What you need, and what you DON’T need, to make YouTube videos
Occasionally I get asked about the equipment I use to produce my vlogs. Since I last made a How I Vlog series on my YouTube Channel early in 2019, I have made a few updates that don’t necessarily warrant a whole new video. Instead, I thought I’d update you with a written article instead, which I can then update as time progresses.
I’ve removed all the items I no longer use – or hardly ever use – and talk about a couple of essential new additions.
As ever, the links that appear with each item are affiliate links, and if you use them (even to access the platform then buy something else,) I’ll earn a small commission at absolutely no cost to you. As the leisure vehicle industry has spent absolutely zip on commissioning or sponsoring content over the last 18 months because it’s selling everything it can build, your support to help keep the channel going through this lean time is hugely appreciated.
My ESSENTIAL kit – in order of importance
It’s true, you only need a half-decent smart phone to make a good vlog. If you don’t believe me, check out this vlog here that I made last year when all I had with me was the phone in my pocket.
I use an ancient 128GB iPhone 7 Plus. I’m hoping it lasts until the next iPhone release, at which point it will be five years old and I’ll replace it with a newer, but not necessarily the latest version.
Buying a phone, keeping hold of it, and taking out a separate SIM-only package, works out way cheaper than getting caught in the constant upgrade cycle. Not to mention the environmental benefits of doing so. I currently pay less than £20 per month with EE for more calls and data than I could ever use, compared with the £83 per month for the same package on a new iPhone 12 Pro Max 256GB.
If I were buying now, I’d go for a refurbished iPhone 11 Pro Max 256GB for about half the price of the latest model.
Despite the fact it’s not the very latest super-duper release, it can still shoot 4k video at 60fps. And it was good enough this time last year…
Mini Tripod (and phone holder)
Essential. You can use it as a handle to steady your handheld shots, and it’s terrific for things like time lapses or simply presenting to camera. Not high enough? Stools, tables, and fence posts come in handy!
I’ve tried the Gorillapod style of tripod, and find that they fail within a few months. The joints lose their stiffness and they end up just flopping all over the place.
I use a simple mini-tripod from Neewer which does the job and does it well. A smartphone needs an additional holder bracket, and the Neewer attachment listed features a really useful cold shoe for attaching a light or audio device when you get one.
Once you get a camera, this neat and affordable tripod will also work well with that.
Before improving your visual game with a dedicated camera, the first improvement to make is to up the ante in the audio department. Bad audio can make a terrific vlog completely unwatchable.
There’s only one choice, and that’s the Rode Wireless GO system. There is a reason that almost every vlogger uses it. It’s a fantastic wireless system that simply does what it’s meant to do, and does it well.
I like to use a Rode Lavalier (lapel) GO microphone with the system. However, when I was presenting for a TV production recently, the camerawoman introduced me to a terrific hack. Just pop the microphone part of the Wireless GO in your top pocket. This will protect it from the wind, hide it from view, and give a perfectly useable result.
Remember to check your phone’s microphone input. If, like modern iPhones, it uses the headphone jack as a microphone socket (which takes a trrs plug), you will need the SC7 trs to trrs adaptor lead.
With the advances in smart phone camera technology, the case for a dedicated vlogging camera gets weaker by the day. However, as a camera is a dedicated piece of kit with only two jobs (photos and video) as opposed to 1002 jobs like a smartphone, it’s always going to return a better experience and higher quality.
Sony RX100 vii versus Canon G7Xiii
I used to use the Canon G7Xii, a superb vlogging camera, but when the time came to change, I moved to Sony.
Why did I switch to Sony?
One reason – the eye tracking auto focus.
My overriding memory of the Canon G7Xii is the fact it would ignore me blethering away in the foreground, and focus instead on something like the kettle in the background. The current G7Xiii still comes in for sharp criticism about its autofocus.
My eyesight isn’t as good as it used to be, and small camera screens aren’t the easiest things in which to check focus at a distance. You can’t just move in closer to check the focus if you are the subject.
Both the Canon and the Sony have their own well-documented pros and cons, but the superb eye tracking of the Sony makes it a hands-down winner for vloggers in my opinion.
Vlogging cameras are small and neat, so you’ll rarely find hot shoes or cold shoes for mounting accessories such as your Rode Wireless Go, or a video light.
Cages are pretty much essential, offering cold shoes to mount your gear, a great handle for steady shots, and a tough frame to protect your fragile camera. My camera never comes out of its cage.
Some might argue that this is more important than a vlogging camera. Many vloggers successfully use action cams (with external microphones such as the Rode Wireless Go) as their primary camera. I use my Sony RX100 way more than my action cam, but if I was starting out again and had a modern iPhone, an action cam would probably be a more useful purchase than a ‘proper’ vlogging camera.
One of the biggest criticisms in the past of action cams is that their super-wide angle lenses only have a limited amount of useful applications (caravan interiors being one,) but nowadays you can adjust the settings to give you a less wide normal view.
