you want to promote yourself or your agency on social networks today, it's near impossible to do it without videos. Many successful videos have one thing in common: they have a person facing the camera at the center, creating an emotional and personal connection with the viewer. But what equipment do you need to produce such videos? How can the videos be good quality and still low cost? 

Before we start talking about hardware and software for successful videos, I'd like to say one thing first: good ideas with the right content format and the appropriate approach are even more important than sound and image. In my experience, it's easy for someone to get lost in technical details that ultimately don't even matter. 

It goes without saying that there are differences between a microphone that costs 5 euros and one that costs 500. But if your videos are meaningless and boring, all the professional equipment in the world won't help you make a good video. That doesn't mean technology doesn't matter at all. After all, as a freelancer or agency, you want to come across as credible, professional and personable.

Authentic video marketing

Want to know how to authentically convey the messages and values of your agency, service or product? Check out our articles 10 Tips for Successful Social Video Marketing and Organic Marketing for Agencies.

The basics: what makes a successful video from a technical perspective? 

The good news is that you don't have to invest in a studio with expensive equipment (right away). When it comes to the purely technical side of good videos, there are three important points: 

The right sound

Even if it seems illogical at first, good sound quality is more important than a good picture. Bad sound makes the video exhausting to watch and listen to for your audience. The sound quality is not primarily determined by the microphone, but by the environment. In other words, if you record your videos in an almost empty room with a concrete floor and large glass surfaces, it'll be difficult to understand you. The echo produced is simply too strong.

Instead of investing in an expensive special microphone here, you should first optimize the room acoustically. Pillows, blankets, a sofa, curtains, bookshelves – all these elements reduce the echo effect because they either absorb or scatter sound.

A simple method to test the echo is to clap your hands loudly and listen to how the sound comes back as an echo. To hear the difference clearly, try this once in the living room, for example, and then in the bathroom. 

The right image composition

While sound is the most important factor, a good picture is of course essential. Typical mistakes here are:

  • The person is standing too far away from the camera or, conversely, too close to it.
  • The camera is positioned too high or too low
  • The picture is cropped incorrectly

Let's take a closer look at these points. How big you should be in the picture depends on the target platform and the video itself. If the clip is viewed on smartphones (and is therefore in portrait format, for example), then you should usually also be large in the picture. Rule of thumb: If the upper chest area can be seen in addition to the head, you've likely found a good size. 

Ideally, you should position the camera at eye level or slightly above. Filming yourself from below is usually very unflattering. As a rule of thumb, if the audience can see your ceiling, then your camera is positioned too low.

And last but not least, use the rule of thirds when composing the picture: divide the picture mentally into three horizontal and three vertical areas. Then pay attention to where your eyes are in the picture. It's ideal if they're placed on the border between the upper and middle thirds, not in the middle or even lower.

What's missing is the horizontal positioning: in the middle or rather left or right? If you want to keep it simple, position yourself in the middle of the picture. This always looks harmonious. It makes sense to be on the left or on the right of the picture if you want to insert something next to you (for example, in an explainer video).

Tip for the video background

What can be seen behind you is also important. You can position yourself in front of a wall to keep it as neutral as possible. However, you shouldn't stand or sit directly in front of it. Try and keep a little distance between you and the wall. Alternatively, find something at home or in the office that looks more interesting but that doesn't distract from you as the focus.

The right light

When it comes to lighting, the first thing is to  keep away from backlighting. Definitely avoid having a bright light source like a window behind you. Otherwise, you'll only be visible as a dark outline in the picture.

In the next step, your goal is to illuminate yourself evenly, but not flatly. In other words, a few light shadows are allowed. The greater the contrasts, however, the more dramatic the picture will look – until it gets to the point where it's distracting. What you should never do is illuminate yourself from above or below. It pretty much never looks flattering. Below I discuss the "three-point lighting" system that is common in professional circles.

Professional video illumination
You don't always need professional lighting

With this knowledge in mind, you can now watch other videos more consciously to learn from professionals. How is the content delivered? What do you like, what's less to your taste? How good is the sound? How is the lighting design? How is the camera set up? What can you "recreate" and how?

Equipment for simple videos

After these basics, we'll look at the technology that can be used to create videos well and cheaply. What exactly do you need? What do you already have?

Picture: smartphone or webcam?

Modern smartphones now have amazingly good cameras that can produce very good video quality. This is especially true with good lighting, which is largely in your own hands for your videos. A good webcam (at least Full HD) can also be enough to get you started.

