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How to record high-quality videos for online courses at home

From equipment to techniques, we'll show you how to easily record professional-looking videos for your online courses.

Did you know that by 2019, global internet video traffic will make up 80% of all internet traffic? Or that 55% of people watch online video every day?

It's little wonder why so many people are creating educational videos and making money online by teaching people new skills.

Of course, before you can teach someone with video lessons, you've got to actually record the video for your online course. In this guide, we'll take you through every step of the video recording process. We'll be focusing primarily on free or inexpensive tools, as well as going over some guerrilla filmmaking tips for achieving professional results on a shoestring budget.

Lights, camera...action!

What you'll need to record video for your online course

Before you can start recording video for your course, you'll need at least some equipment. However, you don't need to spend a fortune to achieve professional-looking results. Video production is all about technique. Does it help if you have a $15,000 RED camera? Sure! Do you need a $15,000 camera to record great-looking videos? Absolutely not. But while we're on the topic of cameras, let's start by talking about camera equipment.

Webcams for content creators

The one thing you'll need to create gorgeous videos for your online courses is a good webcam. Depending on the specifications of your computer or laptop, your built-in webcam may be good enough to record video for your online course. If it isn't (or your laptop doesn't have a webcam), don't worry! Fortunately, even higher-end webcams have fallen dramatically in price over the last few years.

We've put together the following list of things to look for when you're shopping for a new webcam:

  • Resolution: Generally speaking, the higher the resolution of your webcam, the clearer the image will be. Try to aim for a resolution of at least 720p, or 1080p if you can afford it.

  • Field of view (FOV): A webcam's FOV refers to the observable area that the webcam's lens can “see.” The broader the FOV, the more you can fit into the frame.

  • Built-in microphone: Virtually all webcams have at least one built-in mic. Although a monophonic (usually abbreviated to “mono”) mic will be good enough to record decent audio in a range of recording environments, try to find a webcam with a stereo mic if you can.

So what’s the must-have webcam for most content creators? We think you’d be hard-pressed to find a better webcam than the Logitech C920. Available for just $49.99 if you have an Amazon Prime membership (or know someone who does), the Logitech C920 is perfect for content creators and boasts specifications that leave more expensive webcams in the dust. With full 1080p HD video recording and calling at resolutions of up to 1920 x 1080, automatic low-light correction, dual stereo built-in microphones, and automatic noise reduction make the C920 an incredibly capable webcam at a very reasonable price that’s well worth the investment.

You can also shoot perfectly good video footage using your mobile device. Recent-model iPhones have excellent cameras, and are more than capable of shooting high-quality video. For tips on getting the most out of recording video with your iPhone, check out this excellent guide from Wistia.

Lighting setups for recording online videos

Now that we've looked at recording video, let's take a look at lighting your scene.

Nothing ruins a great video like poor lighting. Not only is bad lighting very difficult to fix in post-production, it's also incredibly distracting. However, like every aspect of video production, lighting is more about technique than relying on fancy equipment.

There are several different lighting setups you can use when recording video for your online course. Let's take a look at some of the most common:

Two-point setup: 

The simplest professional lighting array is the two-point setup. This system uses two lights - a key light, and a fill light. The key light is the brightest of the two lights, and serves as the primary source of illumination in the scene. As its name implies, the fill light complements the key light by softly lighting the parts of the subject not illuminated by the key light, and eliminating harsh shadows. Fill lights are typically around half as bright as key lights.

Three-point setup: 

The next lighting array we're going to look at is the three-point setup. This setup builds upon the two-light system above and can create a really polished, elegant look. As you can see in the figure below, the difference between the two- and three-point setup is the inclusion of a third light, the rim (or “back”) light. The rim light creates highlights from the rear of the subject, and although subtle, the overall effect is really sleek and professional.

Four-point setup: 

Although you probably won't need to use a four-point lighting system to record video for your online course, it's worth knowing what this kind of setup looks like. Four-point lighting systems are exactly the same as three-point setups, with the addition of a fourth light, the background light. The key, fill, and rim lights illuminate the subject, while the background light illuminates the background.

