Investing Wisely in Film Gear

Canon 7D

Since I get asked a lot by filmmakers, especially those starting out, what equipment I recommend, I’ve created this list. The gear is ordered by priority – i.e. I start with the essentials: the camera, the lenses, the tripod and so on. For each category, I list a few options – from the most affordable to the top of the line. I only list equipment that I am familiar with and that represents good value – i.e. you will get your money’s worth regardless whether it’s the most or least expensive option available on the market.

If you are starting out, don’t worry about acquiring all of this equipment. Don’t create extra barriers for yourself. Just start shooting with whatever you have available, so you can develop your skills. Great filmmaking skills will make your work look great even when you are limited to mediocre equipment.

As you progress and start making money as a filmmaker, you will want to acquire all this additional gear that appears further down the list. A lot of it serves not so much to make your work look better, but to make your productions faster and smoother. Eventually, your time will become your most precious resource and that’s when it makes sense to spend money on the non-essentials. Still, you want to be smart in your investments.

The Camera

All the cameras listed here offer superior HD video, with the cheaper models being just as good as the expensive ones. What sets them apart are the 4K resolution, the size of the sensor (with the full-sized sensors giving narrower depth of field, all things equal – but see my DOF tutorial to understand this better and not overpay for this feature), the ability to record in RAW format (giving you full freedom to color grade in post-production) and the build quality and sturdiness.

Sony NEX-5RK

  • affordable
  • small
  • smooth and reliable autofocus – the best of the cameras reviewed here
  • additional lenses are more expensive than for the EF (“Canon”) mount cameras

See my full review of NEX-5RK


Canon T3i

  • affordable – slightly more expensive than Sony NEX-5RK
  • exactly the same HD video as the more expensive Canon 7D


Canon 7D

  • top-of-the-line HD video quality (probably the most popular DSLR camera among indie filmmakers)
  • sturdy and weatherproof (main differentiating factor from the cheaper T3i)


Canon 5D (Mark II and III)

  • one of the few cameras on the market – and they are all expensive – that has a full-size sensor. This makes getting narrow depth of field very easy (but see my DOF tutorial).


Panasonic GH4

  • 4K resolution
  • great video quality
  • affordable – for a 4K camera
  • sensor smaller than the Canon T3i and 7D (crop factor of 2.0 vs 1.6). Therefore, getting narrow depth of field is a bit more challenging. Still, in practical terms, this is a small difference and it should not be a major drawback.

See my review of the GH4

NOTE: Expected availability: End of April 2014


BlackMagic Production Camera 4K

  • 4K resolution
  • RAW recording (gives you full freedom in post-production to manipulate the image – color correction)
  • full-size sensor
  • poor battery and monitor – needs additional purchases to make it ready for serious work

See my review of the BlackMagic Production Camera 4K


The Lenses

See my extensive tutorial “Lenses – Beginnner’s Guide”. It should answer most of your questions about lenses. Among other things, it talks about how you can save a lot of money by buying used manual lenses, especially the Nikon.

Good lenses are important but, I think, some people attach too much importance on getting the best lenses. As you buy more expensive lenses, at some point you get little improvement but a much bigger cost with these top lenses. It is easy to overspend in this area.

One mistake I see filmmmakers make is to go for these super-fast lenses (i.e. large aperture – low fstop number). Yes, it is nice to have a fast lens – because you can shoot with less light – but if you use a very large aperture, keeping your subjects in focus becomes a challenge. For example, I see filmmakers put such a lens on a steadicam and be surprised that they cannot keep their actors in focus.

Most cameras come with good stock zoom lenses – for example, a 20mm-50mm lens. These lenses are good for a lot of situations, therefore you can go far with just the stock lens. If you do have money for an extra lens, I’d recommend buying first a 50mm prime lens.

50mm lenses approximate the view of the eye and are very versatile. Plus, with the prime lens, you will be able to shoot with less light and have a sharper image. Also, these lenses are generally not expensive, unless you go for a very fast lens.

Here is a good selection of 50mm prime lenses.


Next lens I would buy would be a telephoto zoom lens, for example, a focal length range of 70mm-200mm. With the stock lens and such a telephoto zoom lens, you will be covered for most situations that filmmakers face. You’re unlikely to ever need anything bigger than 200mm. So, don’t spend extra to, for example, get a 70mm-300mm lens.

Most of telephoto zoom lenses are on the slow side (large fstop number), but to get a pretty fast one costs quite a bit more. I wouldn’t rush into buying one – I had used just an average telephoto lens for many years.

Remember that a filmmaker wants to control the light, therefore he/she usually employs lights. Since lights are usually used anyway, the speed of the lens is not a crucial factor.


