Beginner DSLR Cinemaphotography kit

This post is the first of 3 describing and linking to gear used by cinemaphotographer to make their videos. In this first post, we are going to review the gear available to beginners aka low budget movie makers. The second article will review the gear available to enthusiast while the last one will target those with professional goals. These classifications are not as much related to the budget as the level of dedication of the user. We have divided the gear in three sections: Camera,  lens and accessories, Software and Computer Hardware. When possible, we have given two alternatives for each piece of gear: a low cost and a higher cost version. The low cost version might be something that could be sold or traded for an upgrade while the higher cost one is good enough to even satisfy a pro.

Camera, lens and accessories

Body

Right now, when people are talking about cinemaphotography,  there are thinking about one of these two alternatives: the Nikon D90 or the Canon 5DMarkII. Unless you are totally new to photography, you probably already have a few lenses from one of these two brands so the choice has already been made for you (unless you are ready to switch allegiance). While we can hardly call the Canon 5DMarkII a beginner or low budget camera, since it is the only Canon alternative, we have to put it here.

Suggestions:

Lenses

At this stage, you only need two lenses and you probably even own them: a Nifty 50 and a wide to medium angle lens. By Nifty 50 we regroup all the 50mm lenses with aperture of f1.4 or f1.8. On Nikon this lenses give you an EFL of 75mm that might be too long for indoor shooting so you might want to move directly to a normal prime lens, such as the 35mmf/1.8 for a few more bucks.

Note: The Canon 50mmf1.8 should not be considered for filming since it does not have a focus ring.

Note2: We did some comparison between the Canon 50f1.4 and the Zeiss Planar 1.7. The Zeiss compares favorably to the Canon for film making and should be considered as a cheaper alternative as outlined in our review.

Suggestions:

The second lens has to be a zoom playing in the 20-50+mm effective focal length (EFL). There are many alternatives for these at various quality levels and price point. The zoom might not have the nice aperture of the prime, but it will allow you to play with the field of view and give you more flexibility when composing your frame. This lens will stay with you for as long as you are going to shoot which is why it is a good idea to invest in quality glass. But if you are low on money, you can pick a used popular model that you could later sale at almost no lost.

While IS (image stabilization) is definitely a big plus, if  you are planing to spend most of your time shooting from a tripod your money would be better spent in a higher quality lens. On the other hand, if you are thinking about going hand held from time to time, the IS really pays off as displayed in this video comparison of the effect of IS at 70mm and 200mm EFL.

Suggestions:

Filters

Dont jump right away to the next section! Filters are a critical part of the cinemaphotographer arsenal. If you don’t understand why, go take a look at this video from Bruce. At this stage, a circular polarizing filter and a square ND2 filter are more than enough. If you plan to shoot in bright sunlight, you can go with a stronger ND filter. While Bruce suggest to get the big 4×6 filters, I think it is more reasonable to start with the smaller ones and stay away from “made from real glass” filters. They are just too expensive. That is why I like the ones made by Cokin, they are much cheaper and still good quality. Make sure you pick the size that fits with your lenses!

Suggestions:

Tripod

Finally, get yourself a tripod.  As with anything related to photography, tripods and heads can get VERY expensive very quickly.  Dont under estimate the effect a good tripod has on image quality. Pick a cheap heavy one and you will never bring it with you, take something made out of plastic and it will die after two weekends. A tripods is probably the pieces of gear that is going to last you the longest and should be seen as an investment, so get something that will last!

There are many good tripods on the market and probably anything you pay over 150$ will give you good results. There are a few things that can make a tripod stands out of the crowd like: having a weight hook, vibration reduction, removable central column, horizontal central column positioning, etc. Personally, I use the Bogen / Manfrotto 190CXPRO3 3-Section Carbon Fiber Tripod Legs (Black) . I love it and I see myself using this thing for a few more years.

Head

While ball heads are great for photography, when filming you are better off with a head that offers some friction to ensure smooth panning. In my mind, nothing beats the Bogen / Manfrotto 501HDV Fluid Video Head in term of quality per dollars. It is the equivalent of the 50mmf/1.8 of the head world.

Software

Since I don’t really know what exists on the PC side, I will just pretend there is nothing and let some PC reader contact me for the specifics. Or simply buy a Mac. Seriously, the Mac has some unique software that make the whole editing experience so much better (and cheaper, seriously!). As a Mac user, you most probably already have all you need to start editing your shots: iLife. While the newest version that is about to come out has some incredible features, even iLife 08 is enough for the needs of a beginner.

Computer hardware and storage

External HD and backing up

Video editing requires your system to have a secondary hard drive to store your assets/projects. Well, you are not “required to” but if you mix you clips data with the OS partition you you will experience some serious slow down. So lets just say that you have to bite the bullet (again) and get a secondary internal HD. I prefer internal HD because they are the cheapest fastest solution you can get. Do not backup anything on this drive, it is solely a scratch disk / asset vault.

