Filmmaking on a budget

Have you ever wanted to get started making your own videos but have been scared or put off by the prices or the amount of options out there? Well, I’ve just put together a small, inexpensive kit to get you started. Read on to find out what I recommend!

Your Kit Bag

Filmmaking, as a hobby or as a profession, can have a lot of barriers that prevent you from taking part, the most obvious of which is the cost.

While renting equipment is fine for those already with experience and practice, having your own equipment allows you to really understand cameras, which will give you a better understanding when it comes to shooting film. However, this means buying lots of basic gear that will cost thousands of pounds, right? Wrong!

Making films has never been easier. TV and moviemakers have recently started to use DSLR cameras such as the Canon 5D mkIII or the Panasonic GH4 to film their shows and films. Fun fact, the final season finale of House was filmed on a Canon 5D mkII! These cameras cost a lot less than ‘traditional’ video cameras such as the RED Epic or RED Scarlet but are still out of the budget of most people starting out. However, you can get really high quality video out of other DSLRs such as Canon’s Rebel series. Now, I’m going to show you how you can put together a complete filmmakers kit for under £500. What? That’s right, that’s cheaper than a Canon 700D body alone! But surely the image is going to be garbage, right? Wrong!

Okay, here is the camera I bought. It’s a Canon EOS M. This pocket dynamo launched a couple of years ago with a $900 price tag and marked Canon’s first foray into compact mirrorless cameras. The EOS M was a total commercial flop for photography enthusiasts; consumers were put off by the high price tag and professional photographers were put off by the super slow autofocus that meant shooting anything other than portraits and landscapes was pretty much out of the question! Since then, a firmware update has been released that goes some way to fixing this but it is still too slow to shoot fast moving objects such as in sports.

Luckily, the video on these things is fantastic! It uses the exact same APS-C sensor as the Canon 700D but is now available for £149.99! The photographer’s loss is the videographer’s gain! The EOS M has all of the familiar Canon menus, a standard hotshoe mount, HDMI and USB out, as well as a 3.5mm headphone/mic in port so you can use external microphones (more on that later). For film work, you should never be shooting in auto mode anyway so the poor autofocus is not a concern.

The camera has a super small form factor so using it for interviews won’t intimidate your interviewees and because it’s so small you can fit it into places bigger cameras just couldn’t fit such as cars.

Unlike most of Canon’s recent cameras, the EOS M doesn’t have a flip out screen so an external monitor might be a worthwhile investment later down the line. I’ll cover a simple £6 DIY fix later on.

Battery life on this camera is not the best. Shooting full 1080p will get you about 60 minutes of battery on average so invest in some extra batteries or an AC adapter if you are planning a long shoot indoors.

The mini-USB port has been completely nerfed meaning that intervalometers won’t work out of the box. You can, however, install free custom firmware called Magic Lantern which offers a makeshift mode for all that timelapse goodness.

These are all tiny issues though with easy workarounds and for the price I don’t think you will find a better video shooter with interchangeable lenses and all of the bells and whistles the EOS M has.

 Camera Cost – £149.99

Unlike DSLRs such as the 5D mkIII or the 70D, the EOS M is a mirrorless system meaning there is a significantly shorter flange distance between the lens and the sensor. This allows you to take advantage of Canon’s older FD manual film lenses all whilst keeping the ability to focus at infinity. These FD lenses are over 20 years old but are still some of the best quality lenses available to you and they are available for very little money on places such as eBay. Just be careful to check that there are no scratches, marks, or fungus visible on the lens!

The most versatile lens for the aspiring filmmaker is the Canon FD 35-105mm f/3.5 constant zoom lens. This will set you back between £70-90 but is worth every penny. It has a constant aperture of f/3.5 meaning when you zoom in the aperture does not stop down giving you the same look throughout the zoom. The lens is also parfocal meaning, once you zoom in and focus, you can then zoom in or out without losing focus. The EOS M’s APS-C sensor has a crop factor of 1.6x meaning that the focal length (judged against a full frame 100% sensor) will actually be magnified by 1.6. This 35-105mm lens actually becomes a 50-160mm lens giving you plenty of choice when it comes to selecting your shot. 50mm is roughly what the human eye can see making it perfect for factual pieces. To make this lens work with your EOS M you are going to need to pick up an FD to EOS M lens adapter, which run on eBay for £10.

