Gear and Recommendations - The DSLR Filmmaker’s Handbook: Real-World Production Techniques, Second Edition (2015)

The DSLR Filmmaker’s Handbook: Real-World Production Techniques, Second Edition (2015)

Chapter 2. Gear and Recommendations


Now that you know what makes one camera different from another, let’s dig into what camera is the best fit for you, what gear is available to help shoot your next film, and our recommendations for the equipment you need for your next project.

What Camera Is Right for You?

Choosing a camera is a bit overwhelming. Several manufacturers make DSLR cameras, and the prices for cameras vary from $700 to $800 all the way north of $5,000 just for the body. Of course, features vary from camera to camera, even from the same manufacturer.

As you begin the decision-making process, it would be beneficial for you to physically handle as many different cameras as you can after you narrow down what cameras might work best for you. It is also beneficial to look at examples of footage produced by a variety of DSLR cameras. Video from DSLR cameras is often referred to in vague terms like “the cinematic look” or the “incredible ability to handle light.” These descriptions are compelling, but in the end picking the camera that is able to produce footage that youappreciate is the goal, so go look at footage!

As you choose your camera, you’ll have other considerations, too, such as the particular parameters that are imperative to a shoot’s success. Budget (either the overall budget or the camera-specific budget) for a lens mount that is compatible with lenses you already own. If you are coming from a still photography background, being able to use your available still lenses should not be taken lightly. This may steer you to a camera model that matches your lenses or, if your lenses can be used with an adapter, that frees you to choose any DSLR camera that will accept an adapter with your brand of lenses.

The Canon EOS mount and the Sony E Mount are the two most flexible lens mounts currently available. They allow more adapters and lenses to be mounted to cameras than any others on the market today. Just a few key features will help you focus on what cameras to choose: sensor size, resolution, frame rates, lens mount, and ISO sensitivity. These key features will determine how you pick your camera and help you know exactly how your camera will handle various shooting scenarios.

It is impossible for us to cover every possible use for each camera and recommend just one type of camera. So, the best way to decide is to look at what options you need or want on your camera and find a model with those options that is closest to your budget. Refer to our chart in Chapter 1, “Fundamentals of DSLR Filmmaking,” for a list of features available on many of the DSLR cameras.

Decisions in Choosing a Camera

In terms of camera choice, you have a few major decisions to make:

· What sensor size do you want?

· What frame rates do you want to shoot at, and can your camera handle those frame rates?

· What ISO do you need to be able to work with?

· What resolution do you need to shoot? Is 1080p footage OK or do you need 2K or 4K video?

· What lens mount do you want on your camera? This impacts what lenses you can use—either older vintage lenses or new lenses.

Sensor Size

Which sensor is best for you? As we described in Chapter 1, there are about five different major sensor sizes for most DSLR cameras. They range from full-frame sensors all the way down to micro 4/3 sensors. Each different sensor size has pros and cons of working with it. APS-C sensors are close in size to the 35 mm film used in movies and TV shows. A full-frame sensor is more like a VistaVision film frame and has a much shallower depth of field and better light sensitivity (in other words, you need less light and will get a less-noisy image). In general, the smaller the sensor size, the cheaper the camera. If you are on a tight budget, then paying attention to sensor size may lead to a price point that is perfect for you.

Large, full-frame sensors have several benefits. The potential shallow depth of field allows for a varied range of cinematic shots. One key element of cinematic shots is that they feel like shots you would see in a movie theater. In most movies, there is a very directed focus that helps lead your eyes to something in the frame. Out-of-focus areas of a given shot can be part of the deliberate artistic look for a given scene. Cinematic shots are not just shots that have a shallow depth of field, but they also selectively focus on what the filmmaker wants the audience to see in the frame and allowing for greater creativity in the filming process. The large, full-frame sensor allows for beautiful selective-focus shots that have a shallow depth of field in close-ups under low-light conditions. Obviously, the full-frame sensor is not limited to just the shallow depth of field and will allow for wide depth of field in medium and wide shots, but this depth-of-field capability makes it unique in the DSLR video world.

Additionally, large, full-frame sensors often have pixels that are larger than pixels on smaller sensors. A larger sensor size allows for larger pixels, but it still maintains a tight pixel density. Pixels that are tightly spaced can actually increase the noise of an image; however, these larger pixels are better able to gather light and often handle contrast better.

For the most desirable video image, our recommendation is a full-frame sensor. More full-frame sensor cameras are becoming available all the time. A general rule is that the bigger the sensor, the better the image quality overall. Another benefit of full-frame sensors is that you can use standard 35 mm still lenses and there is no crop factor. So, if you have a choice when buying your camera, we recommend that you buy a full-frame sensor.

Still, there are advantages to cameras with smaller sensors in many situations. In general, they are cheaper and sometimes can be adapted to other lenses more easily. Some lenses have a large rear element or an area at the rear of the lens that sticks out a bit; this can run into the mirror on the Canon 5D Mark III but might not hit the mirror on a Canon 70D or Canon T5i due to the smaller sensor size. In addition, some older Nikkor lenses have a metal tab that sticks out and will cause problems on the 5D Mark III if not removed. Do some research if your lens has any elements that look like they may come close to hitting the mirror. Another advantage to smaller sensors, such as the APS-C, is that they are closer in size to a 35 mm motion-film frame. If you want to shoot with cinema film lenses, some old cinema lenses can be inexpensive when compared to cinema lenses designed for a full-frame sensor. Also, if you really want to use standard cinema lenses, you will be dealing with PL mount lenses. To use PL mount lenses on a DSLR camera, you need to convert the camera to have a PL mount (which is not inexpensive). However, a converted PL mount 7D or T5i has major advantages over a converted 5D Mark III. Since PL mount lenses were designed to have a field of view to fill a 35 mm motion-picture film frame, this means the full range of PL lenses will work on a converted 7D or T5i. If you use some of the wider-angle PL mount lenses on a converted 5D Mark III, you will get major vignetting because the lens was not designed to fill a frame that large.

If budget considerations make expensive rigs out of the question for you, the size and weight of the camera are important factors, and the smaller sensor cameras may be a good choice.

Frame Rates

What frame rates do you want to work with? This is somewhat easy to answer. If you plan on shooting a lot of slow motion, only a few DSLR cameras have that option.

You can use software programs to convert your footage into slow motion. We cover this more in Chapter 10, “Converting and Editing Your Footage.”

If you are shooting a movie or shooting for television and don’t require slow motion, then you can choose from almost any DSLR camera because they now support the major standard frame rates (24, 25, 29.97, and 30 fps).

The golden standard for what is known in the video world as the “film look” is 24 fps, because motion-picture film uses this rate. The look of a movie at the movie theater or on DVD is shaped by the 24 fps frame rate of the image; therefore we perceive 24 fps to be more “cinematic.” Most DSLR cameras now natively shoot in 24 fps, so your choice in cameras has grown since they first launched. However, not all cameras have the 24 fps option, so if you want a look that is closest to film, this is something you need to double-check.

If you are doing production in Europe or somewhere that your final output is PAL format, then you must buy a camera that shoots in 25p because frame rate conversion is not reliable; it is a tricky process that involves a lot of planning to effectively do in post.


Phase Alternating Line (PAL) is a system for broadcasting color television in many countries around the world, including most of Europe. All of these countries broadcast video at 25 fps and require final output to be played to be at 25 fps. In contrast, the National Television System Committee (NTSC) format used in North and Central America and parts of South America plays at 30 fps.

Table 2-1 lists what we consider to be the best camera for each frame rate (based only on frame rate). All of these recommendations are Canon bodies; note that we make different recommendations later in the chapter when we divide the products by purpose instead of frame rate.

Table 2-1: Best camera at each frame rate




24 fps

Same frame rate at which motion-picture films are shot

5D Mark III, 7D Mark II

25 fps

European video standard (PAL)

5D Mark III, 7D Mark II

29.97 fps

U.S. television broadcast standard (NTSC)

5D Mark III, Panasonic GH4

30 fps

More or less a standard for web video


> 30 fps

Slow motion

Sony a7S, 7D Mark II

ISO Settings

Choosing the range of ISOs that you will use on your camera is a bit of trial and error. It is somewhat subjective based on the amount of noise you consider acceptable as well as whether you think the image helps the visual look of your film. When choosing DSLR video, your focus should be on high ISOs, because all DSLR cameras perform well at low ISO ranges. Therefore, if you will not have extreme ISO requirements, then ISO will not be a huge area of consideration in camera choice. However, not all ISOs will provide the same quality image, and some ISOs, especially at the top end, may give a video image that is noisier than desired. At high ISOs, camera models with smaller sensors often do not perform as well as larger-sensor cameras at the same ISO. Some cameras provide extremely high-ISO options designed for exceptionally low-light conditions. The best high-ISO cameras are the Sony a7S, the Nikon D4S, and the Canon 5D Mark III, in that order. In general, if you must shoot in low light or “run-and-gun” conditions most of the time, then looking at how the camera operates at a high ISO will save time and gear expenses in lighting in the long run.

