Video 101 – Part 2: Other Equipment

Upon getting started with videography, it is important to be aware of equipment needs other than the video camera(s) so that one can realistically budget for all the necessary purchases.

In this second part of a series on dSLR videography I will therefore talk about tripods, lights, microphones, and computer equipment. I won’t be able to give comprehensive reviews or extensive product comparisons, but will primarily outline what accompanies my Canon 60D camera as part of my starter kit, with perhaps a few pointers to alternatives.

  • Tripods: As I already mentioned in the first part of this series, dSLRs in particular are very difficult to hand hold for video, at least without additional rigs that could easily cost more than the camera itself. Therefore, a tripod is crucial for getting steady video footage. Tripods consist of legs and heads, which can be bought separately or as complete sets. Since many are coming to videography from still photography, it needs to be pointed out that tripod requirements are very different for videography than for still photography. If you already have a very sturdy set of tripod legs, you could probably use that for the time being. However, the head is a different matter. Ball heads are very convenient for still photography, since they allow the camera to be adjusted in several directions in one single go. However, they are basically useless for videography, since one typically wants to keep the camera level and pan just horizontally, and perhaps occasionally vertically, but not change the angle of the camera against the horizon. 3-way heads, the other common choice for still photography, separate these adjustments from each other, but they still don’t allow the smooth panning one wants for video. The proper solution is a dedicated video tripod head. Ideally, this should be a fluid head, but these can easily run into many hundreds of dollars. If your camera and lenses weigh no more than a few pounds (i.e. you are not using heavy tele lenses), take a look at the Manfrotto 701HDV head. If you need to support heavier gear, but can’t afford an expensive fluid head, the Manfrotto 501HDV might be a good alternative. It supports up to 13 lbs, but uses teflon coated disks instead of fluid cartridges. This is the head I currently use.
  • Lights: While flashes or strobes are the most common external light source for still photography cameras, video lights obviously have to be continuous lights. Traditional choices are tungsten, quartz or fluorescent lights. The downsides of these lights are that they get very hot, and require large and heavy battery packs if they need to be used away from an AC outlet. LED lights are an exciting and relatively new technology that comes to the rescue. They are available in an increasingly wide range of configurations from small on-camera lights that output the equivalent of a few dozen watts for less than $100 to large panels of 500 Watts equivalent or more that can cost several thousand dollars. Litepanels are probably the industry leader, the lights from Ikan are a worthwhile alternative, and the Arri lights look particularly appealing to me. Shooting with a dSLR has the advantage that with ISOs of 1600, 3200, or even higher, one doesn’t need a lot of light output, so even some of the smaller, less expensive LED lights can be sufficient. The main advantages of all LED lights are that they don’t get hot, and that they use far less power than other continuous lights, which makes battery operation much more attractive. For now, I’m using an Ikan 312 for a main light (about 150 Watts) and an Ikan 144 (about 65 Watts) as a fill light. I would strongly recommend that you rent lights from either a local store or online (e.g. from lensrentals.com) before you spend a lot of money on them.
  • Microphones: If you want to capture high quality sound, so will probably quickly decide to use an external microphone rather than the one built into your dSLR. Internal microphones tend to pick up noises from the camera itself (e.g., from focusing motors or from image stabilization) and even under the best of circumstances their sound quality can’t compete with even modestly priced external microphones. I currently use the popular Rode Videomic Pro. Be also aware that manual audio gain control on your camera will give you much better control over audio quality. Not all cameras have this feature, for example amongst Canon dSLRs, the 60D and 5D Mark II have manual audio gain control, but the 7D (which sits in price in between the other two) curiously does not.
  • Computer equipment: One equipment expense you don’t want to overlook is computer equipment. Exactly what you need depends on how you decide to edit your video. In the next installment of this series, I will talk specifically about video editing. In the meantime, if you bought your computer (PC or Mac) in the last year or two, and it has at least 4 GB of RAM, it is probably powerful enough. If it’s older or has less than 4GB of RAM, you might find it to be underpowered, especially for editing full HD video (1920×1080). You will also need lots of hard drive space, since video files are huge. The good news is that external hard drives are cheap, e.g., a 1.5 TB external drive currently costs less than $100 (but buy them in pairs, since you always want a backup of all important files on a second disk). A good external monitor is also vital. I recommend the 23 inch IPS monitor from ViewSonic (model number VP2365WB), which is less than $300 and an excellent choice for color sensitive applications such as photo and video editing.
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