Lens Cost – £80

Adapter – £10

So, you have your camera, you have a great lens, let’s look at audio. The internal microphones on DSLRs are uniformly terrible so we are going to have to look at external solutions. Now, you can just buy a microphone with a 3.5mm jack and plug it directly into your camera and this will improve your sound greatly; however, this method still uses the camera’s built in pre-amp so you will still hear hiss on the audio track. To fix this, it is recommended you go down the dual recording route to achieve broadcast quality audio. This works by capturing audio using the built-in speakers on your camera as a reference track and then also capturing audio through a microphone into a portable audio recorder or field monitor and then syncing the audio in post-production. This does add time to your workflow but does give you the best possible audio you can get.

For microphones you have a couple of choices: 3.5mm inputs or XLR inputs. XLR is the industry standard with 3.5mm being more for hobbyists but that isn’t to say you can’t get great audio with a 3.5mm mic. For most instances, I recommend using a shotgun microphone. These have a hypercardioid pick up pattern meaning sound from the sides is greatly reduced while still picking up sound from directly in front of the microphone as well as a little bit from behind the microphone. This is perfect for interview situations but can also be attached to a boom pole to film more narrative pieces.

For 3.5mm inputs, I recommend either the RØDE VideoMic Pro or the Sennheiser MKE400. These have been designed specifically for DSLR filmmaking with a short cable and small form factor making it ideal for keeping out of shots. The VideoMic goes for £130 and the MKE400 for slightly more – again, these will be cheaper second hand on eBay. They are both battery powered through a 9V or AA battery and offer around 70 hours before you need to change the battery.

For XLR inputs I recommend either the Azden SGM 1X or the RØDE NTG-1. Both of these shotgun mics cost about £130 and both offer excellent value for money. The Azden offers a slightly warmer sound while the RØDE has more bass. A lot of people recommend the RØDE NTG-2 because it has a battery meaning it doesn’t use phantom power (which drains battery from an external audio recorder) but the NTG-2 is far too quiet when using it with affordable audio recorders. This means you have the crank the gain up on the recorder, which will always result in hiss being audible in the background. The NTG-1, however, sounds great so in this situation I would go for that.

For an external audio recorder I recommend one of three choices. For a full audio recording experience that will stay with you for as long as you take good care of it, you should look no further than the Zoom H4N or the Tascam DR-40. The H4N has been the de facto recorder of choice for DSLR filmmakers because of its superior build quality and flexibility. The downside? It costs over £200 – almost half our budget! For £150 you can pick up a DR-40 from Tascam which has all of the same features; 2 combo XLR/quarter inch inputs, headphone out, line out to record a track directly to the camera, a big LCD screen, peak monitoring, and everything else that you would need. The build quality of the heavy-duty plastic body is not as good as the Zoom with its hybrid metal and plastic case but if looked after should still provide more than enough bang for your buck.

If you are going exclusively down the 3.5mm microphone route, you could instead look at the Zoom H1N, a tiny device that packs a punch. Small enough to attach a lav mic to and then slip into a jacket or jeans pocket and costs only £60. It feels a bit flimsy but is very versatile and well worth having in your kit bag if you can afford it.

For beginners or those compiling their very first kit, I would recommend the RØDE VideoMic Pro or the Tascam DR-40 with a leaning towards the VideoMic Pro as it is a bit more versatile but later down the line you will want a recorder and a mic.

Microphone Cost – £130

Recorder Cost – £150

You’ve got the main components of your kit now! Let’s start adding some vital accessories. Keeping the camera steady is one of the easiest ways to make your footage look more professional. I’m going to recommend two pieces of gear to help you out.

