I am hesitant to share this information — not because it’s valuable or protected information in any way, but because I think many filmmakers spend way too much time learning about equipment and not enough time learning how or why to use it.
A documentarian is a storyteller, so any and all decisions about equipment should be made with the following question in mind: how does this serve the story? Sometimes the story calls for a $50,000 camera/lens combo and a big crew. Sometimes the story calls for a smartphone camera and a one-person crew. You never want your gear to inhibit your ability to capture and convey the truth.
So, with that in mind, let’s look at some gear.
How to Choose Video Equipment
For the purposes of this post, I’ve divided video equipment into three somewhat arbitrary categories: consumer video equipment, prosumer video equipment, and professional video equipment. I’ll explain each category as I get to it, but first I think it’s important to understand the purpose.
We live in an era where everyone has the ability to shoot high-definition, high quality video at their fingertips. The first camera I ever owned was a generic Panasonic HDV camcorder. It was one of the first HD cameras available to consumers at an affordable price ($1,000). My entire family and extended family pitched in and bought it for me as a high school graduation gift because they knew I had taken to shooting and editing video and they wanted me to be able to shoot stuff when I went off to college.
And shoot stuff I did. When I got to San Francisco State University, I shot all kinds of stuff. From music videos and concerts to promotional videos, activism and protests to documentaries. I’m telling you, I got my family’s money worth.
But that camera had serious limitations. It shot on HDV tapes, which were expensive for a college kid to buy in bulk, and couldn’t be re-used without serious risks to the footage itself. It had no external microphone input and the internal microphone was horrible, making all of the sound it recorded very low quality. It shot very poor quality video in low light. The HD files were large and computer storage was still small (and expensive), so it was difficult to archive footage or even buy enough space for bigger projects.
And it was a bulky piece of equipment, even though it was “hand held.” I write that in quotes because now a “hand held” camera is a smartphone, which is a fraction of the size of my old Panasonic HDV camcorder.
The camera was a pain to use compared to modern cameras and shot lower quality video, but I still shot anything and everything I could with it. That’s the point I’d like to make.
As I mentioned, you should never feel inhibited by your video equipment. I’ve worked on a handful of television shows that incorporate footage from iPhone or Android phones, and even mix this footage with stuff shot on professional cameras.
At the end of the day, story is what matters, not the equipment it was shot on. That said, lets look at some of the options.
Consumer Video Equipment
The consumer video equipment category consists of a wide range of gear commonly available to the average consumer. There are tons of options to choose from here, but I’d like to focus on what I see as the two best.
Smartphones. The smartphone should be the starting point for every documentary filmmaker for two reasons. First, nearly all smartphones are shooting high-definition, high quality video. Second, smartphones are super convenient. They travel with you everywhere you go. It takes five seconds to pull it out and start recording. There are a ton of apps including FiLMiC Pro that allow you to control focus and exposure, further improving the quality of video the smartphone is able to produce. I already mentioned that I’ve incorporated iPhone footage into television shows I’ve worked on, but Tangerine is a great example of an award-winning feature film shot entirely on the iPhone. With such power at your fingertips, you have no excuse for not going out and shooting great video. Again, it comes down to story. If you can’t manage to tell a great story with a smartphone, chances are you can’t tell a great story with professional video equipment either. Better to save your money and continue practicing with equipment you currently own!
Canon G7 X. There are a handful of reasons to upgrade from smartphones to another camera once you’ve learned some of the fundamentals of storytelling. First, from a fail-safe standpoint, shooting things on your phone can be risky. If something happens to your phone while you are shooting and it breaks, it could have negative effects on other areas of your life and (more importantly) you could lose the footage. Second, if you’re shooting on your phone, you could run into limitations based on available space and storage. Third, smartphones shoot high-definition video, but they are some of the lowest quality HD cameras for a number of technical reasons.
If you’re looking to upgrade from smartphone to dedicated camera, you can do it without breaking the bank. One of the most popular cameras for YouTubers is the Canon G7 X. It shoots incredible video, has decent built-in microphone, and shoots on memory cards so you can swap as you go and never run out of space. At a price of less than $1,000, it’s relatively affordable and can leave you with some money to spend on accessories (like audio equipment, tripods/monopods, lights, and more). This can be a good strategy if you’re scaling your gear up. The G7 X shoots such high quality video that it can serve as your primary camera for years as you upgrade the rest of your production outfit and then, when you’re ready for it, you can upgrade to an even better camera. Check out the Canon G7 X on Amazon to see some of the deals (and bundles) currently offered.
Prosumer Video Equipment
The next level of video equipment beyond the basic consumer-level cameras are a category of camera now defined by replaceable lenses. Most people choose DSLR cameras when they upgrade to this level for a number of reasons, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a dedicated video camera. So, without further ado, let’s get into it.
Canon 80D and/or Canon 5D. Both of these cameras are DSLR cameras designed to take high quality still photographs. A few years ago Canon introduced HD video recording modes to these cameras and the result was wide adoption of DSLR cameras among videographers. The biggest benefit to shooting video on a DSLR camera, and the reason so many videographers ditched their old video cameras for them, is their interchangeable lenses. Prior to DSLR cameras, videographers had to pay a high premium for cameras with interchangeable lenses. The introduction of HD video to DSLR cameras meant videographers now had affordable access. Why are interchangeable lenses such a draw? By swapping between narrow and wide lenses, videographers have the ability to manipulate depth of field, which can improve the overall aesthetic and production value of videos if used correctly.
