Three essential tools for shooting films with your DSLR

Three essential tools for shooting films with your DSLR 


Whether you're shooting with one of the original HD video DSLRs like the Nikon D90 or if you just picked up the new Canon 5D Mark iii, here are three major tools you should have to shoot the best possible looking video. With these tools and a good eye, a skilled videographer can shoot better looking video with the oldest camera than a doofus can with the latest camera. Like in photography, in video it's seldom the latest hyped-up camera that makes the difference.


1. A decent lens. Having fast, sharp glass means a lot to some and little to others, but for me it's important and doesn't have to be expensive. If you're shooting Canon full frame (5D Mark ii and iii) get the EF 50mm f1.8 ii or the EF 28mm f2.8 for crop sensor (7D). 

If you're shooting Nikon get the Nikkor AF 50mm f1.8 for full frame (D800) or the Nikkor 35mm f1.8G for crop sensor (D5100 and D90). 

A standard prime lens like any of these is the best and more affordable choice you can make. Zooms aren't fast (bright) enough for shooting in darker situations. Even with a decent lighting setup a slow zoom like the EF 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 or 24-105mm f4L will be too slow. 

To me a nice prime just looks good, and around the 50mm length is a very normal, shallow look, very film-like. It's just telephoto enough that it looks good and shallow and you can isolate subjects easily. Focus will be tricky, so just make sure to contantly check focus and adjust accordingly. 

Hell, I'd rather shoot my whole movie with a sharp 85mm or 100mm prime than with a cheap, slow zoom lens. That'd be a fun experiment.


2. Light. Fortunately light is something you can now fit into your run-and-gun guerrilla filmmaking kit. If you want portable and pro-quality, go with an Arri LED kit. If you want portable and affordable go with the fancierstudio 312 LED light. Get a kit of three and be ready for most situations. I wrote a review for the fancierstudio 312 here. LED lighting is a smart option, as most of them run on batteries, are light weight, bright, dimmable, have adjustable color temperature, and decently affordable. 

Fluorescent lighting is also affordable and you can make your own lights for the cost of the materials. Makers like CowboyStudio offer affordable light panels like the CowboyStudio 1650 watt 6-bank light. There are smaller kits available as well, like the ephoto 1000w light. If you want something affordable you can build a panel with fluorescent bulb fixtures as small or big as you like. I'll be sure to post a how-to article on building your own fluorescent panel soon here on MAF.   

I prefer LED lights because of their numerous advantages, but fluorescent is generally the most affordable lighting resource. 

Traditional Halogen lighting is still available, like this Lowel Pro light. These little lights are powerful and great for interviews and general filmmaking, but they don't have huge output, they run super hot, don't offer adjustable color temperature so you must use gels, and are not dimmable. Well, you can buy a dimmer that can handle the wattage rating of your light, or get a version of the Lowel Pro with a dimmer

Harnessing the sun is smart, and there are some tools that make it easier. A diffusion panel or disc is a standard tool and turns harsh direct sunlight and its shadows into diffused beautifulness. There are different strengths of diffusion and each has its use. Stronger diffusion works good in strong direct sunlight, while weak diffusion would be great for a hazy day or to diffuse a movie light in the way an umbrella diffuses camera flash light. The 5 in 1 discs and panels are really versatile and affordable. 


3. The third tool was diffifult to decide on but it came down to an essential tool that most filmmakers may take for granted: A good tripod. It may sound stupid to think that having a good tripod is third after the other two essentials, but it's true. If you watch any decent film and think about how the filmmakers achieved their shots, most of the time you'll realize it was with a tripod. And full time flimmakers use tripod systems that cost more than a new car. One of the best tripod makers is Sachtler.

Fortunately Sachtler makes lower-cost but still amazing tripod systems. The Sachtler Ace tripod system is their most affordable and for a bare video DSLR it would be perfect. If you're planning on using a full RedRock Micro mattebox and follow focus system at any point, consider a heavier duty sytem like the 0775 FSB-8 that holds up to 20 pounds. You'd be surprised but even heavier duty fluid heads can stuggle under the weight of a full follow focus system. 

You need stability so don't compromise with a light weight tripod, and never try to get away with using a cheap photography tripod to shoot video. Sure you can shoot still shots but as soon as it comes to panning, tilting, following focus at the same time, etc., a cheap tripod will let you know why it's so cheap. Even for still shots a cheap tripod may show vibrations in the shot, and forget about using it if there's a slight wind.

A good stable tripod system can come in handy for tricky shots, like a shot from a high angle or from the back of a truck bed (disclaimer inserted here).Manfrotto makes decent tripods too but Sachtler is generally better for not much more money. 


I chose tripod over other tools because it's a traditional filmmaking tool that is overlooked lots of times by amateur filmmakers. They don't realize that the still image is a big part of film. It's its ancestor in a way. You can shoot a whole film from "sticks," and let the actors act. That's what many directors do.

-Articles on MAF are based on the opinion of the individual reviewers and don't reflect the opinion of all MAF contributors. If you have an opinion of your own feel free to leave comments and write your own reviews for the site! 


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