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Building A Cinema Camera For Under $1000 – Which Cameras Are Best & Which Accessories You Need

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.

Camera

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

t3i

Canon EOS Rebel T3i DSLR Camera (Body Only)

Lumix G6 – $549

Pansonic-Lumix-G6

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G6 Mirrorless Micro Four Thirds Digital Camera with 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 II Lens

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.

Lenses

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

50mm 1.8

Nikon Normal AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D Autofocus Lens

Canon 50mm 1.8 – $125

Canon 50mm

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II Lens

Nikkor 35mm 1.8 – $196

35mm 1.8 Nikkor

Nikon AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G DX Lens

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.

Rig

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

revo rig

Revo SR-1500 Dual Grip Shoulder Support Rig

And this is a great option if you prefer an even more compact set-up:

Dot Line Magic Rig – $94

small dslr rig

Dot¤Line Magic Rig V1 for HDSLR Cameras

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.

Follow Focus

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

indi protools follow focus friction

IndiPRO¤Tools Follow Focus with Friction Drive

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.

ND Filter

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

77mm variable nd

Bower 77mm Variable Neutral Density Filter

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.

Summary

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.

About Author

Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!

51 Comments

  • Vlogging camera
    February 15, 2018 at 6:59 am

    Hi Mate!
    I just bought the Lumix G6, and am curious, do you ever take prime lenses when make videos? I’ve seen some amazing video make with Lumix G6. Amazing blog, keep up the great work!

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      February 27, 2018 at 11:43 pm

      Yes – I used to exclusively shoot with primes. Now sometimes I shoot with zooms, depending on how quickly I need to work. Best of luck with the G6!

      Reply
  • vijay
    October 20, 2017 at 7:07 pm

    Hi Noam: Thanks for the wonderful article. I was wondering how the image shot on the $500 camera on the theatrical screen? Compared to a GH5 + anamorphic lens(slr magic 2x) shot in V-log L and color graded in post to increase the dynamic range.
    how do both of them compare to a Alexa -Arri. I understand that there are many things to consider. On a high level can we still produce a great image on the theatrical screen with $1000 camera rig? thats the question.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      November 1, 2017 at 8:53 pm

      Absolutely, Vijay. Many of the $500 cameras we use today are far superior to higher end digital cinema cameras of years past, so as long as you know what you’re doing with the camera, you’ll have no problems at all projecting on the big screen. Lighting, composition, and camera movement all matter far more! That said, an Alexa is going to create images on a whole other level, but that doesn’t mean you can’t create great work with a lot less.

      Reply
  • Mickey Love
    November 25, 2016 at 12:34 am

    Hi Noam, just wondering what your reccomendation for a lens adapter would be so that the 35mm NIKKOR lens attaches to the Pana G6 body. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      November 25, 2016 at 4:53 pm

      Hey Mickey! Since the Nikkor lens is manual, you just need a dumb adapter (no electronic controls) to adapt the lens to MFT mount. There are a lot of them out there, some probably as low as $20 – $30. That said, the cheap ones will often not feel as secure with a heavy lens attached. If you can swing it, I would look into the Metabones adapter (Nikon – MFT), which is about $99. Otherwise check out some of the budget brands like Fotodiox and you should be all set!

      Reply
      • Mickey
        November 28, 2016 at 6:55 am

        Thanks Noam, hooked up the metabones Nikon- MFT for $95 second hand, new prices are a little bit more here in Oz.

        Reply
        • Noam Kroll
          November 30, 2016 at 9:57 pm

          Good to hear Mickey! Hope it all works out well for you.

          Reply
  • Gerry
    November 23, 2016 at 10:28 pm

    I heard that the Sony A6300 has overheating issues. What other cameras can you recommend under $1000 aside from it? 🙂

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      November 25, 2016 at 4:48 pm

      You could always check out the Lumix GH3 – a few years old, but still a great camera!