Next on my list would be a wide-angle lens, whether prime or zoom lens. I find them quite useful on music videos and also when shooting indoors on location (rather than a set) where the space can often be tight. These lenses are also fast, so they can save you if you don’t have much light to work with.


Lenses below 20mm are rarely used. Their most common applications are for action scenes or very stylized shots in music videos.

Camera Support Gear: Shoulder Rigs and Tripods

Most of the cameras used by indie filmmakers these days are small and awkward to film with (as opposed to taking photographs). Therefore, getting good support gear is essential.

If you are starting out and have a limited budget, I would just get a simple shoulder rig before investing in a more robust rig or tripod. Here’s one such a rig.

I have a video review of this rig if you would like to find out more.


Next on the list of priorities would be a tripod. There are a lot of good ones to choose from. You can view my review of Manfrotto tripods or follow the links below to find out more.


If you get accessories for your camera (ex. monitor, batteries, SSDs, follow focus), you will end up needing a more robust shoulder rig.

Lights

Lights are crucial to cinematography, but unfortunately few filmmakers have access to them. The good news is that there are now more affordable options on the market.

For those with limited budgets, I would start out with a light reflector. There are few productions that don’t have outdoor shoots, so you are likely to have an opportunity to use one. It is a simple and cheap tool that has a big pay-off. Just as importantly, using a light reflector will get you learning about how to control the light – the key to cinematography.

You are welcome to check out my tutorial about the use of light reflectors.

Next step you might want to take is to get work lights – halogen, incandescent, or maybe even fluorescent. For a budget of $100-150, you can put together a nice set of lights of varied power – I recommend covering the 150W-1000W range. These lights don’t have barn doors, which makes controlling the spill of light more challenging, but you can improvise with a tin foil. When you are learning, it is nice to have your own lights because you can take your time to experiment. So, despite their limitations, work lights are a pretty good option, instead of buying or renting more expensive professional lights.

With increased competition in the market, especially from Asia, there are now more affordable options for professional film lights. Oftentimes, the lower prices offered by the unknown brands don’t come with a trade-off in quality. So, there are some bargains to be had.

The easiest lights to work with are LEDs. They have also come down in price to the level of tungsten incandescent lights. Therefore, they are a smart choice for indie filmmakers. Check out my tutorial where I review several models.


The good old workhorses of film lights are the tungsten incandescent lights, such as the Redhead tungsten lights. They give a lot of light, come (or can be equipped) with barn doors and you can usually set them for the flood or spot setting – i.e. they are the easiest lights to control. On the downside, they get hot and draw a lot of power. Whereas you can connect many LED lights to the same circuit (or outlet), you will be often limited to only one or two tungsten lights – if you go over 1000W, you are very likely to blow the fuse of a standard household circuit (15A). Still, for more experienced and ambitious cinematographers, tungsten incandescent lights are a must.

Another major type of film lights are fluorescent lights, for example the Kino Flo line. They have a lot of the advantages of LED light. Unfortunately, the bigger fluorescent lights are generally expensive and so I don’t have any bargains that I can share. But I recommend renting the Kino Flo’s, or similar lights, for your productions.

Sound

You can spend a lot of money on audio equipment, but I have used a very simple set-up on most of my productions (including a feature-length film) with great results. It consists of the Zoom H4 portable audio recorder and the RODE NTG-2 shotgun microphone. For the microphone, it is essential to have a boom and the deatcat (i.e. windscreen).

Tutorial 19 talks about the audio equipment that I used on my documentary “Montañita: Beach Life”. So, check it out if you want to learn more.





Steadicams

Steadicams are not essential, but they for sure will add a lot of cinematic quality to your work. I have a very extensive set of reviews and tutorials about steadicams. Check them out to learn everything you need about steadicams / glidecams and see what are the advantages and disadvantages of different models.

Here are my favorite picks


Of all the brands I’ve reviewed, I found the CAME steadicams to offer the best value. Here is my video review.

Camera Sliders

Together with steadicams, sliders are a great option for adding camera movement to your work, thereby greatly enhancing it. As compared to steadicams, sliders give you smoother shots. Their minus is that they have a more limited range.

To learn how and when to use sliders, as well as see my review of the Konova sliders, see tutorial “Filmmaker’s Toolbox: Camera Slider”


Camera Dolly

Good dollies are expensive and cumbersome to work with because of their weight, so many indie filmmakers who use DSLRs opt for camera sliders. Still, if you are going to work with a big camera, or you need a very long and super smooth tracking shot, you will need a dolly. But if you can afford a big fancy camera, you can probably also afford to rent a dolly. If not, the other option is to build your own. I explain exactly how to do this in my DIY Camera Dolly tutorial.