Action cams have small sensors though, smaller than a camera such as the RX100 or G7X, so the quality won’t quite match a vlogging camera in the majority of circumstances.
Sony versus GoPro
Earlier versions of the GoPro had me at my wits’ end. Both the Hero 2 and the Hero 3 were massively unreliable devices, crashing with tedious regularity, and producing sub-standard picture quality on anything other than a bright and sunny Californian day. The Isle of Lewis in January doesn’t quite have the same light levels.
It was when a famous vlogger – I think it was Pete McKinnon – tried the latest GoPro at the time (the 5 or 6 I think) and it crashed straight out of the box that I decided to ditch the brand.
Sony offered the only viable alternative back in the day, and since then DJI have entered the fray.
I therefore bought the Sony Action Cam, with the catchy name of FDR-X3000. Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? If only their branding department was as hot as their technical department, because the FDR-X3000 is pure gold. It has performed faultlessly for four years, and I couldn’t be happier with it. One of its strengths is the simple fact that it takes a regular tripod screw mount, it doesn’t require a host of fiddly specialist mounting adaptors like GoPro.
Image stabilisation was streets ahead of the competition at the time, but GoPro and DJI now have offerings with similar performance.
As with all Sonys, the menu takes some getting used to, but it’s a lot easier when you pair the camera with your smartphone and access the settings through Sony’s Imaging Edge app.
I think GoPro has now finally upped its game and I know of many satisfied GoPro users. DJI has a well-earned reputation of always producing reliable high-performance equipment. But if I were to lose my Sony action cam (heaven forbid), I wouldn’t hesitate to replace like with like.
It’s not just through the windscreen footage that a sucker mount for your action cam will allow. You can pop it on the rear window of the car to get a nice rolling view of the caravan, or on the side window of the car for a good tracking shot. I’m always wary of using these on plastic caravan windows, or on car/caravan/motorhome bodywork in case it leaves a mark. Here’s where the glass windows of an Airstream come in handy.
Go for the type with a ball joint, to help you get the camera level quickly at awkward angles.
Shooting video eats camera batteries for breakfast.
Sony Originals are the definitely the best, but are eye-wateringly expensive and can be quite difficult to get hold of.
Don’t be tempted by cheap generic batteries. They are pretty useless as they barely hold a charge. Trust me, I know from experience.
Currently I am trialling Duracell replacement batteries, and will update this article when I have put them through their paces in the real world.
Duracell Replacement NPBX1 Battery for Sony Cameras – not available in the US
A Bag to Put it all in
For over 12 years I have relied on my Lowepro Backpack. It’s been stuffed full with some very heavy equipment and has supported me on many a long-haul flight, not to mention eight years of in-and-out of the car during Full Time Airstream Living.
In all that time not a stitch has come loose, and the zip has never failed. The quality is worth every penny.
I’d recommend a bag that takes your laptop – in my case a 13” laptop.
Needless to say, the bag I have has been superseded. The bag in the links is the nearest version that I can find today.
The Next Level – Useful to Have
In this category I include the equipment that gets left behind if I am travelling light, but it comes with me if I’m taking the car as it can come in useful at times
Full sized tripod
Just like my buddy James Popsys, I hate full-sized tripods. But they are a necessary evil if you can carry one.
No amount of bracing or stabilisation will deliver the smooth footage that a tripod will permit. If you’re filming a time lapse, or just a relaxing panning shot, you really need a tripod.
Let’s not forget those times when you simply need to present to camera in a more professional way than walking along the street with a vlogging camera held at arm’s length.
The key to a decent tripod is to make sure it is sturdy, as light in weight as possible, quick to set up, and easy to adjust. A spirit level is a useful touch. You also need to be able to adjust the legs quickly so you can level the head, and a panning handle is also crucial.
Maybe it’s just personal, but I hate tripods with legs that are tethered together. You can’t over-extend the angle of one leg to make a quick adjustment, and I find that incredibly frustrating. It discounts many of the video tripods out there.
The tripod I use has carbon fibre legs from the now-defunct Calumet, and a video head from Manfrotto. The current equivalents, both from Manfrotto, will set you back a cool £400+. But they will no doubt last a lifetime.
I’ve listed them below, but have also included a budget version from Neewer which also ticks the most important boxes, at least in my opinion, and comes in at a far more reasonable £70 all-in.
Believe it or not, a video light is more useful on a bright and sunny day than it is on a gloomy day.
The flat light of a gloomy day will cause you few problems. But bright sunshine will cast strong shadows, and can make your face in particular look pretty awful – not good if you are presenting to camera.
A video light will help lift those shadows, or in lower light will help just make your face or the subject matter pop.
Something small and light is ideal, that will fit on the cage of your compact camera or the video rig of your smart phone.
You really don’t need me to tell you how spectacular drone footage can be, and how much it can add to a vlog.