If you buy a camera that does not operate well in high ISOs and you find that you need to use them, many post-production options can help reduce the noise in your footage so you can shoot at a higher ISO and still have little to no noise in your finished film.

Here are some general suggested ISO ranges for shooting video on some of the most common DSLR cameras that will leave you with the least noisy image to use in post:

· Canon 5D Mark III: ISO 100 to 1600

· Canon 7D Mark II: ISO 100 to 800

· Panasonic GH4: Up to ISO 1600

· Nikon D800: Up to ISO 3200

· Canon T5i: Up to ISO 800

For more information, see Chapter 3, “Testing and Custom Settings,” for how to test and determine the best ISO settings for your camera. Remember, each person will have a different opinion on how much noise is acceptable, and each project may require more or less noise for the look you are trying to create. There is more room to move to higher ISOs on all these cameras, so these are the ranges that will give you the best image quality with the least amount of noise.

Best Camera For…

Here are our recommendations for the top cameras in various categories:

1. Best All-Around Camera: Canon 5D Mark III The Canon 5D Mark III (Figure 2-1), in our opinion, is the top camera if you want to shoot a film on a DSLR camera. The full-frame sensor absorbs light in a way that all the other DSLR cameras don’t. Having no crop factor when using old or new still lenses is a huge plus, so you can actually find and get wide-angle shots with little to no distortion.c02f001

Figure 2-1: Canon 5D Mark III DSLR camera

2. Best Camera for Low Light: Sony a7S The Sony a7S (Figure 2-2) is a full-frame mirrorless camera that has amazing low-light capabilities. You can shoot this camera up to over 400,000 ISO so it takes the meaning of shooting in the dark to a new level. Sony’s S-Log2 allows you great range and the ability to shape your video in post.

3. Best Micro Four-Thirds/Mirrorless Camera: Panasonic GH4 The Panasonic GH4 (Figure 2-3) is a huge step up from the GH3. It has much better performance in low-light situations than the original. It has audio metering built into the camera but not yet professional-quality audio; still, it’s better than the Canon audio options. It comes with a built-in electric viewfinder (EVF), which is a huge help in stabilizing the camera while shooting. Usable ISO range is north of 3200, so it performs well in low-light situations. Add shooting in 4K and this is a great little camera.c02f002

Figure 2-2: Sony a7S camera


Figure 2-3: Panasonic GH4 DSLR camera

4. Best Camera for Stills and Video Usage: Canon 7D If you are equally shooting video and taking stills with your camera, then the Canon 7D is probably your best choice for all-around camera. The 5D Mark II comes close, but if you are not primarily shooting video with your camera, then the 7D narrowly wins this category.

5. Best Camera on a Budget: Canon T3i This camera is the best value for your money if you are on a limited budget. If you can still find the T3i, it will be way cheaper than the T5i. The feature set isn’t greatly improved, but anything in the TXi line is a great starter camera.

6. Best Camera for Firmware Modifications: Canon Cameras with Magic Lantern Almost all Canon DSLR cameras have firmware hacks that provide added functionality. The modifications range from increasing the data rate to adding on-screen audio monitors, adding custom crop marks, and creating video peaking. Do an online search to find out the latest cameras with these hacks, and see whether you are interested in trying the firmware modifications.

Mirrorless Cameras

A DSLR camera that has no mirror between the lens and the sensors is called a mirrorless camera. Eliminating the mirror, and in some cases the viewfinder, so you look only at an LCD screen, makes a mirrorless camera much lighter and more compact than a standard DLSR camera. Aside from the lack of a mirror and perhaps a viewfinder, the cameras work in very similar if not identical ways to ones with mirrors.

Manual Controls

One question you must ask yourself when deciding what DSLR camera to use is “What does this camera allow me to control?” DSLR cameras range from no manual controls to full manual controls. The optimal is full manual control. If you are not sure whether your particular camera has full manual controls, do some searching on the Web or get your hands on one and test it. You want to be able to control the following:

· Shutter speed

· F-stop

· Aperture


· Frame rate

· Kelvin white balance

Lenses and Accessories

When choosing your camera, you need to decide how to complete your camera package by picking the lenses and accessories to buy or rent. Your camera choice will influence the kind of lenses that you will be using, so the camera and lens decisions should be made concurrently. As you choose your lenses, keep in mind what kind of lens mount you are using and whether your camera will need to be adapted to fit the lens choice.

Trying to pick the best lens or the right lens for a shot is almost impossible. The sheer number of lenses available, the creative reasons for using one lens vs. another, and the subtleties that vary from lens to lens all make choosing a lens almost an endless process with no definitive answer.

50 mm Lens

The most common and widely used camera lens is a 50 mm. This lens is widely described as having the view of the normal human eye. This means that using a 50 mm (Figure 2-4) lens closely mirrors what you see as your field of view on a day-to-day basis. When in doubt, this is a great lens to default to or use if you are limited in the number of lenses you have available. Make sure to have a 50 mm lens in your kit and readily available.


Figure 2-4: Sony A-mount Zeiss 50 mm

Set of Prime Lenses

As mentioned in Chapter 1, a set of primes (Figure 2-5) refers to your chosen inventory of fixed focal lengths. If you have three or more prime lenses, you have a set of primes. However, a set of primes is as varied as the number of angles you can shoot from. How do you narrow your choices?


Figure 2-5: Zeiss CP.2 Super Speed lens set

First, choose a lens for any specialty shot or unique look you are trying to create. For instance, if you are shooting a scene from the top of a building and you need to turn the cars and people on the ground into miniature versions, you would need to use a tilt-shift lens. On most shoots you will not need a specialty lens, but if you do, it is easy to identify and rent or buy that lens.

Second, decide whether you will be shooting in close quarters or shooting from longer distances in more open areas. In general, you are trying to get a range of focal lengths that allow you to get coverage in the locations where you are shooting.

The more lenses you have and the better understanding you have of how lenses change the compression of the image, the framing of the image, or the action in the shot, the better you will be able to narrow your choices. Here are three sample prime lens “kits” that you could use as a guideline for building your prime lens set if you are using a full-frame sensor camera. You will need to do your crop factor conversion if your camera is not full frame.

Three prime lenses

Five prime lenses

Nine prime lenses

24 mm or 28 mm

24 mm

15 mm

50 mm

35 mm

21 mm

135 mm

50 mm

28 mm

80 mm or 100 mm

35 mm

180 mm or 200 mm

50 mm

60 mm

80 mm

100 mm

180 mm or 200 mm


Since so many lenses are available, there are trade-offs between the common types of lenses.

First, let’s look at older lenses vs. newer glass. The glass in a newer lens has a multi-coating that improves the quality of the image and reduces the flaring of the lens. Also, since the lenses are new or nearly new, there are few to no problems with the aging of the lens. Scratches, fungus, hazing, and overall high use of a lens can be issues on older lenses and glass. One drawback to using newer glass, though, is most everyone has the same lenses and glass. If you want to stand out with a unique look created in camera, then it is much harder to achieve that using only the latest lenses.

One benefit of new lenses is the ability of the lenses to be controlled by the camera. Older lenses have no way to communicate with your camera, so you have to manually focus the lens at all times, including when taking stills. Since there is no communication between camera and lens, the metadata of your f-stop, the shutter speed, and so on is not stored with your footage or images. Also, they may not have multi-coating on the glass, so the lenses themselves may not be in pristine condition. On the flip side, in general used glass is cheaper than new glass. In some cases, you can get amazing-quality lenses with top-quality glass at a fraction of the cost of new lenses. Additionally, the lack of (or reduced) multi-coating can actually give you beautiful flares and help create the “look” of your film in camera. Don’t rule out using older lenses with great glass. Just because it was made in the 1960s doesn’t mean it doesn’t still take world-class images.

Buying Lenses on a Budget

Don’t confuse a lens kit with a kit lens. Kit lenses are those sold with a camera body when purchased new. Many people buy a camera with a kit lens so they have a lens to start with, but kit lenses in general are not very good. They typically are zooms that do not have a fixed aperture. (Fixed aperture means the fastest f-stop of the lens can be achieved at any focal length. Kit lenses usually become slower the more telephoto you shoot.)

To save money, skip the kit lens. Instead, buy old prime lenses and use lens adapters or have them converted, or put the savings toward a zoom lens with a fixed aperture. Older, good-quality prime lenses are more likely to give you a superior image than standard kit lenses. If you are willing to hunt eBay and other websites, you can buy three or four fast, older prime lenses for the price of an average kit lens.

Here are some recommendations for basic lens kits that would be good to have on a shot. These are suggestions for getting started, and if you can add more lenses to the mix, then you should add them as you need them. Again, these recommendations are for a full-frame sensor camera, and you need to convert if you are using a crop sensor camera.

1. Versatile Kit This kit would consist of two zoom lenses and a prime lens: 24–70 mm, 70-200 mm, and 50 mm. If you are shooting a documentary or have little to no time to set up for a shot, then this kit will get you the coverage you need and allow for some flexibility in the speed of setting up your shots. Get yourself a wide-angle zoom, such as a 24–70 mm, and a telephoto zoom, such as a 70–200 mm, to cover the likely range you will need during your shoot. In addition, get yourself a trusty 50 mm prime in case you can shoot interviews or some of your setups without having to use one of the zoom lenses.

