You’ve got your DSLR with video capabilities and just decided you want to try them out. Imagine you had $500 to spend on accessories. What should you buy?
Many photographers are moving into videography. It’s a natural step, with DSLRs offering the essential tools to experiment. But video has some different rules from photography, so you need to invest in some accessories that make for an easier experience, and probably the will to continue further. Let me tell you, video can be an exciting activity. And this comes from someone that until recently looked at video as a dispensable language in his life.
It is surprising how it took me a long time to want to explore video, although I’ve tested some early photographic cameras offering the function. I say this because I’ve created slideshows for quite a long time, since the days of transparency films to the modern days digital slideshows. While doing some of the most recent slideshows, I would imagine how some of the sequences would look like in video, but never took the step forward to try. Now I am looking back at some of my previous work and imagining other ways to do it. More about this in another article, soon. Here and now I want to share with you some suggestions – nothing more than that – about accessories that will make your video experience much better.
Let’s assume you already have a DSLR with video capabilities. And you probably have a lens to go with it. Some people will tell you that for video you need special lenses, but that is not entirely true. Your humble kit lens – a 18-55mm – will suffice. I’ve seen people working with lenses as old as the EF 28-135mm and showing good results. In fact this lens offers an ample coverage for many subjects, making for a portable all around kit. For video I use a zoom EF 17-40mm f/4, and an EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro. With my EOS 600D, as I wrote in a previous article, EOS 600D/Rebel 3Ti: The Best and Cheapest DSLR for Video, I can reach everything from wide-angle (27mm on a 1.6x crop) to 300mm (or 460mm f/2.8, some say) on a very portable all around kit.
Modern Canon lenses and cameras (the brand I’ve most experience with, so the one I will refer to most of the time) offer AF systems that can work – better – with video, but due to the general AF limitations of older systems – and to some extent the new! – when it comes to moving subjects, consider focusing manually. It can be done, as generations of Hollywood focus-pullers have demonstrated.
I understand some people will want to jump into action, and create videos of fast moving subjects, but start slowly – remember, learn to walk before you run – and choose subjects that allow for some form of control. There’s so much you can do to learn the techniques, without trying to be a Need for Speed DoP on your first day. So, after this little bit of advice, let’s look at the essentials.
A Variable Neutral Density Filter – $150
Some may not agree with me, but I think the most important first investment for a new videographer should be a Variable Neutral Density filter. Such a filter allows videographers to control exposure – and other things too – without having to change speed, an element that is essential for video. I’ve mentioned this before in another article, Video in DSLRs: The Speed Limit, so read it to know more about some of the reasons to use a VND filter (Variable Neutral Density filter).
If you’re a landscape photographer you may probably already own one of these. Or maybe you’re still using a set of filters of different values, on a filter holder, a solution that is cumbersome. Then, I advise you to buy a screw-in type VND, because it makes more sense. I bought my VND so as to work with my lenses with a wider diameter, which happens to be 77mm, and then adapters to use the filter on lenses with smaller diameters. Expect to pay over $100 for a reasonable good VND filter, that will work with you and not against you. Or go up to $400 for some brands. “Google” for the term and you’ll get multiple suggestions. Remember, you get what you pay for. I would say something around $150 will be acceptable for our budget of $500.
Focus Manually Assisted
Focusing manually is the way to go. That’s what I’ve been doing and it works perfectly, once you start to get used to it. It is not easy, but can be achieved. To help you focus manually, some kind of assistance may be welcome. Some people will point to systems of focus costing hundreds and say that’s a starting point for them. Well, it may be, but on a limited budget, a good option is anything under $100. So, here is a suggestion that may work for you. I skipped on purpose some of them, like the jam jar opener from Amazon (that’s for another day…) and looked at those that will still look professional (whatever that means) and do the job, not breaking the bank.
Your Own Focus Puller – $49.99
Focus Shifter is a stand-alone Follow Focus and Rack Focus with a focus marker board that can be used on any camera lens. No extra equipment is required. The Shifter and Focus Marker Board attach quickly and easily to any lens ranging in diameter from 56mm (2.20in) up to 98mm (3.86in). The Focus Shifter even works well on the popular Canon 50mm f1.8 lens, which is notoriously difficult to attach a follow focus to due to the design of the focus ring.
