15 June 2017
I’ve put together this basic kit list for low-budget filmmakers, documentary makers and citizen journalists. It’s based on a mirrorless camera, as they give plenty of creative control and you can use different lenses. But if you want something that’s quicker to use – and needs fewer accessories – you could get a prosumer camcorder, a professional camcorder or a cinema camera. Or for an ultra-portable, easy to use kit, you could use an iPhone.
This page explains the different kinds of cameras you can use for filmmaking.
If you’re on a really tight budget, I’ve made a list of the best HD video cameras under $300 (£250).
The Panasonic G7 is affordable and easy to use. It shoots full-quality HD footage with the option of 2x slow motion, and it can also record Ultra HD 4K. Because it’s mirrorless, you can use the eye-level viewfinder while you’re filming.
The G7 comes with a choice of kit lenses: an inexpensive 14-42 (wide angle to medium telephoto) or the sharper 14-140 (wide to long telephoto). You can also buy the body only. If you can afford a bit more, you could choose the stabilised, weather sealed G85/G80 instead.
Which lenses you buy depends on your style of filmmaking, and whether you’re happy changing lenses during a shoot. The cheapest option for creative filmmaking is to get the basic kit zoom and add a medium telephoto ‘prime’ (non-zooming) lens. For news, documentary or events, you could use a fast constant aperture zoom lens instead.
Medium telephoto lens
These lenses are great value for creative filmmaking. They let you get far enough back for undistorted closeups, and they have wide apertures for good low light performance and creative shallow focus. 35mm to 50mm (70-100mm equivalent) is ideal on the Panasonic’s MFT sensor.
You could pick up a high quality, old manual focus 50mm lens by Canon, Olympus or Nikon for $20-$30/£20-£30 or so, and mount it to the G7 with an adapter costing about the same.
If you need an autofocus lens, the Olympus 45mm f/1.8 is a good choice.
Constant aperture zoom
With a constant aperture, you don’t have to adjust the exposure as you zoom. But these lenses are expensive: the Panasonic 12-35 (24-70 equivalent) f/2.8 would be a great choice, but it’ll cost you more than the G7 body itself.
A tripod is pretty much essential, though if you choose the G80/G85 and IBIS-compatible (stabilised) lenses you might be able to get away without one. The Benro Aero 4 is light, sturdy and can convert to a monopod.
If you’re on a tighter budget the Slik 504QFII is good value.
A video monopod is more portable and much quicker to set up than a tripod so it may be a better choice for news and events. The 4-section Manfrotto XPRO can extend to 80 inches/2.03m for overhead shots.
You could also opt for the ultra-inexpensive Manbily A-222+M1 monopod kit and fit a video head. I use one of these for filming with my iPhone, but you could use it with a light mirrorless camera like the G7 (as long as you don’t expect it to stand up on its own).
An electronic stabiliser like the Zhiyun Crane lets you get smooth, Steadicam-like tracking shots, and can also replace a tripod. (The cheaper Crane-M can manage the G7 with a lightweight lens.)
If you’re recording live sound, you really need to be monitoring audio as you film. But the G7 doesn’t have a headphone socket. You can easily get around this by mounting an affordable audio recorder like the Tascam DR-05 or the Zoom H1 on the hotshoe. Use splitter/adapters to send audio to the camera and your headphones. If the camera fails to record the audio, you’ll have a backup on the recorder which you can sync up when you edit.
If you’re shooting news and events singlehanded, you probably need an on-camera microphone. I use the directional Rode VideoMic Pro.
You’ll get better results for presentations and interviews if you put a lavalier (tieclip) microphone on the presenter. I use the Rodelink wireless kit (review) for this.
If you can’t afford a wireless kit, the Boya BY-M1 (review) is an affordable powered lavalier microphone with acceptable sound quality and a very long lead.
You could also plug this, or Rode’s superior smartLav+, into an iPhone or audio recorder in the presenter or actor’s pocket, then sync up the sound later: much cheaper than a wireless setup.
I use Sony 7506 studio headphones, which are popular with professionals.
Audio Technica ATH-M30 are cheaper.
Other things you’ll need
You need fast, reliable memory cards: I buy SanDisk Extreme. I think it’s better to use several smaller cards (16Gb) rather than one big card.
You’ll need at least one spare battery. It’s safer to use Panasonic’s own batteries as damage caused by other copies will void your warranty.
Bags and cases
I use Manfrotto and ThinkTank bags. You need to measure up the size of your gear before you decide what bag to buy. It may be more convenient to use neoprene wraps rather than bags with dividers.
For the ultimate in protection, particularly for gear that will be thrown around (or checked into hold luggage), Peli cases are hard to beat.
Neutral density filters
If you want your footage to look ‘film-like’ with moving subjects, you need the shutter speed to be half the frame rate (so if you’re shooting 25fps, your shutter speed should be 1/50). That can cause problems in bright light: you may want to use a wide aperture to blur the background, and in any case you shouldn’t stop down beyond f/11 to avoid diffraction softening the image.
You can keep the shutter speed slow, and the lens open, by using neutral density filters. They cut down the light without changing its colour.
For standard and telephoto lenses, you could use a variable ND filter. But these can cause problems with wide-angle lenses (you get a strange cross pattern as you increase the intensity). So I’d get a set of fixed filters instead, though they’re slower to use.