You can get great photos and video starting with nothing more than the cell phone in your pocket. Buy gear once you know why you need it. Remember that you can always rent gear to try it out before buying. And if you don’t shoot frequently, consider the economics of renting the pricier gear.
If you want the most bang for your buck in 2021, start here. There are more professional and costly tools available, but this set of kit will get you on your to creating equally professional results which will more quickly be limited by your skill than by the gear. In each course section, we’ll explore the technology behind these tools and make further recommendations based on budget. There you’ll get a more comprehensive look at Canon vs Sony, LED vs. HM2I, or a Zoom vs. a SoundDevices, but this list is designed to recommend things worth owning if you were to start from scratch. I consider this list the sweet spot for quality of features-per-dollar, though I will provide a budget option in the case of the pricier items (e.g. camera). Here’s the condensed list with my justifications to follow.
The sony A7s 3 is the camera I’ve awaited for far too long. But at least Sony didn’t disappoint. You get the mirrorless form factor I love, good battery life, great internal and external codecs, affordable accessories, sensor stabilization, sweet autofocus and good low light. $3500 is going to be at the ceiling for what a lot of people reading this site will want to spend, but if you want the one camera that does it all (and you prioritize video over stills) then this is it.
If you want to do both photo and video I’d recommend the A73. Like I say, In 2020, mirrorless seems the unquestionable future (unless you’re Ricoh) and hybrid mirrorless cameras have really arrived. One can get both great video features and fantastic photo capability in the same camera. The Sony A73 epitomizes this. While it lacks 10-bit internal video, something the similarly appealing FujiFilm XT-3 (also an excellent, though less popular choice) does have, the Sony’s full frame sensor, low light ability, user-customizability, new battery, internal log recording, and robust lens selection are exciting. For a strictly cinematic shooting process the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4k or 6k (Canon EF mount) is a decent alternative, but I am fairly picky when it comes to image quality, and even so I prefer the A73 in terms of convenience, even if its image is inferior to the Blackmagic. If I’m only picking one camera the Sony simply does way more. An EVF, stabilized sensor, great proxy workflow, long battery life, and a robust design that has been honed over decades of camera manufacturing are real differences you’ll notice when shooting. My first time shooting with the Blackmagic Pocket 4k the battery got stuck inside the body of the camera. I advise students to seriously consider workflow (things like codec, performance, backup) when they’re choosing a camera as it can make a bigger real-world difference than image quality which is simply not the determining factor in 2020.
There is still definitely a case for dedicated video cameras, but it’s a harder argument to make for many scenarios. Nowadays, more than anything, I look for a “hybrid” camera that does both photo and video, all in one. I personally use a C200 for anything where I need a dedicated video camera, and when I want to impress someone I rent RED or ARRI.
For photo cameras: ergonomics (including size), customizability, speed, battery life. These things matter more than resolution or even dynamic range (ability to shoot in high contrast).
Many people make it so because they feel they can buy their way into increased competency rather than working to improve talent. The reality is, great shots can likely be achieved with the cell phone you already have.
The camera matters so much less than it used to. There were monumental gains in camera technology that made for drastically different imagery just a few years ago. There were days when hacking the data rate on a Panasonic GH2 was worth it, or Magic Lantern-ing a Canon 5DIII created footage that looked like it came from another camera. Now resolution seems to yield quite diminishing returns, sensitivity has gotten so good that ambient light shooting is very practical, and internal codecs and high dynamic range gamma curves have made professional results attainable in very small packages. Yet the things the internet fixates on are often holdovers from the time they did matter. Let me mention a couple quick things:
Compression used to really matter. Some of the old MPEG compressors were really nasty and visibly inferior, while at the same time still producing massive files. It was a lose-lose from today’s perspective. Nowadays, much of the compression is visually good enough that you should be more worried about playback on your system during actual edit than you are the image quality hit.
I find many people disappointed after the internet told them that the HDMI out of their camera or recording raw promised massive gains in image quality. Again, there used to be cameras that did weird things internally (looking at you Canon). The sensor readout was line-skipped resulting in aliasing, the compression was poor, and then, again in the case of Canon, there was something mystical going on that I’m not sure anyone ever figured out but it just meant softening and image degradation generally. When people shoot a JPEG from their stills camera and compare it to a raw file, the usual trick is to show, “look, I can re-white balance” and “see all the highlight detail you get with raw!”. I go over these in more detail later in the course, but the takeaway is that with high enough bit depths white balance is adjustable without raw and that it’s the low dynamic range SDR gamma curves, and more specifically their highlight rolloff, that makes the difference people often see. Raw does have advantages, but anymore it’s not what people think. The biggest advantage of raw over internal 8-bit recording is that if you don’t know how to expose you’ve got a much bigger safety net. But, if your camera can shoot log, even to 8 bits, and you know how to expose, boy can you get a lot of that combination.
