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Your first day of film school is right around the corner and maybe you’re already thinking about what kind of gear you’ll need to make the most of it. Sure, you’ll most likely get access to a lot of great equipment through your film school, but what if you want to practice framing a shot, lighting an interview subject or capturing sound on your own? After all, it’s your passion and inspiration that brought you to film school, so it makes sense that you’ll want to work on a project outside class or during one of your term breaks.
So, how much equipment do you really need? Should you save up for a prosumer camera? Or can you make do with a consumer camera that goes for less than $300? The answer to these questions depends on your goals, your budget and your vision, but it also depends on your willingness to make the most of some basic features you should look for in a camcorder including: Full HD video, microphone jack, headphone jack, variable frame rates and manual controls.
What sort of camcorder do I need to purchase?
You don’t have to spend a fortune on a camcorder that will help you work on your filmmaking skills. While you’ll certainly want to get a professional or prosumer-grade camera once you’re about to leave school and launch into your career as a filmmaker or videographer, at this point, you can save money by concentrating on learning to frame a shot, capture it and edit it, all of which can be accomplished with cameras costing less than $1,000, and sometimes even less than $300, if that’s what your budget requires.
A camera as simple and as affordable as the Canon VIXIA HF R500 has enough features to make it easy for you to film an interview or even shoot a short scene in HD. It has an external mic input, a headphone jack and 1/4"-20 tripod mount. It won’t help you practice your manual focusing skills, but it will capture HD images that will help you practice your editing skills. The HF R500 can be used with a 64GB SDXC card and can hold roughly six hours of 1080p video.
As useful as a pencam or simple solid-state cam can be to use, these models won’t give you the chance to work with focusing on a subject or to practice zooming in on a scene for effect. Companies like Canon, GoPro, Panasonic, Samsung and Sony offer excellent camcorders in the $300 to $500 range that have more powerful lenses and that give you the ability to zoom in and out. Several of these models are also capable of capturing full 1920 x 1080 HD Video in 60p and/or 24p. These cameras are tapeless, using removable SD Cards, Memory Sticks and even internal flash memory instead. While not all of the camcorder models in this price range have headphone jacks, the majority of them do have mic inputs and tripod mounts, as well as slightly higher quality image sensors for better motion rendering and low-light capabilities. These cameras record in AVCHD and MP4 formats that you can easily transfer to your computer to practice your editing.
While selecting your camcorder, you’ll probably want to pay more attention to the sensor size, the recording resolution and the memory capacity rather than the LDC screen size. While it’s nice to have a large display, it’s more important for your work to have the largest sensor that suits your budget and your film style. Bear in mind, however, that the larger the sensor, the more information the camera will capture, which also means that it will use memory faster than cameras with smaller sensors, and it will also take a bit longer to transfer to your computer.
There are also some excellent helmet cameras available within the consumer price range, with several models designed specifically to handle outdoor sports—including automobile racing and surfing.
DSLR cameras offer film students benefits that are not possible with a camcorder. Prosumer DSLRs feature relatively larger sensors, which allow for greater depth of field and a more “filmic” look. Plus, an affordable DSLR usually allows for a comprehensive set of manual functions. While footage from DSLR cameras can be beautiful, they require a higher level of expertise and they tend to accentuate mistakes more than an HD camcorder. Images tend to go in and out of focus quickly, and when you sit down to edit shots on your computer, you’ll find that two scenes that could go together perfectly may be difficult to match up smoothly. If you do shoot with a DSLR camera, you may also want to look into getting some type of support rig or stabilizer.
Do I want a prosumer or entry level professional camcorder?
