If you’re taking your first steps toward becoming a filmmaker, you may be overwhelmed by all of the gear available. What is necessary? What is worth your time, energy, and money? To help you decide, here is a list of the top five pieces of gear needed for your first shoot.
By default, this is the most important piece of gear you will need for your film shoot. Luckily, in the past few years, technology and camera brands have created fantastic, budget-friendly cameras that can give cinematic results. DSLR and mirrorless cameras have a lot of emphasis on their video capabilities. You will want a camera that can shoot high-quality Full HD, so look for resolutions of 1920 x 1080 at frame rates of 23.976 and 59.97p as a standard.
The entry point for 4K is getting lower and lower, and even inexpensive mirrorless cameras are capable of UHD 4K (3840 x2160) at 23.976 frames per second. Just remember, you will need more hard drive space and computer processing power to handle working with 4K. Another thing to consider when shopping for cameras is any specific features you might need. Not all cameras can shoot super slo-mo at high frame rates, like 120p and 480p, so if you plan on capturing that kind of content, make sure the camera has that feature.
If you ask a filmmaker what gear they have spent the most money on during their career, the answer will probably be lenses. There are a couple of reasons that some professionals might argue that lenses are more important than the camera body they are attached to. A low-quality lens will always produce low-quality images, no matter the camera body, sensor size, or how many “K’s” you are shooting. The inverse is also true, a high-quality lens can improve the shot quality of even the cheapest camera body.
Lenses also retain their value longer than other gear. A camera body might start to feel outdated, even just a couple of years after release, but a well-cared-for lens hardly ever becomes obsolete. A ten or even twenty-year-old Canon 50mm lens can still be mounted on the latest C300 camera body and shoot beautiful, short depth of field footage. Lenses are more like an investment—gear that will be used for years and years and can pay for itself many times over.
To start, you may only have the budget for a single lens, so it will have to handle multiple roles on set. A zoom lens around 18-55mm is a nice go-to for event coverage, run-and-gun documentaries, or dialogue scenes. Faster lenses—meaning lenses that have apertures that can open wide to allow more light onto the sensor—are preferable because they allow for shooting in darker conditions without the use of extra lights. Apertures are measured in f-stops (cinema lenses use a slightly different measurement called “T-stops”), and I like my lens’ aperture to open to at least f/2.8. This gives the shot a pleasing shallow depth of field, which has a nice cinematic look to it.
Like lenses, a good tripod is a worthwhile investment. It may be tempting to try to get by with a $50 tripod, or no tripod at all. But let’s consider two things:
- Handheld footage has its place in filmmaking, but it’s tough to achieve without a lot of experience and practice. Audiences and clients do not want to watch footage that may induce vomiting. A level and stable shot is never going to be out of style, and a good tripod is your best bet for accomplishing those shots.
- Skimping on a tripod may seem like a good place to save money, but are you willing to gamble your camera (which could be a few thousand dollars of gear) on a cheap tripod? The gut-wrenching sound of a camera crashing to the ground is not what any filmmaker wants to hear. Paying that repair bill, having to outright replace a lens or camera, and potential loss of income because your camera took a tumble off an inadequate tripod is not worth whatever the upfront savings seem to be.
On top of all that, a good tripod can be used years into the future, just like good lenses. Even if you upgrade your camera body in a few years, your trusty tripod is going to do just as good of a job holding the new camera.
I think a lot of beginning filmmakers underestimate the importance of clear, clean audio. I have heard some professionals say that an audience can forgive substandard visuals, but poor audio is an immediate indicator of amateur work. Even a small onboard/shotgun microphone to mount on your camera is a huge improvement over the camera’s built-in mic.
If possible, try to get the mic as close to the sound source as possible, without being visible in the frame. Sound can also be recorded separately and added to a shot during the edit. This works great for ambient noises and sound effects. It can also be done with dialogue, in a process called “ADR” but is a lot trickier to execute.
Microphones can usually be connected directly to the camera body to easily record high-quality audio with the video. A separate audio recorder is also an option and may have better built-in amps that produce better sounding audio files. An external recorder is not necessary and should be put lower on the wish list, but it does increase production value when used.
Power & Media
Other essential pieces of gear to consider are the power supply and media your camera will need on set. A basic camera kit should come with a battery and wall power supply. A wall power supply is a great way to have continuous power for your camera, but you cannot always depend on every set having access to wall power. Even with extension cords, you might not be able to run power to your camera in every situation. That is why having batteries on hand is vital.
You will need to do some testing to determine what kind of operational times you will get from your camera and battery. Make sure to always have more than enough battery power to make it through a shoot. You do not want to compromise a shoot because the low-battery light starts blinking, or have the camera embarrassingly shut down mid-take.
Similarly, you will need some type of physical media for recording. This varies from camera to camera, but a common example of camera media is an SD card. Check your camera’s user guide to find recommendations on capacity and data transfer requirements. Once you have found the media type needed for your camera, there are a couple of things to consider before buying. Mainly, how many cards will you need and at what capacity?
You may know that you are going to be shooting long interviews, so you want an SD card with a large enough capacity to handle that. It’s not ideal to ask an interview subject to stop mid-story so you can swap out a full SD card. Having an SD card with ample capacity to shoot all day is helpful. However, there’s some security with shooting on multiple SD cards throughout a shoot, especially if something were to happen to one of the cards—for instance, SD cards can and will get lost, smashed, accidentally deleted, unknown errors, etc.—then there’s another SD card(s) still viable from the shoot.
This way, you can still go home with some footage, and the shoot is not a total loss. Another solution would be to use a camera body that can record footage onto two SD cards at one time, creating an automatic backup. This may help ease your mind when on a shoot.
What may be more important than any one piece of gear on this list, is the knowledge and experience to effectively use all of the tools available to you. A truckload of expensive gear cannot save a bad filmmaker, but a good filmmaker can tell an engaging story with even a modest set of gear.