2. Movie Kit This consists of one zoom lens (either a 24–70 or a 70–200) and a set of three prime lenses from among 24, 35, 50, 80, and 100 mm. A set of prime lenses can help you create the visual look you want and affect the way you tell your story. The biggest factor in your lens choice for this kit will be where you are shooting. If you are inside a house or in very tight space, then wider-angle lenses are a better choice than long lenses. However, if you are doing mostly exteriors or you’re in a location with a lot of space, a mix of standard primes and some longer lenses would be a better fit.

3. One Lens If you have a limited budget or if you are going for a particular look or style, you should narrow your lens choice to only one lens, either a 50 mm or a zoom. Lenses are expensive and in some cases can paralyze you with the number of available choices for any given scene. Try shooting on just one lens and see what your creativity can bring to the screen. Sometimes less is more.

Giving a recommendation for a lens is like picking your favorite child. There is no way that everyone will agree with your recommendation. We are giving our opinion on what we have found using the various lenses available, and that is what it is—our opinion. If you are heavily invested in one brand of lens, then use that lens. Just get out to shoot something and test what you have. If it turns out that later you want to try some other lenses, then take a look at the following material and pick some off our recommendation list.

Lens Rentals

There is no definitive answer as to what is the best lens to use for filming on a DSLR camera. How one person feels about a lens can vary widely from the opinion of another person. Good lenses are not cheap, and there are a few reasons to rent a lens.

Lens rentals provide a relatively cheap training ground. If you don’t have a lot of experience with still (or cinema) lenses, then choosing the correct one to buy is like taking a shot in the dark.

If you are going to be using a specialty lens for only part of a shoot or for a limited time, it may make sense to rent a high-quality lens as opposed to buying a cheap lens that you will rarely if ever use again.

Many companies rent lenses, and we recommend renting a few lenses that you are considering buying and testing them. Check out,, or for some great options.

Lens Brands

There are many lens manufacturers both past and present, and most if not all are valid choices for you to use. The main brands we will talk about in this book are Canon, Nikon, Panavision, and Zeiss.

When recommending lenses, there is no official best lens. Lens choice is personal and more based on your aesthetics and the look of the piece you are trying to achieve.

We have worked with most of the major lenses. Here is a list from our favorite lenses based solely on image quality:

· Zeiss ZE/ZF

· Zeiss CP.2

· Canon L series

· Nikkor Nikon lenses

· Sigma

· Rokinon

· Leica R

· Nikon AIS

We started with several Canon L series lenses as our main lens choice. When shooting our feature film, we mixed and matched Canon L series and Nikon glass and got good results with both. Most recently, we purchased a set of super-speed Zeiss CP.2 primes as our main lenses. In our opinion, these are the very best lenses for the image quality, sharpness, and visual look they render on the DSLR platform and also the most versatile for the ever-changing camera landscape.

· Zeiss lenses are premier-quality lenses that are very affordable and accessible. You can easily find lens mounts to fit your camera of choice. If you want the best long-term value in your lenses, then Zeiss should be your choice.

· Canon lenses are good, high-quality lenses that work for a lot of projects and have autofocus if you are jumping between stills and video.

· Nikon lenses in general produce some of the clearest and crispest images on the market.

· Leica lenses are some of the most desired in the world. They are highly coveted still lenses, and the majority of top cinema lenses are made with Leica glass.

Panavision Lenses

Panavision lenses are the top “cine” lenses in the world. The problem is that you cannot buy Panavision lenses; they must be rented with a Panavision film camera. So, unless you are working with a big budget, it may not be an option to rent a camera that you will never take out of its case. Also, you need a special lens mount that is custom made and very hard to get your hands on. With that said, the image results are incredible and well worth the cost and hassle in a lot of situations.

Lens Mounts and Adapters

The first thing you need to know prior to deciding on brands or types of lenses is the type of mount a lens uses to attach to the camera. In general, camera manufacturers engineer their cameras to fit their own lenses (for example, Nikon cameras mount only Nikon lenses). This is where lens mounts come in.

A lens mount is the configuration that allows interchangeable lenses to be attached to the camera body. The lens mount interface has the mechanical means to physically attach the lens to the camera body and has electronic components to allow the lens and the camera body to communicate with each other. The camera body has a specific lens mount system, and all lenses with that configuration can easily be attached to the camera body.

Lenses with nonconforming mounts usually can be mounted by using lens adapters. Many manufacturers make lens mounts so that you can use one manufacturer’s lens with a different manufacturer’s camera (for example, you can use a Nikon lens on a Canon camera). In some cases, certain lenses might damage the mirror or sensor on your camera, so you need to do some research to make sure others have successfully mounted the lens you want to use on your camera.

Canon to Nikon Adapters?

It is possible to use adapters to mount Nikon lenses to Canon cameras, but it does not work the opposite way. There is no way to use an adapter to mount a Canon lens onto a Nikon camera body.

PL is a lens mount developed by ARRI for use with both 16 mm and 35 mm movie cameras. The PL stands for positive lock. PL mounts are the standard mounts for most cinema lenses. If you choose to use standard cinema lenses on a DSLR camera, then you need to have your camera outfitted with a PL mount (Figure 2-6).


Figure 2-6: PL mounts on two 7Ds and a 5D Mark II camera


Figure 2-7: Various lens adapters

When you mount a nonconforming lens, the electronic interface may not function, or older lenses may not have an electronic component; in these cases, the lens may have to be used partially or entirely manually. Most DSLR cameras can be fitted with adapters (Figure 2-7) to allow the camera body to accept cinema lenses, and as a result, the flexibility on lens choice is nearly limitless.

Matte Boxes

A matte box (Figure 2-8) is one of the pieces of equipment that makes independent filmmakers feel more like Hollywood directors. As much as the matte box is iconic for movies, the matte box actually predates the invention of motion pictures. Their original use was for still photographers to easily “matte” out part of the frame of film they were exposing so they could re-expose the other part of the film for an effect or some sort of creative choice.

A matte box is a camera accessory that mounts in front of the lens. Its purpose is to block stray light and reduce lens flare. Typically a matte box will have moveable wings to aid in this purpose, and the wings are usually adjustable and allow for better control of the light reaching the lens surface. Often a French flag—a moveable and adjustable hard leaf usually mounted along the top—is added to increase shade capabilities. The front of the matte box acts as a hood (not unlike you cupping your hands around your LCD screen to block light) and helps keep light from hitting the front of your lens. If a light source hits the front of your lens, you can get lens flares or light spill, which you can’t always see from your LCD monitor; this will wash out your image and can cause you headaches in post.

Another crucial function of the matte box is to hold filters such as a polarizer, a graduated neutral-density filter, or a Pro-Mist filter. Matte boxes have slots that hold filters in place in front of the lens. This means that you don’t have to purchase separate filters for every lens, and you can use one set of filters for several lenses. Depending on the price and quality of the matte box, they are engineered for specific size filters (4×5.6 inches being a common type) or may accommodate a variety of filter sizes.


Figure 2-8: Redrock microMattebox

The slots can hold one or several filters and are fixed or adjustable to allow the filter to be rotated for the desired effect. With the various numbers of slots that can hold filters, you can stack filters to create the effect you want right in the camera. Additionally, the matte box allows you to rotate your filters. This is handy when you need to use a graduated neutral-density filter and want to position it at an angle. For example, if you are shooting and you need the sky in just the corner to have some filter on it, you can rotate the filter in the matte box and position it exactly as needed.

The matte box is usually mounted with two rods that extend along the camera body to support the lens, the matte box, and potentially other accessories. Sometimes the matte box is mounted directly on the lens. In the case where it is attached to the lens, you must remove it and attach it to a new lens each time you switch lenses for a shot.


Filters are transparent pieces of glass, plastic, or gelatin that go in front of a camera lens to create an effect on the recorded image. Filters are used for a variety of reasons such as artistic factors, for special effects, or to make a scene look normal on the recorded image.

Filters come in all shapes and sizes. They can fit all shapes and sizes of matte boxes; you can also purchase screw-on filters that fit your lens.

Why use a screw-on filter vs. a matte box? Screw-on filters are small and portable. They attach directly to your lens, and you can forget about them until you change lenses or need a different filter. They too can be stacked; you just screw a filter onto another filter. They have threads on both sides, so in theory you can go nuts stacking all day long. But the more you stack, the more you can get dust in between the filters and the heavier your lens becomes. If you are trying to shoot as small, as quickly, and as unnoticed as possible, then a screw-on filter is better than a matte box. You won’t look as obvious as with a giant matte box sticking off the front of your camera.

Neutral-Density Filters

A neutral-density filter, also called an ND filter (Figure 2-9), reduces the amount or intensity of light coming into the camera lens. A good ND filter simply reduces the intensity of all wavelengths of light and doesn’t change the overall hue. They are usually gray or colorless. ND filters can be used either to provide a proper exposure or to reduce light without adjusting the aperture, thereby maintaining the depth of field.


