Budget Outdoor Video Camera Showdown: iPhone, Camcorder or DSLR?

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What is the best setup for making videos on the fly outside? Just about any camera or phone can shoot adequate video these days, but how is the sound quality? And what option is the most convenient so that you actually bring your camera to capture the action and then actually take the time edit it into a movie?

Since at the Lab we can't resist a good compare and contrast, we used three different popular video recording setups to make our video gear reviews, and evaluated them side-by-side to see which produced the highest quality video and which one was the easiest fast-and-light setup for recording short movies in the outdoors.

For all three setups, the addition of the wireless microphone is crucial. It improves the sound quality of the speaker's voice and reduces outside noise such as wind.

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The two main pieces (in addition to a wireless microphone) that are needed to create your iPhone video studio: a flexible iPhone stand and a microphone adapter cord.

iPhone Video Studio

Either an iPhone 4, 4S, or 5 (or other smart phone).
An adapter cord. Costs around $25 or this option
A flexible tripod stand. Ranges from $30 - $20
Azden WMS-PRO Wireless mic. Prices range from $270 to $150.

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The 1/8 inch microphone adapter cord for the iPhone. This cord costs around $25, and used along with a wireless mic, improves the sounds quality of videos made from the iPhone.

One of the (many) awesome features of the iPhone is photo and video capability. The rear-facing camera is 5 megapixel and records HD (720p) video up to 30 frames per second with audio. The front-facing camera (which comes in handy if you are photographing or videoing yourself) shoots VGA-quality photos and video at up to 30 frames per second. Unfortunately, this camera is not of very high quality but still produces an adequate video.

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The flexible iPhone stand mounted on top of a taller tripod. The flexible stand is easy to use since it can be mounted almost anywhere, but it is not as secure as a camera or camcorder mounted firmly on a tripod.
With the addition of a few simple items (listed above), you can inexpensively turn the iPhone into its own video studio. Here are the advantages as we see it:

The stand holds the phone in place so you can keep it steady while shooting. The flexible legs allow it to be mounted anywhere: on top of a taller tripod, around a tree branch, or set up by itself on a bench or table. Though these legs are flexible and versatile, the stand does not always wrap around things securely and sometimes wobbles. If it is mounted precariously it does not hold the phone well and can tip over.

Solution: You can also just remove the legs and attach the iPhone holder to most tripods.

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The flexible iPhone stand mounted onto a tripod in preparation for a video shoot.

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Sliding the iPhone into the stand with the mic receiver balanced below it.
The stand easily accommodates the phone in either direction, so you can switch to use either the front or rear-facing cameras, which allows you to have more versatility in setting up your shot. If you want to use the higher resolution rear-facing camera it is best to have someone help you frame the shot and hit the record button. If you are filming yourself, it is easiest to use the front-facing camera so you can see how the shot is framed, and hit the record button while already standing in place. This is even easier than the setup for a DSLR or camcorder if you are by yourself.

The overall setup is very simple to use: set up the stand, insert iPhone, plug in the adapter cord to the phone and the mic receiver, and you are ready to go.

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The iPhone set up in the stand, ready for shooting video. Precariously balancing the mic receiver box on the tripod below it.

The biggest advantage of the iPhone video studio is price. For someone on a budget, if you already own an iPhone you can make yourself a useful setup for very little money. A professional videographer would likely want something higher quality and more advanced, but for someone who only needs to film a few simple videos, or for us creating video reviews, this setup works really well.

Example of videos made with this iPhone Video Studio:

Made with the rear-facing camera on iPhone 4:


Canon EOS Rebel T3i 18 MP. Costs around $600.

Azden WMS-PRO Wireless mic. This can be found for prices ranging from $270 to $150.

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The Canon EOS Rebel with the wireless mic receiver attached and ready for video shooting. You can choose to look through the viewfinder or use the fold-out screen to set up your shot.

The DSLR camera has a few advantages over the iPhone studio: it has consistently high quality and resolution, mounts more firmly on a tripod since it screws onto the tripod itself, and the wireless mic receiver mounts securely onto the hot shoe attachment on top of the camera.

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The Azden Wireless mic receiver mounted to the hot shoe attachment on the top of the Canon EOS Rebel. This mount is much more convenient than connecting the mic to the iPhone, since there is no mount to attach the mic to.

The wireless mic, which adds significant sound quality to the videos, includes a transmitter box that attaches to the speaker's belt or pocket and a receiver box that needs to be connected to the camera or video recording device. With a DSLR, the hot shoe attachment is the perfect fixture for this receiver box, making the mic attachment seamless and simple.

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The Canon EOS Rebel mounted firmly on a tripod with the Azden Wireless mic receiver securely mounted to the hot shoe attachment on top.

The downside to using a camera like this is the cost and investment in high-tech equipment. If you only need to make a few videos and take a few pictures, it is probably not worth the expense of such a nice camera. In addition, you have to know how to use your camera. If you use the wrong exposure settings, you can easily end up with video that look of much lower quality than video from the iPhone.


Canon Vixia HF R200. This runs around $500.

Azden WMS-PRO Wireless mic. Ranges from $270 - $150.

A camcorder is the most ideal for a video that involves a lot of motion from the subject. Both the iPhone and DSLR cameras have autofocus, but it is steppy and slow, where a camcorder would allow for smoother and more accurate focus during movement.

A camcorder also lets you flip the screen forward if you are shooting video by yourself. When comparing the HF R200 video quality to the iPhone 4S, the HF R200 edged ahead, but only slightly. But when we compared the iPhone 4S to less expensive Canon camcorders like the HF R20 , the iPhone came out on top.

The downside to the camcorder is it is much bulkier than the iPhone and requires a fairly bulky charger. It also takes more time to get the files onto your computer and into the editing software.


Overall, we find the iPhone studio setup to be the most convenient. It uses the smallest and easiest pieces to transport, and a phone is something you are already going to carry with you. While the camcorder and the DSLR offer higher quality, for simple videos the setup with the iPhone is adequate and easy, plus it has the advantage of being inexpensive. The iPhone has another huge plus: fast work flow. You can edit movies on your phone or easily get them into your movie editing software much faster than with a camcorder or DSLR.

The camcorder is the most ideal for videos that incorporate a lot of motion and action since it has the smoothest auto-focus. The DSLR is the best option if you plan to take a lot of photos as well as shoot occasional videos since it is also a high-quality camera that allows for manual exposure adjustments and focus that the iPhone does not.

McKenzie Long
About the Author
After graduating from University of Cincinnati with a degree in graphic design, McKenzie moved to the mountains to spend as much of her time climbing as possible. It started with an internship at Alpinist Magazine and a move to Jackson, Wyoming where she fell in love with the peaks of the West. Now she lives in Mammoth Lakes, California and runs her own freelance design business, where she is constantly balancing work and play.
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