Other accessories

Neutral Density Filters

When shooting outdoors on a sunny day, you might be forced to shoot at high shutter speeds. This will give you no or little motion blur. Unless you are going for a specific effect, most of the time you do want motion blur because this helps to make your footage feel movie-like. Therefore, a ND filter is a nice accessory to have.


If you have used gear that you can strongly recommend, please share in the comments section below, or send me a message. Thanks!

29 thoughts on “Investing Wisely in Film Gear”

  1. Hi Tom,
    I go through all your tutorials and reviews” AWSOME”
    Can you kindly let me know if i can order for the arial photography equipment(cine drone} kindly let me know aldo would like to order for school dvd
    Regards
    Shaan

  2. Hi Tom!

    What about the Canon 60D?
    I use 60D, it has the same sensor of the 7D, and is the more hackable of the market, I think (talking about ML)

    1. Yes 60D is also a great camera. There are a lot of amazing cameras on the market today, I can’t list them all so I had to choose and mention the few that Ive got the most experience with.

  3. Hi Tom,
    Thank you so much for your tutorials they are really a great help. I’m a Post Production Manager and Quality Check in a community television station in South Africa, and I’m using your videos to train my staff. The feedback I’m getting from them is really positive.

    1. Thank you Lizo for the nice message! I am happy to hear that my tutorials are helping people even in South Africa. Say hi to everyone there! And remember that in filmmaking there are no rules, just good suggestions, if you can do something different that still makes your final work look good then do it! Experiment! Have fun! 🙂

      1. You should be happier because I am in China. Thanks a lot. “There are no rules in filmmaking, just good suggestions.” I will keep remembering it.

  4. Hey! I know this is kinda off topic nevertheless
    I’d figured I’d ask. Would you be interested in exchanging links or maybe guest
    writing a blog post or vice-versa? My site discusses a lot of the
    same subjects as yours and I feel we could greatly benefit from each other.
    If you are interested feel free to send me an email. I look forward to hearing from you!

    Excellent blog by the way!

  5. Recommend as a step-in for + 500,00 $ cameras category|If you’re new to dslr this would be your start up camera. I think it’s priced right, but I’d go for camera body only and invest in a good lens then what comes in the kit. If you want to take it up a notch on the rebel series , then go with t5i. I think it has a better auto focus than the t3i and has touch LCD screen. But either way it’s a good camera|I’ve been pretty happy with this camera 6 months after buying it. Its easy to handle and manage, especially if you’re a DSLR noob. It has a self-cleaning sensor so you barely ever have to clean it from the inside. The body is not super-heavy and gripping it is easy with the strategically placed rubber grips.

  6. Hi Tom, Thanks for all your informed help.
    What do you think about a second hand Sony NEX-5 14.2 MP as a starting out camera for making short films?
    Sally

  7. hi Tom,thx alot for tutorials are very helpful,im in burundi keep being so kind God bless u man and im ganna try the one of shooting with one light,thx again

  8. TOM,im blessed with your tutorial,infact it gives me a lot of encouragement in productions,i have with me the shoulder rig you use for a musical video,but i still want to advance in my profession.how can i down load some of your tutorial in film making.all the way from Nigeria west Africa.thank you.

  9. Hey, Tom! Thank you for these useful information.
    I’m making a choice from T3I and T5I. The difference are that T5I has DIGIC 5 and STM lens, I really want to know whether the two upgrade are important or not for filmmaking.
    And as a beginner, I should choose the 18-55mm lens or 18-135mm as kit?

    1. I second what Tom has said. You can also check out our post where we compare these two and other Canon DSLR models http://tomantosfilms.com/4266/canon-dslr-overview/

      Having the STM is not important because you want to control focus manually when doing professional video or film. You can read a little bit more about it here http://tomantosfilms.com/4245/autofocus/

      But the 18-135mm is a nice stock lens, so if you can get a good deal on the T5i (ie only pay a small premium over the T3i), then it’s a good buy too.

  10. Hi i was reading this article and also looking up prices online.
    First off i am an amateur filmmaker and also on a tight budget. I have a sony nex-7 as my main camera, as of now i have the kit lens on there. I want to get another lens, i saw you recommend a fixed focal 50mm lens. I looked up prices on b&h photo, in the sale and regular departments. I found photography 50mm lenses for about 200 and cine 50mm lenses for twice that and much more.
    What is the difference between a photography lens and a cine lens?

  11. Hi Tom,

    Am willing to buy Lumix FZ1000 camera, what can you say about it as am starting as a new filmmaker in country.

  12. can you please make tutorial on shoot in night/ low light to get grungy look or character sitting in front of light and only have fire as light source

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