Figure 2-9: Tiffen WW ND filter set


Figure 2-10: Tiffen color-graduated ND filter

A graduated ND filter (Figure 2-10) has a subtle effect across the surface of the filter where the filter transitions from neutral density to clear. A variable ND filter essentially is two ND filters fused together, and as they are turned, the filter factor can change stops along a range.

ND filters are numbered according to their f-stop reduction or optical density. If a higher-numbered filter is required, you can stack the filters.

Polarizing Filters


Figure 2-11: Tiffen circular polarizer

Light can become polarized in many different ways: passing through air filled with dust, striking water, passing through water or other surfaces, or bouncing off shiny surfaces. Polarization happens when the light waves start vibrating in different directions or angles and a higher number of them are vibrating horizontally. When a higher than normal percentage of light waves in a beam of light vibrate horizontally, our eyes perceive this as glare, and the shot will also be influenced by the glare.

A polarizing filter (Figure 2-11) changes the light waves or restricts the horizontally vibrating waves so that more waves are vibrating in the same direction; this reduces overall glare both to the eye and in the final image. Polarizing filters work best when positioned at a 90-degree angle to the object being filmed. For instance, a reflection in a window or off a lake or water surface can be reduced or eliminated with a polarizing filter.

To achieve the proper effect, the polarizer’s outer ring rotates to change the angle and filter the light waves. A polarizing filter will have a one-stop to two-stop effect on exposure; the stop variance depends on how the filter is oriented and the kind of light in the shot. The filter can be used to reduce or eliminate glare or reflections from windows or nonmetallic surfaces, can darken the sky, and can provide a richer-color final image.

Ultraviolet, Skylight 1A or 1B, and Clear Glass Filters

These filters are generally used as lens-protection filters. It is a personal preference to use a lens-protection filter in a given situation. Some of the filters commonly used for protection can also be used to combat chromatic aberration, but they also have the potential to increase flare or soften the image.

Never put anything in front of your lens unless it is absolutely necessary. A UV filter, which simply absorbs UV light, is primarily used as a lens protector. Buy any cheap UV filters you can get and put them on all your lenses for storage and transport. As soon as you are on set, take them off the lenses. You are spending top dollar buying good lenses or renting the best lenses; don’t ruin the image by needlessly shooting through a UV filter.

Often, colored filters are referred to by numbers. These numbers are based on a numbering system designed by Frederick Wratten. Several companies produce filters with Wratten numbers that may not exactly match but are designed to be aesthetically similar.


Figure 2-12: Tiffen pearlescent 4 × 5.6 diffusion filter

Diffusion Filters

Diffusion filters (Figure 2-12) soften the image without affecting the sharpness. A diffused image is not out of focus but rather is considered a soft focus; a diffusion filter keeps the focus but lessens the harshness of the image. For example, diffusion filters work to soften the skin and reduce the appearance of imperfections in close-ups or to provide a glowing look to a shot. The filter spreads out a strong light, creating an image that is often described as dreamy or hazy. Diffusion filters work by having an irregular, uneven surface or pattern that fans out the light.


Figure 2-13: Tiffen low-contrast filter

Methods that have been used to create a diffused image without a filter include putting a nylon stocking over the lens or coating a UV filter with petroleum jelly or a layer of hairspray.

Contrast Filters

These filters work by adjusting the overall contrast of the scene, in other words, adjusting the ratio between highlights and shadow. If the scene needs the shadow darkened or lightened, ambient light spread, detail in the dark areas, or similar contrast issues, a contrast filter (Figure 2-13) is a useful tool.

Color Filters


Figure 2-14: Tiffen 812 warming filter

Color filters (Figure 2-14) are used to add an overall color change to the entire shot. They can be used to add a warmer effect to a shot that happens in a sunset (or needs to match a sunset shot), to add an unrealistic color cast, or simply to add a hint of color. Many color filters exist, and they allow a degree of artistic color control in-camera.

Color-Compensating or Light-Balancing Filters

These filters subtly warm up or cool down a scene. They can also be used to alter the color balance of the light.

Your camera will have a sophisticated approach to setting white balance, either automatically or manually. However, you can also use these filters for a distinctive effect or in cases where the white balance settings are not achieving a desired look.


Figure 2-15: 4 × 4 split-density filters

Graduated and Split-Density Filters

Graduated and split-density filters (Figure 2-15) have different filtration on each side of the filter. In a split-density filter, one side of the filter can simply be clear glass so that only half of the image is affected by the filter. If the transition between filtration is gradual, it is a graduated filter.

Filter Recommendations

Here’s what we routinely use:

· Neutral density: A set of Tiffen Water Whites (WW) (77 mm: 0.3, 0.6, 0.9, and 1.2) and a Fader ND, which is a screw-on filter that you can twist and change from a light ND to a super-high ND within the same filter

· Polarizing: Tiffen circular polarizer

· Diffusion: Tiffen 1/8 Black Pro-Mist

· Contrast: Tiffen Low Contrast, Soft Contrast, and Ultra Contrast

· Graduated: Again, Tiffen

We have also used and liked Schneider filters.

Lens Accessories

You might need accessories of several types:

· Close-up or split-field diopters

· Extension tubes, extenders, or teleconverters

· Reversing rings or bellows

· Lens-cleaning materials


Figure 2-16: Neewer close-up diopter filter set

A close-up diopter (Figure 2-16) is a lens that mounts like a filter to the front of the original lens. It permits closer focusing with no exposure compensation but does affect the focus, so all focusing must be done manually.


Figure 2-17: Schneider split-field diopter

A split-field diopter (Figure 2-17) is like a filter that mounts to the lens but is designed to affect focus. It is half plain glass and half close-up diopter. This design means that two subjects, one at a far distance and one near, can be in sharp focus in the same shot. The frame essentially is split in half with two focus points.

Extension tubes (Figure 2-18) are simple black tubes that are mounted between the lens and the camera body. They move the lens farther away from the image plane or sensor. The purpose of using an extension tube is to increase the size of the image on the sensor to allow for macro shots or extreme close-ups.


Figure 2-18: Canon EOS extension tubes

Teleconverters (or, as Canon chooses to call them, extenders, and additionally sometimes referred to as multipliers) are used to increase the effective focal length of the lens. They mount between the lens and the camera body and enlarge the central part of the captured image. They are used in situations where you want to zoom in a little more but don’t want to pack or buy an additional lens.

Reversing rings allow the camera lens to be mounted backward to get a macro shot. Often the image can have an interesting focus with a specific spot very sharp and gradually softening.

Bellows (Figure 2-19) are moveable accordion-style tubes that allow extreme macro-photography shots. They increase magnification and provide a very shallow depth of field. There are also bellows systems that allow for tilt/shift and swing and provide the benefits of perspective change or correction.


Figure 2-19: Novoflex bellows for Canon cameras and lenses

It never hurts to throw a cleaning kit (Figure 2-20) into your bag. At the least, a lens cloth will come in handy on nearly every shoot.


Figure 2-20: Basic camera and lens-cleaning kit

Viewing While Shooting

Since DSLR cameras were never designed to operate like video cameras, the viewfinder (or lack thereof) is a huge issue to address. Unlike traditional movie cameras, there is no eyepiece or moveable viewfinder to look through while filming. This is a real problem when shooting, especially when moving the camera during the shot. The lack of a viewfinder makes focus difficult, especially because DSLR cameras are often used heavily in low-light situations where depth of field is very unforgiving.

LCD Screen

The standard LCD display on the back of the camera (Figure 2-21) varies in size, resolution, and brightness. Since you will not be selecting a camera based on the LCD, you will be stuck with what comes on the camera you want to use. If you are mostly shooting on a tripod in controlled environments, then the available LCD screen should be fine and won’t require an external monitor.


Figure 2-21: An LCD screen on the back of a camera

The real problem isn’t the size, resolution, or brightness of the LCD screen but rather that it is not in an ideal position to look at the image while shooting video. Some more recent models such as the Canon T5i have introduced articulating LCD screens that move the screen out to the side of the camera; this allows you to tilt the screen up or down depending on the angle at which you are shooting. The biggest enemy to using the LCD monitor is ambient light. If it is bright where you are shooting, then we recommend using some black cloth over the camera and operator’s head or using a viewfinder.


Figure 2-22: HoodLoupe with a Redrock adapter


If you intend to hand hold your camera or have mobile camera support rigs, then you need to buy a third-party viewfinder. The most popular viewfinders are the Hoodman HoodLoupe (with the Redrock Micro microFinder loupe accessory) and the Zacuto Z-Finder.

1. Hoodman HoodLoupe This is a very affordable option for most DSLR users. The glass used in the Hoodman (Figure 2-22) is manufactured in Germany by Leica. They are not able to advertise this, but the quality of the glass is second to none. The biggest drawback is the discomfort of using the stand-alone HoodLoupe (there is no eye cup, and there is no actual magnification). Hoodman now offers a separate eye cup and a 3X magnifier with eye cup adapter for the HoodLoupe.