As tempting as it can be to rush out and buy a drone – and I personally wouldn’t be without one – there are a few things you should know.
First and foremost, if you fly a drone that weighs over 250g in the UK or in the EU, you will be restricted to the A3 category of airspace.
If you fly a drone that weighs under 250g in the UK, you can fly in A1 category. There are very few restrictions in this category beyond common sense and The Drone Code.
To fly a drone between 250g and 2kg with a little more freedom (but still way more restricted than a drone weighing less than 250g) you can do an A2CofC course, which, if you pass, permits you to fly in the A2 category.
I currently fly a DJI Mavic Pro. It has since been superseded by the DJI Mavic Pro2, but don’t buy one yet. The DJI Mavic Pro3 is on the cusp of being released. Nowadays, the DJI Mavic Air is the weapon of choice for most vloggers. It wasn’t around when I bought mine.
To fly my DJI Mavic with a little more freedom, I have trained for and gained my A2CofC qualification, which I could do remotely from my home thanks to the brilliant course delivered by Heliguy.
The DJI Mini 2 weighs in at 249g, delivers 4k video, and allows way more creativity than flying within the A2 category. So why doesn’t everyone (including me) rush out and buy a DJI Mini 2?
Simple. The DJI Mini 2 has no tracking, or Follow Me function.
One of the most useful functions of my DJI Mavic is its tracking, or Follow Me function. When I’m out on my own walking, I can set the drone to follow me and film in a straight line, or circle me slowly as I’m walking, and it can create a very pleasing action shot. The DJI Mini 2 cannot yet do that, so it would only be half as useful to me.
In an ideal world I’d have a DJI Mavic Air for its tracking ability, and a DJI Mini2 for its ability to be flown in the A1 category.
A decent voiceover microphone is a must. Even if you are convinced that you want to present everything to camera, there are times when you will need to do a voiceover at the editing stage.
I cannot fault my Rode NT-USB microphone. It is easy to use and does an awesome job. A top tip is to stack pillows on your desk behind your laptop, and make a bit of tent with your free arm by pulling a duvet over you. Not only is this warm and cosy, but the quality of sound you’ll get from surrounding yourself by everyday textiles is stunning.
I can be a bit lazy when it comes to capturing the ambient sounds that can bring a video to life, but when I have wanted a few minutes of lapping waves to overlay a beach shot, or birdsong to lift a countryside shot, this has proved invaluable. Buying the shaggy hat-like wind muffler (I hate the popular slang for this referring to deceased rodents) is essential.
The only ‘mistake’ I made was over-specifying the model I thought I needed, and I ended up with a Zoom H4n. I’ve bought a sledgehammer to crack a walnut.
If I were buying again, I would buy the smaller, cheaper, and more portable Zoom H1n.
Not ready to commit to a sound recorder yet? Then don’t, as long as you have a smart phone. Every modern smart phone has a voice recorder which can do the job just as well – just wrap a small piece of cloth or flannel over the microphone to muffle any breeze.
What NOT to buy
In a nutshell: Anything big, heavy, or complicated to set up.
This means big SLR cameras, gimbals for these cameras, filters, and all the gubbins that some folks say you need. Yes, I still have my big Sony A7s camera and the huge and heavy gimbal to steady it, but that’s purely because I already have them. I hardly ever use them, but it’s not worth selling them. Would I buy them again in the event of loss, theft, or breakdown? Absolutely not. Do I take them if I’m travelling by bus, train, or plane? No way.
Filming with the heavy camera on the gimbal is arm-breaking, and setting the whole thing up takes a good five to ten minutes. That’s a lifetime when you just want to get shooting, and is only viable if you’re filming in one area for at least an hour.
I also have a big professional microphone for interviews. I have never, ever used it. It’s such a faff to try and set up and balance the sound levels on the sound recorder. I just use the transmitter of the Rode Go. Better still, mic up your interviewee with the Rode Go, interview them from behind the camera, then film yourself posing the questions and doing noddys.
To Sum Up
Content remains king, and equipment is only as good as its operator.
As long as your videos are pleasantly watchable and audible, it’s not worth getting too hung up on the finer details of the equipment you’re using.
Technology is progressing so quickly, and the cool features and processing power we can now fit into our pockets was unthinkable just a few short years ago. Of course, the downside of that is that whatever you buy today, it will be out of date by tomorrow.
Large cameras and gimbals are already being consigned to history.
It’s often said that the best camera is the one that you have with you. I prefer to go one better, and say that your best camera is the one that you use fully, with confidence. That means using your equipment so frequently, you can fly through the menus and settings without a second thought, and make the most of your equipment’s potential.
It might be beneficial to get rid of equipment rather than get more stuff, so you can make the best use of what you already have.
I have the Duracell Replacement Batteries for my Sony cameras to try.
I also have a DJI Pocket2 Creator Combo to try and improve the viewer experience of my caravan and motorhome tours. Once I’ve tried this out, I’ll update this article.