      Reply
  • Ben
    November 4, 2016 at 12:05 am

    Hi, Noam.

    Great articles!!! I and my son enjoy every bit of your website.

    I am a wedding photographer, and he will be in college next year. My son is really into independent filmmaking and photography at a very young age. I want to surprise him this Christmas and buy him a camera. (He borrows from his friends and from me). However, my budget is tight…under $1,000. Is Nikon D5300 or G6 still a good one for both videos and stills? Or are there better options that you can recommend? Thank you soooo much. 🙂

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      November 12, 2016 at 6:15 am

      Hi Ben! I appreciate the kind words, and that’s nice of you to treat your son to a new camera. The Sony A6300 is worth looking at right now, I would recommend checking it out if you haven’t already!

      Reply
  • Salvio
    October 26, 2016 at 6:57 pm

    Good day, Sir.

    I am a student and I am looking for a camera that will be great for both still photography and videos. My budget is 1k.

    Thank you.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      November 3, 2016 at 5:46 am

      Have you checked out the Sony a6300? Pretty great camera for the money!

      Reply
  • Pedro
    February 10, 2016 at 4:52 pm

    Hello Noam,

    We are in 2016 now, there are new cameras out there and some other older “classics” got very cheap. Could you name a few cameras you would consider as a better choice than the G6 or T3i in the same price range ?
    I could get a G6 for 350$ but I’m postponing the decision to buy it. It’s stressful to choose the right camera when there’s so many possibilities out there, even the compact cameras got to this point where DSLR are no longer the clear winner when considering low cost solutions.

    Reply
  • John
    July 31, 2015 at 6:28 am

    Noam, any updates on this after 2 years? The same two cameras still your go to?

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      August 14, 2015 at 12:18 am

      I will have to write an update to this John… I definitely have some new suggestions and will be sure to include them in a future blog post.

      Reply
  • […] Price was also key. For $1,000 or less you could purchase a camera that would deliver quality video. So far, so good. Unfortunately this is where the Internet stops being helpful. You now enter a space where no two people can agree on which features are most important or, better stated, which are the ones a  filmmaker truly needs. […]

    Reply
  • James Te Whau
    April 28, 2015 at 2:44 am

    gday mate, excellent article, as old as it is, only one of it’s kind. one question, I have just enough for what you have recommended, and will go with the Panny etc. Will a USB headphone adaptor, or dedicated USB headphones, not headset, work with the Panny G6. I will save for an external field audio equipment, but for now, does/will this work?

    PS. I live in rural Australia, it is very hard finding a store with a working model of most DSLR/CCs in this range on display without having to travel to the city.

    cheers Jim

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      May 4, 2015 at 9:24 pm

      Hey Jim! Thanks for the note. I’m not quite sure if the USB headphones would work on the Panasonic G6 as I haven’t done this myself… That said, I would try calling B & H or any other major camera store and they can likely test it for you before you purchase.

      Reply
  • Jost Claassen
    December 28, 2014 at 11:22 pm

    I am very new to these things and am just upgrading from a sony point and shoot camera. I really want to get a Panasonic G6 but because I am on a very tight budget I’m wondering if its worth buying a separate lens or sticking with the kit lens. Does it really make a huge difference having one of the lenses you mentioned compared to just using the kit lens? Thanks.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      January 11, 2015 at 9:23 pm

      Hi Jost… If you are just getting started, the kit lens is probably fine for your needs. That said, as you develop and start having a need for more specific glass, I would take a look at some of the options on this list. Hope this helps!

      Reply
  • Carlo
    July 16, 2014 at 2:34 pm

    Hi,

    can’t find Revo rigs in Europe,
    do you know of any alternative available on the European market ?
    I really liked the possibility to mount an interesting follow focus on it.
    On European Amazon sites you would find things like the CamSmart DSLR Rig, but they look very unstable to me.

    Thanks in advance !

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      July 18, 2014 at 8:39 pm

      Check out Jag35.com They have some good affordable stuff!

