If you recently purchased your first DSLR with HD video capability and you’re starting to experiment with motion capture and even narrative filmmaking, we have some advice on critical accessories to add to your bag. These are accessories that you’re probably not too familiar with; as a pro photographer, you know all about the benefits of a good lens, but what’s a matte box and why it’s important are concepts that you’ve likely never addressed because until now you never needed to know. In no particular order, the top five accessories that will improve your motion work are a matte box, a good shotgun microphone, a follow-focus system, an external 5-inch monitor and a camera stabilizer.
First, matte boxes look cool. When you show up for a shoot with a DSLR that’s all tricked out with a matte box, rails and clamps for attaching different items, people take you seriously. Perception matters, and although the look isn’t even close to the most important thing about a matte box, it certainly makes an impression on a client.
Functionally, a matte box serves a key purpose of preventing extraneous light from hitting the lens and creating flare. There are two categories of flare. One is when you see ghosting or the "starburst effect," which happens when a harsh light source is in the frame. The second is much less obvious. When light from an oblique angle hits the front element of the lens, even if it’s not pointing directly at the lens, there’s an overall loss of contrast and color. As still photographers, we’re used to the shades, or "tulips," that many lenses come with to reduce flare. These are favored because they’re small and easy to use. A proper matte box does a much better job, but the trade-off is that it’s large and ungainly, and not a good option for situations when you want the camera to be mobile. When you’re shooting motion and your camera is firmly anchored to a tripod, however, the matte box is ideal.
A good matte box has a highly unreflective interior to prevent any light that may be bouncing around from reflecting back onto the lens where it will rob the image of contrast. Many matte boxes also allow you to attach flags to them to further narrow the light path. If you’re shooting with a lot of lights set up, these flags can be lifesavers. The matte box is supported by rails that attach to a sturdy baseplate. This gives the whole rig a firm structure and makes it adjustable as you change lenses or focal lengths on a zoom.
There are many good matte boxes on the market. The Redrock Micro unit we’ve pictured here is particularly popular with DSLR shooters for its combination of performance and price.
If you’re planning to use your DSLR for any serious video work, you’ll probably need an external microphone. True, a video-equipped DSLR will have a built-in mic of some sort, but these aren’t of great quality. To make matters worse, onboard DSLR mics are typically placed on the front of the camera body—and your hand often will block the sound from reaching the mic when you’re focusing or zooming.
Mics are a lot like lenses in that you get what you pay for, yet you don’t have to spend thousands on a high-end studio model to get great results. For all-purpose sound pickup using an on-camera mic, a highly directional shotgun model is best, and units such as the Azden SGM-X, Que Audio DSLR Video Kit, RØDE VideoMic Pro and Sennheiser MKE-400 are lightweight, compact choices that are ideal for DSLR applications. For general handheld/interview-style shooting, a small stereo mic, such as the Audio-Technica Pro-24, works well and doesn’t take much room in your camera bag. But whatever you choose, you’ll note a significant increase in sound quality using an external microphone with your DSLR rig.
One of the main differences between still photography lenses and so-called cine lenses is the amount of barrel rotation required for changing focus. Modern still lenses with their high-tech AF systems typically have little and sometimes very little barrel rotation. There are plenty of pro-quality lenses that rotate as little as 90º from infinity to their close-focus point. This is great for super-accurate AF systems that take advantage of the short rotation to lock in fast, but it’s not ideal for motion where you often change focus during a take as the subject moves in the frame. In the film industry, there’s a dedicated job of focus puller, and the best focus pullers are master craftsmen.
Most DSLRs have limited, if any, AF capability when shooting in their motion modes, and many experienced filmmakers debate how useful AF really is anyway. We won’t answer that question here, but we will address the value of a follow-focus control for your rig. One of the reasons why DSLRs have taken off for motion is due to their ability to create the vaunted cinema effect thanks to their large sensors and the ability to have a limited depth of field. Limited depth of field cuts both ways, though, and as you shoot you need fine control to keep the subject in sharp focus. The follow-focus control is mounted on the rail assembly, and it achieves several objectives. It gets focus control to a much more comfortable and ergonomic location, if you have a dedicated focus puller, he or she can operate the focus while the operator takes care of the framing, and the rings on a follow-focus control let you set marks for precise focus changes while you’re shooting.
Squinting through a viewfinder is never optimal. For motion work, adding a large monitor to your rig is a great move. Obviously, it gives you a look at a larger image for composition, but it’s also a necessity if you have a focus puller. And if you want to shoot from unorthodox vantage points, a monitor is utterly indispensable. There are all sorts of monitors on the market. A solid, 5-inch or 7-inch model will be perfect for most situations. You can attach it to your camera’s HDMI out, and although this isn’t ideal for critical color evaluation, it will work for 95% of your motion work. If you’ve ever been a large-format shooter, the monitor will remind you of how nice it was to compose on a large area instead of having to squint into a tiny viewfinder.
Few things make video more unwatchable than an image that’s jerky and bouncing ad nauseum. The Blair Witch Project not withstanding, the effect should only be used deliberately and in limited quantities. To keep the camera steady off the tripod, a stabilizer of some kind is a necessity. The handholding, shoulder-mount and chest-bracing rigs from companies like Redrock Micro, Manfrotto, Zacuto, Novoflex and others are cost effective and extremely useful. Actual stabilizers from companies like Steadicam, Glidecam and VariZoom give you a different kind of setup. The f
ormer class of steadying devices lets you get the camera off the tripod; the latter is best for situations when you actually need to move the camera with the action.
This is just a quick overview of our top five accessories for anyone looking to move into motion. Go to www.digitalphotopro.com to see a full list of resources. You can do a lot with a DSLR, good lenses and a solid vision. Adding these items will make your rig into an even more useful tool.