2. Zacuto Z-Finder This is the Cadillac of viewfinders. It is much more expensive than the HoodLoupe but has a super-comfortable eye cup and comes with a 2.5X or 3 X magnifying glass standard. Using the Z-Finder (Figure 2-23) makes getting critical focus much easier and helps stabilize the camera.c02f023

Figure 2-23: Zacuto Z-Finder

Electronic Viewfinder

An EVF is a viewfinder that is more like a traditional viewfinder on a video camera. You look through the viewfinder, and you can see your image. Some have zebras for judging overexposure and flexible positioning, and they don’t have to be attached directly to your camera, so you have a lot of flexibility in monitoring. There is also a loop-through for your video image so that not only do you get an image in the viewfinder but you have another HDMI port where you can output the signal to another monitor or device. Currently Cineroid ( has a unit on the market, and Redrock Micro ( has announced that its version is coming soon; we are sure there will be many more to follow.


You should be aware of the three main categories of monitors. Each offers different advantages and may be more appropriate for certain shooting styles and locations than others.

External monitors can be extremely helpful during a shoot. They can provide easier viewing for tight or odd camera angles. A monitor is also very useful for focus pulling, checking exposure, and allowing everyone on-set to see a more accurate view of how the shot will look onscreen.

Onboard Monitors

A great way to better see what you are shooting and to check focus is to use a field monitor. Onboard monitors are exactly that—monitors that are attached to the camera or the camera rig you are using. Onboard monitors replace using the LCD screen as your monitor while shooting. Since DSLR cameras lose the image on the LCD screen when connected to another monitor, you are choosing an onboard monitor over using the LCD screen on the back of the camera. There are a variety of small monitors, usually ranging from 5 to 7 inches, to choose from.

HDMI Output

A key thing to be aware of is the connection for the monitor. If you are familiar with only professional film and video equipment, you probably haven’t worked with HDMI cables. The video output from most DSLR cameras is High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI), which is a consumer protocol for most TVs and home audio/visual entertainment systems. HDMI is not robust or easy to work with in real-world production environments, so be prepared for losing the signal on the monitor and having cables go bad.


The output of some DSLR cameras is not a true HD out (in this case the image is dropped to a standard definition signal while recording). Also, on some cameras when you are in live view and connect to an external monitor, you will lose the image on the camera’s LCD screen. The lack of having an image on the camera’s LCD and the external monitor makes it very difficult for the camera operator, director, and/or client to see what is being filmed at the time. To further compound the situation, when you start recording on your camera, the signal out of the camera drops from HD to standard definition. The actual image will shrink in your external monitor while the camera is recording.

Our recommendation for an onboard monitor is the SmallHD DP7 7-inch (Figure 2-24).

Studio Monitors

If you are shooting in a studio or in a situation where the camera is stationary and you can operate from a larger monitor, then working with a studio monitor is a better option. Where available, get the largest, highest-resolution, and brightest monitor you can afford. Use that monitor to judge your exposure, color, and lighting, and then it will be easier to use the LCD or viewfinder when you are ready to shoot.


Figure 2-24: DP7 HD onboard monitor

Using a larger studio monitor is great when setting up a video village or when you are able to shoot non-handheld, like on a tripod or dolly. We find the extra real estate we get in the larger monitor priceless and use it whenever we can on the set. If you are doing handheld or certain other motion shots, you have to use an onboard monitor. We carry both in our package and use both regularly.

We use the HP DreamColor 24-inch LP2480zx as our studio monitor. We chose this monitor because HP originally developed it for DreamWorks Animation and it supports many times more colors than traditional LCDs.

There are three types of monitor screens: TN, VA (usually PVA or MVA), and IPS. TN is the cheapest and most common and displays 6-bit color. VA displays 8-bit color but is expensive to make and has mostly been phased out with the advent of IPS monitors. IPS is the standard for all professional monitors. They can display 8- or 10-bit color (depending on the model you choose) but are not sold in traditional electronics stores.


Figure 2-25: 24-inch HP DreamColor monitor on the set of Remus

Another key element in the performance of a monitor is the color gamut. The color gamut is the range of colors a monitor is capable of displaying. The three color spaces are sRGB, Adobe RGB, and ProPhoto RGB, which are in ranking order from lowest to highest quality.

To make things a little more confusing, the LCD panel in a given monitor can have one of three different types of backlighting: LED, CCFL, and RGB LED. LED backlighting is rated at 72 percent of Adobe RGB, CCFL is rated at 96 percent, and RGB LED is rated at 125 percent.

So, to achieve the highest-quality image and color, a monitor would need to have an IPS LCD screen, 10-bit color, and RGB LED backlighting, and the only such monitor currently on the market is the DreamColor 24-inch (Figure 2-25). As a bonus, HP claims you can use the monitor for more than 2,000 hours before you have to color calibrate it.

Wireless Monitors: Teradek’s Bolt

In some cases, having remote monitoring is a necessity on-set. Recently Teradek ( released a product called the Bolt. The Bolt can be connected to your camera to encode your video signal and send it out to other devices wirelessly. The unit creates its own wireless network and the network can easily be connected to by laptop or a tablet of your choice. You can now easily have director monitors, client monitors, and so on for many people without running cables and splitters all over the set.


A big attraction for shooting with DSLR cameras is their ability to shoot in very low light and, some would say, no light. One of the top reasons to use these cameras is they perform great in low-light situations where traditional film and video cameras cannot operate. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use lights or light your scenes.

Studio Lighting

If you have control of your set and can use traditional studio lights, you have many options available. You can use standard film lights from Kino Flo, Mole-Richardson, and Lowel.

A good Lowel lighting kit (Figure 2-26), when used in conjunction with other household lights, can light almost any scene. Get a three- or five-light kit, and you have your lighting “truck.”


Figure 2-26: Lowel Blender LED kit

LED Lighting


Figure 2-27: 4-inch Litepanels Chroma LED light

Many lighting manufacturers are releasing LED lights. The huge benefit is they use very little power, so you can use more lights on a smaller circuit, and they give off basically no heat. Just ask your actors how great that is. Additionally, there are more LED lights that are battery powered and can be moved to remote areas, such as a field or side of a road, without available power.

We have been using Litepanels LED lights (Figure 2-27). We have the 4-inch model in our kit and frequently rent the 12×12 light for larger shoots. These are versatile, fast, and easy to use. They last a long time even on battery power and are great for tight spaces or locations with little access to power. Another feature of LED lights is they offer adjustable power with no change in color temperature.

Hardware-Store Lighting

As any good independent filmmaker knows, sometimes you need to use what you have available. Since DSLR cameras are so light sensitive, you don’t need a huge 4K (4000 watt) light as you would on a traditional film set. There is plenty of great work being done today with lights or lighting setups created from the local hardware store.

In reality, the best tools in the DSLR toolkit are the actual light bulbs and dimmers from your local hardware/home improvement center. For less than $50, you can get a couple dimmers and a ton of various-watt light bulbs that will help you turn almost any room into a studio light room. Because most DSLR cameras are great in low-light situations, many times a simple home lamp with a 60w incandescent bulb (for those using compact fluorescent, a 13w bulb) will blow out completely in your shot. With a dimmer like the one shown in Figure 2-28 and a 25w bulb, you can adjust the light quickly so it doesn’t blow out and take away from the actor in the scene.

We cover lighting in more detail in Chapter 6, “Lighting on Location.”


Figure 2-28: $10 dimmer from local hardware store


When approaching audio with DSLR cameras, you really have two ways to go. You can use the audio port on the camera (Figure 2-29), or you can record audio on a separate recording device and sync the audio in post. Let’s take a look at both methods so you can decide which is the better choice for your project.


Figure 2-29: Audio input on a 5D Mark III

If you tell people you are shooting video on a still camera, you will hear a lot of people telling you to use a real tool like a “proper” video camera because it will have an easier on-set workflow. They are right that you will occasionally run into troubles when shooting on DSLR cameras because they were not designed to be traditional movie cameras. The audio inputs are just not as good as they would be if they were “proper” video cameras.

You can consider a variety of audio recorders. You can use portable digital audio recorders, record audio directly to a laptop, or use a more professional digital multichannel audio mixer/recorder.

The biggest advantages for the external recorders (Figure 2-30) are better audio quality, extra cables kept away from the camera, and the ability to mix to separate tracks and not have the audio mixed down into the camera. The drawbacks are there is more file management with the digital audio files and there will be a lot more work in post to get everything synced up.


Figure 2-30: H4n external recorder

If you are shooting with one or two actors, then a small portable digital recorder will work fine. If you have more microphones than your recorder has inputs, you will need to mix your audio in the field and have no flexibility in post. If this is a concern, you may have to move out of the smaller digital recorders and look into renting a digital recorder from a rental house that deals with more complex audio issues. Your local movie rental house is a great place to start.


If you are shooting a movie that has more than one actor, then you should use some sort of mixer. Even with a single actor, a mixer will give improved flexibility and ease in post. You will want to mic up each actor who has a speaking role and have a boom mic for covering the whole scene. All of these inputs should be recorded onto separate tracks that you can adjust in post.

