You can improve the quality of your filmmaking without spending a lot of money. A few simple, affordable bits of equipment can make a big difference.
Get colour and exposure right with a grey card
A grey card is a piece of card, or a folding reflector, that reflects 18% of the light that hits it. Why would you need one? Well, it’s the simplest, cheapest way of measuring the brightness and the colour of the light that lands on your subject, rather than the light that’s reflected. If you use this ‘incident light’ to set the exposure your camera won’t be fooled by bright or dark backgrounds and backlight.
To use a grey card, hold it by your main subject, facing the light source and filling the camera screen. Then lock the exposure.
Most grey cards have a grey side and a white side. Normally you use the grey side to set the exposure, and the white side for setting white balance manually. With some cameras you use the grey side for colour balance as well.
Use reflectors to enhance natural light
You can get inexpensive five-in-one reflectors in lots of different shapes and sizes. They’re light and portable. They include a diffuser – for reducing and softening light – and a zip-on cover with four sides: white, silver and gold to fill in and soften shadows, and a black side to block light and make the shadows deeper. They can be a bit fiddly to position: it’s best if you’ve got a friend to hold them in place, or a basic stand to hang them from. Tip: make sure you know how to fold them up before you use them on location.
Brighter light without pro lights
You can improve the lighting in a scene by boosting the power of table and ceiling lamps – what filmmakers call ‘practicals’. Take out the normal bulb and replace it with a high powered compact fluorescent (CFL) bulb.
For natural-looking colours, choose bulbs with a Colour Rendition Index (CRI) of 90 or better. These are more expensive than household bulbs. (If your film is going to be black and white, you don’t need to worry about this.) When you order, check that the bulb is the right type for the socket. Powerful CFLs are big, so check that it’s not too big or hot for the light fitting.
Need more control over light, but don’t want to carry pro lights around? Clamp lamp work lights, softened with scrims, are very popular with low budget filmmakers. Roberto Rodriguez used them for indoor scenes in El Mariachi. Careful, though – if you use high powered tungsten bulbs rather than CFLs they will get very hot. They’re easy to find in the USA (Home Depot stores sell very cheap ones, but they’re only available in stores, not by mail). Unfortunately I can’t find anything similar in the UK.
Make your hot shoe more useful
You can only fit one thing on a camera accessory shoe, right? A light OR a microphone?
With a hot shoe extender you can mount several things at once.
A spirit level is an easy way to avoid sloping horizons.
A hot shoe tripod adapter will let you fit other accessories that take a tripod screw. You can even put another camera there. Mount a compact camera with a wide angle lens, and you can shoot closeups and wide shots at the same time.
Fit a top handle for low angle shooting
Professional camcorders designed for ‘run and gun’ style shooting have handles on the top, which makes them easy to hold in dramatic ‘low angle’ positions. DSLRs and cheaper camcorders don’t have these.
There are two easy ways to add a top handle. The simplest is a top shoe handle (above) which goes on the hot shoe itself. I’d only use one for a light camera as the hot shoe on a heavy DSLR isn’t designed to hold the weight of the camera.
A C-shaped camera handle bracket like the one above is more versatile. Most of them have tripod sockets on the bottom and a cold shoe on top. Some are tougher and more rigid than others: check reviews before you buy.
Keep your camera steady without a big tripod
The Manbily A-222 + M1 is a very affordable monopod with detachable feet that’s small enough to fit in cabin luggage. It’s versatile: you can use it on its own or mount a video head, and you can reverse it to use it as a boom pole or selfie stick.
Got any other suggestions for great value filmmaking accessories? Let me know.
I teach all kinds of people to make films. I provide training for businesses, arts organisations, nonprofits and education. I’ve worked on film education projects with Apple Education, the British Film Institute, Film Education, Film: 21st Century Literacy and many more. My publications include Making Movies Make Sense and Editshots.