Tripods are your go-to for pro looking video. You want something heavy duty that will take a beating. For the price, I can’t see past the Velbon DF-61. It costs £29.99 from Amazon, is made of heavy-duty aluminium, and should stand tall enough for your video needs. It has an extendable neck too but this makes the tripod unsteady so I would avoid using it, if at all possible. The head is not a fluid head like something you would find on a Manfrotto but is still okay for video work. This is something you would want to upgrade once you have a few paid gigs under your belt. The great thing about this tripod though is that you can easily mod it so you can get a glider cam type rig out of it! It’s an easy mod that requires a screwdriver to loosen one of the leg supports at the bottom and then you’re done! Once you have your shot you can then easily put the screw back in and you have your tripod back.

Tripod Cost – £29.99

For run and gun type scenarios, such as in news or especially documentary filmmaking, you will want a shoulder rig. The temptation is there to just use your hands but this can cause handling noise or unwanted movement. You can pick up a CowboyStudios shoulder rig for £20 and this will serve you well. In the future you will want to add a rail system to your camera and once you add the audio recorder, a monitor, a microphone, follow focus, etc this will start getting heavy but the CowbyStudios shoulder rig will keep everything in one place and give you great range of movement. The slightly pricier alternative is a polaroid chest stabiliser which comes in at £47.99 and for your money you get a fully customisable rod system that you can add to as and when your budget allows.

Cowboy Studio Shoulder Rig Cost – £20

Polaroid Chest Stabiliser Cost – £47.99

You will also want an SD card. Class 10 cards are more expensive but allow you to transfer data between your card and the computer at a faster rate which is ideal when capturing 1080p footage from your camera to your computer. 16GB will be fine but I prefer to grab a 64GB. The one I bought was a transcend model with a write speed of 90mb/s for £20 from Amazon but Sandisk and Kingston also have good reputations.

SD Card Cost – £20

After buying all of this gear you are going to want somewhere to put it all. Amazon has a basics range that includes a Large DSLR camera/gadget bag for £18.99. With this you can easily fit your camera, lens, microphone, SD cards, audio recorder, tablet, batteries, and more! The bag also features two clasps on the underside that allow you to strap a tripod to the bottom of it saving you carrying it around separately. It’s always nice to know your gear is all in one place. Always take a tablet or a notebook with you on a shoot and make a note of all of the shots you need to get. Sometimes you only get one chance at capturing footage, you do not want to be sat in front of your editing software cursing and wishing you had got that establishing shot. So make sure you take that shot list with you, or those interview questions, or the names of the people who are willing to help you out. The details make all of the difference! Also, be sure to take a media consent form and get anybody you film to sign it so you have their express permission to use the footage of them.

Camera Bag Cost – £18.99

Cost so far: £486.96

If I were to spend a little more money I would also pick up some extra batteries (the EOS M lasts about an hour shooting 1080p video) or an AC adapter for longer shooting. I would also pick up the other kit lens in the EOS M range, the 22mm f/2 pancake lens. This is your 35mm equivalent and can produce some lovely footage. At £80 on eBay it is a great choice for an über quiet focussing lens with image stabilisation. If £80 is out of your budget, then look at some more Canon FD lenses and pick up the 50mm f/1.8 that I managed to find for £14 on eBay. It lacks image stabilisation but the image quality is great – perfect for interviews when mounted on a tripod! It’s always worth having a prime lens in your bag and it doesn’t take up that much space! You can also pick up a pretty solid Audio Technica ATR-3350 wired lav mic for around £20 that will work great with a portable recorder such as the H1N for interviews or pieces to camera where there is a lot of on-screen movement or where the host is moving around lots.

So there you go. For a shade over £486.96 you have:

  1. A camera that will get you high quality 1080p video and is easily modified using Magic Lantern custom firmware.
  2. A superbly built lens that will serve you well with a great focal range and constant aperture.
  3. A very high quality microphone that will improve your audio immeasurably.
  4. A tripod that will keep your shots steady and also doubles as a glide cam.
  5. A shoulder rig that will act as a great base on which to build further once you have earned more funds.
  6. A big SD card to record your video to.
  7. A durable bag to keep all of your stuff safe.

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