Student Filmmaker Series: Part 3 – One Piece At A Time: What Gear Do You Need To Make Great Film?

Student Filmmaker Series: Part 3 - One Piece At A TimeTo make a technically gorgeous film you need gear. This is a crash course on film gear. (And an homage to my former University of Missouri professor, David Rees, who hoped that one day I’d pay attention to technique. David, you were right.)

When I started Journalism school, I thought I could get by with my Pentax K1000 film-camera. A few weeks in, I realized I would need a DSLR, so I got a Nikon D70.

Every couple of months I’d see something and ask how did they do that? I would burrough my head down and research the heck out of technical stuff I didn’t understand.

I would understand 10 percent of what I read. It took me years to figure out all the things I needed to make technically sound documentary film. I know you are just starting out and you are on a crazy tight budget, so I’m giving you lots of options. This is by no means a conclusive list, and I look forward to hearing recommendations and suggestions from other industry professionals.

DSLR CameraDSLR camera: You need a DSLR camera. DSLR simply means the camera utilizes digital single-lens reflex technology. DSLR’s offer a shallow depth of field, larger ISO range, usable manual options, intuitive functions, and lens flexibility. When you look for undergraduate or graduate schools, ask if their students have access to DSLR cameras. How long will you get to use them? Will you have access to lenses? Many schools work with Nikon to offer the University locker program so that you can use professional gear while enrolled in classes.

I’ve had talented students in past years who didn’t have access to DSLR cameras that used point and shoots for their final projects. They did the best with what they could, and I saw their potential. On their 30th anniversary, Apple released a commercial that was shot entirely on an iPhone. It’s a beautiful commercial, but the headlines are misleading because, while the commercial was shot with an iPhone, they equipped 15 camera crews across the world with 100 iPhones to collect 70 hours of footage. 21 editors worked to produce the commercial with an original score and a room full of Apple technology and brilliant artists. You can use your iPhone or a point and shoot camera in a pinch for some of your footage but you need a DSLR camera. Period.

You will find lots of information about the Canon – Nikon debate. I’m a Canon shooter. If you’re working on a student budget, I recommend the Canon 60D (body only) for $700. If you have more to spend, I suggest you invest in the Canon 5D Mark III. When you look for a DSLR, consider the following factors: How long can it record video? (The 60D only records 12 minutes of video.) Does it have an XLR adaptor for external mics? What is the image resolution?


DSLR rig: You need a DSLR rig to prevent shaky shots and to achieve razor sharp focus with a shallow depth of field. Don’t hand hold your shots. This one is non-negotiable. Zacuto is the industry leader in DSLR rigs, so head over to this page to learn more about your options. I prefer the Zacuto Z-finder Pro over a monitor for focusing on my subjects because it’s more important to me that I hold the camera close to my body to keep my shots fluid and to maintain an unobtrusive rig. I like shooting mardi gras, river parties, conflict, parades, action (always action) and anything that involves lively people.

I like to run and gun and I’m often alone since I like stories in intimate places. I choose DSLR rigs over steadicams because I want my subjects to forget that I have a camera. If I want a gorgeous aerial shot, I’ll use a drone (a girl can dream) or I’ll rent a glidecam.

Audio gear: You have to collect perfect audio. You need to eliminate noise, record crisp interviews and gather rich ambient sound. Your in-camera audio recorder is not adequate. You will need sound gathering devices for ambient sound and for interviews.

Ambient: If you’re working alone, and you must use your DSLR camera to collect ambient audio, use a condenser microphone (for example, the Rode VideoMic Pro for about $230) on your camera so that you get decent sound and minimize noise.

Interviews: For your interviews you have to use a lavalier (microphone that your subject wears on their collar). If you can’t afford a professional Sennheiser lavalier you can get by with a Rode SmartLav lavalier for $60 that plugs into your iPhone. You can purchase the Rode app for $4.99.

SD cards: You will need at least three 32 GB SD flash cards for making a film. Get the fastest cards possible so you’re not in the field waiting to record data.

Camera bag: Before I bought a camera bag I lost EVERYTHING. It was just plain stupid. I have the LowePro Passport Sling and I’m obsessed. I can fit a small rig, my audio gear, an extra lens, my cards, and my DSLR in this discreet and super convenient shoulder bag. It’s way smaller than my yoga bag and a tenth of the size of most purses.

Neutral density filters: Neutral density filters give you more control over your aperture options. You have to get neutral density filters to match your lenses. You could read about neutral density filters from now until the end of time. I love Peter Hill’s resource for learning about your options and why neutral density filters are essential.

Fixed, shallow depth of field lens: You want to use a shallow depth of field (F 1.4 or 1.8) that allows your viewer to focus on the topic. You can get a 50mm 1.8 lens for under $100.

Wide angle to zoom lens: You need a wide angle lens for visual variety. I like the 24-70 F 2.8 for $2,200. I know! I promised you affordable. I also like the 24-105 F 4 for under $800.

Monopod: Stabilizers are essential for shooting action, people, parties, parades and movement. I love monopods for sense of place shots that don’t chase the action. I like to wander around town and chill out to film the colors and mood of that place. For this meditative part of shooting I prefer the Manfrotto 561B for $300. It’s intuitive, quick and super sturdy. I can get out of the middle of the road stat when a semi comes barrelling down the road or I can fluidly pan up an open corn field across a Missouri sunset.


Hosting: Hosting is where you will keep your website to organize, describe and publish your film. My favorite company is Laughing Squid because I can call them on the phone, send them an email, or Tweet at them when I have technical issues. When they write me back, it’s usually some nice guy named Matt. Maybe it’s not really Matt, but I believe him and I love it.I use Vimeo for publishing my videos, but I use my website to embed and publicize them. Sending people to your Vimeo page without a personal website is straight janky.

Domain: Your domain name is your website’s address. Mine is  I suggest you buy your right now. I like Hover because they’re used to working with Laughing Squid hosting, are semi-tiny and always respond to my needs.

Here is your final wish list:

  • DSLR camera: $700
  • DSLR rig: $700 – $2300
  • Audio: (starter) ambient sound ($230) and lavalier ($80) = $310
  • SD cards: $60
  • Camera bag: $80
  • ND filters: $200
  • Lenses: $900
  • Monopd: $300
  • Hosting: $72/year
  • Domain: $15/year

Total: $3,337 – $4,937

And that’s why filmmakers drive ‘95 Subaru statwags. Keep your eye on the prize, fellow filmmaker. You got this.


Student Filmmaker Series

Read Part 1: Five Young Storytellers You Have to Know

Read Part 2: So, You Majored in Media. Now What?

Stay tuned for Part 4 of our Student Filmmaker Series: Five Ways to Master The Post-Production Process coming soon…

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About the Author

Beatriz Wallace is currently a Visiting Professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her friends do cool stuff like take pictures of pets that need adopting at animal shelters, make movies with famous people and tell stories that matter. She worked at Cellar Stories Bookstore and Time Magazine after she graduated from Amherst College with a degree in writing and photography. She has a Master’s Degree in Photojournalism from the University of Missouri. She’s from New Orleans and she’s kind of scrappy. She might be a juicer, a yoga teacher or a software developer next. And she’s okay with that. To see her work, visit, follow her on Twitter @bigmuddyheart or friend her on Facebook (Beatriz Wallace).


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