This blog post originally appeared on the WITNESS blog. WITNESS is an international organization that trains and equips activists and citizens worldwide to use video in their fight for human rights. Subscribe to their newsletter here.
When it comes to shooting video for human rights documentation or advocacy, you may already have your hands around the best tool: your smartphone. However, it may not be the best device for every situation or intended use of video. I spoke with our in-house video experts, Martin Tzanev and Ryan Kautz who came up with six cameras under $300 for video activists on a budget.
Martin reminds us that there is a trade-off for lower prices, saying, “This is not a list of the 6 best cameras for activists.” This is list of tools, what matters is how you use them.
It is worth noting that a cheaper option can sometimes be preferable if you are shooting in inclement weather or under threat of confiscation by authorities, which could potentially compromise your equipment (not your footage).
Video activists may find themselves in a variety of environments—and have just as varied goals. They may be a witness to police brutality amidst a distressed crowd, documenting multiple scenes during a forced eviction, or thoughtfully gathering testimony of human rights abuses. This list was compiled with these types of scenarios in mind.
1. Kodak Zi10 PlayTouch Video Camera – US $79.90
Shoot & Share or “Pocket” camera
Pros: Portable, easy to use. External microphone and headphone input, able to manually adjust audio levels, SD/SDHC card slot, in-device edit and share capabilities.
Good for: Organizing that requires videos to be shared fast (simple file structure enables fast sharing of videos online), social media campaigns, ease of use and affordability makes them ideal for distributing to a group.
Cons: Input shared between mic and headphones (can’t monitor while recording), not ruggedized, no WiFi or GPS. Additionally, the external mic input located on top of the camcorder makes it possible for the mic cable to fall in front of the lens. The smartphone-like shape of the camera can make for shaky shots. Fixed focus lens limits your zooming abilities.
Accessories: External lavalier mic, headphones, additional SD cards and batteries, external battery charger, tripod or monopod.
Martin reviewed the Zi10 (“Playtouch”) when it came out in 2011. As he sees it now, “The ‘pocket camera’ is somewhat outdated. Smartphones and point and shoot cameras have replaced them.” Nevertheless, it is quite a practical device in areas where smartphones are not the norm. Stand-out Feature: “It’s a pocket camera’ that has a mic input—qualities most low-end cameras don’t have.”
End of the Line. Kodak has discontinued Playtouch. Our partners still inquire about the Playtouch, which may speak to its effectiveness. Still available in places such as B&H and Amazon, supplies won’t last.
2. Sony HDR-AS15 – US $168
Pros: Mic input, rugged design, shock resistant, waterproof housing, compact and wearable, optical image stabilization, micro SD/SDHC card slot, replaceable battery, slow motion mode at 120 fps, WiFi capability to transfer files and control remotely with smartphone, cheaper non-wifi version available, low cost compared to GoPro.
Good for: All-weather outdoor settings, dangerous or unpredictable environments, spontaneous events, point-of-view shooting.
Cons: Fixed Focus, no zoom, only 2 megapixel, firmware may need to be upgraded, waterproof case may block some inputs/ouputs.
Accessories: Audio-Technica ATR3350 Lavalier Mic, additional microSD cards and batteries, external battery charger, various mounts.
3. Sony HDR-CX220 HD Handycam Camcorder – $178 US
Pros: Although small, the cameras traditional camcorder shape makes it easier to film handheld, better picture image than most shoot & share cameras, built with a Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar Zoom Lens / 27x optical zoom allows to zoom in to subjects without quality loss, accepts SD/SDHC/SDXC cards, provides manual camera modes, long lasting batteries available.
Good for: Zooming in from a safe distance, versatile enough to use under most conditions.
Cons: No headphone or external mic input, joystick menu controller can be awkward to use.
Accessories: Additional memory cards and batteries, tripod or monopod.
The AVCHD format may require format conversion before editing and sharing online, but it’s more distributable for broadcasting or working with pro editors.
4a/4b. Nexus 7 v.2 (US $229) or Galaxy Tab 3 (US $179)
Pros: Android OS means you can install apps for activists such as InformaCam and ObscuraCam, GPS tagging, in-device editing, and all other features that come with a smart gadget, cheaper than unlocked smartphone
Good for: Social media campaigns, person-to-person sharing (email, SMS, cloud), taking photos to complement video when gathering evidence.
