By Nate Johnson
Reading Time: 8 minutes
Creating videos for online courses can be realtively easily and produce high-quality results if you've put together a few key tools.
Over the past seven years, we’ve worked with over 20,000 online course creators. And we’ve occasionally surveyed them to attempt to get a pulse on things like their course topics, price points, number of students and courses, and more.
But the most stunning statistic we gleaned from our last survey was that 92% of our clients rely on video as their primary training modality.
And if you’re reading this post, it’s likely that you are as well!
In this post, we’re going to discuss the basic equipment needed to produce portrait or talking head-style videos for your course lessons. We’ll talk about three different types of camera options for recording your videos and we’re going to make sure that we cover a range of options for different budgets.
After that, we’ll cover some equipment which, while not completely necessary, can enhance the quality of the videos you produce.
First, let’s go over the options for cameras which you might use to produce your course lessons.
Now, I think it’s safe to say that most of you reading this post already have a smartphone or a tablet, probably within an arm’s reach!
The video quality capabilities of most smartphones now far exceeds what we would have expected from a dedicated video camera just a few years ago, and the same thing goes for tablets. If you have a newer smartphone or tablet, you may be able to skip purchasing any new video equipment altogether.
For example, at the time that I’m writing this post the current iPhone, which is the iPhone X, is capable of recording not just high definition 1080p video, but also 4K video. So if you have a smartphone capable of recording high quality video, you may simply want to stick with it for recording your course lessons.
You’re going to need additional editing capabilities for cropping or adjusting colors and brightness, however, all of that can be done in a desktop application such as Screenflow or Camtasia after you record video. Digging into all of the functionality of those platforms is beyond the scope of this post, but there are many, many tutorials on YouTube for both of them.
However, when creating video for online courses there are a number of apps you can use with your smartphone to enhance video during the recording.
For example, Fab Focus – Portrait Mode Pro is an iPhone app I’ve used which allows you to very easily add depth of field effects where your background is softer than the foreground.
After recording video with a smartphone or tablet, you can simply connect the device to your computer to transfer the video to Screenflow or Camtasia.
For editing, you can use a wifi file transfer service such as Apple’s Airdrop, or you can use a cloud storage app on your device which will transfer the file to the cloud for you. I prefer to use the Dropbox iPhone app to automatically send video to my cloud storage account.
There are a number of options for mounting your smartphone or tablet as well. Tripod adapters for the iPhone, for example, can be found for under $10 on Amazon. If you go this route, just be sure to check that any adapter you purchase will fit your device specifically.
The next option you have for recording portrait or talking head videos is a simple webcam. Webcams that record video in full high-definition quality have really fallen in price over the past few years.
Webcams are going to connect directly to your computer via USB port and this is one of the primary benefits of using these. You will be saving them directly to your computer, where you can easily import videos to Screenflow or Camtasia with no additional steps.
I currently use the Logitech HD Pro Webcam C920, which can be found on Amazon for around $60 at the moment. It records in full 1080p HD, which produces a high-quality video for the price.
I’ve also found that it records pretty decent-quality audio as well. It has built-in, dual stereo microphones and automatically filters out background noise.
Finally, as with most webcams, it can either clip onto an object such as the top of your computer monitor or it can easily be mounted on a tripod.
The one drawback I’ve found with webcams is that they can often distort your video a bit in either low-light or bright-light environments. I combine my webcam recordings with a Mac app called Webcam Settings.
This app allows you to make adjustments to the video your webcam records. You can change things like exposure, brightness, contrast, white balance, and more.
Finally, if you’d really like to step up the quality when you're creating videos for online courses, you can use a dedicated digital camera and I’m sure some of you already own one.
Now, it’s a bit difficult to provide one general recommendation here, because as you’re likely aware there is a massive price range from top to bottom. My daughter recently asked me how much violins cost. I explained to her that it depends…
I’ve seen used, youth-sized violins sell for $50, while someone once paid $16 million for a rare Stradivarius made in 1719!
So choosing a digital camera is really a matter of your budget and whether or not you’re going to have more uses for it, such as making family videos or working on creative projects aside from just working on your course.