Of course, if you have the budget for it, or think you’ll be able to line up some gigs to cover the cost, you may also want to look into the prosumer models at B&H. The biggest benefits of these more expensive models are access to interchangeable lenses in addition to larger image sensors. Sony has a couple of interchangeable lens models that start around $1,500. They accept E and/or A-mount lenses and use single CMOS sensors. However, if you’re interested in a camera with both interchangeable lenses and 3CCD image sensors or something like Sony’s Exmore Super 35 CMOS sensor, that will catapult you up to the $5,000 range—where you’ll also have to make sure that you budget for the cost of additional lenses and add-ons like XLR microphones (at least two is ideal).
Should I buy external light sources?
Regardless of which type of consumer (or possible prosumer) camera you purchase, you should not expect to get much use out of the onboard light. Since you’ll be using the camera to practice your shooting skills, you should set yourself up with a basic three-point lighting kit. As you’ve probably already learned, a three-point lighting arrangement is pretty much the standard for a video or photo session or interview, and it calls for the use of a key light, a fill light and a back light (see the B&H InDepth article, Lighting for Interviews, as a basic example). As the name suggests, the key light is your main light, and it will set the level of warmth and brightness for your scene. The key light will be the brightest light you use, followed by the fill light, which, as its name also suggests, will fill in shadows and add to the lighting effect of the key light. The back light will help add more dimension to your shots by separating your subject visually from the background and accentuating the physical outline of your subject.
Besides daylight, you’ll likely be shooting with tungsten, fluorescent or LED lights, so make sure that you know how to adjust the white balance on your camera to match the color temperature of the most prevalent light source before you start. Also remember that you can sometimes get warmer hues simply by using a blue card (or a blue piece of paper) while setting your white balance. While most new cameras have good automatic white balance settings, as a student of film it would certainly behoove you to know how to make a shot that looks more appealing than what an untrained person would capture with the same camera.
In order to get the best results from your lights, you might have to pick up some light stands or clamps. You could get a pretty decent light stand for around $30, and can even add to the height of a light stand by adding a boom, or even go ahead and pick up a kit that includes a stand and a boom. Of course, once you start working with lighting, you might find yourself wanting to have a set of filters, diffusers and gels and barndoors. Though you will probably have access to a lot of this lighting equipment through your school, it’s good for you to take the time to learn about the options available out there and the costs involved in assembling the tools and gear you need for professional lighting techniques and results. Eventually you may also reach the point where it’s time to invest in your own cine meter or spot meter, so take a look at what’s out there, and think about and plan for the kinds of lighting tools that might be part of your future as a filmmaker.
How can I capture really good audio?
While consumer cameras aren’t likely to have XLR inputs, many do have mic inputs that will enable you to plug in an external mic so that you can get the microphone closer to your subject and away from the camera. Even on some more expensive prosumer cameras, the onboard mic will capture some of the noise from the camera. The best way to avoid that and also ensure that you get a more professional final product is through the use of an external shotgun or lavalier microphone or even a handheld digital recorder. If your camcorder does not have XLR inputs and you want to use a mic that has XLR connectivity, you can always solve that problem with a camcorder XLR adapter.
For a decent professional-grade microphone with XLR connectivity, you’ll probably have to pay at least $200, but prosumer mics with 1/8" (3.5mm) connections can be more affordable. A professional wireless microphone can cost you more than $500. Sony, however, does offer an affordable wireless mic, the WC S-999, that’s excellent for interviews and situations in which you don’t need a long range and aren’t setting up a shot that’s susceptible to a lot of interference. This type of mic is ideal for interviews and can even be used to shoot a scene for your short, experimental video or for a Web-based project.
An external, handheld digital recorder is sometimes the best solution for capturing audio. Consumer and prosumer cameras rarely feature manual audio controls, and without a wireless microphone you will always be tethered to the camera. An external recorder will give you much greater versatility and significantly higher quality. However, one drawback to consider is the hassle of syncing audio and video in post (and placing the recorder close enough to the talent in your video to capture sound well).
