The Bootstrapper’s Guide to Budget Video Blogging Part I

Adding video content to your blog can have a number of benefits, especially when it comes to connecting with your audience. We all know that a lot of people don’t like to read on the web, but watching videos? Look no further than YouTube for proof that people consume video content in massive quantities. Unfortuntely, producing video can be a pretty daunting task.

As an article on Lifehacker recently pointed out, one of the times that people are most likely to overspend is when they’re focusing on self-improvement. Producing video content for your blog definitely fits the bill. If you’re not careful, you can spend a lot of money on camera, lights, sound equipment, and editing software. Now, I’m all about investing in quality tools, but if you’re just starting out and want to see if this is something you can actually do, it makes sense to try to do it on the cheap.

Luckily, there are a lot of really great options out there for people who want to try their hands at video blogging without breaking the bank.

Cheap video blogging setup


When you want to produce video on the cheap, you’ve generally got two options: webcams and your smartphone. While there are some great webcams out there, I’m going to focus primarily on smart phones for three reasons:

  1. People generally always have their phones on them
  2. They’re small and easy to setup just about anywhere
  3. Phones have an extremely simple user interface, which gets you up and running with almost zero effort

Are you picking up on a theme here? I like the idea of using a phone because it’s fast and easy, which is extremely important in that it helps to eliminate a lot of the excuses you might have for not shooting a quick video. The fewer steps there are between you and a completed video, the more likely you’ll be to actually create one.

Producing video gets easier with a smart phone

Of course, there are a lot of other big pluses to using your phone as well. For instance:

  • You can also upload directly to YouTube and other sites directly from your phone
  • If you want to do a bit of editing first, getting the files from your phone to your computer is super easy: simply hook up a USB cable and drag the files to your desktop
  • You can even setup automatic synching with Dropbox and you video (and photos) will automatically be copied to your computer via Wifi

And let’s not forget, smartphone cameras are surprisingly capable and produce very good quality video. No, you won’t be able to do fancy things like shallow depth of field or fancy focus control, but for regular videos they’re more than up to the task.

Now don’t get me wrong; if you’ve got better equipment available, use that. You should always try to create the highest quality experience possible. However, I’m suggesting smart phones for their convenience and to remove a pretty major barrier to entry. You don’t need to buy a camera; use the one you’re already carrying with you.

Remember: we’re testing the waters here. Before you invest, let’s see if this is something you can actually do.

Getting Better Footage with your Phone

If you do opt to use your smartphone to shoot video, there are a few things you can do you to dramatically improve the quality of your final product.

Planning Your Shoot

While it’s a lot of fun to just break out your camera and start shooting, that rarely makes for good footage. Instead, take a few minutes and formulate a mental plan. Figure out what kind of story you’re trying to tell, and what sort of shots you need to tell it. Better still, plan it out completely in advance.

Nothing looks worse than watching a video of someone trying to capture a moment and panning back and forth without ever focusing on any one thing longer than a few seconds. The video ends up being scattered, unfocused, and – worst of all – boring.

If you’re shooting an event, take a few minutes to get a sense of what’s going on. Rather than randomly jumping around to all the different things competing for your attention, make a quick mental list of a handful of interesting items, then start filming them. Try to vary your shots as well: get larger crowd shots to give the event a sense of scale, medium shots of groups so your audience gets a sense of the composition of things, and close up shots of individual elements (people, protest signs, etc.) for detail. Intermingling these can help add some interest to your final product and make it more dynamic.

A little planning goes a long way

If you’re just planning to shoot yourself talking about something or an interview, have an outline of exactly what you want to go over in advance. Make sure you hit all your points, and try to do it as succinctly as you can without rushing. For interviews, ask open ended questions that let the subject talk at length, and resist the urge to interrupt.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the occasional candid moment. If you discover something incredible that isn’t in the plan, shoot it anyway. If it works, great! If it doesn’t, then simply don’t use it. Either way, don’t pass up an interesting moment simply because it’s not in the plan.