      Reply
  • David Peterson
    March 5, 2014 at 6:58 am

    I’m amazed you include the Canon T3i in the same article as the mighty Panasonic G6 as a comparable comparison! When the Panasonic G6 is *waaaay* ahead of any Canon APS-C, on every level from adaptability, to user friendliness, to performance, to image quality, and more.

    http://www.eoshd.com/content/10824/panasonic-g6-review-the-gh2-redux

    Reply
    • David Peterson
      March 5, 2014 at 7:00 am

      But then again I’m sure you realise that already. 🙂 As the Panasonic G6 is on your top five list:
      http://noamkroll.com/top-5-dslrs-for-video/
      While the only Canon cameras there are their very expensive ones, not the old and cheaper T3i.

      Reply
      • Noam Kroll
        March 5, 2014 at 6:35 pm

        Yes, the T3i is definitely no G6 in terms of image performance… The main reason i included it was because of the familiarity of the Canon brand. Unfortunately many producers seem to still look for shooters with Canon cameras (even if they are inferior to other brands), because they are familiar with them. So for some shooters who want an affordable camera that has a more recognizable brand name, I thought the T3i or something similar would be a good choice. But once again, I fully agree that the G6 is by far the better camera!

        Reply
  • christophe bailleau
    February 15, 2014 at 1:00 pm

    its not professional, but now i have a scenario for a short film i want to make in a pro way, but with a very small budget (about 10000 euros); so i want a new camera…
    thanks

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      February 15, 2014 at 5:41 pm

      Glad to help and best of luck on your film!

      Reply
  • christophe bailleau
    February 15, 2014 at 12:59 pm

    thanks noam
    i have an hesitation between the gh-2 and a blackmagic pocket cinema camera…..
    here is a small cheap video clip i have made with the sony nex-5n, without grading… what do you think about ?
    thanks
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bXCEgMSth8

    Reply
  • christophe bailleau
    February 12, 2014 at 8:08 am

    hello noam
    is it possible to make a good film with a sony nex5n? the problem is that we can’t add a micro, for example; but what do you think with the image ?
    thanks
    i would like to buy a black magic cinema camera, but for now, i make films with my sony nex;

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      February 15, 2014 at 2:18 am

      You can make a great film on any camera! The right story, acting, lighting, and technique will compensate for even the most outdated camera, so in a nutshell, yes, you can definitely make a great film on that camera.

      Reply
  • heri
    February 5, 2014 at 7:58 pm

    Don’t you need an IR cut filter if you recommend ND filters? there will be a color shift otherwise.

    For lenses, For those cameras, I would get a 24mm f2.8 Nikkor instead of a 35mm. Similar price, but gives a good wide angle equivalent

    Also : For beginners, I would recommend a stable tripod first, before getting a rig. Basics!

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      February 15, 2014 at 2:17 am

      IR filters are ideal, but you can typically fix any minor color shifting in post if you are on a really tight budget. But yes, if you have some extra cash it is a great thing to invest in!

      Reply
  • Xiong
    January 22, 2014 at 8:18 am

    Thanks for the advice Noam, i’m burning through your recent articles because i have been busy lately. Great info as always!

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      January 27, 2014 at 5:28 pm

      Thanks Xiong, glad to see you back around here!

      Reply
  • brent
    January 14, 2014 at 1:56 am

    For those eying the T3i and one of these 50mms, you have to keep the crop factor in mind with them as well. I love Sigma’s 30mm 1.4 paired with my T2i for something more like a 50mm!

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      January 14, 2014 at 9:10 pm

      Good point brent – crop factor is important to factor in!

      Reply
  • Tom Nelson
    January 13, 2014 at 11:31 pm

    You wrote a compelling blog on the 28mm lens recently. How come you didn’t include that in the list of essentials and/or options?

