I really don’t see a lot of good info out there on learning to shoot video professionally, so I thought I’d write up a quick run-down for people interested in video production on an amateur or independent professional basis.
Most people like talking expensive gear more than they do the practicalities of the day to day here, so I’m gonna try to go over both.
You can build a system that will get you production quality video for under $3000, but you can also rent better equipment for much less if you land a project outside the scope of your current equipment. Don’t feel like you need a 20k set of primes and an ENG zoom that costs as much to get useable footage. Better equipment won’t make you a better DoP or camera op anyway.
so first, I’m going to recommend a system that is inexpensive and good for LEARNING the craft, and then I’m going to get into how to get work and improve over time.
Part 1: Buying a General Purpose Entry Level Video System
There are many different trades that rely on cinematography, from stock footage, to event coverage and news, to film making. depending on what your goal is in learning these skills, you’re going to need to change this up a bit, but all the principles still apply in the selection of your equipment.
In the entry level price range, the availability of video-dedicated systems is going to be thin on the ground, so it’s smarter to look to stills-optimized cameras with good video features than to sink money into a dedicated camcorder if you’re on a budget. Picking up something used is also a good option.
Body: Panasonic, Sony or BMD Mirrorless/DSLR
It’s easy to get caught up in spec-sturbation when you’re looking at cameras, and that’s made worse by the fact that the features important to videography are very different from what still photographers might find desirable. generally you want to look for:
- High bitrate video with 4:2:2 or better chroma subsampling
- No video recording length limit
- flat or logarithmic image profiles or log gamma
- Intraframe codecs (prores, raw, dnx, ALL-I mode in h.264, etc)
- HDMI or sdi video-out
- increased functionality on the video-out (10 bit, 4:4:4 subsampling, etc)
- physical sensor stabilization
- locked focus/exposure/ISO video modes
- Standard camera control ports
- decent built in audio preamps
- Focus/exposure tools like peaking, zebras, scopes.
Things that are generally unimportant:
- 4k video (in entry level systems it will be highly compressed and not good enough for stock or 3rd party sale, and working in 4k requires very expensive supporting equipment. Upscaled 1080 will generally look just as good or better on entry level systems)
- sensor size (We’ll be adapting lenses, and bad video from a full frame sensor is still bad video)
- sensor pixel density (lower MP count sensors do better in low light for video, and have a beautifying effect when filming people.
- ultra slow motion (same compression issues as 4k)
- Autofocus (This only matters for vloggers and still photographers, and vloggers should just save some money and buy an action cam)
My recommendation would be these camera bodies:
Panasonic: G line camera G7 and newer, GH line camera GH3 and newer, or the GX850/GX9
Sony: Alpha a5100-6500, A7(s,r) any version you can afford
(Some of the A7 bodies have overheating issues when shooting at 4k, but that doesn’t matter for our purposes)
BMD: BMCC, BMPCC, BMMCC, BMPCC4k BMMSC4k, URSA EF (VERSION 1, Used only), BMSC, BMPC
Prices range from $375 used to $2200 new, just get what you can afford, they’ll all produce a workable image and have the same lens system. Add 2-600 dollars to the body budget for an active adapter (more on this in the lens section)
At the low end My picks would be the G85, The BMCC or BMPCC, and the A6000. You can get all of these used from 450-750 on average.
mid end, Get an A7, a GH4 or a BMPC/BMSC 4k
A used Ursa with EF mounts doesn’t need the extra budgeting for an adapter, and it’s the only true production camera for that cheap, not necessarily the best option for a beginner though. If you do a lot of research you can also find used ENG 1080P tri-sensor systems for about this much, but again, not particularly beginner friendly or good for footage outside of event and news coverage.
The reason I recommend avoiding canon, nikon, fuji, olympus etc is that they generally don’t allow you much control over your video capture, aggressively chroma subsample, or do nasty stuff like aggressively crop the sensor or upscale a standard definition output. They’re all generally fine for still photography but it’s not worth the money if you primarily plan on doing video production with them
Doesn’t matter what camera you go with, you should get a set of EF mount lenses. Might not make a ton of sense at first look, but It’ll save you a lot of money down the line.
Glass is always going to cost you more than camera bodies. The longer you can hold onto your lenses, the less money you spend in the long run.
Modern production cameras typically use PL mount or canon EF mount lenses. These have been solidified as the industry standards for decades (outside of ENG) and will continue to be outside of the newer, cutting edge large format cameras starting to come out, and there’s a ton of cheap, sharp, nice glass that you can get on these mounts.
The reason I recommend an ACTIVE adapter to adapt these EF lenses is that getting a LANC remote for your camera is cheaper than a servo follow focus 9 times out of 10, and much less bulky in terms of equipment and rigging. On the sony A7 cameras you can even adapt up to medium format with a special focal reducer.