Lighting is extremely important in getting good video, and it can be difficult to get just right. The easiest way to get decent lighting is to do your video outside on fairly bright but cloudy day. The sun will provide adequate light, and the clouds will help diffuse the light. Be careful of filming on too bright a day, as it will end up washed out your footage.

Shooting indoors can be a bit more challenging, but certainly not impossible. They key is finding nice, consistent light that doesn’t require a complicated setup, because if it’s a pain to do, you’re less likely to do it.

Tap into natural light by filming near windows

One of the best solutions is to record your video in an area with a lot of windows. Natural light is the best, so if it’s available, use it.

And if natural light isn’t available? It’s time to get out some lights. A great, relatively cheap solution is to grab a couple cheap work lights from your local hardware store and get some bright, daylight-balanced CFL bulbs. CFLs are great because they use a fraction of the power of incandescent bulbs, and generate almost no heat.

CFLs - light without the heat

Daylight-balanced means that the light that comes from the bulbs has the same tint as normal daylight. Light has all sorts of color tinting, from yellow in traditional incandescent bulbs to the blue of regular florescent. It’s important to try to get evenly colored light.

When you setup your lighting, you might find you get better results if you diffuse the light a bit. A cheap way to do that is to tape some parchment paper over the lights. The light will shine through the paper, which will soften the light and make things look a lot nicer. You could even use a sheet of white printer paper.


One of the biggest issues with footage shot from a phone is that it’s usually really shaky, especially when people try to film themselves talking. Why? Generally, because people hold their cameras at arm’s length, where keeping it stable is extremely difficult. It also makes any sort of reasonable shot framing almost impossible.

Don't hold your camera like this

Instead, hold the camera with both hands close to your body with your elbows bent. This is a much more stable position, and will make for a lot smoother video. It also makes it easier to frame your shots.

Hold the camera with both hands tight to the body for a more stable shot

If you want to be on camera, then it’s time to invest in a tripod. You can pick up an inexpensive tripod at any discount retailer to get started. Of course, your phone doesn’t have a tripod mount on it.

But don’t worry, a lot of companies made tripod mounts for phones. I recently reviewed an inexpensive options from Joby called “GripTight“, as well as some of the accessories you can use with it. It’s easy to setup, and works really well. If you’re going to shoot with your phone, a tripod is a worthwhile investment.

For truly stable shots, use a tripod

For a very minimal investment, you can easily setup your phone pretty much anywhere and get rock-steady footage.

Experiment & Have Fun

The last suggestion is probably the most important of all: if you want get better at producing awesome web video, then you need to experiment and take chances. Not only will this help you to better understand the medium and discover new ways of doing things, it will also keep the process a lot more dynamic and interesting.

At the end of the day, the key to learning how to do something well lies in doing it. If it’s interesting and fun, it’s a lot easier to get off the couch and start shooting.

So how do you experiment with video? There are a lot of ways. Try shooting from different angles, or framing your shot differently. If you’re used to filming everything in your office, mix it up and do a video outside. If you only do “talking head” style videos, try out and interview, a review, or a short documentary-style feature instead.

The Cliff’s Notes version is: be dynamic and don’t get stuck doing the same thing over and over again. And have fun for Pete’s sake.


That’s it for now, but we’ve really just scratched the surface. Stay tuned for more articles that address topics like recording screen-casts, getting better audio, basic editing, and easy DIY projects to improve your productions.

3 Responses to “The Bootstrapper’s Guide to Budget Video Blogging Part I”

  1. bill calhoun

    Great info. HUGE thanks.


    1. Is there anyway we can mimic the “blurred” background typically standard ‘F-stop” featured on DSLR cameras? I’d love to be able to set up that way. Not really privy to going out to buy an expensive DSLR

    • David

      The easiest way I know of is to put the camera in macro mode, that usually gets you a fuzzier background.

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