Congrats on starting film school! Your first day of classes is around the corner and you are probably already trying to figure out what equipment you’ll need to get started. Fortunately, most programs have many important tools available for students—namely big stuff such as camcorders and lights. Still, there are accessories, expendables, and other pieces of gear that you’ll want to have on hand or own yourself. So what exactly do you need to be prepared for film school? Luckily, not all that much.
What camera do I need?
To get started, you can likely get away with a camcorder, mirrorless camera, or DSLR with high-quality Full HD video capabilities. It is quite easy to get an inexpensive model with 4K video these days, so that is definitely worth looking into. If you are just starting your program and you are lucky enough to have access to great, modern cameras, then you should be okay getting something relatively cheap for your personal kit.
I would recommend a current mirrorless model, and some of the most common for beginners would be the Sony a6400 and FUJIFILM X-T30. You could also go the camcorder route, though it is turning into more of a niche these days. I think the latest 1"-type camcorders are the most interesting and offer a great price for the features available. In addition, you could consider adding a GoPro or DJI Osmo Action for some specific shots where you don’t want to risk your regular camera. I will say, if you have the cash, you can just go for it and invest in a Canon C200 or Sony FS5 II, both excellent cinema cameras. All of these options, when handled properly, can create cinematic footage.
To be honest, if you are in a multi-year program, by the time you finish, whatever camera model you have will be on its way out of style, as is the nature of digital filmmaking. If you want to make some serious investments, I would say go for good lenses and accessories that will last for years to come. Which leads us to…
What lenses should I get?
If this is your first interchangeable-lens system, it is hard not to advise going with a versatile kit zoom. The bundled zoom lens can do a decent job and shouldn’t be avoided. Good technique will allow you to make great films, regardless of equipment. You should look into getting some new lenses though, some that will be good even when you get your next camera. I’m a fan of primes, especially for video. If you do want a zoom, perhaps for documentary or run-and-gun filmmaking, you will want to look for terms such as “parfocal” and “constant aperture.” Parfocal means that focus breathing is non-existent, allowing you to zoom the lens without shifting the focus position. Constant apertures mean that the aperture (and therefore brightness of your image) won’t change as you adjust zoom position. This is important in video where you need things to stay consistent as you make adjustments during a shot.
As for primes, go for something in the middle. A 50mm, or 50mm equivalent if you are using a format other than full frame, is one of the safest bets. I prefer it a bit wider, at 35mm, so decide based on your own personal preference and vision. Assuming you went with a zoom along with your camera, you can always pay attention to what focal lengths you use most and build from there. As for features, ideally you’ll want a lens with a stepless aperture ring and a smooth, linear-response manual focus system. Also, you want focusing to be mechanical, since it gives a reliable and repeatable feeling, but modern focus-by-wire lenses will offer linear-response MF as the next best thing. Additionally, AF in video is now quite good, so there is no reason to avoid current autofocus lenses if you intend to stick with the system.
Along with your lenses, you should look into filters. Once you learn and understand the 180° rule (which essentially says you should try to keep your shutter speed equal to 1/(2 x frame rate), you’ll quickly realize the importance of a ND filter. Circular polarizers are nice, too, but ND filters shine for video. The best solution is to pick up a large 82mm Variable ND Filter and a set of step-up rings. This lets you use the same filter for any lens.
Should I buy external light sources?
If you have access to a gear locker that has lighting equipment, I would highly recommend using that instead of buying your own. Lighting equipment is bulky, not exactly something you want to store in a dorm room. Also, the equipment your school has is likely more professional and I would advise that you learn how to use that first. Now, the massive improvements to LED technology over the past decade have changed the equation.
Building your own compact lighting kit is totally doable and affordable, thanks to the latest LEDs. These also have added benefits over classic tungsten and fluorescent fixtures. Namely, they can be extremely compact and run on batteries. This is why you may want to consider picking up a couple for yourself and building a kit that can end up supplementing other lights you may end up using on set.