If you don’t want to drop $2k on a camera, here are several options that can be had in the $300–$1000 range. I frequently buy used from local classifieds or Facebook marketplace. Just check the camera out before hand by checking the sensor for spots and verifying shutter actuations (the ‘mileage’ of a camera).
I often recommend something like a used Panasonic mirrorless camera. The size, Micro Four Thirds sensor, usable battery life, and stellar photo and video capability all pair well for the price. Panasonic has consistently delivered excellent value in their products. Something like the LX100 is a great place to start for someone just getting into photo work, and it works pretty well for video. This is a fixed lens camera, but the lens it comes with is excellent considering the size. If video is more your interest, and you want to buy lenses separately, the GX85 is a great buy. I also consistently recommend the Sony RX100 series because of their extreme portability, advanced technical abilities, and adaptable price point (simply pick which version, 1–7, according to the amount you want to spend). The latter will not give you excellent low light or shallow depth of field in comparison to the larger sensors however. In these lower end cameras, you often find irritating things like omission of a mic or headphone jack, micro HDMI ports, and reduced “professional” software features.
I also have to mention that one can get a used Canon 5d mkII for under $500 now, and that, paired with Magic Lantern still produces one of my absolute favorite images. If image quality at a budget is your primary motivator or you want a ‘cheap’ hybrid camera and can’t afford the Sony, it’s worth spending a night on figuring out the Magic Lantern “hack”. A Canon 5d on a gimbal can more easily provide a dynamic, moving shot than an Arri Alexa on a tripod can.
At this price point simply use your cell phone.
One can now buy a mirrorless camera with a full frame sensor that downscales to 4k beautifully, works well in low light, records internally to codecs which balance quality and size superbly, focuses mind-numbingly well in both photo and video modes, stabilizes via the sensor on any lens, etc. These cameras usually price around $2,000 USD but give you an excellent hybrid stills and video camera in one. When I go to record on a “professional” camera, costing 30 times more in some cases, I frequently miss the following: a built-in EVF, stabilized sensor, auto focus, cheap recording media, small form factor, long-lasting cheap batteries, built-in articulating LCD screen and size. Size is huge (figuratively). You may not realize it, but if what you’re doing is documentary or guerrilla style at all in nature, the size of the camera makes a big difference in how frequently you use it.
So why shoot on an Arri Alexa, RED, Panasonic Varicam or Sony Venice?
Many benefits include the gains inherent to shooting a dedicated video camera, something we’ll cover in the next section. But beyond those things, what’s the appeal? Honestly, if you’re asking the question, don’t even consider buying the cameras. The number one reason in my view that justifies these acquisitions is that the client demands it. If you’re shooting stock content for LG and they want 16k footage to show off their TV then it’s worth it to invest in a 16k camera. If you’re on a set where that camera is capturing footage worth millions of dollars then use a Panavision where you know you have a ready support line should anything go wrong. Or if you’re working with a person who has a camera preference and have the budget for it, by all means accommodate.
I’ve got an opinion that will cause some discontent when it comes to lenses. Essentially they are overrated. There are now other factors that matter more in image quality than camera choice. Lens choice is fairly important, but in my view, the biggest influencing factor for modern video aesthetic comes more in final image development than lens choice until you start to get into vintage or really “character-ful” lenses. That’s why so much of the educational aspects of this site underplay gear and promote education of post production tools.
The Tamron is exciting as it’s a lens designed for Sony E-mount meaning it’s sized smaller than the comparable DSLR-oriented lens of yesteryear. It’s optically imperfect when comparing to many other lenses, but not enough that it’s noticeable to the common viewer in ‘average’ circumstances. If you’re looking for one do-everything lens, this is it. The 28mm end often feels tight compared to the 24mm we’re often used to, the fly-by-wire focus isn’t good for external focus pulling, and the focus ring is mysteriously the inner-most rather than outer-most (nearest the filtered end of the lens) one. All-in-all, this lens wins for the best combination of convenience and quality.
In the modern era of video-making, I’m honestly not sure if I should recommend a tripod or a gimbal first. Since I use the tripod as the gimbal holder (put an Arca plate on the bottom of the gimbal handle) I’d say get both if you can swing it.
The facility with which you can pick your frame is one of your most advantageous compositional tools.
