As far as filmmaking gear goes, there is no substitute for having the right tools for the job.
We all know that filmmaking is a broad field. There are so many different genres: adventure sports, documentaries, etc. Some of them require specialized equipment. When it comes to choosing filmmaking equipment, every filmmaker has their own needs.
However, there are some basics, regardless of the subject or budget of your film.
Whether you’re an aspiring filmmaker or experienced, this article will help you understand filmmaking kit and give you some practical tips that can improve your work because you’re using the right film equipment!
How to Choose the Best Filmmaking Equipment for Your Production
If you’re in the film business, you know what you need to do to produce a good video. But not everyone knows how important it is to choose the right mix of filmmaking equipment for your video production.
The equipment used for filming has a huge impact on the quality of your production. That’s why it pays to carefully consider the selection and overall mix. Note that it’s not always the case that more equipment is a good thing!
The camera, lights, sound equipment, microphones, tripods, and other accessories are all basic components. The type of production you want to do will affect what equipment you need.
The simplest setup would be a DSLR or video camera with a tripod and one or two microphones. But if you want to do more creative stuff, you should plan for more equipment.
You’ll need to consider what cameras, lenses, and lighting are appropriate for the type of production and topic you want to cover. This is true whether low budget filmmaking or operating on a commission with a healthy budget.
You’ll also need to consider whether to buy, borrow, or rent the equipment. It often makes more sense to rent cameras and lenses than to buy them because camera bodies and formats evolve so quickly. Audio equipment tends to be much more durable.
Things to Consider When Choosing a Camera for Filmmaking
The first decision you need to make is usually which camera equipment to use: specifically, which type of camera to which you then can attach different types of lenses.
The most important decision is between a camcorder camera and a DSLR camera, some of which are optimized for filming.
With a video-only camera (camcorder), you often have a built-in zoom kit lens. Audio connectors (XLR) are also often built-in, making it easier to use professional microphones (see below). More expensive film cameras allow you to fit different lenses.
Shooting on real film (Super 16mm, 35mm, etc.) is a rarity these days. Even in Hollywood, the very high dynamic range (the ability of a camera to “see” and process a wide range of brightness within an image) of digital cameras, together with the convenience of the overall workflow, means that almost all movies today are shot on digital video.
Although iPhones have been used to shoot entire movies (Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane, for example), in most professional scenarios – whether drama or documentary – you’ll be looked at incredulously if you suggest it. Be prepared to have very good reasons for using a smartphone!
Things to Remember if Going the DSLR Route
The reason you might choose a DSLR camera is that it allows you to achieve a shallow depth of field, which works so well in dramatic scenes and in scenes where you want to draw more attention to the subject.
For this reason, DSLRs have opened up possibilities to the indie filmmaker that previously were the preserve of studios.
DSLRs, especially full-frame DSLRs with large sensors, are also much better in low light when you’re using no lights or operating in low light conditions.
However, if you’re shooting a documentary, you’ll almost certainly need a camera with a professional zoom lens. Otherwise, trying to refocus every shot will be extremely tedious.
For feature films and shorts, where you’ve much more control over the scene and staging, and an interchangeable lens system is an advantage, a DSLR can be the right choice.
The Micro-Four-Thirds mirrorless camera system (the Panasonic GH5s is a good example) is popular with travel and adventure filmmakers. These cameras tend to be lighter, but have a smaller sensor.
Heavier full-frame DSLRs (such as the Canon 5D and 7D series) tend to be used when image quality and aperture/depth of field are paramount.
In addition to the Canons, Sony’s DSLRs are also worth a look at. Especially the A7S II, where you have a full frame in a small body. Sony also offers the A6500 as an option with an APS-C sensor (see below).
Sensor size is a factor that’s often overlooked when choosing a camera body, but it can be very important.
The sensor is the part of the camera that captures the light, prior to it being converted into digital information which is then usually stored on a memory card.
The larger the sensor, the more light it can capture and the better images you’ll get in low light conditions. Sensor size can be divided into full-frame sensors and those smaller than full-frame (such as APS-C or Micro Four Third).
The type of sensor in your camera body determines what resolution you can shoot at.
While 1080 is fine, it probably makes sense if you can shoot in 4k to future-proof your rushes (raw footage) and have options for cropping when editing.
The decision to shoot RAW (uncompressed) should be made carefully.