A nice key, or primary, light is something powerful and modifiable. I would go with a single-point option such as the Aputure Light Storm LS C120D II. It’s a very good, very popular light. Another route is an affordable LED panel because it provides a nice, softer source and many have adjustable color temperatures for matching other light sources. You can even get both or other types of lights to use in different scenarios. Of course, you can always look into tungsten and fluorescent if you want.
To get the best results from your lights, you have to pick up some light stands or clamps. You might find yourself wanting to have a set of filters, diffusers, and gels. 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 good audio?
There are levels to audio, and the best of the best is to have a dedicated sound expert on set to handle all your recording needs. A separate person just can’t be beat and audio is just as, if not more important than your video. If you are doing it yourself, or simply want to monitor what is going on while on set or in the edit bay, you will need a set of nice headphones. You don’t even need to spend that much to get a solid set with some of the most popular being the Sony MDR-7506. These will let you listen to your sound, which is the only way to know exactly what you are getting. Not having headphones would be like recording video without checking your camera’s screen.
Upgrading your personal camera’s audio is the next step if you are doing this on your own. The simplest solution is to go with an on-camera mic that plugs directly into your camera’s 3.5mm input. A RØDE VideoMic will certainly do the trick. The shotgun is great for mobile recording and capturing ambient audio but for vlogging and interviews it is hard to beat the classic lavalier. These exceptionally small mics can be wired up to your talent and provide crisp, clear audio for talking subjects.
To get better than that you will need to move up for professional microphones and dedicated audio recorders. Though, some cameras do have professional XLR inputs that can work directly with some of these microphones. Go-to options for video are the shotgun mic, wireless lavaliers, and sometimes cardioid and omnidirectional. Some recommendations would include the RØDE NTG3 and RØDE Wireless GO if you are looking for some mics to start with. Keep in mind that you will need some accessories to make the most of them, including boompoles or lavaliers. If your camera does not have XLR inputs and you want to use a mic that has XLR connectivity, you can always solve that problem with an XLR adapter.
An external, handheld digital recorder is the best solution for capturing audio and will likely be necessary for professional mics. This is called dual-system sound as it is completely separate from the video camera. To make the most of this you will need a slate to mark the start of a take and help with syncing in post. There are a lot of different options for audio recorders, but if you are getting serious about film I always say go for something with at least two XLR inputs. This will give you a good starting point and a little room to expand later on.
Do I need some kind of camera support?
Absolutely! 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.
Another approach is to add steady movement to your shots. This can be done quite effectively with modern sliders and handheld gimbals. Sliders are the closest thing to a dolly you can reasonably get set up, travel with, and use by yourself. Gimbal stabilizers have completely changed handheld filmmaking. Effectively replacing the Steadicam, current gimbals will help you capture super-smooth footage even when bouncing around with your camera. Both of these are seriously good options for making your footage look more professional.
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. A convenient gaffer’s kit can 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).
- Essential features in a camera should include high-quality 4K and Full HD recording, manual controls, audio inputs (at a minimum a 3.5mm mic jack), and good lens options.
- Invest in a good, solid tripod. This can last nearly forever if properly cared for and is easily one of the most important tools on a film set.
- Start with whatever lenses you can get, but if you want to upgrade, look for video-specific features such as parfocal for zooms or physical aperture controls.
- You don’t need to buy lights (hopefully), but if you choose to, LEDs are the best bet right now and offer a good deal of portability if you want to supplement more serious kits you are borrowing from school.
- Audio is just as important as video, so make sure that you are investing time and money into capturing clean sound for your films. You need headphones to monitor audio, and a good shotgun mic or lavalier can work wonders.
- Many accessories will make life easier. You will want to have filters, diffusion, gaffer tape, work gloves, tape measure, multi-tool, and more small things to really make the most of your equipment and time. The basic features you should look for, even in an inexpensive camcorder are Full HD, a tripod mount and manual controls.
As always, you can ask any questions in the Comments section, below, and we will be more than happy to help you as you prepare for film school.