Focal lengths you should get depend on your sensor size and whether or not you’re using a focal reducer in your active adapter. (A focal reducer effectively makes your adapted lenses wider and faster, which is good if you’re on a crop sensor)
For active adapters and focal reducers, I recommend looking at Metabones, but if you can’t afford them, Kipon Bayves, Commlite and viltrox all make reasonable facsimilies. They’re ordered here by quality (Kipon second only to metabones, viltrox at the bottom) but they all work.
Depending on what you’re planning on doing, you either want a set of primes, a zoom or set of zooms that can cover the same range, or a mix of both. You can also get cheaper manual lenses, but that means spending money on a follow focus system and making your system heavier and less versatile.
Here’s a non-comprehensive list of the bare minimum primes you’d probably need to operate your camera effectively by sensor size:
ff 35mm sensor: 24mm, 40mm, 85mm
APS-H/RED: 20mm, 35mm, 70mm
Super 35: 18mm, 30mm, 60mm
APS-C: 16mm, 28mm, 56mm
Canon APS-C: 15mm, 25mm, 55mm
BMPCC + T Speedbooster (0.58x): 14mm, 24mm, 50mm
MFT: 12mm, 20mm, 45mm
BMCC: 12mm, 20mm, 40mm
(Under this line, a specialty focal reducer or C mount lenses are required)
super 16 and 1": 8mm, 15mm, 28mm
Broadcast 2/3": 6mm, 10mm, 20mm
If I didn’t cover a sensor size you plan on using, or you’re using a speedbooster, the math here is simple, just divide the focal length of the lens you want by the speedbooster multiplier (typically 0.71, 0.64 or 0.58) then divide the modified focal length of the lens by the crop factor of the sensor to get the focal length you need to buy:
(Desired focal length / speedbooster) / crop factor = Real focal length
so on a panasonic camera (with the exception of the GH5s), if you have a metabones XL, and you want a 24mm Equivalent, then (24 / 0.64) / 2 = 18.75mm, but since they don’t make those, you should get an 18mm or 20mm lens.
These 3 focal lengths were chosen with this rationale:
You need a normal, a wide and a portrait/medium tele at a bare minimum. The traditional Prime sets generally have a set with 20/28/35/50/70/Tele – that’s twice the lenses and you can build out your set as you get better or pick up work.
40mm/43mm was chosen because it’s closer to “human vision” in terms of FOV than 35mm or 50mm, and you can use it in more situations than either of those focal lengths. Good compromise between the 2 most popular “normal” lengths.
24mm was chosen because it’s widely available and you can use it in 80-90% of situations you’d reach for a 20 or a 28.
85mm was chosen because it’s a favored portrait length for photographers so there’s a lot of them on the market to choose from.
Generally you want as fast a lens as you can afford, but if you got a camera body without stabilization you should find an option with OIS (at least for your “normal” prime) and prioritize that overthe absolute fastest glass. If you use a focal reducer, you can get away with lenses as slow as f/3.5 or f/4 and still be OK.
- If you plan on doing a lot of live/news/public work, it makes more sense to get a wide zoom and a telephoto, each with OIS if possible, instead of 3 primes.
- Avoid lenses with variable apertures
- Parfocal (keeps focus when zooming) zooms are desireable but not entirely necessary
Example set: years a go, I started on a BMPCC, so with a speedbooster, I got a Tokina 11-16 f/2.8, a Canon 28mm IS f/2.8 USM, and a Canon 50mm F1.4 USM used. These costed me about $800 and I still use them today.
I picked up a used G85 (with just a smart adapter) as my B-cam, and replaced the 11-16 with an 11-20 and I can use the same 3 lenses to cover the entire range (roughly) on both with a comparatively small investment.
I plan on buying another super 35 production camera soon, so I’ll just need to pick up a lens in the 54mm-60mm range to have decent coverage on that.
It’s also smart to pick up a fast, stabilized (super)telephoto as soon as you can afford to, but you can get away without it when you’re learning.
Rigging and Accessories
This is where most people lose the plot, and I can see why. It’s easy to. There’s tons of different ways to rig up a shot, and it seems like you need a lot of equipment to get the best results.
However, while you might not get a great floating crane shot without a jib, you also won’t learn to compose and shoot well if you rely too heavily on accessories, and each shot will take much longer to set up. There are things that will make your life easier but none of it’s make or break. You know what will stabilize your shots almost as well as that 650 dollar gimbal? a dumbell and a few pieces of pvc pipe. Don’t buy it, you have to shoot all the time to make your money back on it.
Here’s what I’d consider getting once you start shooting and you know you’re not gonna quit any time soon:
I used 4 16 inch lengths of 15mm rod, 1 6in length, a shoulder pad, a generic cheese plate, 2 right angle 15mm fittings, 2 rosette to 15mm fittings, 2 handles and a 2kg weight to make mine. cost about $135 to put together and you can make something close with 30 bucks in pvc and a benchpress weight plate if you don’t want to spend that much.
