Creating online courses is a booming enterprise. Lot's of people realized that they have knowledge that can be shared with others. Creating online courses has many different aspects, from storytelling to digital editing to hosting. Today, I am focusing exclusively on the equipment that you need to create online courses. Equipment relates to the monetary investment you need to build an online course, including software. First, we should agree that to create a video course, your phone is all you need. However, if you want to make it look great, well polished, and professional, you will need a few extra gadgets. A fair warning before you keep reading: this article is highly opinionated and goes against some of the advice you find in other places. There are no affiliate links, so everything you see is as honest as it can be.
There are 4 pieces of equipment that you need to create an online course: Camera, lights, microphone, editing software. The end result will depend on the combinations of tools you choose and your skills, of course.
First, we need to agree that recording videos for online courses does not require a special camera. Online courses are typically shot indoors, with the camera steady somewhere. The best camera, as almost always, is the camera you already have. If you have a reflex or a mirrorless that can record video, then you are ready. If you have a decent phone, then you are ready. If you really want to invest in a camera for video, I would strongly suggest you get a video camera. Don't buy a photo camera for making videos. They are expensive, and harder to use right. If you have to pick one, the Canon Legria is an excellent camera at around 250U$. Many cameras in the same price range will serve you just fine. Video for 99.9% of courses is extremely basic since it focuses more on the content than on the photography: The camera is fixed, the subject is not too far nor too close, and is well-lit (see the next section). Video cameras also have good motorized zoom, focusing, and stabilization, which are a great addition compared to photo cameras. A nice but not a sine-qua-non requirement is a tripod to comfortably hold your camera at different heights and angles.
Things to look for in a camera
If you are considering buying a camera for video, the most important thing to note is the video resolution. Nowadays, 1080p is a reasonable standard, and it looks more than fine in most displays. If you want to go over the top with the quality, you can search for a 4K camera. 4K video takes much more space on the hard drive and requires better computers to edit. Unless you are doing something to be shown on a huge screen or targetted to visual artists who you know have screens with 4K resolution, don't bother. I would argue that very few people would appreciate a video course shot in 4K instead of 1080p. Remember that most people will consume your course on screens with not that many pixels, or even on phones.
Another essential component of a camera is the lens. If you go for a video camera, you will get a lens that covers from wide to tele. This will allow you to make videos in small spaces when you are close to it, and to zoom into details if you are further away. If you have a reflex, the best lens is usually the kit lens (18-55mm). It will allow you to shot in almost any context without any effort.
Good lighting is what makes the difference between mediocre and good videos. My advice is to compensate for the money you save on a camera with better lights. Of course, if you have a well-lit place, with big windows, then you are set. However, if you live in an area where clouds come and go, such as I do, you will need external lights to give consistency. Neewer is a brand with amazing products. They are made in China and sold directly around the world. If you are getting started, just go for their lights, they won't let you down. The secret with lights is to always have more than one. You don't want to illuminate only your face, you also want to have the background well lit to generate a sense of depth. If you are writing on a whiteboard or a piece of paper, you want enough light to prevent shadows from rendering your handwriting hard to read. You can go much further in quality with better lights than with a better camera. And the lights are cheaper. If instead of spending 750U$ on a camera, you spend 250U$ and 500U$ on lights (which is an absurd amount), your video will look much better instantaneously.
Things to look for in lights
Lights are a complicated subject, both for beginners and experienced photo/videographers. In photography, there is a concept called the white balance, which is a way of correcting the colors of the captured images to make the whites appear actually white to someone watching. When using artificial light sources, the most important thing to remember is not mixing light sources. If you have incandescent bulbs, don't mix them with fluorescent tubes. If you mix, you will have regions on your image that will look blueish or yellowish. When you buy lights, be sure that the temperature stated is the same. Some lamps even allow you to set the temperature. This is great if you already have some lights, or if you want to mix natural and artificial light.
There is nothing more annoying than having someone speaking behind a microphone during a video course. The only situation in which I accept a microphone on the camera is if it is a live reporting for the news or video shot while recording a podcast or a radio program. The worst decision you can make is to have a distracting element on your image, such as a microphone. Microphones, unlike cameras, are a necessary addition. Built-in microphones are, usually, very limited. The safest bet when it comes to microphones is Røde. They have microphones in a vast range of prices. Whatever microphone that can be plugged into the audio jack of the computer or camera will work fine. Depending on the type of content you are creating, a lavalier microphone can be very far from the camera. In that case, you can plug it to the phone in your pocket and record the audio on a separate track. I am delighted with the VideoMicro. I've seen a lot of people suggesting the Blue Yeti for video. It is an excellent microphone for podcasting, no doubts. Still, you can save a lot of money and serve you better with a microphone for video, trust me.