That being said, for course creation there’s really no need to spend over $300. That’s going to buy you a camera which produces really outstanding video quality. We also have to keep in mind that when we do record, we want to prevent our students from having playback issues, so we’re probably not going to want to record at a camera’s full capabilities anyway (such as 4K video).
That’s going to be generating massive video files which slow down the editing process, take longer to upload to our course, and which end up causing buffering issues when our students began to watch them.
Personally, since 2012 I’ve been using Panasonic’s Lumix series of digital cameras and I absolutely love them. They offer outstanding quality for the price and I currently use the Panasonic Lumix FZ80 which can be found for under $300 on Amazon at the time of this post.
The one drawback to this series of cameras is that they don’t allow for you to plug in an external microphone. However, the quality of audio which they produce really isn’t that bad. But it’s going to degrade and you’re going to pick up more background noise if you’re placing the camera a good distance from where you were standing or sitting.
This really isn’t an issue for me because when I do record talking head or portrait-style videos, I record the video portion with my Lumix digital camera, the audio portion with a lapel microphone, and then I just pop audio and video tracks into Screenflow. Then I just mute the audio on the camera track and line the two up so they match.
If you’re interested in a digital camera which does accept an external microphone so that you can keep things simple and record high quality audio and video on one device, you might want to take a look at Canon’s Powershot series. These cameras do allow you to add a directional external microphone.
Okay, so there are a lot of options for choosing a camera to record your course video, but no matter your budget…you’ll be able to find something. Or, perhaps you already have something which is going to work just fine.
Now, let’s go over some optional equipment you can add to enhance the quality of your videos!
Some of you will likely just be screencasting videos for your course (recording yourself talking over a slide presentation), but if you do plan to add a number of portrait or talking head videos, these can really help step up your game.
First, a tripod. Now, I generally don’t recommend spending much on a tripod if you don’t already have one. We’re not building a professional studio or working for National Geographic here. We just need something to hold our camera. My most recent tripod purchase was a little over $20 on Amazon.
If you’re shooting in a lot of different locations or are short on space, I’ve also used a Joby Gorillapod. It’s a flexible tripod which can be placed on a hard surface or it can be wrapped around different stationary objects, so that’s a pretty cool piece of equipment.
Next, if you’re going to be doing a significant amount of portrait or talking head videos, I’d recommend lighting, especially if you’re going to be shooting all of your videos in the same location and you can leave those lights in one place.
When I first started creating courses in 2010, I simply purchased basic clamp lights with aluminum reflectors. You’ve probably seen these. You can find these in most major hardware stores for around $5 each without the bulb and they work just fine. You can also purchase these in two packs from Amazon. I’ve accumulated several of these and I still use them for overhead and background lighting (some of which I’ve picked up for $0.99 at thrift stores).
For my primary lighting, I use inexpensive umbrella lighting on adjustable stands. I have two of these and I place one on each side of me in the front. They’re great because I can adjust them to the height of my face regardless of whether I’m recording while sitting or standing.
They also generally come with both a soft light umbrella and a reflective umbrella for very low light situations. Another plus is that they’re really easy to move around if you’re recording in different locations.
When purchasing my lighting I actually bought it in a kit with a backdrop stand. If you’re going to be recording in a space where you want to block out the background, these are a big help. They’re also great for talking head videos because you can hang a simple white background, record your video in front of that backdrop, and then easily place it onto a white presentation slide.
There are plenty of backdrop options to choose from online and these allow you to create a solid color background or maybe even place yourself in a new location using a “green screen” like my business partner, Ben, does. He can teach you French in front of the Eiffel Tower if he so chooses!
I tend to primarily use a basic, white background for talking head videos and I simply purchased a large piece of white cloth from a fabric store. You’ll just want to be sure that your backdrop is wide enough and long enough to completely conceal your background in the camera frame if you choose to move the camera out a good distance from your face.
You also may need to iron the backdrop since, depending on your lighting, sometimes even the smallest little wrinkles will produce shadows which are almost impossible to edit out later.
So that wraps up our essential video equipment walkthrough for creating videos for online courses. Again, some of you may not need the equipment mentioned here if you’re going to be producing mostly screencast videos.
However, if you do plan to add talking head or portrait-style videos, I hope this will be helpful in putting together everything you need.