Some mixers will have a built-in hard drive so you can more or less kill two birds with one stone. Have your mixer and recorder in one device (Figure 2-31). Regardless, you will use the mixer to adjust the levels of each actor and the ambient noise so you have the most latitude in post to work with. Without a mixer, you could have a soft talker and a loud talker in the same scene, and you would struggle to balance those in post if you recorded without a mixer on the set.


Figure 2-31: 744T digital mixer and recorder


Regarding which microphones to use, there are many options that range widely in cost. If you can afford it, hire a professional sound person with their own gear so you are covered.

If you are handling sound yourself or with a small crew, then here are options for reliable microphones:

· Boom mic

· Onboard mic

· Wireless lavaliere mic

A boom microphone (Figure 2-32) is simply a microphone on a long stick/handle. The type of microphone that is attached to the boom is up to you or your audio person. Most commonly you will use a shotgun microphone on a boom pole so you can get clean audio from your actor without all the ambient background noise. We like to use RØDE NTG3, but there are many good shotgun microphones you can use.


Figure 2-32: Boom microphone in use on-set

For our onboard microphone, we use a RØDE VideoMic (Figure 2-33) for recording reference audio (when we can’t get a feed from the audio guy). It is not good to actually record your audio for your film directly to the camera as your main audio source. (As previously discussed, there are audio limitations on most DSLR cameras.) Use the onboard audio feed for reference audio only. You will record the audio directly into the camera, and when you sync your audio from your external recorder, it will be easier to sync and match the audio.


Figure 2-33: RØDE VideoMic Pro


Figure 2-34: Shure FP Wireless lavaliere microphone

In some situations, you will need to use wireless microphones. The first question you need to ask is, will you have power where you are shooting? If you do, then there are many good-quality microphones you can use. The Audio-Technica 3000 Series Wireless Lavaliere System is available for a reasonable price.

If you don’t have available power, then you need to get a wireless microphone that has a battery-powered receiver (unlike the Audio-Technica that must be plugged in). For the money, the Shure FP Wireless system is the way to go (; Figure 2-34). When you purchase it, the microphone will come in a kit with everything you’ll need to get started right out of the box. You will need a ton of batteries because you will have to change the batteries up to three or four times throughout the day depending on how much you are shooting and for how long. We own this system in our production kit.

If you have a production that has four or more actors, then you will need a mixer and/or a digital recorder that has the same number of inputs as you have microphones. In general, the more inputs you want to use, the more expensive and complex your audio recording needs will be.

Check out the Lectrosonics SM ( series of wireless lavalieres. They are very high end and expensive, so renting is your best option. The benefit is they are small and can be hidden almost anywhere. A lot of the reality TV shows use these microphones because they are durable, are easy to hide, and provide excellent audio quality.

We’ll talk more about audio equipment in Chapter 7, “Sound on Location.”

Slate (Clapboard)

You need to consider how you will sync your sound if you are not running audio directly into your camera. The tried-and-true way is to use a slate (in other words, a clapboard; see Figure 2-35). You can order them online starting at just a couple bucks; you write your scene number and take right on the board. This helps you in post because you can look at the front of your scene and visually see what scene/take you are viewing and find the audio clip you need to sync to that scene. Another option is to have someone clap their hands (like an alligator clap) and be the human version of a slate. As long as the person is in clear view and claps fast, this can be a good trick if you are in a bind.


Figure 2-35: Time code clapboard from the set of Remus

Another great option is a software plug-in called PluralEyes ( We will walk you step by step through using PluralEyes in Chapter 11, “Audio Crash Course.”

Tripod and Dollies

On any shoot, stabilizing the camera is key. The most common, and in a lot of cases the best, weapon of choice is a good old-fashioned tripod. Even though DSLR cameras are small and light, that doesn’t mean you should buy a smaller, lighter tripod. You absolutely need to get a great fluid head and a heavy, sturdy tripod for your shoot. As with traditional video or film cameras, a good fluid tripod head allows for smooth camera movements that look very cinematic. DSLR cameras in general are a bit more temperamental about quick camera movements or handholding, so make sure your fluid head has drag and can be set so you can finish panning and let go of the tripod.

The importance of a good tripod cannot be overstated. You can choose from many good brands and models. When choosing, make sure you get a fluid-head tripod and preferably a big, heavy-duty one. We use a Sachtler Video 20 fluid-head tripod and a Sachtler ACE fluid-head tripod (Figure 2-36).


Figure 2-36: Sachtler ACE L head with tripod

Dollies are something you can have a little fun with. You do not need a professional Fisher dolly to get great results (if you happen to have access to one, go ahead and use it). Various types of dollies are available ranging from a simple tripod dolly to a full studio camera dolly.

Studio Dolly

Studio dollies are expensive and can usually only be rented from your local film camera or lighting rental house. For DSLR cameras, in general they are overkill. However, studio dollies have a key feature that is really not available in any other dolly: the hydraulic boom arm. The hydraulic boom arm allows you to boom the camera up or down while making a dolly move or push. If you have the budget and you have some shots that call for this type of move, then you need to rent a studio dolly and hire a good dolly grip to operate it for you.

Tripod Dolly

Tripod dollies (Figure 2-37) are really convenient and affordable. Typically a tripod dolly is a separate piece of equipment that attaches to the bottom of your tripod legs. It more or less adds wheels to each leg of your tripod and allows you to move the tripod easily. There are some issues with using this type of dolly for camera moves. First, you need a flat surface in order to move the tripod dolly. Second, your tripod and camera are very light and much more likely to add some sort of shake or bounce to the shot while you push the tripod dolly. Third, the wheels tend to rotate, so it is more difficult to push/pull in a straight line without causing some unwanted movement with the camera. The best use for tripod dollies is to move from mark to mark quickly to save setup time between shots.


Figure 2-37: Sachtler tripod dolly wheels

Track Dolly

Lightweight track dollies and track come in many varieties. The most common are made with skateboard wheels and some sort of plastic pipe. The drawback is again lack of weight. The key to a great dolly shot is the smoothness and lack of any outside force transferring to the camera shot. With these types of setups, the more weight you can add, the better the performance and the more your shots will look professional and smooth.

Portable Dollies

Instead of dollies that you stand or sit on, there are a variety of dollies that are smaller and more compact. They let you get low while maintaining the smoothness of a dolly shot and can get into tight areas a larger dolly couldn’t fit in. Here are some of the most common ones you might want to check out:

1. CineSlider/Pocket Dolly Kessler Crane (; Figure 2-38) manufactures a couple of good products called the CineSlider and the Pocket Dolly. The CineSlider is a heavy-duty portable mini-dolly/linear slider.

2. After working with several sliders over the past year, we’ve found that the best slider for the price is the CineSlider. We like the full version and not the Pocket Dolly. The Pocket Dolly is great for traveling, but if you don’t have to travel with everything in your suitcase, go for the full CineSlider.

3. CamTram System This is a hi/lo hat design that allows you many different mounting options ( You just supply the track (ladders, 2×4s, PVC pipe, and so on), and you are ready to shoot in minutes. You can rent this system, or you can buy it from one of the dealers worldwide.

4. Dana Dolly This dolly is a great little workhorse ( It is fairly light, is portable, and is fast to set up. If you need a dolly that is small and versatile, then check this one out.

Tripod dolly wheels attach directly to your tripod, and you can grab your tripod and move it as if it were a handheld dolly. The drawback here is the wheels can sometimes fight against you and cause your movements to be a bit shaky. Even if you get a really heavy tripod, it will still be light for a dolly, and, as any good dolly grip will tell you, you need weight to produce consistently reliable dolly movement. You can make do with dolly wheels, but if you plan a lot of dolly shots, we recommend looking at the other options.


Figure 2-38: Five-foot Kessler CineSlider

Specialty Items and Miscellaneous

In certain cases, you will need other specialty equipment to help you get focus, mount your camera to a moving object like a car or boat, shoot in extremely wet conditions or underwater with watertight housings, or stabilize the camera for handheld scenes.

Camera Mounts

Do you want to shoot a car chase sequence? How about a boat cruising through the water? If so, then you might want to check out some specialized camera mounts in order to protect your gear and give you better shots than if you just held the camera. DSLR cameras are ideal for mounting because of their light weight and compact size. Mounts range from standard mounting systems that can be purchased or systems specially designed for a specific shot or vehicle. Mounts are usually composed of some configuration of industrial-strength suction cups, metal rods, various grip gear, and screws to hold the camera steady during the movement. The mount needs to be able to keep the camera firmly attached so it doesn’t fall off mid-shot and also to make sure that the camera is steady enough so that the final image is usable.

Follow Focus

One of the biggest problems with shooting on DSLR cameras (and to be specific, larger-sensor cameras) is focus. The extreme depth of field of these cameras (and the fact that we love shooting with little to no light) makes getting proper focus difficult.

Follow focuses come in two different varieties: manual and wireless. We use the Redrock Micro manual follow focus (Figure 2-39). This is one of the accessories, however, where many of the available products are good, so the choice is about personal preference. If you are able to get your hands on a few different follow-focus units, try a few and pick the one you like the best. The adjustable ARRI Mini follow focus is another great choice if you can rent or have some more money to spend on your unit.