A full Range Remote LANC Controller
These run from 80 bucks up to 300, but they let you control your camera and lenses without fiddling with the on-body controls or the screen. I prefer the type with an analog rocker switch or dial to control focus/zoom. Note that panasonic uses a different standard than BMD and sony, so watch out for incompatible controllers
You can just go middle of the road here, you don’t need one with a 30kg capacity and hydraulic panning controls or anything, just get a well reviewed fluid head one for what you can afford
Quick release plates
a set of 2 will make getting your camera from the tripod to the shoulder rig a lot faster and easier.
Variable ND FIlters
Make shooting outdoors much easier on fast lenses. Get one for your largest lens thread, then buy cheap step-up rings for the rest of your lenses instead of getting multiple filters.
Big External Batteries and chargers
charging dozens of little dslr batteries on an all-day shoot is an excercise in futility. Just pick up some cheap, large capacity camcorder batteries like a sony F970 infolithium, a security cam battery pack, or a Li-ion battery pack shell with some 18650s and a dummy battery (or if the supply is 12+ volts) a barrel jack adapter/ptap cable. just charge the big packs once a day,
External monitor/recorder combo
This is the priciest accessory, but it can be a huge help. They make focusing much easier, they can act as a backup recorder, and in some cases even record in higher quality than the internal recording. Most of them come with essential features like zebras, focus peaking and scopes that you either don’t get or are hard to use on the tiny built in screen.
Color checker/Exposure cards
Cheap, lets you get correct white balance and match the colors of multiple cameras easily in post.
A set of quality lavaliers, a Field Recorder, A boom mic, and/or a wireless mic system
You need some sort of audio acquisition, the more individual sources the better. This is one of the most difficult areas of production to get right if you don’t have the right equipment. In a lot of cases shotgun mics are only useful for very close quarters, so you need someothing else to supplement in-camera audio most of the time.
Things I wouldn’t recommend getting starting out:
Entry level gimbals
most of the cheaper (under $600) models can’t support big wide angle lenses, which is generally exactly what you want to put on them because they don’t have focus or zoom control capabilities. utterly useless compared to their bigger cousins
UV/IR/Static ND filters
Ranging from totally useless to much more expensive and time consuming compared to alternatives.
“One man” jibs
still pretty huge, impossible to travel or fly with, and way more rickety and shaky than their full size equivalents. Also very expensive. Get a high end gimbal for the same price and do 2 or 3 takes for the 1 shot in 100 you actually need one for.
if you need aerial shots, just rent one. The consumer models have pretty bad cameras and it’s a niche use case
Servo or mechanical Follow Focus
On paper these are great, and for larger production systems they are. But they requiring modifying or retrofitting gears onto your (cheap) lenses, which costs more money, they require rigging to everything, increasing bulk and weight, and only work natively with very expensive cine lenses.
You could viably get a set of the DS version Rokinon Primes and 2 cheap follow focus knobs, but that means adding roughly 4 pounds and a lot of bulk to your rigs. a LANC Controller is smaller, can control more and will be cheaper if you look around.
Really? I mean, they’re great, but are you gonna sink more money than you spent on your camera and lenses combined on a glorified tiny monitor? Wait till you have a system that feels like it suffers because you can’t resolve the full level detail on a 7 inch screen.
these only work on cameras that weigh more than 7-10lb generally. Save your money even if they look cheaper than a gimbal.
All Told, You can spend as little as $1600 and have a viable system to learn and grow on.
Part 2: Tricks of the Trade
Mistakes to avoid
- don’t try to recreate specific cinematic angles or shots. If you saw it and loved it, chances are everyone else will have seen it too and at best you create a competent direct copy that everyone hates for being so derivative.
- don’t overuse dutch tilts, aerial footage, crane/jib shots, dolly zooms, slow motion, or overstabilize your handheld shooting, whip pan, etc. Only use these techniques where it actually makes sense, you show them off to much and it takes away all their impact.
- focus on blocking, not coverage. You can reshoot a scene 10 times, but if you didn’t adequately plan, compose and frame it, every take will look bad
- if you fuck something up, re-do it. It’s faster to do a second take than it is to try to “fix it in post”
- no one gives a shit about a blurry background if you can’t hit focus half the time. Don’t shoot wide open constantly, or at all unless you’re confident you can pull focus on the subjects consistently.
- “B-Roll” doesn’t mean random garbage you shot in between main takes. Only use it where it makes transitions smoother or where it helps the narrative.
Things to Know
- call around locally for production rental houses. They typically don’t advertise online and only deal with people over the phone or in person. If they don’t have what you need, most good ones will know another local shop that does.
- If you pick up a higher value production than you feel your equipment can handle, Just rent something better from your local houses. Make sure to incorporate that cost into your quote to begin with, though.
- Shoot off the clock whenever you can afford to, and find a peer group you feel comfortable sharing your work with so that you can improve. Online is OK, in person is much better.
- build a lean but convincing portfolio. Stock sites might want to see hundreds of clips before approving sales, but other clients just want to make sure you’re competent.
- make a real effort to learn sound, grip, lighting and editing if you don’t know how already. Hiring out means you won’t make money in smaller productions, and each skillset bleeds into the next, helping you understand all of them better.
[WIP, will extend this soon]