Please note, however, that both smartphone cameras and webcams usually use wide-angle lenses. In everyday life, these have the advantage that you don't have to "aim" very precisely because they capture a wide field of view. On the one hand, this is convenient. On the other hand, if you want to record just yourself, a wide-angle lens isn't always ideal: 

  • You have more of your surroundings (office, living room) in the picture than you actually want.
  • This can make it difficult to find a good background that isn't distracting.
  • Wide-angle lenses also distort your face the closer you are to the lens or the further away from the center of the frame. This can look odd if you're moving around a lot while filming or if you're not pointing the camera at yourself accurately enough.

High-quality smartphones today usually have several lenses to choose from. Experiment with them! Professionals like to use lenses with a focal length of around 50 mm (in relation to the 35 mm format) for portraits as they depict faces well in a natural way. 

The camera must be positioned further away from the subject to do this, however, and will that work with a tripod. Using a tripod is generally a good idea anyway, you can also get suitable smartphone holders for tripods. You'll have your hands free and don't have to worry so much about whether you're holding the camera correctly, shaking it too much, etc.

The biggest advantage of webcams and smartphones is that they save you a lot of work. But the biggest disadvantage is also that you often can't determine exactly how you're being recorded. More on this in a moment when we talk about upgrades.

Sound: built-in microphone or clip-on microphone?

As I mentioned above, good sound is very important. Firstly, you should optimize the room you're in. Once you've done this, your smartphone or webcam's built-in microphone can be very useful for the first experiments. These microphones usually have the disadvantage that they also pick up ambient noise. Just as with the image, the same applies to the sound. The manufacturers design the devices in such a way that they forgive errors as generously as possible. It's above all a matter of convenience and not so much of maximum quality.

You can make a noticeable jump in quality with just a clip-on microphone (lavalier microphone). This is true even for inexpensive microphones. The most important thing is to find the right place to attach it to your clothing. When you've found a good position, use the same spot each time to achieve a consistently good sound. Another advantage of these microphones is that they are almost invisible and unobtrusive.

Clip-on microphones also won't cause problems with "pop sounds" such as P, T, etc. The sounds are problematic with microphones you speak directly into (such as recording or radio studios). To reduce this distortion, the microphones have a piece of cloth between the speaker and the microphone, the so-called pop shield or pop filter.

Professional microphone
Professional microphone with pop filter

Microphones like this are generally intended for pure sound recordings. Since they should be as close to you as possible, they're inevitably in the picture. But some people also like this look.

Light: window, lamp, ring light

When it comes to light, you can start by working with the light sources you already have. A window can provide a good source of light. The biggest disadvantage is that the light though a window isn't reliable. If you're recording for a long time or need several attempts, the light will change constantly on a cloudy day. You can see that in the shot afterwards. Your camera will also have to adapt to the changing light conditions, which doesn't always work well. On a bright summer day, it might also be too much of a good thing.

Alternatively – or as an additional light source – you could get yourself a floor lamp. Or use a desk lamp at the right angle. As mentioned above, don't shine the light from above or below, but rather at eye level and slightly to the side. Ring lights are very popular, especially for video meetings. Generally speaking, they produce an especially flattering and uniform light. Another advantage is that ring lights are usually very compact.

One fundamental problem is trying to mix types of light. The natural light that comes in through the window, for example, often has a different coloring than the artificial light in the room. This is referred to as light temperature. The human eye doesn't notice it that much because we automatically get used to it. A camera, however, tries to neutralize the light optically. This is the so-called white balance: a white surface should always appear white, regardless of the light on it.

Today's cameras are quite good at regulating this automatically. But even they struggle if you use very different types of light at the same time. With this in mind, you should make sure you use similar light sources or even just one (like the window mentioned earlier). With a ring light, you can sometimes adjust the light temperature manually.

Which upgrades are worthwhile?

Sooner or later, you'll want to improve your videos and wonder where your money is best invested. Here are some tips.

Picture: a "real" camera

Even though smartphones and webcams can nowadays deliver very good results, a "real" camera is still superior. When it comes to video, it's not automatically the case that a more expensive camera is better than a cheaper one. You also don't need a "full-frame camera".

Some people choose the large and expensive models from long-established brands like Nikon or Canon, for example. These remain a good choice for professional photographers, although it still depends on the application. In terms of video, however, they're sometimes inferior to more compact models such as those from Panasonic or Sony because the video function only plays a secondary role.

