It’s been eight months of COVID-19 worship. Since then, COVID-sensible churches have transitioned to either fully online worship or livestreaming worship for their congregants at home. As you approach the end of 2020 and are looking to up your game for either livestream or pre-recorded worship, the number one question I get is “what camera are you using?”
My answer is simple: I have the best $500 camera setup that offers the best visual, audio, and connective experience. And then when people look up from shopping for $1000-$2000 cameras, they are ready to pay attention when I get the caveat. Let’s start with that and then move into the best $500 you can spend.
#1: The best camera is the one you already have in your pocket or purse.
Today’s smartphones have amazing cameras. They may have a more limited range and options than any dedicated camera, but they are still the best camera you might already have. When COVID-19 started, I started livestreaming on an iPhone 7 (4 generations back as of this month in the iPhone world) and the quality is good! In addition, because most churches livestream or premiere in 720p, the quality of the final broadcast narrows the quality gap between dedicated camera and cameraphone.
So, here’s the deal: don’t buy a $500+ camera. Use your phone or borrow a phone from a church member, and use that $500 to better equip your setup below. I guarantee the following setup will provide better quality recordings than any camera. Period.
Remember: This is my actual setup at church. So I haven’t gone and trolled Amazon for shoddy, cheap materials. I use each of these each week, plus some upgrades that I’ll get to. Whether you are recording at home or at church, this setup will provide better videos for your congregational engagement.
All costs are as of publication, and all links are referral links to support this website.
Better stabilization and eye contact
The first thing a good recording needs is good placement and the ability for the speaker to retain eye contact. Looking down at a camera, having a shaky camera hand, and constantly reading off screen doesn’t provide for engagement. So what you first need is a setup that stabilizes the camera, positions it at eye level, and provides a teleprompter at that level.
- Amazon Basics Tripod ($25) https://amzn.to/3lytRh7
- Phone holder tripod mount ($14) https://amzn.to/2GTINYa
- Tablet or PC holder ($30) https://amzn.to/3iKIJHD
- For a tablet, a teleprompter App (Free): https://apps.apple.com/us/app/teleprompter/id941620509 (iPad/iPhone) or https://play.google.com/store/search?q=teleprompter&c=apps (Android)
To provide yourself:
- Tablet or second phone or a laptop to serve as a teleprompter, or simply a printout of the liturgy or reading you are doing (you can tape the latter to the tablet holder).
Assembling this together looks like the left side of the above setup, though I moved the tablet down a bit so you can better see the phone mount. Camera mounted on the mount on the tripod. Tablet held on the Tablet holder allow the speaker to look at the camera while reading liturgy, scripture, or a script. Or if you memorize your content, it at least allows you to put an outline or just look more natural at the camera.
This setup provides more stabilization, natural posture, and more engagement because you will be looking at the camera. Total cost: $69 + tax/shipping (perhaps $10 more, depending on if you buy an app instead of using a free one).
There. $70 and if you do nothing else in this guide, your setup will be much better than balancing a phone on a stack of books and reading from a manuscript in your hand.
The second thing you want is better lighting. Sanctuaries and houses of worship have terrible lighting because the lights are coming down from the ceiling. Even in my church building, built in 2010, the spotlights are high up, not straight on. It causes wrinkles on your face, and shadows that are fine for live worship but on camera, they are more noticeable. This is why news crews and professional theatres have lights in front or spotlights that come straight on.
So even if your sanctuary has great overhead lighting, you still need direct lighting. My dad, when installing direct lighting in a sanctuary renovation back in the 2000s, told the senior pastor he could take 10 years off her face with direct lighting, and after looking at my COVID-19 worship videos with overhead lighting, I believe it!
- 3 point lighting setup ($220) https://amzn.to/2GVKOTC
- Power strip and extension cord to the place of recording.
Three point lighting means you have two sources of light on the two sides of your face, and one behind you to better distinguish you from your background (it also works well for zoom virtual backgrounds!). While the setup is the most expensive (almost half of the $500 investment), it is mobile, can be used at church or home, and LED lights don’t heat up your face like traditional lighting. It can be hard to justify, but I guarantee, it is easy to use and works wonders for videos at work and zoom meetings at home.
- Phone holder + ring light ($25) https://amzn.to/3lzJjtC. I use this setup at my home computer for zoom calls, and it works just fine, even if a little harsher light.
Alternative for glasses:
Those of you with glasses will want a solution that has bigger diffused lights rather than these more direct lights. I don’t have a personal recommendation for you, but the DSLR Shooter recommends the FalconEyes one here for one side of your face ($210 – https://amzn.to/3ffDY8J), and a white board to reflect to the other side. See this video at the 4 minute mark to see it in action.
Better Sounding Videos
Finally, the touchy one: audio. Cameras pick up great audio, but a microphone makes it much better and more customizable. Everyone has their preference about lavalier, boom, carotid, etc. My voice is on the nasal end, so a good microphone smoothes it out for worship, and a cardioid mic picks up a bit of the room you are in to make it feel more “live.”
I’ve recommended over and over the Blue Yeti (and NYTimes Wirecutter agrees!) because it is customizable depending on the setup, outputs to headphone jack and to USB simultaneously, and can be mounted on a mic stand, tripod, or desk setup (it comes with the latter). So you can record directly to your laptop or phone, depending on the video app you are using.
- Blue Yeti mic ($130) https://amzn.to/3lxvtHT
- Dongle: If you don’t have a headphone connection on your phone or camera, You either need a USB OTG cable (Android phones) or a USB lightning dongle (iPhones) to connect the microphone to your phone. Here’s Blue Microphone’s article on what is required, but the cost is anywhere from $20 – $30.
Finally, remember that the Blue Yeti requires USB power, so even if you are only using the headphone jack, you’ll want to plug the included USB cord into a wall socket or something to provide power to the microphone.
Option: If you are a preacher that moves around, I can’t speak to its recorded quality, but my spouse loves the Samson pack and over-the-ear lavalier mic here for her Work From Home setup: https://amzn.to/36WdXrr
TL;DR: Don’t buy a new camera. Use or borrow a smartphone and instead buy the accessories that enhance the lighting, audio, and stabilization experience.
There. You spent $500 and your spoken word (and sung performances) will be brighter, sound better, and your eye contact will be better, allowing congregants to feel like they are more present in your worship space. The total cost of the above recommendations is $474 (assuming the upper level of an iPad dongle) plus tax and free shipping, which should come out to about $500. Or you can purchase other items from local venders (much better), but since I was recommending the objects I actually use, I used the amazon links.
Addendum: Future Upgrades
I’ve been using this setup for months, and I made a few upgrades as finances became available and investment justified.
Audio upgrades: I purchased a boom mic stand and a better mount for the Blue Yeti to eliminate some noise (I keep thumping the pulpit or altar with my hands, ha!) and it moved the microphone off camera so I look a bit more natural. Just remember to weight the backside of the boom mic so your Yeti doesn’t faceplant.
Video upgrades: Yes, after months of using my phone, I did make a camera purchase and I went with a Sony ZV-1, a lightweight point-and-shoot camera made specifically for video bloggers that came out this COVID summer. It has a lot of features that a camera idiot like me can use, with no interchangeable lenses or confusing setups like DSLR or mirrorless cameras. You can also plug the Yeti directly into the ZV-1, provided you give it USB power elsewhere. The lack of customizations or a focus ring may be dealbreakers for you if you are a video or photo professional, but I’m not one, so I went with something that was simple with good video guides to use. Even my friend Rev. DJ del Rosario, a pastor and camera expert, is using a ZV-1.
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