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      January 14, 2014 at 9:10 pm

      Thanks Tom… I didn’t include it because most of the 28mm lenses that I really like are fairly pricey. For some reason 28mm (and 24mm) lenses are typically a lot more expensive than 35mm or 50mm. If you have a lens you think I should include though, I’m open to suggestion!

      Reply
  • Pierre Samuel Rioux
    January 12, 2014 at 8:10 pm

    Ooops, you forget one camera the
    Panasonic GH 2 hacked

    They still have some camera bran new in few store
    you need to find them.

    I just buy a bran anew GH 2 for 625$ th 6 January 2014
    it’s still an option.

    I do not think the GH 3 will be much better vs a hacked GH 2

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      January 14, 2014 at 9:07 pm

      I love the hacked GH2… One of my favorite cameras of all time – up there with the DVX100. The only reason I didn’t include it was because I haven’t seen many available online… I’ll have to keep my eye out!

      Reply
  • Adam
    January 8, 2014 at 4:40 am

    Got that fotodiox eos-m43 adapter works perfect on my Bower 8mm cine! no play what so ever.. nice, and thanks for recommending that brand! QUESTION! from your experience what are some nice pieces of glass to mount to the gh3/m43 mount?? Prime/zooms? What’s your take on FD glass,, and C-mount cine glass?? I’m looking for some FAST glass. THANKS! – Adam

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      January 14, 2014 at 9:03 pm

      Great! Glad it worked out for you. I tend to always prefer prime lenses over zooms… FD glass can be great, as well as C-mount glass, but I always recommend buying lenses that you can use on other camera bodies in the future as you upgrade your camera body. Have you looked at the rest of the Rokinon Cine Lens Set? They are great!

      Reply
  • Daniel Thomas Toruno
    January 8, 2014 at 1:59 am

    I couldn’t agree more with this article I’m a low budget filmmaker and i’ve already checked off half the stuff on this article of my toys list. I’ve had the other half of the things that I saw here on my wish list. I’m just waiting until i have enough money to buy the canon 50mm 1.4 lens istead of a 1.8 for my t3i because i just want to have a nice prime lens that is sturdy and will last me a long time. Great article!

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      January 14, 2014 at 9:02 pm

      Thanks a lot Daniel – glad to hear you’re already a few steps ahead of the game, owning a lot of this gear already! It’s amazing how much you can do with just a bit of equipment.

      Reply
  • Rusty Earl
    January 7, 2014 at 10:33 pm

    Excellent article Noam! I have filmed a number of docs on my trusty old t2i with some nicer lens. It sure is nice to go with a newer camera, but I can honestly say I appreciate my new GH3 a lot more because of how much I used the t2i. Even after 4 years? of use, it keeps on giving great results. Magic lantern is your friend!!

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      January 14, 2014 at 6:44 pm

      Thanks Rusty – yes the GH3 is an amazing camera! As is the T2i, especially with magic lantern.

      Reply
  • Tyler
    January 7, 2014 at 7:10 pm

    Just wondering, how do I fit a focus ring onto the 50mm? Also, do you think that having only one focal length (80mm) is enough to shoot a good film?

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      January 14, 2014 at 6:43 pm

      By focus ring, do you mean a follow focus gear? If so, most gears are adjustable to fit any size lens. 80mm is a great focal length, but I wouldn’t choose it as the only lens for a film as it’s a telephoto and you won’t have the option of getting wide shots if you need them.

      Reply
      • David
        November 12, 2017 at 7:49 pm

        I had that edition of the 50mm lens from Canon. The downside is how small their focus ring is and how far front it is placed. The only way I achieved follow focus use on it was by placing a small diameter, wide elastic instead of the follow focus ring. That being said, the new equivalent lens has been redesigned to place its focus ring near the middle, and it is large enough to have a follow focus ring placed on it.

        Reply
        • Noam Kroll
          December 6, 2017 at 9:44 pm

          Thanks for sharing your workaround! This is definitely a common issue with this lens (and others) and I’m sure other readers might want to follow your advice.

          Reply

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