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 2019, 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 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 LED vs. HMI, or a Zoom vs. a SoundDevices, but this list is designed to recommend things worth owning if you were to start from scratch.
My recommended list for photo/video gear in 2019. Here’s a high-level update of what I consider to be the best bang-for-buck gear available. There are better cameras than these and there are cheaper cameras. I consider this list the sweet spot for quality of features per dollar. Here’s the condensed list with my justifications to follow. I also try to throw out a couple alternatives in different price brackets in the explanations below.
Like I say, In 2019, 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 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 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. Again, 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.
There is still a case for dedicated video cameras, but it’s a harder argument to make. 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).
For video cameras: compression
And nowadays, more than anything, I look for a “hybrid” camera that does both of these categories, photo and video, all in one.
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. 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. I broadly categorize cameras into consumer, prosumer and professional. For the first category, 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. The LX100 is a great place to start for someone just getting into photo and video work. 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. The next category (prosumer) has a lot of exciting options, but I think it’s best explained by contrasting it with the upper level (pro) category. 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 but give you an excellent hybrid stills and video camera in one. When I go to record on a “professional” camera, I frequently miss the following: Built-in EVF, stabilized sensor, auto focus, cheap recording media, small form factor, long-lasting cheap batteries, built-in articulating LCD screen and more. Benefits of some of the larger cameras include dedicated XLR inputs with physical gain controls, built-in ND, and of course, increased image quality, though the difference in my opinion is now not so often worth it. 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 Magic Lantern. A Canon 5d on a gimbal can more easily provide a dynamic, moving shot than an Arri Alexa on a tripod can.
There are now other factors that matter more in image quality than camera choice. Lens choice is fairly important, but overstated. In my view, the biggest influencing factor for modern video aesthetic now comes in how you ‘develop’ your final image. That’s why so much of the educational aspects of this site underplay gear and promote education of post production tools. This is where, again, Blackmagic Resolve plays such a crucial role as its color capabilities rank amongst the industry’s best.
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 now comes in how you ‘develop’ your final image. That’s why so much of the educational aspects of this site underplay gear and promote education of post production tools. This is where, again, Blackmagic Resolve plays such a crucial role as its color capabilities rank amongst the industry’s best.
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.
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.
Gimbals also allow you to execute some cool creative options like pan/tilt functionality in motion-control timelapse. It’s a versatile tool.
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.
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. 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.
I still insist that a properly used 5-in-1 and umbrella are two thoroughly under-appreciated pieces of gear. The 5-in-1 makes a great collapsible fill for dark shadows or a bounce when shooting backlit against the sun. The umbrella is collapsible and quick to set up (compare a soft box of similar size). Where it lacks for control of light spill, it makes up for it in convenience. If you need to control light a bit more, I also recommend this easy-to-use Bowens softbox for a quick setup. 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.
The RODE Video Mic 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. 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.
It’s a bit tough to really learn photography without a way to take a picture. Many of you will be here because you’ve got a fancy new camera and want to learn how to use it. Others will be interested in photography and looking to know where to spend their money. Buying gear is fun when you’re informed, and this section should equip you with the information you need to get the most bang for your buck. The good news to everyone: it doesn’t have to be expensive. Many people make it so because they want to buy their way into becoming a better photographer, but the reality is, great shots can likely be achieved with the cell phone you already have.
Resolve is king. A king with problems, but king all the same.
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 editing system. Come Fall of 2019 we should start seeing a serious Mac Pro yet again, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find it 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 Apple=reliable and easier to program for without problems. Check Resolve compatibility guide.