What to look for in a lighting setup

Unlike some other elements of video production, it's pretty difficult to jury-rig a decent lighting setup using lights you probably have lying around at home. You could try to hack something together with a series of lamps and extension cords, but it might be worthwhile considering investing in some proper lights.

Like webcams, good lights are a lot more affordable than they used to be. You can pick up single lights online for less than $20, and you may be able to find deals on two- or three-light setups for less than $100. Try searching for “studio lighting” on Amazon and you may be surprised by how inexpensive decent lighting setups can be.

Again, rather than recommending specific lights, here are some things to look for when you're purchasing a lighting rig:

  • Temperature of at least 5,500K. Unlike household lights, which are measured in watts for brightness and may or may not include color information, studio lights are measured in watts and degrees Kelvin to notate how warm or cold they are (more on this shortly). These lightbulbs, for example, are listed at 5,500K. This is a good, almost-neutral temperature that's ideal for interior shoots. If you're not comfortable with degrees Kelvin, just look for the wattage of the bulbs (look for around 65W or higher) included in the light rig you're considering.

  • Studio lights are often quite large. Many come with attachments to control how the light illuminates the scene. Three of the most common light accessories are barn doors, diffusers, and reflectors. Barn doors are metal fixtures that attach to the body of a light. They can then be adjusted to shape how much light illuminates the subject. Diffusers are used to soften direct sources of light by diffusing, or scattering, the light. Reflectors function similarly to diffusers, but the effect is a lot stronger.

  • Tabletop studio lights can be ideal for online course creators. These smaller units can be almost, if not as bright, as their freestanding counterparts, and their smaller size makes them not only easier to manage, but a lot cheaper, too. This two-light setup, for example, consists of two 30-inch tabletop lights with 40W (5,500K) bulbs, which is more than enough for a simple recording setup.

So, now we know a little bit more about studio lighting, which lights are perfect for content creators? We recommend this CRAPHY studio lighting setup, which comes with everything you need to create the lighting setups detailed above (except the four-point setup). This kit comes with three adjustable-height light stands (including sandbags for weight distribution and more accurate positioning), three daylight-balanced, energy-saving 5,500K bulbs, three softbox reflectors/diffusers, and a handy carry case. For less than $100, this kit is ideal for virtually all content creators.

External microphones for content creators

The last piece of equipment you may be considering for your online course video production setup is an external microphone. As with our camera and lighting gear, an external microphone may not be essential to create great-looking (and sounding) videos for your online course, but it definitely helps.

Although there are literally hundreds of different makes and model of microphone available, there are two main types of microphone - dynamic mics and condenser mics. Let’s take a quick look at the characteristics of both.

Dynamic microphones

If you’ve ever seen a news anchor on TV reporting live on-location, then you’ve probably seen a dynamic microphone in action. Handheld dynamic mics are omnidirectional, meaning that they record sound in all directions (the “omni” part of “omnidirectional”) in a spherical, 360-degree area surrounding the microphone’s recording element, as shown in the figure below:

Although omnidirectional mics are great for picking up sound from all directions, the main disadvantage of these mics is having to hold them; they’re ideal for vox pop-style interviews with people on the street, but less suited to on-screen instructional videos. To record audio precisely without distracting the viewer, you may want to consider using a condenser microphone.

Condenser microphones

The other main type of microphone is the condenser mic. The name of this type of microphone is something of an anachronism, as today’s condenser mics don’t rely on the capacitors that older mics used and from which condenser mics take their name. That said, they’re still known as condenser mics in the industry, and there are several types that are ideal for content creators recording video for their online courses.

There are two types of condenser mics that are particularly well-suited to studio recording: lavalier microphones (more commonly referred to as “tie-clip” mics) and boom mics.

