Better Video for $67

Okay, so maybe you’re not taking an Introduction to Multimedia class because you have plans to become a big movie maker one day. Maybe you’re just interested in learning how to make the small movies you shoot for your friends and family look and sound a little better without dropping a lot of cash. I get it, you’re not looking to become the next Scorsese and you aren’t filthy rich. Well no worries, there are ways to improve the quality of your projects without breaking the bank.

Most of you are likely already shooting video for fun using your point-and-shoot camera or smartphone. While these devices can get very acceptable video, there are some things you can do (on the cheap) that can dramatically improve your results. In class I threw together an inexpensive video shoot using a combination of equipment I already owned and a few items you can readily find at your local Walmart. The final cost of the equipment used: $67.00. Here’s how I spent my money…

cost sheet

ClampLightOn a couple of items, I spent a bit more than I really needed to. For example, I went with the “deluxe” clamp light for my key light and some better CFL light bulbs, but then saved a bit on my fill light. While I used my phone to record sound separately, I would prefer to use a microphone or audio recorder (like a Zoom H1) to get even better sound. Whatever you choose, suspend it above your talent and record sound separately (do not rely on audio from your camera). You will need to spend some time in post syncing that sound to your video of course, but it will be much better.

As stated above, for our demo, I used a simple two-point light setup:

  • Key Light – a larger, brighter light on the left side of our subject’s face (our right)
  • Fill Light – a smaller, dimmer light on the right side of his face (our left)

This is a common simple setup to get better light on your subject. You can also add an additional light behind the subject (a Back Light for a Three-point Lighting setup) to highlight the subject and provide a little separation from the background.

Take a look at these stills from our shoot today, you can see the value of our inexpensive light kit.

Sample Photo Grid

While there is enough light in this room to get an acceptable shot, you can still see a progression in quality from the first photo A to the fourth photo D. In the final shot, I have sheets of parchment paper (you likely have some in a drawer at home) on the lights for a bit of diffusion so the lights weren’t too terribly harsh.

A quick side note; watch your background. Keep your subject away from walls and that will reduce harsh shadows caused by our inexpensive lights. Also, as we have discussed, make sure it isn’t too distracting.

Let’s move on to audio. If you recall in class, my point-and-shoot camera recorded some pretty noisy audio. Thankfully, I used my smartphone to record audio separately. Listen to the results of each:

Audio as recorded by camera microphone:

As you can hear, recording audio separately really saved me on this particular setup. As far as I am concerned, the audio that the camera recorded is un-usable. Even if I did try to do some noise reduction on it, I suspect it would still be pretty bad compared to what my phone got.

Once all the pieces are put together, what could I end up with? Here’s a short sample:


RodeiXYThere are many things you can buy at various prices to make your projects look and sound better. For example, a more expensive work light from the hardware store would give you better light than my cheap clamp lights and still cost less than a professional light kit. If you have some cash to invest, you can pick up professional looking light kits for just a couple hundred bucks. There are great microphones you can buy that work with your smartphone that will get even better sound than just using the built in microphone on the phone; RODE’s SmartLav+ and the Audio Technica ATR3350IS are possible lavaliere mic options, while something like the RODE VideoMic MeRODE iXY or similar offerings from Zoom could work as well.

When all is said and done, you can probably get acceptable results with just your smartphone if you know how to use it correctly – people do it all the time. What we can seen here though is that with a small investment (in time and money), you can get even better results. The simple point is this; with a little extra time and attention paid to your projects, you can turn lackluster video into something that looks and sounds really pretty good, and you can do it on the cheap! So, why wouldn’t you?