Cons: Fixed focus lens, potential security issues, no microSD slot (Nexus 7 only), less discreet than a smartphone
Accessories: External micro-usb battery charger, microSD card (Galaxy Tab 3 only), magnetic detachable lenses – wide angle and telephoto. Double the storage space by upgrading to a 32GB Nexus 7 v. 2 for an additional US $40.
“Nexus 7 is better [than Galaxy Tab 3] overall EXCEPT it has no microSD slot which is a major draw back,” says Martin. A limited amount of space is a general drawback of using a smartphone or tablet—additional microSD cards (Galaxy 3) or cloud storage can help get around it. The ability to rotate microSD cards helps secure your footage.
Just as the Playtouch shape (and its smartphone kin) can lead to shaky shots, the flattened all-screen design of tablets lead me to ask, “Isn’t it awkward—and obvious—to shoot with a tablet?” Both reported seeing people using them a lot at protests. Working with LICADHO in Cambodia, Ryan says “the Venerable Luon Sovath will be filming with his at protests and then he can email at the same time, because it’s like a computer.”
5. Zoom Q2HD Handy Video Recorder – US $199
Shoot & Share / “Pocket” Camera
Pros: Better built-in microphone than most shoot & share cameras, headphone jack to monitor audio, SD/SDHC card slot, in-device edit capabilities, takes AA batteries, able to manually adjust audio levels, records up to 24-bit /96 kHz linear PCM audio. Plus, you can record in AAC format as well.
Good for: Similar to Kodak Zi10 as well as recording testimony or other audio-determined projects, plus live streaming via USB.
Cons: No external mic input, short battery life, the vertical flat shape of the camera can make for shaky shots. Fixed focus lens limits your zooming abilities, bulkier than a pocket camera, no WiFi or GPS.
Accessories: Headphones, additional SD cards and AA batteries, tripod or monopod.
Stand-out Feature: “[Zoom] are known for their audio recording equipment,” says Martin. “This camera has a superior built-in mic, so you can have great audio without an external mic and the video is comparable to other small cameras.”
6. Nikon COOLPIX S9500 – US $259.99
“Point & Shoot” Digital Photography “Compact” Camera
Pros: GPS geo-tagging, 22x optical zoom, optical image stabilization, 18MP sensor, SD/SDHC card slot, replaceable battery, WiFi capability to transfer files and control remotely with smartphone.
Good For: Zooming in on a shot from a safe distance, documenting evidence with still photos complementing video, photo-camera appearance may go under the radar of authorities present to suppress documentation.
Cons: No mic input, no viewfinder, no HD recording in high speed mode, not clear if geo-tagging works for video, short battery life.
Accessories: Additional SD cards and batteries, external battery charger, handgrip mount, tripod.
Combining accessories with your camera can determine whether people will watch or share your video online, or whether it can be used as evidence in a court. Testimony that cannot be heard or footage so blurred you can’t make out what is happening undermines your efforts to film it in the first place.
When choosing a camera, keep in mind accessories that will bring your video to the next level. Start off with the essentials—backup batteries and SD cards. If you’re using a device that is unreliably steady when hand-held, you can stabilize it with a tripod or monopod. In crowded settings, such as a protest, you can use a monopod to raise your camera above heads as you walk.
For some cameras, an external mic is the only way to include distinct voices in your video. “Anytime there is a mic input or headset input is ideal,” says Ryan. However, he continued, “The trend of low end cameras is that they are taking out more features to make you pay more money.”
Martin notes a trend on the computerization of camera devices, “More and more point and shoots have WiFi, and more will have GPS as well. There are a few point and shoot models running Android OS but price is comparatively high, notably the Samsung line of Galaxy cameras.” The ability to geo-tag your footage or use WiFi to enable you to attach more contextualizing details can help to verify, and in effect, legitimize your footage.
Tools Will Change, It’s How You Use Them That Matters Most
Technology evolves at a fast pace, but remember that while the tools will change, it’s all about how you use them. “If you are intelligent about the way you go about it, you can make a great film with a smartphone,” adds Ryan.
Smartphone or not, digital technology has liberated video from the camcorder section. The multi-functionality of today’s camera devices present more options for video activists to consider when prioritizing the technical resources needed to meet an objective.
Anne Ginsberg is an intern with the Communications and External Relations team at WITNESS and an MA candidate in Nonprofit Management specializing in Media at The New School in New York, NY.