Now lets talk about backup. If you value any of your work, you need to back it up. Unfortunately for us, video takes a lot of HD space so backing up on disk media is out of the question. We could go with another internal drive but I prefer to have an external enclosure for backup so I can bring it at my parents house when I am out for a long period of time.  You can go with the classical HD enclosure or pay a little (ok, big) extra to get a Drobo. While the Drobo is not perfect, contrary to what their marketing department is trying to make you believe, it offers some very interesting features for its price point. Before buying one,  make sure you read my post about its limitation (coming soon).

Finally, dont forget that a backup is only a backup if its replicating data  living somewhere else. As soon as your data lives on only a single drive you are exposed to losing everything!

Suggestions:

Monitor

Lets not go into any excesses here, your current monitor is probably going to be just fine. If you really want a secondary screen accept only a 24″ since it is the minimum size to display 1080p at native resolution. (Well, my 23″ ACD does too but it is out of production)

System

I guess you already have a computer, but in case you are thinking about switching, this one is easy: any recent Apple system (exception: Mac mini) will play with iMovie, Final Cut Express and Final Cut Pro just fine. So just pick the one you want, my suggestions going of course with the bigger models. Also, note that the Mac Books dont have a FW port anymore. Also, make sure to upgrade the RAM to at least 2 gigs, 4 being much better.

Conclusion

After having spent (already) a small fortune, you are now equipped to produce your first movie. You already have all you need, the next levels only add more bells and whistles.

About Tommy

Photography allows me to be what I want to be, to be where I want to be, and to do what I want to do ... I'm not professional photographer and I don't need a title, I love to take photographs and that is what I do, I love to learn and I always try to do it better ...
  • http://donthave.com 5d user

    I would remove Canon 50mm/1.2 from the list. It’s overkill and too expensive for video use. You wouldn’t be shooting with 1.2 or even under 2 most of the time anyways. 50/1.4 has the best value from all Canon lenses imo and that’s the way to go.

    About hardware for PC. There are tons of softwares for video editing, but if you have bought 5D for video I assume you wan’t to do the editing part well too. Adobe Premiere Pro is professional software that can do much more than most video editing softwares out there. It’s also easy to learn the basics if you are beginner. If you want to do even more serious work, Adobe After Effects is the only way to go in the video world. Only sky is the limit with AE and that’s why it’s used in Motion Pictures too. You can download free 30 day trials from Adobe’s site for both softwares.

    There’s also tons of good and well priced monitors for PC that has 1920×1200 or 1920×1080 native resolution, sizes starting from 21″. You can get good 22″ monitor for less than 200$. There are lost of options, Samsung and LG being the most popular. Viewsonic, Benq and Acer do have good monitors too. If only the best is good enough for you, buy EIZO. That’s what most video/photo professionals are using.

    If you don’t have computer yet, I would suggest to go with PC since you can get one with same specs as any Mac with a lot less money and you have practically unlimited ammount of choises for hardware and software. By building the PC by yourself you well get it even cheaper and you will get exactly the computer you want. No compromises. But that’s another story :)

  • admin

    Hi,

    I made this post from the perspective of a beginner, a more advanced list is on the way. The next list will introduce more specialized equipment and software such as AE (which is quite nice as you pointed out).

    While I understand your reasoning to get a PC, unfortunately I cant endorse it for a simple reason: FCP only works on a Mac. FCP is viewed as the standard app for editing and anyone interested in going in this domain should learn it. I have learned Premiere and it just does not compare to FCP.

    As for the 50L1.2, while ridiculously expensive for a small upgrade from the 1.4, it seems to be one of the favorite video lens of a lot of cinephotographers. It focuses much better than the 1.8 and 1.4 and has an even better IQ.
    I have shot a fusion video recently were most of the shots were taken at night. I was shooting at 1.4 most of the time and if I could have gone to 1.2, I would have. Then again, such aperture is only good if you think you will need it! You are right saying the 1.4 has better value. But, for some people, top quality is more important than value (and I wish I could afford it too!).

    Thx for the comments.

  • http://donthave.com 5d user

    but this list was supposed to be for beginners? 1.2 is not for beginners at all.

  • admin

    Rich beginners. :-) I wanted to give an alternative for all price points. The important element is the 50mm focal, not as much as the iq.

    For me a beginner does not have to be on a budget. It is only someone who is starting out. For example in my case my first lens was a 70-200L2.8.
    Once I have completed the intermediate list, I will finish my ‘cinephotographer on a budget’ list were I will restrict my choices to the cheapest alternatives. Like I did for my follow focus post.

  • Max

    Nice site you have going here.