The Shifter operates on the full range of the lens. Its design allows you to smoothly pull focus without any jarring starts or stops. The ball design is easy to grasp so you can avoid twisting your hand into uncomfortable positions when pulling focus. For a lens with a narrow focus ring, you can prevent your fingers from falling into the frame, by keeping them at a safe distance.
Audio Recording Solutions
Using the audio recording in the camera you’ll understand that the microphone captures everything, from the noises inside the camera, the noises you create adjusting controls or moving the gear, and then the audio you need. I would advise you to record audio with your camera as something that will help you to define what was going on… and also because there may be some audio there you can use. But do look for an external source for capturing audio.
A microphone is the solution most will probably adapt, and while it is better than the built-in microphone, it has two problems: mounted on the hot-shoe it still captures the sound of the operator, and will, in many cases, be away from your subject, unless you have a long connection cable …for someone to trip on!
If you absolutely need to go that way – for video on the move, for example – then look for a microphone that will offer the best isolation from external physical factors. But an external recorder may be a good solution, and you still can find one within the budget allowed.
The Smallest Zoom for Sound – $99.99
The Zoom H1 is a good starting solution when it comes to audio. The compact recorder can be placed on top of your DSLR as a microphone, if you need to, but it can be placed anywhere, I mean, close to the subject. Like the bigger and more expensive Zoom recorders, the H1’s onboard microphones are configured in an X/Y pattern for total stereo imaging.
Portable, allowing the use of additional mics, able to record WAV and MP3 up to 24-bit/96kHz in Micro SDHC cards, the Zoom H1 costs $99.99, You can also buy the complete kit, which includes a padded carrying case, a tabletop tripod stand, a foam windscreen, a detachable microphone handle, a USB cable, and an AC power adapter. The price goes up to around $120.
LED lights are essential for videography, if you’re a photographer and only have a flash to use when natural light is not available. You need some sort of continuous light to be able to do video in some locations, and LEDs are the easiest way to have light wherever you go. Also for photography!
Although prices have come down, LED lights are still expensive, and the cheapest of them usually do not render colour with fidelity… or as much fidelity as some of the best products. Now, this is not a rule of thumb, some higher priced LED lights also are not worth the price asked for them. Usually you should look for the CRI number (the higher, the better), which refers to the fidelity of the light source, but some brands do not disclose the number.
Some Light on LEDS – $200
The best advice I can give you regarding LED lights is to invest in a couple of them. They may not be the best available in the market, but from around the $100 price range you can find some solutions. To illustrate this section of the article I’ve used an image of the Manfrotto Spectra 500F, a tiny little light I use and like very much, for its portability and results, but its price does go a bit over the $200 we still have left from our initial budget of $500. I started with LitePanels and their early models and I also use Manfrotto’s LED lights these days.
I say lights, because although you can do wonders with a single LED light, a couple will open more options when it comes to work with some subjects. I know this from experience, because although I like to work with one light setups (on photography and now on video) there are times when more lights are needed.
This is my suggestion for an essential kit to start creating your own videos. I could do a longer list mentioning stuff like extra batteries (yes, a a LOT of extra batteries) and memory cards (a LOT of those too!) but that is just common sense. I also do not mention a videographer’s tripod or monopod because, to start with, you can use your own tripod (I hope you’ve one!). Also, in this article I refer only to the equipment associated with the capture of video, not the editing part. We will discuss those options that another day. A $500 budget does not allow to go that far.
One last note: $500 is a lot of money for many people. You do not have to shell out the total amount in one day. Create a hierarchy for buying the suggested items, buy one, explore it, and then go after the next. If it was me, I would buy the focusing tool followed by the variable neutral density filter. Afterwards, you’ve to decide what is most important to you: either better sound or lighting. If you work mostly outside, then the audio recorder may be your most important choice, allowing you to enter the realm of creating good quality audio for your videos. If you’re like me and work indoors, then LED lights may be essential. Just make sure you make the right choice and spend your money well.
The suggestions here are… simple suggestions. Although I mention some brands, they are used as reference. Shop locally, and see what you’ve available. If possible, talk to people that have experience in the field, read reviews (with a grain of salt and always remembering it is the writer’s opinion and not a rule that you MUST follow), touch and try the products, if the option is available. You’re buying gear you will work with for a long time, so you need to feel comfortable using it. Remember: you get what you pay for. This said, I always try to keep in mind my motto “Less Gear, More Fun”. Buy wisely, be creative!