(Editor’s Note: Ryan Hill is a product specialist at Lensrentals.)
Almost all still cameras these days can record video as a basic function and improving the quality of that video is what we’re going to cover this month. We’ll start with the simplest, most affordable gear that photographers who are transitioning to shooting video can pick up to bolster the quality of their video productions.
While none of this list is “essential,” per se (the only real prerequisite for shooting video is a camera that can shoot video), these are the items we would recommend adding to your inventory first. You don’t need to spend a ton of money or fill your house with every piece of gear imaginable to shoot great video. All it takes to get started are a few basics. Click on the bolded product links to try out these video accessories for yourself from Lensrentals.
#1 Better Media
The first step to take is to make sure the media in your camera is up to the task of video recording. While the cards you’ve had for years may have worked fine for photos, video is often much more data-intensive, so many cameras have different requirements for video shooting than they do for stills. Check your camera manufacturer’s website for recommended speed classes, brands, and capacities, and invest in new cards If you need to. You also might want to consider purchasing a card reader if you don’t have one already. Regular video shooting will involve moving a lot more data a lot more often, and an external card reader will make that process both faster and more reliable. They’re generally pretty affordable, especially for relatively standard SD and CF media. I recommend going with media from known and trusted brands like Sandisk.
#2 ND Filters
If you shoot a lot of photos, there’s a good chance you already have a few ND filters lying around and know how to use them. For the unfamiliar, though, they’re basically sunglasses for your camera. ND, “neutral density,” filters evenly block out a certain amount of light to allow still photographers more flexibility with their iris and shutter speed. If, for example, you wanted to shoot outdoors with a medium iris and slow shutter speed, you’ll need an ND filter to expose the image correctly. What makes ND filters so much more important for video shooters is that traditional video exposure is largely done at a single shutter speed. With 24 fps video, for example, you’ll want to keep your shutter speed at 1/48 of a second basically all the time. Any faster and your footage will lack motion blur, making it look jittery. Any slower and your footage will have more motion blur than normal, which looks just as strange. Now, there are instances where you might want to introduce these effects, but, unless you’re making the conscious decision to make your footage look unusual for one reason or another, it’s best to stick with 1/48 (or 1/60 for 30 fps video).
Since you won’t be able to adjust your shutter speed on the fly, the only way to keep your iris setting at a relatively consistent point as conditions change is to either change the light or to apply an ND filter. Since most beginning videographers will be working with natural light, I’m recommending an ND filter first. Luckily, like card readers, they’re relatively affordable. Bonus points if you go with a variable ND filter. That way you can adjust the degree of light transmission without having to swap filters.
#3 Fluid Head Tripod
As a still photographer, you likely already have a tripod. Chances are, though, that it’s a ball head tripod, with a head that’s meant to be set in a fixed position and locked. Fluid head tripods, on the other hand, have heads that are meant to pan and tilt, an essential part of shooting dynamic video. Often fluid head tripods will feature independent resistance settings on the pan and tilt axes, allowing the operator to add or remove movement resistance depending on the shot. This can be a difficult concept to understand if you’ve never used a fluid head before but try one out and you’ll see that adjustable resistance makes all the difference if you want to pan and tilt smoothly.
While a new tripod may be a more substantial investment than an SD card or an ND filter, there’s no need to spend a fortune. I would, though, recommend a trusted brand like Manfrotto, Sachtler, or Miller. You might be able to find dirt cheap fluid heads from unrecognizable brands on the internet, but this isn’t a purchase you should take that kind of risk on. A good tripod from a reliable source will last you years, so it’s worth spending a few extra bucks on something you’ll be happy with in the long term.
Video images rely on good consistent light and if an intimidating lighting setup isn’t part of your kit, that shouldn’t prevent you from shooting. A light source, daylight (bonus its free), a white card and a reflector or two provide all you need for most outdoor and some indoor cinematography scenarios. Consider sunlight or a large white surface such as a white foam core, even the side of a plain white truck for key light, and a gold reflector as a rim light to add background separation. Most lighting situations benefit from a good quality 5-in-1 reflector offers a range of lighting modifiers that provide key light bounce, rim light, scrim and even diffusion.
The accessories above will get you through the absolute basics of image production but eventually you’re going to need to record some audio. This is where you start to see the difference between capable, professional videographers and people who just happen to have a video camera. Good audio is non-negotiable. People are often willing to deal with sub-par video work as long as they can hear what they’re supposed to be hearing. Bad audio, on the other hand, will be a distraction no matter how great the picture looks. This can be an intimidating step for photographers turned videographers but with a few pieces of equipment and some practice, I promise good sound is within your reach.