Too many shots are boring because people start out their blocking by putting their camera on a tripod. Use your cellphone as a director’s viewfinder to pick a shot; don’t lug a tripod-laden camera around the location for that. Apps like Artemis are awesome viewfinders, or just buy a cellphone with multiple lenses and focal lengths. I think this is changing, but camera movement is often underrated. A Canon 5d on a gimbal can more easily provide a dynamic, moving shot than an Arri Alexa on a tripod can. Again, will your audience notice the difference in sharpness between lenses? Likely not. Will they notice a dynamic moving camera vs. a static shot? Absolutely.
The world is plagued by too many gimbals, and though the Ronin S feels twice as heavy as it should need to be, it’s a solid choice with a variety of accessories, a good track record of support through DJI, and a small enough form factor it can be collapsed into a backpack with other gear. So when DJI came out with the Ronin SC I was excited they’d improved where I felt they most needed to. The shorter battery life and reduced payload capacity is usually fine for me, especially now that the Sony A73 is my main camera (instead of the heavier Canon C200). The USB C power right there near the gimbal sled is a lifesaver for powering transmitters or a follow focus; the locks are handy, and the smaller size puts it right where I wanted it to more easily fit in my bag.
Gimbals also allow you to execute some cool creative options like pan/tilt functionality in motion-control timelapse. It’s a versatile tool. It’s got a simpler learning curve than a Glidecam (though it does require power). Get one with the 45º tilt so you can see the LCD.
All that said: these things matter more than your tripod:
Pay attention to competent filmmakers and what they’re doing with the camera. Keep the camera still when it should be still. If it’s supposed to look handheld make it sufficiently noticeable so it doesn’t just look like a mistake. Get a gimbal and maximize its use with planned, oftentimes simple, shots.
Support systems are becoming more convenient as cameras become lighter. There are some good ‘hybrid’ tripods these days that combine great elements from the photo and video world. The ballhead atop a bowl is an example. iFootage, E-image, and Benro have some solid options. Gimbals are everywhere and most of them these days are quite good. I prefer the 45º gimbals for convenience, and features like the “sport mode”, auto calibration, and portability are vital to me.
In terms of support, I mount everything that has a 1/4″-20 hole in it (the common 1/4″ thread you see on many pieces of video gear) to an Arca-Swiss quick release plate. These can be had cheap on e-bay.
Before buying anything, start making the most of the natural light freely available to you. Learning to recognize light quality will do more for you than anything your money can buy. Pay attention to what light looks like at different times of day, how its color changes, how shadows look in noon-day sun vs a cloudy day. These are simple visual exercises that will help you understand what you’re looking for in ‘good’ light as well as train you on how to maximize what you’ve already got.
A 5-in-1 reflector is your next best friend. It will allow you to take the existing light you’re now conscious of and modify it. Wether that’s reflecting/bouncing, diffusing, or absorbing, this is a highly underrated tool. The 5-in-1 makes a great collapsible fill for dark shadows or a bounce when shooting backlit against the sun. We’ll cover all this and more in the lighting section, but for now, this is a sub $20 investment worth making.
The umbrella is affordable, collapsible and quick (compare a soft box of similar size). Where it lacks for control of light spill, it makes up for it in convenience. If you’re looking for an efficient way to get soft light, this is where to start. If you need to control light a bit more, I also recommend this easy-to-use Bowens softbox for a quick setup if you’re using one of the COB-style lights with a Bowens mount. Larger modifiers like the Aputure light dome have made setup and takedown easier with speed-ring soft boxes, but the entire package is still much more cumbersome and the price is higher.
Recommending a light is nearly impossible because the light required is so situation-dependent. If you’re looking for something versatile to get started, here are my picks. Most of these lights are on the smaller side and would primarily be used for interiors.
There are several variants on the saber wand, but I’ll try and cover a few and why I suggest them. When we talk about lighting, you’ll quickly learn that flattering light on people often comes from large light sources. When someone is brand new starting out they want the most effective tool for the least money. Without a modifier, you can get soft-ish light from one of these by using it horizontally, even without a modifier (which reduces the light’s intensity as well). When I bought these you could get them for $50 on Amazon (YN360s) , now I recommend e-bay as the Amazon ones are double that price. You’ll have to buy Sony batteries as well, but that’s something you’ll ultimately need anyway. If you want to spend more, there are RGB variants and name-brand ones at *much* higher prices, but I’d start here. There’s a 1/4″-20 mount at the bottom. Slap an Arca plate on and you’ve got a convenient solution for very little money.
I’ll make a video on how you can get great interview or blog-style lighting on a single person using one of these lights for a “rim” light and another “key” light from one of the smaller options below.