Lavalier microphones can be affixed to a shirt collar or jacket lapel, and record audio in a narrow, tightly focused cone to eliminate background noise. In a way, they’re kind of like tiny omnidirectional mics attached to a small clip, as you can see in the image below. This type of mic is commonly used in broadcast TV environments, such as news broadcasts in studio environments. They’re small, inconspicuous, and easy to conceal behind a tie or even under a collar.

Boom microphones

The second type of condenser mic is the boom mic. Also known as shotgun microphones, boom mics are condenser microphones that typically have furry windscreens that cover the actual microphone to minimize background audio interference.

Boom mics are often positioned at the end of telescopic poles to allow boom operators to aim the microphone at the subject (usually a person) without the mic actually appearing in the shot:

Shotgun microphones are excellent at capturing audio from specific sources while minimizing external noise. For example, a boom mic would be the perfect solution to recording spoken audio in an outdoor shoot in moderate wind. Both lavalier and boom mics are unidirectional, meaning they record audio from a single direction.

Having looked at a few dynamic and condenser mics, which one should you choose?

If you’re thinking of buying a dynamic mic for your next shoot, the Behringer Ultravoice Xm8500 is a great mic at an even better price. Behringer has been making quality microphones for almost thirty years, and the Ultravoice Xm8500 offers amazing recording quality at a bargain-basement price tag.

Looking for a lavalier mic? Look no further than this tie-clip mic from PowerDeWise. Unlike some lavalier mics that require radio-frequency transmitters to actually record sound, this model is a plug-and-play microphone that connects directly to any device with a 3.5mm audio jack, including professional audio equipment as well as laptops, smartphones, tablets, and virtually any other device that supports audio playback though headphones (sorry iPhone 7 and Google Pixel owners). Plus, this lavalier mic comes with a 79-inch extension cord and a windscreen, making it ideal for both indoor and outdoor shoots.

Software tools for recording and editing online video

As well as a camera, a microphone, and some lights, you'll need some software tools to record and edit video for your online course. Here are a few of the better free tools available.

Tools for recording video:

Tools for editing video:

If you want to dive a little deeper into the best free software tools for online course creators, check out our comprehensive guide here!

Common mistakes people make when recording video

Now that we've checked out some of the gear you'll need to record video for your online course, it's time to look at a few of the most common mistakes people make when recording video - and how to avoid making them yourself.

Camera white balancing

All video cameras, from the one on your phone to the $15,000 RED camera we mentioned earlier, rely on a function known as white balancing to capture accurate colors when recording. To think of this another way, setting your camera's white balance is basically telling the camera what “true” white looks like so it can record the spectrum of colors in your scene accurately.

Failing to set the white balance of a camera is one of the most common mistakes people make when recording video. Fortunately, it's also one of the easiest problems to avoid. To set the white balance of your camera, find the camera's white balance button, then take a plain piece of white paper and hold it in front of your camera's lens. Make sure the paper completely fills the viewfinder, and that there are no shadows visible. Then simply press your camera's white balance button to “tell” your camera what true white looks like.

The only thing to remember is to adjust your white balance settings in the environment you're shooting in. Setting your camera's white balance indoors then shooting outdoors will result in your colors being off.

Poor lighting

We already talked about various lighting setups you can use when recording video for your online course. Now we need to talk about light temperatures.

As we mentioned earlier, videographers often measure light not just in watts, but in degrees Kelvin. This is because different light sources have different temperatures. Sunlight on a bright, sunny day, for example, has a temperature of around 6,500K.

As you can see, there's a big difference between the temperature of candlelight or a match flame than the temperature of sky light on a cloudless, bright day. The colors used in the scale above aren't just for illustrative purposes. Those are the actual, real-life colors of various light sources. Our eyes are so sophisticated that we can't always tell the difference between the colors of various lights - but video cameras can.

Many of the most glaring lighting problems (the ones that are hardest to fix in post) stem from conflicts in light temperature. For example, trying to record video indoors under fluorescent lights (which have a temperature of around 5,000K) with the windows open can “pollute” your scene with the conflicting daylight (which has a temperature of between 7,000-10,000K) coming in from outside. This creates a harsh mixture of two light colors and temperatures that will ruin your scene.

