Beginner DSLR Cinemaphotography kit

This post is the first of 3 describing and linking to gear used by cinemaphotographer to make their videos. In this first post, we are going to review the gear available to beginners aka low budget movie makers. The second article will review the gear available to enthusiast while the last one will target those with professional goals. These classifications are not as much related to the budget as the level of dedication of the user. We have divided the gear in three sections: Camera, lens and accessories, Software and Computer Hardware. When possible, we have given two alternatives for each piece of gear: a low cost and a higher cost version. The low cost version might be something that could be sold or traded for an upgrade while the higher cost one is good enough to even satisfy a pro.

Camera, lens and accessories

Body

Right now, when people are talking about cinemaphotography, there are thinking about one of these two alternatives: the Nikon D90 or the Canon 5DMarkII. Unless you are totally new to photography, you probably already have a few lenses from one of these two brands so the choice has already been made for you (unless you are ready to switch allegiance). While we can hardly call the Canon 5DMarkII a beginner or low budget camera, since it is the only Canon alternative, we have to put it here.

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Lenses

At this stage, you only need two lenses and you probably even own them: a Nifty 50 and a wide to medium angle lens. By Nifty 50 we regroup all the 50mm lenses with aperture of f1.4 or f1.8. On Nikon this lenses give you an EFL of 75mm that might be too long for indoor shooting so you might want to move directly to a normal prime lens, such as the 35mmf/1.8 for a few more bucks.

Note: The Canon 50mmf1.8 should not be considered for filming since it does not have a focus ring.

Note2: We did some comparison between the Canon 50f1.4 and the Zeiss Planar 1.7. The Zeiss compares favorably to the Canon for film making and should be considered as a cheaper alternative as outlined in our review.

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The second lens has to be a zoom playing in the 20-50+mm effective focal length (EFL). There are many alternatives for these at various quality levels and price point. The zoom might not have the nice aperture of the prime, but it will allow you to play with the field of view and give you more flexibility when composing your frame. This lens will stay with you for as long as you are going to shoot which is why it is a good idea to invest in quality glass. But if you are low on money, you can pick a used popular model that you could later sale at almost no lost.

While IS (image stabilization) is definitely a big plus, if you are planing to spend most of your time shooting from a tripod your money would be better spent in a higher quality lens. On the other hand, if you are thinking about going hand held from time to time, the IS really pays off as displayed in this video comparison of the effect of IS at 70mm and 200mm EFL.

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Filters

Dont jump right away to the next section! Filters are a critical part of the cinemaphotographer arsenal. If you don’t understand why, go take a look at this video from Bruce. At this stage, a circular polarizing filter and a square ND2 filter are more than enough. If you plan to shoot in bright sunlight, you can go with a stronger ND filter. While Bruce suggest to get the big 4×6 filters, I think it is more reasonable to start with the smaller ones and stay away from “made from real glass” filters. They are just too expensive. That is why I like the ones made by Cokin, they are much cheaper and still good quality. Make sure you pick the size that fits with your lenses!

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Tripod

Finally, get yourself a tripod. As with anything related to photography, tripods and heads can get VERY expensive very quickly. Dont under estimate the effect a good tripod has on image quality. Pick a cheap heavy one and you will never bring it with you, take something made out of plastic and it will die after two weekends. A tripods is probably the pieces of gear that is going to last you the longest and should be seen as an investment, so get something that will last!

There are many good tripods on the market and probably anything you pay over 150$ will give you good results. There are a few things that can make a tripod stands out of the crowd like: having a weight hook, vibration reduction, removable central column, horizontal central column positioning, etc. Personally, I use the Bogen / Manfrotto 190CXPRO3 3-Section Carbon Fiber Tripod Legs (Black) . I love it and I see myself using this thing for a few more years.

Head

While ball heads are great for photography, when filming you are better off with a head that offers some friction to ensure smooth panning. In my mind, nothing beats the Bogen / Manfrotto 501HDV Fluid Video Head in term of quality per dollars. It is the equivalent of the 50mmf/1.8 of the head world.

Software

Since I don’t really know what exists on the PC side, I will just pretend there is nothing and let some PC reader contact me for the specifics. Or simply buy a Mac. Seriously, the Mac has some unique software that make the whole editing experience so much better (and cheaper, seriously!). As a Mac user, you most probably already have all you need to start editing your shots: iLife. While the newest version that is about to come out has some incredible features, even iLife 08 is enough for the needs of a beginner.

Computer hardware and storage

External HD and backing up

Video editing requires your system to have a secondary hard drive to store your assets/projects. Well, you are not “required to” but if you mix you clips data with the OS partition you you will experience some serious slow down. So lets just say that you have to bite the bullet (again) and get a secondary internal HD. I prefer internal HD because they are the cheapest fastest solution you can get. Do not backup anything on this drive, it is solely a scratch disk / asset vault.

Now lets talk about backup. If you value any of your work, you need to back it up. Unfortunately for us, video takes a lot of HD space so backing up on disk media is out of the question. We could go with another internal drive but I prefer to have an external enclosure for backup so I can bring it at my parents house when I am out for a long period of time. You can go with the classical HD enclosure or pay a little (ok, big) extra to get a Drobo. While the Drobo is not perfect, contrary to what their marketing department is trying to make you believe, it offers some very interesting features for its price point. Before buying one, make sure you read my post about its limitation (coming soon).

Finally, dont forget that a backup is only a backup if its replicating data living somewhere else. As soon as your data lives on only a single drive you are exposed to losing everything!

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Monitor

Lets not go into any excesses here, your current monitor is probably going to be just fine. If you really want a secondary screen accept only a 24″ since it is the minimum size to display 1080p at native resolution. (Well, my 23″ ACD does too but it is out of production)

System

I guess you already have a computer, but in case you are thinking about switching, this one is easy: any recent Apple system (exception: Mac mini) will play with iMovie, Final Cut Express and Final Cut Pro just fine. So just pick the one you want, my suggestions going of course with the bigger models. Also, note that the Mac Books dont have a FW port anymore. Also, make sure to upgrade the RAM to at least 2 gigs, 4 being much better.

Conclusion

After having spent (already) a small fortune, you are now equipped to produce your first movie. You already have all you need, the next levels only add more bells and whistles.

About Tommy

Photography allows me to be what I want to be, to be where I want to be, and to do what I want to do ... I'm not professional photographer and I don't need a title, I love to take photographs and that is what I do, I love to learn and I always try to do it better ...

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