Figure 2-39: (left) Redrock Micro manual follow-focus unit and (right) ARRI follow-focus unit

As for wireless follow focus, there are really only two options we feel you should consider: Redrock Micro microRemote and BarTech. In our price range, the Preston is just flat-out too expensive. Unless you are jumping between the DSLR platform and traditional film/video jobs, then the BarTech follow focus (Figure 2-40) is relatively affordable and has great resale value. The build quality is extremely durable.

If you have never used or looked at a remote follow-focus unit, you should be aware of the remote follow-focus control and a separate motor. The two motors you want to buy/rent are the Heden motor and the M-One motor. Both work great and are field tested.


Figure 2-40: BarTech wireless remote follow-focus unit

Stabilizers and Handheld Rigs

Stabilizing mounts are important for fluid action during shots that involve movement. The goal of this gear is to keep the camera operator’s twitches and motions minimized while the camera image stays smooth for the entire shot. Handheld operation greatly increases shakiness and camera bounce, especially with DSLR cameras. The stabilizers allow the camera operator to move rapidly over rough ground while shooting and still keep the camera steady. This freedom of the camera being attached only to the operator allows movement and tracking shots to happen quickly, allows them to happen with less setup, and provides more creative control for the camera motion. The more experienced and talented the operator, the better the overall quality; however, a quality stabilizer will improve all operators’ abilities immediately.

We’re not sure how many people are going to run out and buy a stabilizer, but there will be some. Also, most stabilizers are available for rent in almost any town. But if you are going to operate a Steadicam or stabilizer and have never used one, don’t try it for the first time on the set. You will need to get the unit you want to use (either purchase or rent) well in advance and practice using it. Ideally, you should spend some money and attend one of the many workshops where you are forced to work 12 hours or more per day on techniques.

That stated, our recommendation is the Steadicam Zephyr (Figure 2-41). Tiffen recently introduced this model (it is replacing the Flyer model), which is on the higher end of the consumer stabilizers. You can use something like the Pilot, but we feel that, depending on the accessories and the lenses you are using, the Zephyr will provide you with the best operating experience and the best value for your money. Just note that most rental houses stock only the bigger video or film Steadicam models, so you might have to look around to find a unit you can rent or try. If you do decide to attend a workshop, they will have various models on hand for you to try.


Figure 2-41: Tiffen Steadicam Zephyr

As great as a stabilizer is, sometimes the shot or the location calls for a handheld shot instead. In this case, some sort of shoulder mount or handheld rig is the better tool. There are systems you can rent or buy that allow for increased control over the shot and support the weight of the camera and accessories to reduce operator fatigue. They offer several points of contact with the operator and are designed to add balance to keep the shot steady and the movement deliberate.

The shoulder mount we own is the Redrock Micro DSLR Field Cinema Deluxe Bundle V2 (Figure 2-42). We used this on the filming of The Shamus, and we have since purchased it for our kit.


Figure 2-42: Redrock Micro DSLR Field Cinema Deluxe Bundle V2

Carrying Case

Don’t use a cloth camera bag as your primary case for your camera and lenses. You need something that you can rely on to protect your gear from impact damage and from water. We own several (too many to count) Pelican cases for equipment. Make an equipment list for all the gear you are going to be running around with and get a couple of cases to fit everything. Remember, the beauty of DSLR filming is small and portable gear. You can probably fit all of your on-set gear, minus major lighting, for a small shoot into one or two bags if you plan carefully.

If you ever unlatch a case, leave the top open; when you close the top, make sure to close both latches. Inevitably someone will shut a case top without latching it tight, and someone else will pick up the case thinking it is locked and all the gear will hit the ground.


Figure 2-43: Pelican 1510 case

We use Pelican cases (Figure 2-43) for all our gear. The company makes the standard Pelican cases as well as Storm cases. We have a Pelican 1510 carry-on for our 5D Mark III and a small shooting kit. In this case, we can hold a Canon 5D Mark III with a lens, Zacuto Z-Finder, 4-inch Litepanels light, set of Tiffen filters, Shure FP5 wireless microphone, RØDE Video microphone, Lexar CF card reader, G Raid 500 GB hard drive, two additional lenses, five batteries and a Canon battery charger, two Pelican hard cases for CF cards, a Canon intervalometer (TC80N3), random lens cleaners and clips, and a bunch of various tripod plates and mounts.

Additionally, we use a Pelican 1600 case with custom cut foam (from for our Zeiss Prime lens set.

The Pelican 1650 cases are perfect for the DreamColor monitors and can be converted to stands thanks to Shane Hurlbut and Darin Necessary. Visit and search for DreamColor for instructions and how you can order their custom parts to turn your case into a stand for the monitor. Note: if you do a search for Pelican 1650 on the HurlBlog, it narrows the results to the post that features the DreamColor monitor.

CF Cards and SD Cards

Your data storage card is as critical to your shoot as the camera and lens. The big differences between various CF cards are the brand, size of the card, and speed of the card.

For shooting video, the larger the card, the more footage it can hold. In general, that points to buying the largest cards available to cut down on the number of cards you need on-set. However, there are a couple reasons not to buy the largest cards. First, the more footage on the card, the longer it takes to transfer to a hard drive. Depending on your workflow, you could get caught in a situation where it takes so long to copy the card and back it up that you are waiting on the transfer and not shooting. Second, the sensors on some DSLR cameras tend to heat up with heavy use. If you are using a larger CF card, it means you are running the camera more often and causing the sensor to heat up. Third, it is better to back up more frequently and leave less footage at risk of card failure or some accident with the camera that could damage the card.

We think working with 16 GB, 32 GB, or 64 GB cards that have a speed of 90 Mbps are the best option. Also, we like both SanDisk and Lexar brands of CF cards. They both rate near the top in speed and reliability and have worked very well for us.


There is one simple rule in DSLR filmmaking: buy more batteries. These cameras chew through batteries, and you need to have plenty on hand. Unlike professional video cameras, there isn’t really an option to bulk charge many batteries at once in a single charger. So, buy lots of batteries and an extra battery charger.


Figure 2-44: Switronix PB70 with a Blackmagic power adapter

Alternative options include making a battery backpack, using a battery pack grip, and using electrical outlet adapters that will allow for continuous power as long as you are connected to a power source.

If you are trying to keep the footprint of the camera small and mobile, then you are going to stay with the camera manufacturer’s batteries. Depending on whether your location will have power (so you can charge regularly), you may need more batteries than you think. We never head to the set without at least five batteries per camera. We have never had to stop production to wait on batteries being charged, but there were a few times when it was a lot closer than we would have liked.

You might not want to limit your power to just your internal camera battery. Our favorite external battery has been the Switronix PB70 battery (Figure 2-44). You can get any connection to any of the leading camera manufacturers so you can power any camera with this battery. It is also a V-mount battery you can use to power external monitors or other accessories you need on set. Additionally, there are P-tap connections directly on the battery so you can power your camera, external monitor, and wireless follow focus all from the same power source.

Planning Your Gear Package

Gear is easy to pick when there isn’t a budget. With very few exceptions, you just pick the top price point in every category, and you are good to go. It is also easy to pick gear when the budget is bare-bones, because you just pick the cheapest model and shoot. However, practically speaking, most of the time the budget requires some decisions. As you plan your gear choices, keep this philosophy in mind: don’t sacrifice on your camera kit, but if you must sacrifice, do it on the additional items. Most projects can be shot without additional equipment, but if you cut corners on your camera kit, the entire project will be universally affected.

It is also nice to remember that DSLR cameras have allowed for impressive results with some very basic lighting, creative hardware store–rigged camera support equipment, and post-production setups. So if you are stuck with a camera kit, make it the top quality you can afford because the rest of the production can be creatively and cheaply assembled and still result in a high-quality product. If you must scrimp, scrimp on the add-ons, not the core gear. Often, the camera kit is a third of the overall budget, but this percentage can be increased if you are on a limited budget. The quality of your piece depends on a quality image; decide what items will most impact the image and prioritize those purchases. In most cases, this means that the camera, lenses, and tripods will be the first and most important purchasing decisions.

It is easy to get lost in the ever-growing list of extras beyond the basics you need for a shoot. Let’s start with the basic items of camera, lenses, and tripod, and then we’ll look at the extras and what is optional vs. what is good to have on any set.

Here are a couple sample camera packages that range in price for you to use as a guideline.

Low Budget

For most people, the problem is the lack of funds to buy or rent exactly what they want for their shoot. These are our recommendations for those people:

1. Camera: Canon T5i Body Only, $700 Other DSLR cameras have different frame rates, and some have a larger sensor or can be used with better results in low-light situations. With that said, the T5i is a great camera and can deliver unbelievable images. Don’t let the desire for a top-of-the-line camera stop or delay you from shooting. It is sometimes best to get a good camera and spend some more money on extras to make your project look better. Don’t blow your entire budget on the first item on the list.