The easiest way to avoid conflicts like this is to ensure consistency in your scene's lighting. If you're shooting indoors, be sure there are no competing or conflicting external light sources that could affect the lighting of your scene, such as daylight shining through an open window.

Audio problems

Another great way to completely ruin a shoot is to overlook the importance of recording good audio.

For most content creators, their laptop's built-in microphone will be good enough to record balanced audio. Similarly to the lighting rigs we looked at earlier, you can pick up a solid multipurpose microphone very inexpensively online. Regardless of what type of mic you're using, avoiding common audio problems is simply a matter of planning ahead and understanding how basic audio works.

There are three main types of audio problems you could encounter during a shoot:

  • Volume

  • Distortion

  • Interference

Volume problems are very common. It's all too easy to overlook the recording level of your mic, only to discover you can barely hear yourself talk when you review the footage. The easiest way to avoid audio problems in your recordings is to record a short audio test before you sit down to record your lesson. Record yourself saying a few words as naturally as you can, then listen to the recording to check the volume.

If your camera has an audio meter, adjust your audio recording level so that the peaks in your audio just clip the top of the green area, around the 0 dBFS (decibels relative to full scale) mark. However, not all audio meters are the same (or even measure the same things), and depending on your audio's gain and other settings, hitting the 0 dBFS mark may still be too low. If in doubt, try to keep your audio levels just edging from green into the yellow.

Distortion is another very common audio problem. There are several types of distortion, but the most common are caused by peaks in the audio recording, i.e., recording audio at a volume higher than your microphone can handle. Audio can also become distorted when people speak, particularly on the plosive (“p” sounds) and sibilant (“s” sounds) parts of speech. The easiest way to avoid this kind of audio distortion is to test your audio levels before recording your lesson, and to ensure there is enough distance between you and your mic to avoid causing distortion.

The final type of audio problem is interference. This includes static hiss and radio frequency interference from things like radio and TV transmitters and microwave radiation. These kinds of audio problems can be hard to identify and harder to solve, but they're also less common than volume problems or distortion. Again, the simplest way to avoid interference issues is to test your audio before sitting down to record your lesson.

Framing and composition

So far, the problems we've looked at have been primarily technical. However, one of the most common problems people recording video make - and one that's virtually impossible to solve in post - is poor framing or shot composition.

In filmmaking and photography, composition refers to how the shot is framed, and how this affects the focal point of the image. There are different ways to compose your shot depending on what you want to emphasize, and it's important to consider composition before you start rolling. Although the ideal composition of your shot will depend on the nature of your online course, there's a handy rule of thumb you can use to compose your shots, known as the “Rule of Thirds.”

To apply the Rule of Thirds to your shot, imagine placing a nine-square grid over your shot. We can then use this grid to align our subject and emphasize specific focal points in our shots.

In the example above, the photographer draws the viewer's eye to the upper-left point, making this cheetah's face the focal point of the image. Interestingly, this point is also where most people's gaze tends to linger the longest, regardless of what the subject of the image actually is. One of the coolest things about the Rule of Thirds is that you can apply it to literally any shot or subject, from portrait photography of people to sweeping panoramas of stunning natural landscapes.

Although you can (and probably should) think about applying the Rule of Thirds to your shots, there's nothing “wrong” with centering the frame of your shot on yourself, especially if you're speaking directly to the viewer. For some course creators, framing your shots centrally may even be expected, so it's something to consider before your next shoot.

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It’s time to show off your recording skills!

Recording video for online courses can be intimidating to newcomers, especially if you haven't worked with video before. Hopefully, though, this guide has shown you that achieving professional-looking results is more about technique than relying on the most expensive recording equipment.

So what are you waiting for? Get recording and show the world how to do what you love!

About the author

Len Markidan is the CMO of Podia, a platform for creators to sell online courses, membership sites and digital downloads. He’s created and sold six-figure online courses using strategies like the ones in this article. Get his free 12,000+ word guide to creating profitable online courses, even if you’ve never done it before.