Great wand light option on Amazon:
I usually recommend something like this mini Aputure light because it’s a good value. You get a lot for less than $100. While output is not great, you have something that works fine indoors if you’re not competing with other lights, and that is a great place to start. If you think you’ll likely end up growing into the Aputure family (quite likely as they really do make a good set of value-to-pro-level lights) I’d start here.
The Boling P1 makes the list as an affordable but versatile LED that’s small enough to always have with you in any camera bag. It’s an RGB LED, meaning you can do fun (and occasionally useful, e.g. candle or fire light) colors and color effects, but what I’ve grown particularly fond of is the mounting arm included with the light. It makes it very versatile and I can mount an umbrella off this light and get a very portable one-light solution. Lights like this are often used on camera which looks terrible in every situation I can think of. I use this light with a modifier which softens the light but cuts its output. This means it can only function indoors as a key, generally speaking, but makes a great fill when outside. Color rendering is great on the light.
The Pilotfly AtomCube Ax1 is another very solid choice for high output and color quality. While it lacks the mounting arm of the Boling, it does have mounting points on the side.
Sound is often underrated and worth putting some money, effort and education into. Audio gear represents one of the best investments a filmmaker can make. I have stuff I purchased in middle school that I still use frequently. An inexpensive lav mic that plugs into your phone is a great way to start if you’re recording dialog.
“Dual system” sound (sound recorded separately from the camera) is a pain to sync up in post. Only do it if you really need to. Often you’re much better just using an out-board pre-amp like this Saramonic PAX2:
Deity had some major issues with quality and sample variation when they began. Now, however, they offer a variety of microphones and wireless systems that pack a lot of features into a small price. RODE and Sennheiser both offer truly consumer-friendly audio options that will give you a major step up in quality from your on-camera mic.
The RODE Wireless Go feels like a real step forward in easy-to-use but decent quality wireless audio. Other solutions, like the Sennheiser XS, just don’t have quite enough control, while previous products, like the Sennheiser G-series, had too much for common users. This product is incredibly small, easy to use, versatile (it ‘comes with’ a built-in lav mic) and works in a great variety of situations. Because the bandwidth of usable wireless frequencies is shrinking, more and more companies turn to clever use of the “WiFi” range, using 2.4 or 5.8 GHz signals to communicate. This means your gear works anywhere in the world, but it means you’re also competing with a lot more. This makes the Video Mic Go work extremely well in low range situation where you have line of sight to the camera. You can see my thoughts on alternatives from Sennheiser and Saramonic but I think this one represents the best quality to price ratio. These have issues with some lav mics so make sure to test your specific lav mic for squeal. Also the noise on these is quite high, but again, for the price and convenience they’re hard to beat.
RODE had a brief moment where they didn’t pursue the lower end audio market as aggressively as some others, but they sort of rose back to the top in 2020. This mic is one of the best “do it all” mics available.
+Adapts to recording source (camera TRS, mobile TRRS etc.)
+USB mic option (built-in A>D) and you can then plug headphones into mic itself and monitor
+Safety track to reduced gain on Right channel (doesn’t work with single channel TRRS to a phone obviously)
+ Included shock mount
+Allows gain from Mic to Line to Headphone level right within camera (will have to compare with external and camera pre-amps)
+Has physical power button so works with Atomos recorders that don’t trigger the Deity to turn on
+RF interference seems well controlled for a RODE mic (and aluminum body)
– lacks the option of balanced output for longer cable runs without interference (Deity D3 pro does have this)
If you want a laptop I’d definitely recommend Windows over Mac and something like a Dell XPS 15 is probably the best bang for your buck in 2020.
I’m reluctant to even recommend Apple products as they gave up on supporting any sort of pro video market for so long, but the astonishing fact remains that the now-ancient 5,1 Mac Pro from 2011 is probably the best value for a serious desktop editing system. Come Fall of 2019 we started seeing a serious Mac Pro yet again, pushing $50k fully specced. Get an old 5,1 Mac Pro, put an Nvidia GTX 1080 card and USB 3.0 card inside and you’ve got a speedy setup for very little money. But don’t upgrade the OS beyond High Sierra (that’s admittedly scary). The processor can even be upgraded if you really want to. As much as I dislike admitting it, Apple has been very reliable and easier to program for without problems. Check the Resolve compatibility guide if you’re running another system.
With Apple’s announcement that they’re moving to ARM processors (which are optimized for mobile devices more than professional computers), and their lack of NVIDIA support, I think I’m finally (though reluctantly) moving on from Apple.