Not only does it put a lot more stress on the memory card and drive, but the cameras can run hotter and are more prone to failure. Cameras like the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4k are worth a look if you plan to shoot RAW – not least for their impressive dynamic range.
Different Lenses Options For Films
The lens or lenses you use is one of the most important decisions you make. It changes the way you perceive your story, it affects your storytelling style, and it affects the scene you film.
Documentaries usually use a zoom lens, ranging from wide-angle to telephoto. The reason for this is that the footage needs to be re-shot very quickly in fast-moving situations.
Beyond that, or for other types of filmmaking, you’ll choose a range of lenses depending on your budget and needs.
Finding the right lens can be quite a challenge. There are so many different numbers and letters that accompany each lens that it can be difficult to know what they mean. Even if you know what they mean, it’s still pretty confusing to decipher them.
So let’s take a look at some of the most common ones.
Types of Lenses
Let’s first talk about the different types of lenses you can use with your camera. There are two basic types of lenses: prime and zoom.
Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.
Prime Lenses (Fixed)
A prime lens (also known as fixed focal length) has only one focal length. Prime lenses offer excellent image quality, especially when used on full-frame cameras.
Most filmmakers and photographers have at least one big aperture prime focal length lens in their bag to cover low light conditions and situations where they want to extend the depth of field (an out-of-focus background) as far as possible.
Fixed focal lengths vary from 14mm to 135mm. The classic lenses you should carry as a filmmaker are 28 mm (wide angle) and 50 mm (closest to the human eye).
An 85mm lens is an excellent choice for documentaries and feature films where you want to capture portraits and interviews.
Outside of wildlife films or dramas, telephoto lenses with a focal length of 200mm or more are rare. They require skill to bring a moving subject into focus, good stabilization, and good lighting conditions.
A classic zoom lens for documentary filming with a DSLR is, for example, the Canon 70mm-200mm.
It allows for ” run and gun” style filming while providing an ideal focal length for portraits and interviews.
The downside of zoom lenses is that the image quality usually can’t match that of a fixed focal length lens. Still, the way you assess and use the light when filming is the most important factor in the image quality and emotional energy of your shots.
The development of GoPro cameras is a game-changer for many small and large productions.
The GoPro is a compact, lightweight, waterproof HD video camera used by skydivers, surfers, mountaineers, firefighters, soldiers, and many other adventurers.
The GoPro has also become an indispensable tool for videographers because it can be used in so many ways.
In situations where you risk losing or damaging a camera, a GoPro can be the best option. The HERO10 with accessories currently retails for $400, for example.
GoPros offer a very wide shooting angle, so keep that in mind when planning your shoot.
Drones are a huge subject area worthy of its own article. They open up a real of filmmaking opportunities, including otherwise inaccessible perspectives and overhead shots, plus also the ability to follow fast-moving action.
Note that in many places you need a permit and/or license to operate them.
Some of the leading brands are Parrot and DJI.
Depending on the model, you can get a system with a gimbal and 4K camera for $500 to $3000. The more expensive version, the DJI Inspire 2, can even use other cameras.
Remember that your choice of the camera determines the type, size, weight, cost, and quantity of a whole host of accessories – batteries, memory cards, mounts, stabilization options, lenses, ND filter, and more.
The golden rule with batteries and memory cards is that you should always have a little more than you expect to need.
They’re cheap when you compare them to the costs incurred on set (think planning costs and the shoot day itself), hiring crew, and so on.
An important accessory is hard drives, which you carry with you to store your daily rushes before backing them up to a hard drive or NAS in your editing system.
You shouldn’t sacrifice quality here. Losing rushes is probably the most painful experience a filmmaker can have. Fortunately, in 25 years around the world, it’s never happened to me. But I’ve seen it happen to others. It’s not a fun thing to witness.
That’s why you should definitely get (and test) something like the LaCie Rugged External Drives. They’re water and shock-resistant and have never broken on me.
Tripods and Stabilization
Tripods and other forms of stabilization are essential pieces of camera support equipment for almost any film production.
The type and weight of the tripod and tripod head will usually depend on the type and weight of the camera you’re using and the circumstances in which you plan to film.
For example, strong winds will require a heavy tripod, possibly even weighed down with a sandbag.
Pay attention to how easily the tripod adjusts, how smooth the head is when you pan and tilt the camera, and how high the tripod can be raised and, most importantly, lowered (usually by removing or opening up the spreader).
