What do you need?
All you need to get started is a camera and a few accessories, a tripod, a microphone and a computer with an editing program. If you want to keep it even simpler, you can film and edit on an iPhone or iPad. Don’t spend too much on gear when you’re starting off: buy basic, buy used and hire anything you won’t be using regularly. See Cut the cost of filmmaking gear.
Here’s a guide to the different kinds of camera you can use for filmmaking. A DSLR or mirrorless camera is the most affordable way to get good quality images, though camcorders are easier to use. I think the Canon 700D / T5i is the best entry-level camera for low budget filmmaking. But if you can afford it, I’d get the Canon 80D which has better video autofocus and a headphone socket. And if you’re on a really tight budget, I’ve made a list of cameras for filmmaking under $300/£250.
Don’t spend all your budget on the camera. Don’t even spend half your budget on the camera. You need sound recording gear, a tripod, lenses and other kit.
If your camera has the right sockets, you can get much better sound by using a separate microphone, and listening with headphones as you shoot. (If you don’t have this option, you might be better off just creating the soundtrack on your computer when you edit.) Choosing a microphone, headphones and other audio equipment
Supporting and moving the camera
You need to be able to keep the camera still and move it smoothly. Unless you are very good at keeping steady, and you always shoot wide angle, you really need a tripod. You can also get monopods, tracking systems, stabilisers (to ‘fly’ the camera) and cranes. Choosing tripods, monopods, stabilisers and cranes
Film lighting can be expensive and awkward to use, and it takes practice to get the best out of it. If you need a full lighting kit it’s may be better to hire it. But it can be useful to have a basic portable light.
You can buy professional lighting in sets, either as tungsten lights (‘redheads’) or as cold LED lights. LED lights are more expensive and cooler; LED ‘arrays’ are good for producing even, soft lighting. You can get ‘softboxes’ to produce this kind of lighting with tungsten lights.
For enhancing natural light, get a cheap 5 in 1 reflector, which includes a diffuser (to reduce and soften light); gold, white and silver reflectors (for filling shadows); and a black side to use as a ‘flag’ (to block out light).
You can get free or bundled editing software for Macs and PCs. iMovie – free with every Mac – is particularly good.
For more complex and elaborate editing, you may need pro software. Apple’s Mac-only Final Cut Pro X is relatively easy to learn and quick to use, but has a lot of advanced features ‘under the hood’. It’s what I use. Adobe Premiere Pro is a more traditional alternative.
With Final Cut, you buy the software outright; the full version of Premiere is only available on subscription so it’ll work out more expensive in the long term (students can get it at a discount). If you already subscribe to Adobe Creative Cloud, Premiere is included, as well as After Effects (for video effects) and Audition (for adjusting sound).
I use Macs. All the recent Macs are good for video editing. If you don’t need to be portable, a desktop computer will be better value for money than a laptop. If you can, get one that will let you add more memory later (the most recent Macs don’t).
Storage for editing and backup
For small projects, you can keep all your video on your main computer. But if you’re doing anything ambitious or demanding, you should be using large, fast external drives for video editing and backup (and you should be really rigorous about backing up).
SSD (solid state drives) are faster but more expensive than hard discs.
With fast hard drives, smaller drives (e.g. 500Gb) are said to be more reliable than larger ones.
I use 500Gb, 7200rpm ‘bare drives’ without housings; the one for the project I’m working on goes in an enclosure, and I can then slot the backup drive into a docking station to copy the project, then put it in an antistatic box for storage. Carbon Copy Cloner is useful for duplication and backup. I then archive each finished project onto bigger 1Tb drives which I keep in different locations.
A note on video formats
Most camcorders – and even iPads – now shoot Full HD (high definition) video, also known as 1080p. That means that the image is 1920 ‘pixels’ wide by 1080 pixels high. Some cameras shoot 1280×720 (720p HD): not as good, but still pretty good, and more than you need if you’re going to be putting your video online or on an ordinary DVD.
You can also get ultra high definition (4k) cameras. You probably don’t need this unless you’re a serious professional filmmaker and your film will be shown on really big screens. (Higher resolution video takes up more memory and needs more powerful computers for editing).
But if you can afford it, it may be worth using a camera that shoots higher resolution footage than the film you’re making. It means you can crop the footage in the editing software, turning a mid shot into a closeup or eliminating distracting parts of the picture. And 4K downsized to HD usually looks better than video that’s been shot in HD.
Some consumer camcorders give you the option of Apple’s iFrame video format (960×540). Being half the height and width of Full HD, it should take up a quarter of the disc space, and the footage will go straight into iMovie on the Mac without conversion.
A word of warning…
Don’t get obsessed with having the latest filmmaking gear. Artists don’t waste time worrying that they’re using last year’s pencils, and that great camera you bought a few months ago hasn’t suddenly become worthless because there’s a new one out.
I used to judge a youth video competition. One entry came from two 16-year olds who used an ancient mobile phone that only shot in black and white. Instead of saying “this phone sucks, we need to save up for an expensive camera”; they thought “what kind of film can we make with this phone?”. So they made a clever parody of an old silent film – with intertitles (words between the pictures) and over-the-top physical acting – and won their category. They understood film storytelling and that was what made their film great.
Ideas, not gear, are the most important things filmmakers need.