What some people like about the larger cameras is that, for technical reasons, they can blur the background more than smaller models. Professionals talk about depth of field here. This is an effect that can look chic and professional. But at same time, you have to pay close attention to the focus so that you yourself are sharp in the picture.

In general, cameras offer you more flexibility compared to webcams and smartphones. You can usually change the lens, manually adjust the white balance and also determine exactly where to focus and how to expose. This flexibility, in turn, means more work for you. Whether this effort is worth it depends on:

  • Your personal taste
  • The nature of the video
  • The target platforms
  • The impression you want your clips to convey (a professional scenario that can look "staged" vs. a more authentic or personal recording).

You may have different requirements for likable, funny videos on newer social media platforms than for a 30-minute explainer and image video on YouTube. You want to appear young and unconventional? In that case, your videos will have a different style than if you're trying to build trust in the B2B sector.

I don't have any recommendations for specific camera models here. The market is constantly evolving so it's a good idea to look closely at test reports. Ideally, you should already know what's important to you about the camera. You can only assess whether the tips and conclusions in a test report are relevant to you if you know what aspects you're looking for in the first place. 

Sound: a better microphone

With microphones, it's the same as in many other technology categories: the leaps in quality become smaller as the equipment gets more expensive. You soon reach the point where you can only perceive improvement using headphones and under idealized conditions. It's like the camera situation, an expensive microphone is not automatically better. You always have to know what you need for your specific use case and what suits you.

Directional microphones, for example, can provide excellent sound quality while being placed outside the visible range. You'll see them on professional film shoots for movies or TV reports. But you'll also see that there's usually one person exclusively responsible for ensuring the quality of the sound recording. This is because these directional microphones only work well when they're perfectly aligned. They're not really suitable if you're planning on making the videos by yourself. Or you need to choose a model that can forgive minor inaccuracies in positioning.

What do you want to use the microphone for? 

In all this, the "characteristic" of the microphone is very important when you're choosing one. Some models pick up sound from all directions (omnidirectional), while others are more directional (cardioid). One is not "better" than the other, there are simply different variants for different applications.

Also make sure you can connect the microphone directly to the camera. This is easier than having to record the sound separately. The quality depends on your camera. If you want to get the maximum quality, a separate recording device for the sound can be a good idea. Get advice on all these points from a specialist dealer (try to #supportyourlocals if possible). There's really a huge range of products to choose from. 

Light: three-point lighting

In professional circles, three-point lighting is usually the ultimate benchmark. It works like this:

  • The first light is in front of the person, slightly offset to the side. This is the main light and is there for the basic lighting.
  • The second light is in front of the person on the other side. It's either turned down or further away. It serves to lighten the shadows that come from the first light.
  • The third light is placed behind and above the person and illuminates the back of their head. This gives the head a slight glow that makes it stand out from the background. If you're standing directly in front of a wall, you can also illuminate it from below to achieve a similar effect.

Such a set-up is of course complex and not that easy to implement without a designated room. By the way, the lights themselves don't have to cost much at all. The most expensive element is usually the one extremely bright light source.

Cheap lamps are usually of shaky construction compared to the higher quality models and don't last very long. If you set them up once and leave them alone, you may not even notice this fact. If you want to set up and take down your lamps often, however, it's certainly worth spending a little more money.

Final thoughts on creating videos

It's said that the best camera is the one you have on you. And for creating videos, the best equipment is the one that fits you, your budget, your constraints, your personality and your ideas and plans. Don't let anyone tell you that you have to spend thousands of euros in to produce a "reasonably acceptable" quality. Because it's not true.

If you have a taste for it and want to upgrade, the possibilities are endless. But here, too, you should always start by considering what you actually need for your purposes. Feel free to share your own tips on the right equipment for video marketing in the comments.

Pictures in the article: Jason Anderson, Leo Wieling

Your questions about creating videos

What questions do you have for Jan? How do you create your videos on a small budget? We look forward to your comments. Marketing topics are your thing? Then follow RAIDBOXES on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and sign up for our newsletter.

Jan is an online journalist and digital publishing specialist with over 20 years of professional experience. Companies book him as an author, consultant or editor-in-chief. He is also the founder and one of the editors of UPLOAD magazine. Photographer Author's picture: Patrick Lux.

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