In the tripod world, you generally get what you pay for.
If you rent a tripod, make sure you test it thoroughly before shooting and that you have the necessary tools to tighten or loosen the screws as needed. The last thing you need is to be unable to make that all-important camera pan because the tripod head is too wobbly to allow it!
Two other very useful stabilization options to keep in mind are GorillaPods and bean bags.
For lighter cameras, such as DSLRs and GoPros, a GorillaPod can be very useful for attaching a camera to something where a clamp would be impractical.
Bean bags are very useful for quick stabilization on rocks, car windows, etc. You throw the bag on the ground and then hold or position the camera on the bag. I remember once improvising a bean bag in northern Japan with a large (and very expensive!) bag of rice.
This leads us neatly to the subject of camera bags.
When I briefly taught novice filmmakers at the Paris Film School, a little test and lesson consisted of asking one of them to get bring over a camera bag from the back of the room – or something from inside it.
Most of the time, the bag was left open. An absolute no-no on professional film sets.
The rule is: the bag stays tightly closed unless something is going in or out of it!
Bags of all kinds (camera, tripod, sound equipment, etc.) must be sturdy, protective, and easy to access.
They also need to open and close easily (as described above!) and have super strong zippers. Make sure you’ve good straps and carrying options – your body will thank you later.
Shoulder Rigs for Filmmakers
A shoulder rig is designed for a small video camera, usually a DSLR.
It allows the filmmaker to comfortably carry and operate the camera while walking, running, or even jumping. It’s an essential piece of equipment for any serious filmmaker, especially those who are constantly on the move.
It basically takes the weight off your arms and makes holding the camera much more comfortable. This way, you can shoot longer without getting tired.
Shoulder straps also allow you to quickly switch between different shooting positions without having to adjust your grip on the camera each time. This is especially handy when you’re filming in tight spaces and your movement is limited, or when you’re shooting long takes that require lots of small adjustments during the shot.
The camera body is usually attached either via a quick-release plate on the front of the rig, or directly to an articulating arm attached to the bottom of the camera. The camera operator then holds onto two handles on either side of the rig that allows him or her to point and pan the camera.
There’s usually a monitor built into the rig so the camera operator can see what he or she’s filming.
Portable monitors can be very useful to check material on location, and also to help ensure that focus and exposure are correct by using things like false color.
They don’t need to be large; frankly, anything will beat what you see through just a viewfinder or camera flip-out screen.
Sound Equipment for Your Shoot
The dirty little secret that most filmmakers are reluctant to reveal is that sound is just as important as pictures – if not more so.
That’s why it pays to make sure you have the right sound equipment when planning your film and video production.
Good sound equipment can make the difference between an embarrassing video or film and one you can be proud of.
Sound equipment, like all other types of equipment used in film production, is a broad field.
With that said, let’s go over the most important things:
Even if your camcorder has a built-in microphone, you should consider it a “reference mic” at best. It won’t be nearly good enough to record professional audio.
You need an external microphone.
That’s why a good directional shotgun microphone is pretty much the second priority for any filmmaker after the camera and lens.
The Versatility of Shotgun Microphones
A shotgun microphone is more important than a lavalier or wireless microphone because it’s so versatile.
You can pick up anything from ambient noise in a scene – a crowd, for example – to an interview. The polar pattern of these directional microphones is unidirectional, which means it picks up mainly the sound in front of the microphone and less of the sound to the side or rear.
This can be especially useful if you’re filming something specific and want to focus on that sound source, such as an interview subject or a musical instrument.
There are many different brands and types of shotgun microphones, but a couple of classics are the Sennheiser 416 (called the “tractor beam” by sound engineers for its ability to pull in sound) and its successor, the Sennheiser MKH60 (I own a couple of these).
At a lower price point, Rode offers some excellent options, including the NTG 4+ and the budget Videomic Pro.
Related: Different Types of Microphones
You can either attach the shotgun mic to your camera, attach it to a boom pole to get closer to the action or speaker, or place it on a tripod near the sound source you want to record.
Shotgun mics are usually connected to cameras, mixers, or audio recorders via “balanced” 3-pin XLR cables of almost any length that can withstand any kind of interference.
An important piece of equipment for shotgun microphones is a shock mount.
This is a frame with crossed rubber bands in which the microphone sits to absorb shock and prevent it from getting onto the microphone and thus onto the recording.