There are some limitations to shooting on a DSLR camera, though, namely recording time and audio inputs, but the quality of video more than makes up for the drawbacks, especially at their price. The main difference between the Canon 80D and the Canon 5D is the size of the imaging censor. The 80D has a smaller imaging censor, which means it shoots slightly lower quality video than the 5D. These differences will mostly show themselves in low light situations but, in general, both video and photos shot on the 5D will be more crisp and sharp and will have more vibrant colors. The difference is slight, which is why many YouTubers choose to upgrade to the Canon 80D when they move up. One thing to keep in mind here is that, though the imaging censors are different sizes, the lenses are interchangeable between the 80D and the 5D. If you are planning to buy the 80D to eventually upgrade to the 5D, you won’t need to replace all of your lenses when you make the change. The one disclaimer I’d add is that these cameras are not as beginner-friendly as some of the consumer-level cameras. They have tons of features which can be great for someone willing to learn them all, but many people will be overwhelmed by these features and/or use them incorrectly, which will actually cause them to produce lower-quality video than they would if they just shot on their smartphone or other consumer-level camera. Check out the Canon 80D and the Canon 5D on Amazon to see some of the deals (and bundles) currently offered.
Canon C-300. The C-300 is a proper video camera. Much like its DSLR cousins, the Canon C-300 boasts interchangeable lenses. Unlike the DSLR cameras, though, it has proper audio inputs which will allow for a wider range of audio recording equipment. The C-300 natively allows for better video monitoring with external monitors. It records at a higher quality color profile, which gives you more flexibility when it comes to color grading/color correction in editing. Also, you can use your 5D lenses with the C-300 and not worry about compromising quality. In fact, this is a huge selling point. Not only can you start with the 5D, build your arsenal of lenses, and then upgrade to the C-300, but the quality between the two cameras are similar enough that you can still hold onto your 5D and use it as a B-cam, giving you more footage and flexibility with your work. Of course, all of the benefits of the C-300 come at a steep price. The camera body alone is thousands of dollars, and that doesn’t include lenses or any other accessories. It’s definitely not a starter camera, but if you’re ready to upgrade from the 5D, the C-300 is one of the best options on the market. Check out the Canon C-300 on Amazon to see some of the deals (and bundles) currently offered.
Professional Video Equipment
Before I get into the highest level of video equipment, I think it’s important to share some information I learned early on in my television career, some advice that could serve anyone looking to shoot video with prosumer or professional equipment.
The not-so-dirty little secret of almost all production companies I’ve worked for in Los Angeles? They rent their gear. Rather than paying thousands of dollars for equipment that can break and will be out-of-date in just a couple of years, they pay daily or weekly rates for equipment on a need-to-use basis. This allows them to use state-of-the-art equipment at a fraction of the price, and always be on the cutting edge of technology. So, if you’re thinking about upgrading to a 5D or C-300, and especially if you’re thinking about buying one of the professional cameras I’m about to explore, first consider renting the equipment when you need it. If you are shooting often, perhaps you can arrange a deal with your local equipment rental house. It could save you a lot of money in the long run.
Now, I share the following cameras so that you know what is out there. These cameras are not appropriate for 99% of documentary productions (especially given that films shot on smartphones are winning film festivals), but it’s still fun to look every once in awhile.
ARRI Alexa & RED Epic. Most big budget films are shot on ARRI cameras, with much of the remainder shot on RED cameras. The reasons are simple: these cameras shoot sharp video, offer better dynamic range and color, and they are incredibly reliable. They’re the some of the best you can get in terms of digital cinema at this time. They’re amazing cameras and, if you’re ever in the mood to fantasize, there are a million test footage videos on YouTube to help you dream.
Just Go Shoot
When you’re done fantasizing about professional digital cameras and are ready to come back down to Earth, you can remind yourself of one simple fact: story drives everything. It doesn’t matter what camera you shoot on if you don’t have a story. Plenty of big-budget feature films make this mistake. Beautiful and overwhelming visuals can only keep the audience’s attention for a brief period of time, whereas story can keep them watching indefinitely.
So, if you’re ever feeling inhibited by the fact that you don’t have a $50,000 stockpile of equipment in your closet, just remember that it’s not what equipment you shoot on but how your equipment serves the story.
Sometimes it makes sense to use a professional camera, take hours to set up beautifully cinematic shots, and shoot your story over the course of a year. Other times it makes sense to have a camera tumbling around in your backpack, ready to point and shoot at any given moment.
I prefer the latter. There’s something attractive about gritty video that makes me feel like I’m watching something real, and that’s the point of a documentary, isn’t it? To capture and convey the truth.
In my next post I’ll explore gear perhaps a little less interesting, but definitely more important than video equipment: how to choose audio equipment.
In the meantime, I ask that you just go out and start shooting. Figure the rest out later!
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