#4 Lavalier Microphone
Most of the time, if you’re being asked to record audio, it’s going to be dialogue. Obviously, if you’re a professional sound recordist, dialogue isn’t the only important thing. But if you’re a photographer just beginning a transition to video, dialogue is probably going to be your top priority: wedding vows, corporate talks, things like that. For situations like these, where you only really care about capturing speech, a lavalier mic is your best bet.
Even if you’ve never heard of a lavalier mic, you’ve probably seen one at some point. They’re the tiny clip-on mics you’ll often see attached to newscasters’ lapels. Usually they’re wireless, with a transmitter pack that stays in your speaker’s pocket and a receiver pack that attaches to the camera. Since the mic is so close to the subject and the pickup range is designed specifically for that use case, it’s pretty easy to get good audio without too much expertise. The toughest hurdle is learning where and how to attach the mic, but there are plenty of YouTube tutorials that can teach you the basics. As far as models go, I’d go with something from either Sennheiser or Rode, depending on your budget and what sort of inputs your camera has. The Rode Wireless GO II and Sennheiser AVX systems are both great options. The Sennheiser comes with a slightly better mic, while the Rode is more affordable and can accommodate two transmitters per receiver.
#5 Shotgun Microphone
The downside to lavalier mics, of course, is that they’re not great at capturing anything but dialogue, and even then, they’re relatively limited. You can only capture as many subjects as you have mics, and it’s not easy or fast to switch from one subject to another. When it comes to environmental audio, music, crowds, basically anything other than spoken word, they’re pretty much useless. That’s where a good shotgun microphone will come in handy.
As a photographer, you’ll probably want something with a 3.5mm audio output that can mount directly to your camera for ease of use. Luckily, there are countless great models in this product category. The Rode VideoMic GO, Sennheiser MKE400, and Shure VP38F are all great options depending on your budget and feature needs. For more of a specialty use, I also love the Rode Stereo VideoMic X. It features a ton of on-board controls for fine tuning response, and its X-Y stacked condenser capsules are great for capturing stereo environmental audio. Whichever model you choose, go with a known manufacturer, and make sure to budget for necessary accessories like a wind screen, shock mount, and good headphones.
Let me be clear: these are the least essential items on this list. That’s why they’re last. A mistake beginning videographers too-often make is jumping straight into gimbal or drone work without spending enough time practicing basics. Unless you want to exclusively be a gimbal or drone videographer, you’ll want to make sure you’re able to record a quality image and capture good audio before you start flying a drone around. Eventually, though, you may get to the point where some camera movement is a necessary part of a project. When that time comes, first you can be glad you’ve already learned proper exposure and sound, then you can take a look at some of these options.
There’s no denying the production value that a few well-placed gimbal shots can bring to your video project. In the past, this kind of camera work would be an expensive, time-consuming endeavor, only accessible to people who could afford to hire a steadicam operator. Now, though, it’s never been easier to get your camera moving. While it’s not quite as simple as just throwing your DSLR on a gimbal, grabbing a skateboard, and running out the door, online tutorials and a wealth of accessories mean you can probably learn to shoot smooth tracking shots in a weekend.
As far as model recommendations are concerned, I think this is the only category on this list with a clear leader: the DJI Ronin RS 2. There are certainly more affordable options out there, but I don’t think anyone can beat the Ronin S 2’s combination of incredible feature seat, ease of use, accessories, and functionality. Supporting up to 10 pounds, the RS 2 can handle just about anything a DSLR shooter could throw at it. Available first and third-party accessories include counterweights, a vertical camera mount, car mounts, focus motors, steadicam adapters, and more.
Since I’d strongly recommend that your first drone for video work be one with a built-in camera, it’s crucial that you understand some basics before you start cutting drone footage into your projects. If you follow that advice, your drone footage will be shot with a different camera than your standard footage, so you’ll need to carefully consider your codec, frame rate, shutter speed, color space, and bit rate. Otherwise, your footage won’t match, which is distracting and makes your work look cheap. All this to say, again: a drone should not be your first purchase when transitioning from stills to video. As easy as they are to use, you’ll need skill, knowledge, and practice to get the most out of a drone.
That said, once you’re ready, a drone can make your video work much more dynamic, offering shots that are impossible by any other means. For a beginner who’s interested in video, I think DJI is the only brand really worth considering. It’s just a matter of figuring out which of their models best fit your particular needs. The Air 2S is small enough to fit in a large pocket while still offering 5K video and RAW stills. The Mavic 3 is great all around, with professional codec support, impressive battery life, and high quality optics by Hasselblad. And the DJI FPV is an 87-mph abomination that looks like something from Dune. Whichever you choose, remember to match your footage as well as you can, stick with slow, cinematic movement, and stay out of National Parks.