Things to know about audio
Audio, such as lighting, is a complicated subject. First, you need to be aware that sounds that your brain simply filters out, will be very annoying on video. You may not be aware of the noises from the street, of a washing machine, or even the echo of the walls where you work. The first step is choosing a good location to record, even more than the microphone itself. The other thing to be aware of is that you will need to clean up the audio after recording. Unless you opt for a higher-end system, with a dedicated audio recording interface, there will always be white noise present. Fortunately, any editing software can clean it up for you with a few mouse clicks. The main difference with video is that you don't have instantaneous feedback on audio. You have to record yourself for a while and listen to it. It takes a couple of tries to get the audio right. You may be speaking too loudly, the microphone may be too far or too close, etc.
I add software to the mix of required tools because it is a significant investment, perhaps even more substantial than the investment you need to do on hardware. If you are reading this article, you care about the quality of the course, and a big part will be dictated by the edition step. What software you chose will depend on the operating system you have and the content of your course. If you are going to do screen recording or want to directly capture from your webcam, Camtasia is an all-in-one program. You can very quickly get a decent video, with some annotations, and transitions. It works well for editing videos in general. Still, you have to remember that a big part of the development effort went into the screen recording aspects. At 269U$ has a similar price to the other software we shall discuss. It does not run on Linux.
A standard for video editing is Adobe Premiere Pro. The software is very powerful. However, I find the subscription model a disgrace to the world, and it does not run on Linux. However, if you are into video editing, you can go to great lengths with it. Da Vinci Resolve has both a free and a paid version. It is supposed to run on Linux, but very few people achieve it, and it costs the same as 1 year of Premiere Pro. For completeness, I shall mention Lightworks, which offers a free version (low resolution exporting), it runs fine on Linux. Still, its price is comparable to Adobe, and its product is, honestly, inferior. These last three programs are really editing software, the kind people use for movies.
As you perhaps know, I am all-in regarding open-source. This website and most of what I build is open-source. However, for video editing, the tools are not yet mature enough. If you want to give it a try, KDEnlive is the best around. You can go to great lengths with it, but you will have to deal with occasional crashes and an interface and workflow that need some polishing. In my opinion, the software is too expensive compared to the rest of the tools you need. I couldn't really find a reasonably priced program for online course creation. To get started and learn about editing and storytelling, KDEnlive is an excellent solution. You will learn a lot of principles on how to work with video and audio, but you can get frustrated with things that just don't work as smoothly as possible.
For screen recording, there is a notable exception: Open Broadcaster Software (OBS). The program, apparently, is tailored to the gaming community, which likes to do live streaming. Its strength is, without doubts, live recording, with options such as transitions, picture in picture, etc. But this does not mean that it is not well suited for recording the screen for an online course. It takes a few tries to get used to the interface and how to set up things, but once you understand the logic of the scenes and sources, you can become very proficient with it. I had to tweak a bit the parameters to record on a HiDPI laptop, but eventually, it worked out.
If you want to record video, be it for a course or anything else, the best you can do is to look for tools designed for it. If you already have a camera or a microphone, you can get started with them. However, if you are planning to buy equipment, you have to be smart about balancing your budget. Cameras for video offer great results for affordable prices compared to photo cameras that can record video. Most online courses are recorded indoors. Investing in good lights is much more important than the camera. Of course, specific courses probably will need specialized tools. If you are going to focus on how to solder electronics, for example, you should consider a macro lens. Or if you want to shoot sports, perhaps a camera with high frame rates could be an excellent addition. This is not what most course creators need. Microphones are an essential component, but so is selecting an appropriate place to record. If you are going to buy, again, go for a microphone for video, not for podcast or studio. We don't need to see the microphone's brand on your videos; we just need a clear voice.
Depending on the type of content you are creating, perhaps recording handwriting becomes essential. The low tech approach is to put the camera on top of a piece of paper and record yourself writing. This, in my opinion, works excellent, especially if you think about lighting. Another option is to use a tablet. I got my hands on a Wacom Intuos. I used Krita to draw and OBS to record the screen. The experience was very smooth. I liked how easy it is to change pen styles and colors. But you have to get used to drawing without looking at your hand. I haven't tried, but apparently, you can hook an iPad to the computer, and draw while recording the screen. On the one hand, this seems like a better approach, because you see what you are drawing or writing. On the other hand, I've heard that the setup to record the screen requires some extra steps, and it only works if you have a Mac and an iPad, which is not always the case.