Making your first HD DSLR Video – Part II – Must-have equipment

In the first part of this series, I covered some places that you could learn some of the fundamentals that you’ll need to shoot video. Now, we’re on to the equipment. The assumption I’m using is that you have a camera body that shoots video and a lens – that’s it. Now, what do you REALLY have to have to improve that basic platform, and what is the BASIC equipment you need to buy. Not the fanciest, most expensive equipment, but what do you REALLY need? The next thing I’m going to consider is – what can you buy that will have a dual purpose – another words, can you use it for stills AND video?

First, everyone ALWAYS starts with a tripod. Let’s face it, you can spend every bit of money you have on one and not get anything else. One clear thing you don’t want to do, is buy a $79 one at Best Buy. It will not cut it for stills OR video. There seems to be two main differences between a stills and video tripod. First, is the weight. If you look on B&H and just search for tripods, you can spend the better part of a day reading about all of them. I was lucky…I had invested in a nice Manfrotto tripod with a ball head many years ago. One of the great things about investing in a GOOD tripod and head up front is that you’ll really never have to replace it. However, in my case, I was very fortunate because that ball head could be replaced with a fluid head for shooting video.

You may be asking why your stills ball head won’t work? Well, it’s the word fluid – you are never going to get FLUID motion from left to right or up and down with a stills head. The fluid head does just that – it allows you to pan smoothly from left to right or right to left, and move the camera up and down with out any jerkiness. Absolutely essential for video. So, I bought the Manfrotto 501 HDV Pro Video Head for $164.00 AND got a $50 mail-in rebate. Sweet!  Is it perfect? No. Is the tripod base the best one for video? No. Will they both give me acceptable footage with a minimal investment? Yes! So, I got to reuse one piece of my stills gear, but that video head is NOT the best for shooting stills. It will work in most situations, but keep that screwdriver handy, because I’ll have to switch the heads out for any serious stills work, especially if I decide to shoot vertically.

Next up – something to help you see the images on the back of the camera. One of the best attachments I’ve gotten, has been a device that allows me to block the sun and see exactly what I’m getting on that little screen back there – yes, I’m talking about a Z-Finder (or Zed Finder if you’re of the British persuasion). This was one of the first purchases I made for video, but I’ve found that I use it all the time for stills shooting. It has a strap that allows you to hang it around your neck, it has a frame which attaches to the back of your camera, and that allows it to just snap onto the camera body when you want to see what you are shooting. It magnifies the image, blocks any light from interfering with viewing the image AND you can adjust the focus on it. When I bought mine, they were not as ‘involved’ as they are now – it was just the simple Z-Finder. Now, they have anti-fog attachments, base-plates, different magnification values and a cap to cover the lens. I spent $295 for mine and I see that they now cost about$395. Well, it’s just something that I use all the time and it’s a must have for video, so get ready to break out the checkbook for this item.

Audio is next on the list. Most of these HD DSLR’s have the ability to record audio, but you REALLY never want to use that as your main source. Any serious filmmaker will tell you that the audio is half the battle – if you don’t get it right, you might as well not being shooting ANY video. So….what’s the least expensive way to improve it? Well, I did a lot of research on this, and came up with two options. A Rode shotgun microphone and a Zoom H4N. I initially went with the Rode shotgun mike because it was cheaper AND easier to just purchase, attach to the camera and run with. For $149 I SIGNIFICANTLY improved the audio capability of my system.  Purchasing the Zoom H4N meant that I had to worry about syncing a separate audio and video track, which meant better software, etc. So, I kept things simple – hook the Rode onto the top of the camera in the flash mount, tighten it down, plug it into the microphone slot on the side of the camera, and you’re off and running.

When you attach that shotgun microphone, put the Z-Finder on the back of the camera, attach a lens and lens hood – you ALMOST look like a professional filmmaker! Slap that camera on a tripod with that fluid head and you’re ready to go.

There’s one more piece of ‘must have’ gear at this point, and that’s a Vari-ND filter. If you are a landscape shooter in the stills world, it’s a must-have for slowing down water flow and giving those beautifully smooth looking long exposures. This is one of the things I have NOT had in my bag and should have all along. They’re not cheap either – a Singh Ray model that gives you eight stops of control will cost between $350 and $400. It’s one of those things that you could have gone without for all these years if your a stills photographer, but it’s not one that you want to skip if you’re going to shoot some serious video. It allows you to control your depth of field in bright light, which is critical for some of the ‘looks’ you might want in filmmaking. Besides – I think I need some of those cool water-flow shots in my landscape work anyway, so it becomes the final piece of gear to get before I shoot.

The summary? I spent about $1,100 to give me some REAL filmmaking capability. Not a ton of money, but I think about the least you can spend to let you tip toe into shooting decent video. Next episodes; what software and computer hardware should I use and can I build anything that might help me get some of the filmmaking look?

Dave WarnerDave Warner is a professional photographer based in the Southern Adirondacks of upstate New York with over 35 years of experience. He is the producer of the popular LensFlare35 podcast. Dave is also Chief Technology Officer for a publishing company that produces a daily newspaper, along with seven weeklies. Click the links below to find out more about him.

Phone: 315-628-1214
Twitter: @lensflare35

Photo Credit: © 2010 David E. Warner

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  1. If you find yourself switching the tripod heads often, get a base plate and fix it to one of the tripod heads, then if you don’t have time for screwdrivers just clip one head on top of the other.

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