Almost every day, readers of this blog ask me which DSLR they should buy and how they can best be set up for videos without breaking the bank. The purpose of this post is to examine exactly that. With a price limit of $ 1000, I will recommend a handful of options for cameras, rigs, and other basic accessories that you need to build an inexpensive cinema package.
My philosophy regarding setting up a 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 with RED or Arri Alexa looks much better than the average film shot with a DSLR, I would argue that the difference is more in the way How the camera is handled, exposed and rotated is closer than it is a reflection of the camera's capabilities. In other words, a better camera doesn't mean that your final picture will necessarily look better. I've seen a lot of beautiful films made with DSLR and a lot of badly made films made with RED, Alexa or other great digital cinema cameras. If you approach your DSLR the way you would approach a RED, you are already ahead of the game – especially since it doesn't take a lot of time or money to prepare your package for the cinema.
When it comes to the brain of your setup, I'm going to give you two options priced under $ 550. You may think that if you have to spend a total of $ 1000 you would rather buy a more expensive camera and not worry about the accessories, but I would highly recommend this. DSLRs in the $ 500 price range look just as good (if not better in some cases) than cameras in the $ 1000 price range. There may be slight differences, but you won't notice them on the screen like you would notice the effects of a rig, for example. Even if you are not crazy about accessories, you still need a lens or two to start (we'll come back to that later). Therefore, for this example, it is ideal to keep the camera budget below $ 500. Here are the two camera housings that I would recommend:
Canon T3i – $ 499
Canon EOS Rebel T3i DSLR camera (body only)
Lumix G6 – $ 549
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G6 mirrorless micro four-thirds digital camera with 14-42 mm f / 3.5-5.6 II lens
Each of these cameras could very well function as the heart of your system. They are both fantastic cameras, especially for the price, but I would personally choose the G6 between the two. The reason for this is that I love how the Micro Four Thirds format allows almost any lens to be fitted to it, and I also find this camera sharper than the T3i. However, if you have a lot of Canon glass or prefer a shallower depth of field, the T3i also has its advantages.
There is a time and place for zoom lenses, even with a more traditional film set, but for this article I'll stick to some very basic prime numbers. While zooms can be useful in some cases, the best choice is to go a little old school in this department and stick to prime numbers to give you a lot of money. I have listed three lenses below, all under $ 200. Based on our goal of $ 1000 for full setup, you initially want to choose only one of the following lenses. You can add many more lenses to your kit at any time later to cover all focal lengths. However, let's not underestimate what is possible with a single lens. After all, there have been many great feature films over the years that were only shot with a 35mm or 50mm lens.
Nikkor 50mm 1.8- $ 109
Nikon Normal AF Nikkor 50 mm f / 1.8 D auto focus lens
Canon 50mm 1.8 – $ 125
Canon EF 50mm f / 1.8 II lens
Nikkor 35mm 1.8 – $ 196
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 35mm f / 1.8G DX lens
The reason I only listed 35mm or 50mm lenses here is that these are usually the "normal" focal lengths that are the most versatile for everyday shooting. You don't want your only lens to be a wide angle or telephoto lens because you can't use it that easily in most situations. If you opted for the G6 (which has a slightly smaller sensor than the Canon), you are better off with the 35 mm, because the 50 mm feels like a telephoto lens due to the crop factor. Of all three, the Nikkor 50mm is my favorite.
The key to choosing a rig for this budget is to make it as easy as possible to handle. With a small, inexpensive rig, you can get amazing results as long as you don't overload it. Based on our minimalist approach to this $ 1,000 cinema camera, we don't need anything heavy. Since it's just a t3i or a G6 (both are very light), we can get away with an extremely compact and simple rig. Here's one that I've already used and that I would highly recommend if you're on a tight budget but still looking for a more traditional style shoulder rig:
Revo SR-1500 Dual Grip Shoulder Rig – $ 159
Revo SR-1500 Dual Grip shoulder support rig
And this is a great option if you prefer an even more compact configuration:
Dot Line Magic Rig – $ 94
Dot¤Line Magic Rig V1 for HDSLR cameras
Again, there is no right or wrong choice. If it is important to you to have a smaller rig, the magic rig is hard to beat. It still gives you a nice, stable picture and greatly improves your handheld footage compared to the fact that you don't use a rig at all. On the other hand, the dual-grip shoulder rig is more of a long-term solution and is likely to offer you a little more stability in most situations. If you start building your rig and want to add more accessories over the years, you can expand the dual grip rig while the Magic Rig is not designed for extensions or accessories.
Follow the focus
Some shooters can focus very well by hand, but a dedicated tracking focus will always improve your focus moves, no matter how stable your hand is. As with the other items on this list, you don't have to spend an arm and a leg to get something that works well – mainly because you are shooting on DSLR glass that can be handled with inexpensive solutions. The product I listed below is really great and it works right away. Unlike follow focus systems where you need to add lens gears to all lenses, this is a gearless system based on friction:
IndiPRO fees follow the focus – $ 118
IndiPRO¤Tools Follow the focus with the friction drive
Again, it is important to note that if you are using a Follow Focus system, you will need the larger rig listed above as it has the 15mm rails required to mount this accessory.
It goes without saying that ND filters are an essential part of any shooting kit. Unlike traditional cinema camera setups, however, we have to bypass the matte box and use a screw-on variable ND filter so we can stay within our $ 1000 limit. Is that the best option? Absolutely not. A matte box with a full kit of ND / IR filters always looks best, but most variable ND filters are not that bad. Some of them can cause a slight color cast on your image, but usually you can color correct the image in the post fairly easily to compensate for this. I would suggest buying a fairly large filter like this:
Arbor 77mm Variable ND – $ 39
Bower 77mm filter with variable neutral density
If you are wondering why I am suggesting a 77mm filter, if you may have lenses with smaller thread sizes (e.g. 58mm or 52mm), you can fit this filter to any lens with 77mm or less, making it grows versatile in the long run. With some very inexpensive step-down rings, you can use this filter on almost any of your lenses. There are lenses with a thread larger than 77mm, of course, but personally, almost all of my lenses are 77mm or lower, and I prefer not to have an oversized filter on a tiny lens when I don't have to – i.e. the 77mm size is a kind of happy medium. This means that if you want to buy larger lenses or have lenses with a larger thread, you should first get a larger lens.
It doesn't take a lot of money to set up your camera for a narrative shooting environment. The key is not to spend your entire budget on the camera body, and remember to leave enough for your rig, filters, and other accessories so you can get it up and running. You should be able to use any combination of the above items, while your initial set up cost is fairly easily around $ 1000. You will need to expand this package over time, but as a starting point, you should be able to get really good results with such a simple setup. It's also important to remember the low cost – SD cards, extra batteries, magnifying glasses, etc., as you may or may not need to add some extra items to your kit right away. Also, think of the larger accessories you want to buy later – LCD screens, external recorders, more lenses, etc. There are endless toys you can buy for your camera. However, try expanding your kit only when you really need more equipment. You will be surprised how much you can achieve with very little.
Having the right gear is only a third of the equation to get a great picture. The other two components are your DP skills (lighting, framing, etc.) and your post-production skills (namely, color correction). You can find more information on how you can make the most of your picture in the post in my post at Achieve the blockbuster look through color correction.
And for those of you who want to take the next step, be sure to check out mine Instructions for capturing movie images with your DSLR by clicking here.
Noam Kroll is an award-winning filmmaker from Los Angeles and founder of the boutique production house Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television and in various publications around the world. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!