Nearly every day I have readers of this blog ask my advice on which DSLR to buy and how to best set it up for video without breaking the bank. The purpose of this post is to explore just that – With a price cap set at $1000, I’m going to recommend a handful of options pertaining to cameras, rigs, and other basic accessories you’ll need to build an inexpensive cinema-ready package.
My philosophy in regards to setting up any camera for narrative filmmaking is to really treat it like a film camera, or at least like a high end digital cinema camera. While it may be true that the average film shot on RED or Arri Alexa looks much better than the average film shot on a DSLR, I would argue that the difference is a more a result of the way the camera is being handled, exposed, and approached than it is a reflection of the cameras capabilities. In other words having a better camera doesn’t mean your final image is necessarily going to look better. I’ve seen plenty of beautiful films shot on DSLR and plenty of poorly shot films that were done on a RED, Alexa, or other great digital cinema cameras. If you approach your DSLR the way you would approach a RED, you’re already ahead of the game – especially since it doesn’t take a lot of time or money to get your package cinema-ready.
When it comes to the brain of your set-up, I am going to give you 2 options, each with a price under $550. You may be thinking that if you have $1000 to spend in total, you would rather get a more expensive camera and not worry about accessorizing it, but I would highly recommend against this. DSLR’s in the $500 price range are going to look just as good (if not better in some cases) than cameras in the $1000 range. There may be marginal differences, but you’re not going to notice them on the screen in the same way you would notice the affects of a rig for example. Plus even if you aren’t crazy about accessorizing, you’re still going to need a lens or two to start (we’ll get to that later), so ultimately keeping the camera budget under $500 is ideal for the sake of this example. Here are the two camera bodies I would recommend:
Canon T3i – $499
Lumix G6 – $549
Either of these cameras could work very well as the center piece of your system. They’re both fantastic cameras, especially for the price, but between the two I would personally choose the G6. The reason being that I love how the Micro Four Thirds format allows you can adapt nearly any lens to it and I also find this camera sharper than the T3i. That said, if you have a lot of Canon glass, or prefer a more shallow depth of field, the T3i does have it’s advantages as well.
There’s a time and a place for zoom lenses, even on a more traditional film set, but for the sake of this article I’m going to stick to a few very basic primes. Although in some cases zooms can be useful, going a bit old school in this department and sticking with primes is the best bet as far as giving you a lot of bang for your buck. I’ve listed three lenses below, all under $200. Based on our target of $1000 for the full setup, you will want to pick only one of the following lenses to start. You can always expand your kit later with many more lenses to cover all the focal lengths, but for now let’s not underestimate what can be done on a single lens. After all there have been many great feature films over the years that were only shot on a 35mm or 50mm lens.
Nikkor 50mm 1.8- $109
Canon 50mm 1.8 – $125
Nikkor 35mm 1.8 – $196
The reason I’ve only listed either 35mm or 50mm lenses here is because typically these are the ‘normal’ focal lengths that will be most versatile for every day shooting. You don’t want your only lens to be a wide angle or a telephoto as you won’t be able to use it in most situations very easily. If you’ve opted for the G6 (which has a slightly smaller sensor than the Canon), you’d be better off with the 35mm as the crop factor will make the 50mm feel like a telephoto. Out of all three, the Nikkor 50mm is my favorite.
The key with choosing a rig on this budget is to go as simple as possible with it. You can get some amazing results with a small inexpensive rig, as long as you’re not overloading it, and based on our minimalistic approach to this $1000 cinema camera, we don’t need anything heavy duty. Since we’re only dealing with either a t3i or G6 (both of which are very light weight), we can get away with using an extremely compact and basic rig. Here is one that I have used before and would highly recommend if you’re on a really tight budget but are still looking for a more traditional style shoulder rig:
Revo SR-1500 Dual Grip Shoulder Rig – $159
And this is a great option if you prefer an even more compact set-up:
Dot Line Magic Rig – $94
Once again there is no right or wrong choice here. If having a smaller rig is important to you, then the magic rig is hard to beat. It will still give you a nice stable image and will dramatically improve your handheld footage when compared to not using a rig at all. On the other hand the dual grip shoulder rig is more of a long term solution and will probably give you slightly more stability in most situations. Plus, if you start to build out your rig more over the years and want to add more accessories, you’ll be able to add onto the dual grip rig whereas the magic rig is not designed to be expanded or accessorized.
Some shooters can full focus really well by hand, but having a dedicated follow focus will always improve your focus pulls no matter how steady your hand may be. Like the other items on this list, you don’t need to spend an arm and a leg to get something that works well – especially since you’ll be shooting on DSLR glass which can be handled with inexpensive solutions. The product I’ve listed below for example, is really great and works right out of the box. Unlike follow focus systems that require you to add lens gears to all of your lenses, this is a gear-less system which works based on friction:
IndiPRO Tolls Follow Focus – $118
Once again, it’s important to keep in mind if you are going to use a follow focus system, you’ll need the larger rig listed above as it has the 15mm rails that are required for mounting this accessory.
It goes without saying that ND filters are an essential part of any shooting kit. Unlike traditional cinema camera setups though, we are going to need to bypass the matte box and use a screw-on variable ND filter so we can stay within our $1000 limit. Is this the best option? Absolutely not. A matte box with a full kit of ND/IR filters will always look best, but most variable ND filters aren’t actually that bad at all. Some of them can cause a bit of a color cast on your image, but typically you can color correct the image in post fairly easily to compensate. I would suggest getting a fairly large filter such as this one:
Bower 77mm Variable ND – $39
If you’re wondering why I am suggesting a 77mm filter when you may have lenses with smaller thread sizes (58mm or 52mm for example), it’s because you can adapt this filter to any lens that is 77mm or below, which will make it more versatile in the long run. With the addition of some very inexpensive step down rings, you can use this filter on just about any of your lenses. There are of course lenses with a bigger thread size than 77mm, but personally almost all of my lenses are 77mm or lower, and I prefer not to have an overly huge filter on a tiny lens if i don’t need to – so the 77mm size is sort of a happy medium. That said, if you plan on buying any larger lenses or have any lenses with a larger thread size, then by all means get a larger one to start with.
It doesn’t take a lot of money to set your camera up for a narrative shooting environment. The key is not spending your whole budget on the camera body, and remembering to leave enough over for your rig, filters, and other accessories that you’ll need to get it up and running. You should be able to use any combination of the items above while keeping your initial set-up cost in the $1000 range pretty easily. Over time you’re going to need to expand this package, but as a starting point you should be able to get really strong results even with a setup as basic as this. It’s important to also remember the little expenses – SD cards, extra batteries, loupes, etc. as you may or may not need to add some additional items to your kit right off the bat. Also keep in mind the larger accessories that you might want to buy down the road – LCD screens, external recorders, more lenses etc. There are an endless amount of toys you can buy for your camera, but try to expand your kit only when you really have a need for more gear. You’ll be surprised how much you can do with very little.
Having the right gear is only one third of the equation in getting a great image. The other two components are your skill as a DP (lighting, framing, etc.) and your skills during post-production (namely color correction). For more on getting the most out of your image in post, check out my post on achieving the blockbuster look by color grading.
And for those of you looking to take the next step, be sure to check out my Guide For Capturing Cinematic Images With Your DSLR by clicking here.