Updated October 2018
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).
Both of these Panasonic cameras can shoot full-quality HD footage with 2x slow motion, and record Ultra HD 4K. Because they’re mirrorless, you can use the eye-level viewfinder while you’re filming. You can use the tilt-and-swivel touchscreen for high or low angle shots and for setting focus.
I use the Panasonic G80 (G85 in the US) myself. It has a weathersealed magnesium alloy body and comes with the option of a sharp 12-60 f/3.5-5.6 kit zoom lens. It has excellent in-body image stabilisation which makes it easy to handhold.
The Panasonic G7 is the budget alternative. Its plastic body is smaller and lighter than the G85/G80 and doesn’t have in-body stabilisation. It 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.
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. On a tight budget, you can get good results with used manual focus primes with an adapter. For news, documentary or events, you could use a fast constant aperture zoom lens such as the expensive 12-35mm f/2.8 instead.
A tripod is pretty much essential with the G7. The G80/G85 has excellent image stabilisation for shooting handheld, but there will be probably still be situations where you need a tripod. The Benro Aero 4 is light, sturdy and can convert to a monopod.
If you’re on a tighter budget you could consider the Velbon 638F.
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 light mirrorless cameras like the Panasonics (as long as you don’t expect it to stand up on its own).
You could get an electronic stabiliser like the Zhiyun Crane. It 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 and G85/G80 don’t have headphone sockets. 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.
With the G85/G80, there’s an unofficial alternative: use a micro HDMI to VGA adapter and connect your headphones to its audio output. (This doesn’t let you control the volume, though you could add an inline headphone amplifier.)
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. I use this for presentations to camera – it works well.
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, though I’ve used ExPro with no problems.
With the G85/G80 you could also add the optional DMW-BGG1 battery grip which includes a spare battery.
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.
My main pack is the Manfrotto Advanced Travel Backpack which can take the G80/G85, several lenses, a laptop and a travel tripod.
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. Tiffen get relatively good reviews and are affordable. This 58mm one will fit the 14-140 or 12-60 kit lenses as well as the 12-35 f/2.8. You can use stepping rings to adapt it to lenses with smaller filter sizes.
Variable ND filters can cause problems with wide-angle lenses (you get a strange cross pattern as you increase the intensity). So you might want to get a set of fixed filters instead, though they’re slower to use.