High Quality Monitoring Headphones
Good headphones are essential when filming and recording sound. You shouldn’t head out to the location without them!
Only with headphones can you really understand what you’re recording or have recorded.
Personally, I have a pair of Sennheiser HD25s. They’re very popular with sound engineers because they faithfully reproduce the recorded sounds. I can attest to the fact that they’re very rugged: They’ve been in use for 15 years and show no signs of giving up!
Even if you don’t have a budget for (wireless) radio microphones, it’s a good idea to have at least one lavalier microphone in your camera bag.
Lavalier mics aren’t that expensive, and you’ll find that they’re sometimes a better choice to place on an interviewee or in a scene than placing a shotgun mic and tripod in the scene.
Sometimes it’s a matter of limited space, sometimes shadows can cause problems, or you may need to move the lavalier closer to get a better result.
Digital Audio Recorders
Models like Tascam and Zoom have made digital audio recorders accessible to almost every filmmaker.
Not only are they an essential filmmaking tool if you’re recording audio separately, either through a mixer or directly into their own XLR jacks – they also serve as an important backup audio option if you’re connecting audio directly to the camera.
Even if you stick to best practices and listen to the audio with headphones while shooting when operating a camera you have to focus on the scene in front of your lens and can’t pay full attention to whether or not the audio is coming in reliably.
A loose or broken XLR cable, for example, can ruin your entire recording.
In this case, a backup audio recorder will be your salvation.
It also means you have an audio recording that you can access immediately to use for transcripts and the like.
The basic rule for radio microphones is: if you’re going to use them, get the best you can afford.
I myself use wired audio as often as possible in the field. Frankly, it’s much more reassuring and reliable.
However, there are circumstances where only a wireless microphone will work. In this case, you should get a set that’s well designed, works reliably, and has a strong and clear signal.
Keep in mind that there are some places where radio microphones are prohibited or can only be used with permission.
Personally, I own Sennheiser EW 112P G4 and a compatible wireless boom mic transmitter that converts a shotgun mic (in my case, an MKH60) into a wireless mic. This is very useful in situations where you don’t want an XLR cable potentially tripping you up.
The Sennheiser AVX MKE2 also has a good reputation.
Lighting Kit for Filming
Good (i.e. controlled) lighting is the heart of good filmmaking.
It sets the mood and emotion and makes your actors or actresses look good (or bad).
Depending on the lighting style and equipment you choose, your footage can look professional and polished, or it can be a disaster that makes your audience want to look away.
Natural light can be a good choice. You don’t need to lug around lights, so that’s good!
The downside, however, is that natural light changes throughout the day, which means it can be very difficult to provide consistent lighting. This is also a factor when you’re letting natural light into a room.
Lighting in filmmaking is all about getting the effect you want. This means you need to know how the light works on camera and what types of light can create the mood you want.
In many films, lighting equipment is divided into
- Tungsten lights – often used to mimic daylight. They get very hot. A very useful set for any filmmaker is a 3-lamp dedolight set with dimmers, filters, and sometimes a projector.
- HMI – used in the film industry when a lot of light is needed. For example, to cast light through a set window to simulate a sunny day.
- Fluorescent – many tubes next to each other. A good example of this type of light is the Kinoflo series. They work well for lighting interiors, but you usually need to place them close to the subject.
- LED – the main advantage is fine brightness adjustment and safety. They can run on batteries and run cold.
Filmmakers have a number of options when it comes to editing equipment. There are many editing software packages on the market.
Although you can also edit on a tablet or smartphone, most people opt for a Mac or PC, to set up their editing system.
In the professional world, editing workflows tend to be geared toward offline editing with Avid. That’s partly because many editors were trained on that system.
Adobe Premiere and Final Cut Pro X are vying for positions, especially with independent filmmakers and for a short film.
One of the advantages of Final Cut Pro X is the way it handles metadata and file organization – you don’t have to put the footage into special “bins,” which can be a huge time saver.
If you’re on a very tight budget, you should check out BlackMagic’s free Da Vinci Resolve. Although it’s primarily intended for color grading, it can also be used as an editing solution. If you want to edit 4k movies, you’ll have to pay for the studio version of the app.
If an amateur filmmaker, you could do worse than to start with iMovie in order to get an understanding of how shots and sequences work in editing.