Recording talks on ZgPHP user group meetups

Brain dump about technical stuff around video recording and editing and little bit about benefits of having every user group talk published online.

I tried to capture process of filming talks that are given at our ZgPHP user group meetups. It is meant as more of a helpful guideline for other fellow user group organisers, rather than authoritative “this is the only way to do it” tutorial. From short discussion that Kayla started on Twitter, I noticed that there are a few misconceptions about technicalities and amount of work involved, so let’s try to shed some light on those.

Discussion that made me write this ☺

Equipment and services

Here is a setup that we use to film ZgPHP talks. It consists of GoPro Hero 3 camera with external microphone adapter connected to Samson ST5 wireless receiver. For the speaker, there is a clip-on microphone (bug, lapel, lavalier mic) together with wireless transmitter. GoPro and transmitter run on battery power while receiver is plugged in an outlet.

No, that is now my sewing kit! It can also be used to carry camera and all the connectors

Why is this setup good, and why it works for us?

Microphone is close to sound source — I can’t stress enough how important this is. If you only take one advice from this article this should be it. Put the microphone as close to speaker as possible. If you can get a dedicated one for speaker, do it. If you are deciding between spending money on video capturing or sound capturing, go for sound. Even if you record crappy video in potato quality, you can do magic in post production, combine it with slides and end up with cool video — if the sound is OK.

Having bad audio is worse than bad video. If you want to cut corners, do it on the video side.

GoPro records sound from external source — it may seem obvious, but having a one file with video and audio in sync is a godsend in post processing. Without it we would have to jump through hoops to adjust it later on. If you are buying new equipment look for something that has a external microphone input.

Record video and audio together if you want to save time later.

GoPro has a 720p resolution — more than enough for web use. I suggest resisting the urge of doing a 1080p or 4K videos as they are bigger, take longer to process and upload, video hosting websites seldom support it and there is not much gain for the end product. Read again part about the sound quality.

Do not record larger than what your video service supports.

GoPro has a wide angle and fixed zoom — it covers a lot of area, so once you set it up there is no need to have a dedicated person to adjust anything or follow speaker if he moves around. It also captures screen with slides. It is not meant to be readable, but to provide orientation for viewers that follow along with PDF or PPT file.

It is much easier if you can set it and forget it.

Whole setup is portable — fits in my backpack and it is under 2 kg. We have a regular meeting space but we do not have a locker where we could store it between meetings. Also, as this is my personal equipment, I do occasionally use it. If you are visiting a conference where your user group members are speaking you can set up recording for their personal archive or for review later on.

Go light. You can reuse it much better.

Next two points are not related to equipment, but should be mentioned here.

Vimeo Plus — subscription is $10 per month, giving us support for HD video, statistics, easy embedding and a good API. Worth it. You could go with YouTube or other video services as well, but we do not want to change a winning horse.

OpenShot or iMovie — used OpenShot on Linux a lot, stable and intuitive enough. On Mac OS I struggled a bit to get a grasp of iMovie logic as it wasn’t intuitive for me at first. Give me few more videos and it will be OK.

What could be better

GoPro has a two and a half hours of battery life — while this is more than enough for monthly meetings, we were unable to use the setup for our yearly conference. Not without additional batteries at least. I’d prefer if there was an option to run on power source while having external microphone plugged in. Unfortunately, on new GoPros they share a same USB port.

Wireless microphone runs on 9V batteries — it was cheaper to buy in the start, but it requires you to buy new ones every couple of meetups. Not a big expense, but it is there, non the less.

GoPro has a wide angle — yes, this is also a downside. Video looks distorted near the edges. It is not that noticeable, especially if you dive into the recorded talk, but it is still there.

Additional microphone for the audience questions — workaround is asking a speaker to repeat a question before giving the answer but only trained and seasoned speakers do so. Novices tend to forget it, but you can’t really blame them.

Alternative equipment

In photography and video there is a lot of hacking and DIY work. You would be surprised how much recording devices you already have. Mobile phones work wonders, newer iPhones have a great camera that works well in low light. Use a cell phone car mount, stack a few books, sticky tape… Digital cameras that you use for vacation photos are also capable of shooting video. Dictaphones, digital voice recorders are also good way to capture audio, especially as they can be placed near the speaker. Be creative!

Work involved

Of course, you have to attend a meetup that you are recording. If you are the only one that knows how to work the equipment, show it to someone else as well. You will have backup in case you get sick, family emergency or your server catches fire.

If you recorded at reasonable resolution and have a file with both video and audio, your post processing work should include trimming the start and the end of video. If you have multiple talks per meetup, make separate videos. You will have ready to watch, embeddable videos that are much more versatile than “here is my talk, just skip to 43:21".

If you are just starting out with video processing, adding a simple fade in/fade out effect should be enough. You can play along with including slides, picture in picture, group logos and whatnots but only if you know how to do it quickly. If you are just starting out, do not shoot for perfection and cinema quality side effects, especially if it means not getting your videos published.

Total amount of work per video should be in realm of 15 minutes. After that, you leave it to CPU power to export and your internet provider to upload a video. It pays of to have a computer capable of doing video exporting and regular work. My old laptop was unusable for that so look for someone with a modern machine.

Uploading is a hassle and can be frustrating on a crappy connection. I have around 512 kbps upload speed and trying to push 1 GB of video means rendering whole internet link useless. Tried leaving it upload overnight, but connection would break, with no possibility to resume upload. Luckily, companies I work for don’t mind if I use their link for that, so I do not do it at home anymore. Anything above 5 Mbps is perfect.

Look for someone with modern CPU and good internet connection to do video processing and uploading.

Benefits of having talks recorded

Video gives you best feedback possible. It works wonders for improvement of our speakers. It is much more easier to ask for feedback, even from someone that was not attending. Also, conference organisers can see you in action and it works in your favour if they like what they see.

Also, it helps user group organisers in telling rest of the world what they do. We switched to mandatory English talks, so now our videos have much broader audience and we get more exposure because of that. It makes it little bit easier to get foreign speakers come to your user group as well.

Downside of having talks recorded

One thing that we did not see coming was that some members decided not to come to our monthly meetings as they could see all the talks online. We knew that user groups are not just the talks so it took us a while to get that message across. We even tried publishing videos with a few months delay but that did not yield any results. Members that are far away and can’t attend were disappointed as they had to wait for videos so we ditched that practice and after our attendance stabilised we do not worry about it anymore.

So there it is, quick dump of everything I could think of regarding recording our meetup talks. Feel free to shoot any questions my way, I’d be happy to answer them and update.