Whatever type of recording system you use, keep in mind that often, what makes a film seem like a home video isn’t so much the look as the sound. A built-in mic won’t get you close to your subjects, and won’t be directional enough to focus on the sound you want to capture. Also, don’t forget that it’s a good idea to monitor your audio with a pair of headphones, so consider a digital recorder or camera that allows you to do that. Optimally, a camcorder or HDSLR with a headphone output will allow you to hear the sound in the camera; you won’t have to wait until you upload your footage, and it will help you avoid technical complications regarding audio connectivity.
What sort of tapeless media is optimal for me?
You’ll still find some high-end prosumer and professional cameras, particularly from Sony, that use miniDV, though just about all of the consumer cameras you might be choosing from now capture to SD/SDHC/SDXC cards, Memory Sticks or onboard solid state memory. The advantage of shooting to memory cards is that they can help you keep costs down since you don’t have to buy a lot of additional memory, and can you can also transfer video easily from the card to your computer, or directly from the camera to your computer or even an external hard drive, between shots.
You might also find it easier to have multiple memory cards, so that you can continue shooting while transferring your footage to your drive. Memory cards can cost you between $20 and $100 depending on the capacity and read/write speed. For external hard drives, the cost per Gigabyte is even less, as you can now get a 500GB portable hard drive for less than $100. You also have lots of styles to choose from among portable hard drives, from rugged, slim designs to models that can hold up to 8TB. Just remember that speed is important when working with video files, so get one that can handle your file transfers quickly, and that also has the right capacity for your work, and the right connection types for your laptop. Sometimes it makes sense to get two smaller external drives so you can work with one on-set while handing another off to your editor (even if it’s you).
Do I need some kind of camera support for the times I am not handholding my camera?
A tripod that can pan and tilt is a basic requirement for shooting video. A fluid head video tripod will give you the best results, but a regular photo tripod with a pan-and-tilt head can also work. Your goal when shooting, even with an inexpensive consumer camcorder, should be to get still shots that don’t look like home videos. Mounting your camera on a tripod will not only keep your camera steady, it will also help you avoid shooting from the familiar angles that scream “home-video” to a viewer. With the rock-solid framing support that a tripod can provide, you’ll end up with better, more consistent footage that aligns more with your vision. And when the time comes, you’ll be able to shoot without the tripod for more dramatic effects.
If you want to get even more traction out of your tripod, however, and plan on incorporating smooth tracking shots into your work, you should think about getting a dolly. Just set your tripod into a dolly and those three wheels will give you the freedom to track a shot and avoid the bounce of a handheld camera. You can also use a dolly with a track for smooth shots even on rough surfaces. And while it might be too early in your film career to invest in them, it never hurts to start learning about the costs of jibs and cranes and the different models that might be within reach throughout the different stages of your career.
What other gear should I have in my kit?
In addition to the camera, mic, lights, and headphones, you may also want to set yourself up with some essential tools to have with you on your shoots. B&H offers a convenient gaffer’s kit to get you started, but if you want to put together your own, you should include a few different colors of 2" gaffer tape, a multi-tool with a good blade (a serrated blade can be especially useful for cutting rope), a handful of permanent markers and a decent pair of work gloves. Your gloves won’t just protect you while you’re setting up or taking down a set, they’ll also protect your hands when you’re working with hot lights, doing things like adjusting barndoors or swapping out gels. As for the flashlight, one is a must, but having a backup on hand could really save you some headaches if your trusty torch gives up the ghost, or a day shoot lasts well into the night and there’s nowhere nearby to get batteries.
Though it might not fit into your tool kit, it also never hurts to have a small, LED book light that you can clip onto your notepad or your shooting script. While your multi-tool will be very handy on the set, you may also want to supplement it with a 6–8" crescent wrench as well as a screwdriver with interchangeable heads, and a tape measure. And, of course, don’t forget to get yourself a handy tool pouch. One last thing to note: if you’re doing any work on a film crew, whether during the school year or during a break, it never hurts to bring along your own two-way radio headset (that’s labeled with your name).