2. Lenses: Rent Canon 50 mm 1.4 and Zoom Lens or Buy Nikon AiS Lenses and Use Adapter Ring Again, go into any camera rental shop, website, or catalog, and you will quickly have a list that is too long for the number of lenses you want to have available to you on your shoot. This package helps you keep it simple. If you are shooting your first project or you are a seasoned photographer, sometimes focusing on a few lenses can actually help you create more interesting shots. Make it a challenge on how to best set up and shoot with a single lens, and you will be surprised just how many great and interesting shots you will capture.

3. Tripod: Sachtler ACE Tripod Tripods are often overlooked, and if you are coming from a still photography background, you may not be aware of just how good a friend a good fluid-head tripod can be for shooting video. Since the cameras are so light and any movement will show up in your shot, we feel this tripod delivers great results for the price and is pretty easy to work with and move from location to location.

Independent Budget

Some people have a modest budget that allows them to get close to what they want but not quite everything they want or need.

1. Camera: Canon 70D or 7D Mark II or Panasonic GH4 The 7D/70D allows you to shoot with more frame rates, is built rock solid, and creates a beautiful image. The GH4 is a huge step up from previous GH models. All these cameras output HD video signals, which is a huge plus when pulling focus with external monitors. The GH4 can shoot 4K, so that might be a factor to consider.

2. Lenses: Rent or buy Zeiss ZF or ZE Lenses or Canon L Glass Zeiss lenses are well known for a reason. We like working with the ZF lenses with an adapter because the ZF lenses have an iris ring, so we can control the aperture independent of the camera. Zeiss is known for their lenses’ ability to capture sharp images, high contrast, and color-neutral images.

3. You can also use Canon L series lenses. They are truly great lenses that can create beautiful images. A plus is that if you have a Canon camera and use the camera for taking stills, you can take advantage of the autofocus and automated features between lens and camera.

4. Tripod: Sachtler Video 20 Head with Carbon Fiber Tripod Sachtler fluid heads and tripods are great, well built, and awesome to use. The downfall is that they are big and heavy, and if you have only a camera with a lens attached, they make the tripod seem too big for the job. Don’t let that fool you. The larger the fluid head, the smoother the movement you can create. You won’t be disappointed with the results, but if you move from location to location frequently, just be aware that these are not light.

Blockbuster Budget

For some lucky few, money is no object, and they can secure exactly what they want or need. Here are our recommendations for those folks:

1. Camera: Canon 5D Mark III In our opinion, this is still the best DSLR camera on the market, period. If you have all the money in the world, buy a couple of 5D Mark III cameras and get extra coverage. This camera creates the best image in almost any light condition, and the skin tones captured are unmatched.

2. Lenses: Rent PL Mount Dalsa Cinema Lenses or Buy Zeiss CP.2 Lenses If you want the very best lenses in the world, then you want cinema lenses. For all but a few people, buying these lenses is not an option. The good news is that cinema lenses are available for rent in almost every major city with a motion-picture camera rental house, or there are online rental shops that will ship them to you. You will need to rent or convert your camera to a PL mount. Be warned that this is not a cheap process to have done, but if you shoot enough, it may be well worth the expense. If you can find Dalsa Prime Cinema lenses, those are the lenses of choice for DSLR cameras. These cine lenses were made by former Panavision designers using the very best Leica glass in the world to create the Dalsa lens series. These are somewhat rare, so just be forewarned they are not going to be readily available wherever you are located.

3. If you decide to buy Zeiss CP.2 lenses, you will be getting the highest-quality lenses that are housed in cinema housings. What is great is these lenses allow you to interchange the lens mounts on the back of the lenses and mount the lenses to any current lens mount/camera on the market today. This investment can grow with you throughout your career.

4. Tripod: O’Connor 1030 Head and Tripod Again, a workhorse tripod in the film industry can be your best friend in the DSLR film world. This one is amazingly easy to use for any level of operator.

The Next Three Things You Should Buy

After you have your camera, lenses, and tripod, you should buy or rent the following items, in order of priority:

1. Viewfinder When trying to get accurate focus and check your lighting and exposure, this is an invaluable tool. Using just the LCD screen is hard (but doable), and this makes using the camera for those purposes so much simpler.

2. Camera Support Unless you are able to shoot your entire project on a tripod, you will need some sort of camera support that assists you in getting stable handheld shots. Without this, you cannot hold the camera and expect usable results in any sort of reliable fashion.

3. Monitor Once you have a handheld camera support rig, you will want a field monitor you can attach to the rig. Some camera support systems allow you to offset your camera so you can use a viewfinder, but not all allow that. Also, operating handheld can be hard when you are pressed against a viewfinder or looking at the small LCD screen. A larger screen that you can position so you can see for framing and composition while shooting is a huge asset.

If you don’t have the budget for a monitor, then buy Duvetyne black fabric so you can drape over the camera and/or a viewfinder.

Should You Buy or Rent?

Regardless of your budget, some things are better to rent, and some things are better to buy. In general, here is what we think you should buy, rent, or buy only if you can afford:

1. Lens Adapters Buy. They are cheap, and they are almost impossible to find as a rental.

2. Matte Box Buy if you can afford to. If you are likely to use a matte box for a longer shoot, it might be more cost-effective to buy.

3. Filters Buy. Any filter you need to use often is best to buy and have in your kit. However, if you have a short shoot and you are not planning to use a particular filter very often, then rent. Filters can easily be rented from the top online lens rental sites.

4. Lighting Buy and rent. For most of your major lighting and grip equipment, it is best to rent. If you are working on jobs that require a lot of C-stands, flags, and other major lighting setups, it is best to rent so you don’t turn into your own lighting and grip company.

5. However, lighting is critical to your job and as such you will need to own some lights. Depending on what types of videos you will be shooting, we recommend a minimum of a three-light kit, but ideally you should have five to six lights to help you shape. We would recommend either some Kino Flo lights (Divas, Barflys, or Celebs), Lowel Prime LED lights, or Rosco’s Braq or Miro Cube lights. You can pick your main three lights from these and then augment with smaller accent lights such as the Switronix Torch LED lights.

6. You should also order a wide variety of different watt bulbs and some dimmers so you can use existing light fixtures and control the light. The ability to change a bulb in an existing lamp or light fixture saves a ton of time on the set.

7. Audio/Microphone Buy. Sound is critical to your production, and unless you have a budget big enough to hire a sound professional, that means that capturing good sound will fall to you. You need to buy some basic audio gear so you can be flexible and capture good sound. You will need an external recorder (Tascam DR60D) and/or an external preamp (juicedLink Riggy) to connect to the camera, a good wireless lav (Shure FP5 mic and FP1 receiver), a good shotgun microphone (RØDE NTG3), and a good set of headphones to monitor the sound you are capturing.

8. Again, if you have the budget to hire a sound professional, they will come with equipment. Use theirs because they are familiar with their gear and will have everything they need.

9. Slate Rent. Unless you are using an old-fashioned manual clapboard, rent. Any digital timecode slate will cost a fortune and is not a wise investment for most filmmakers.

10.Dolly Rent. The cost to purchase a real dolly with a booming arm is way out of the league of most independent filmmakers. Call your local camera rental house or lighting and grip rental house and rent a dolly from them.

11.Slider Rent or buy. Again, depending on how often you need this during your shoot, it is most likely worth just renting and spending your money elsewhere.

12.Follow Focus Rent until you can afford to buy. Taping the lens and manually pulling focus on still lenses is at times frustrating and time consuming. When you can afford it, buy some sort of manual follow-focus unit and some gears for your lenses.

13.Stabilizers Rent. Unless you are going to pay a lot of money to attend some sort of training and learn the skills to operate one of the major stabilization rigs, then rent the equipment. Better yet, hire someone who knows how to operate them and has their own gear. You save time on the set, and your shot will actually turn out. It’s not a skill you can pick up in a day and reliably get your shots to work.

14.Case Buy. You need to protect your equipment, and as you keep acquiring more equipment, you will need extra cases. Make sure to have enough cases to store all of your cameras, lenses, and accessories so you have a place to store everything on the set. It is very easy to lose or misplace equipment or have it stolen. If you know what is in each case, then you can quickly see whether you are missing anything before you leave the set for the night.

Gear That Goes Together

There are certain pieces of equipment that once you buy, you need to be aware that you will need or likely want to have another specific piece of gear:

1. Handheld Camera Support You will likely want to buy or rent a field monitor because it makes using the handheld rig that much easier.

2. External Battery If you decide to power your camera, monitor, or other accessories with a Switronix battery, then you need to get a battery plate. The battery plate will have a port that allows you to connect a P-Tap cable to your other devices that need power. Additionally, you will likely also want a D-Tap, which is simply a one-to-four–port cable that allows you to plug in four devices to one port.

3. Pelican CF Card Case You will likely be shooting with multiple CF cards, and keeping track of them and keeping them safe are of paramount importance. Pelican makes a four-card hard case that you can store your CF cards in, and once they are in the case, they are almost impossible to damage.

4. AC Adapter We always recommend buying extra batteries, but it is worth the investment to buy an AC adapter for your camera. When there is a plug-in available, why not use it and not worry about changing batteries?

5. Monitors and Cables What good is a monitor without a cable? Having a backup cable on the set will likely save you time and headaches.