    As to the Canon 50/1.2 issue: that is a fast but expensive lens. Some users love it and some find the performance per cost ratio not worth it. What a lot of folks do is enter the world of “alternative lenses.” You can adopt wonderful manual lenses from old systems made by Zeiss, Pentax, Olympus, Minolta and others. Some lenses are easy to adapt to the Canon EF mount. All you need is a cheap adapter usually sourced from eBay. Other lenses require surgery, milling, drilling and time. For some this effort is worth it. One of the “rock star” lenses in this arena is the old manual focus 58mm/1.2 Rokkor made by Minolta in the 1970′s. It is simply a fantastic lens. Other options are the Canon FD lenses but they can be more of a hassle to adapt. To put this simply: there are manual lenses that have better performance and “character” for the money than the modern Canon EF offerings. Some still shooters know this. Movie shooters who use the 5D are also discovering this fact as auto focus is less important. Having a real aperture ring is a plus as well. The new Canon firmware has addressed this though.

    The nice thing about Canon bodies is that the distance from the focal plane to the lens flange is greater than all the other cameras; so there is room for adaptors etc. Not as easy with the Nikon. Check the Fred Miranda alternative lens forum for more: http://www.fredmiranda.com/forum/board/55 Be warned though: once you enter the world of “alt lenses” you might never have the same regard for your modern lenses you once had…

    Max

  • Victor

    I have to say, thank God for you, I am planning on getting the 7d and was searching all over the web, reading blog and watching videos of shooting with dslrs and was really surprised how expensive everything actually gets. I just couldn`t imagine students affording the rigs and so on. But when I got to your site and saw the reasonables prices for a lowbudget filmer, it was really reassuring.

    Thanks alot

  • http://www.cavanaghphotography.com Adam Cavanagh

    Cool post thanks! But is Imovie really good enough for the editing?

    • admin

      good enough depends of your expectations but I have seen great stuff created with it. It is used to create a lot of podcast and its integration with GarageBand means that it is easy to add a soundtrack, etc… Of course, once you know FCP, you quickly hit the limits of iMovie but I think it is a nice introduction to editing.

  • susie q

    i’m relieved reading your post. i make videos but for ‘artist video’ types. not commercial.

    is the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II really that different from the 50mm f1.4 USM?
    kindly advice. my shots will be narrative types, mostly indoors.
    my budget tight.

    also, another question:
    i am thinking of a dslr camera but need a filmic look! if the 5dmarkII will look filmic with 24p filmware coming in june2010, i’m ready to go for it. But various sites say 7d. is the 24p capability the only thing that makes an image ‘filmic’??

  • admin

    Hi Susie. First, take a look at this post:

    http://www.canon5dtips.com/2009/08/what-is-the-best-shutter-speed-for-movie-mode/

    Getting a film look isnt just about getting 24p, it is more about shallow DoF. 24p is just the number people have decided to film with because it gave a better feel. But there are a lot of movies shot at other framerate.

    If you shoot indoor, the 5D wins hand down vs the 7D because of the 1.6x crop. Indoor = wide angle and low light and that is where the 5D rules over the 7D.

    When people look a the stuff I shoot with my 5D @ 30p, they dont care about the framerate. What they are looking at is the gorgeous image, interesting camera placement and colors. Get these things right and no one will care about 24 or 30p.
    Dont forget that the internet is a big echo chamber. A lot of people talk about 24p as the holy grail while they cant even tell the difference between 24 and 30!
    Regarding lenses, you cant really work with a 50mm1.8 for film because it does not have a manual focus ring. For a cheaper alternative, look at my post about Zeiss 50mm vs Canon 1.4. I think it will make you happy ;-)

  • admin

    While you can manually focus using the 50mm1.8 ‘ring’ at the front of the lens, it is just not practical and not precise. Also, if you are not careful, you will end up with your fingers in the image. That is why a ‘real’ focus ring is so important.

  • susie q

    thanks for the response admin. i hear what you say. but i still want the 24fps option. (and not that i know about 1/48, i’ll shoot at that rate along with a 24fps)

    i really don’t want a video look. in 2007, i spent 2500cad(!!) on a canon gl2 and now i loathe the camera.

    last year, i worked with a camera man who brought his sony xdcam ex1. i really liked the finished image.

    i’m only considering 5d or 7d because i can’t afford xdcam ex. but i’m verrry reluctant to be as stupid and as green as spending money as i did once. then i was just out of grad school and still with ta earnings saved.

    now i’m a financially strapped artist who really needs a camera at hand.

    all the info at there! a lot being showing-off (a ‘guy’ thing????). but it makes it very difficult to decide.

  • susie q

    just a novice question:

    does anyone understand this ‘firmware’?

    won’t canon need to make some hardware additions to the 5d to get the options the 7d currently have?

    because if it is just ‘firmware’ and it’s already on the 7d, why havent they placed a download site for 5d to get what is apparently just a firmware???

    • admin

      The 5D already has enough processing power to shoot at 24p, so no need to change the hardware. They just need to change the firmware to tell the hardware how to work to achieve the desired results.
      And yes, once it is ready, you will be able to download it form Canon website.

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