This is a guide for folks looking to start building a videography kit with DSLR or mirrorless cameras. Most modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras are video-capable, but some are better for video production than others.
Today we’ll be talking about some elements you should keep in mind when building a kit like this, as well as putting together some kits for different use-cases and budgets. I’m going to be writing with the photographer in mind, i.e. folks who haven’t engaged in videography before. While certain aspects of the craft of photography (like composition and color) carry over to videography, there are additional concerns you should keep in mind.
If you’re going to be shooting video with dialogue or ambient audio capture of any kind, you will need some kind of microphone. While you can use your camera’s internal microphone, I don’t recommend it. These microphones can pick up all kinds of nasty camera handling noise, focusing engine noise, and wind. They also overload and clip very easily. Audiences are very sensitive to bad sound. It seems paradoxical, if people can’t hear your videos, they won’t watch them.
Luckily, there are some very decent microphone options, and you don’t have to break the bank to afford them. If you’re just getting started, I recommend the Takstar SGC-598 shotgun microphone. It comes in at the absurdly low price of $26, so loss and breakage isn’t a problem for most people. This microphone mounts in your camera’s hotshoe and connects to your camera’s ⅛” microphone input. If you want to step it up a bit, there’s the Rode Video Mic Pro Plus, which adds a bunch of cool features and options, and you can mount it on a boom pole.
Video shooters looking to shoot indoors will want some kind of continuous lighting source. This can be as simple as the lights in your home, the sunlight through a window, a set of clip lights, or a full-blown professional lighting setup. But your strobes, no matter how good they are, will not suffice in this situation. There are a ton of options available and exploring them all is beyond the scope of this article, but keep in mind that you’ll need / want continuous lights at some point.
Videos are actually a series of still images (frames) played back quickly to give the illusion of movement. The number of frames that make up each second of footage will dictate the overall look of your footage. Without getting into the technical nitty gritty, Hollywood movies are shot in 24 frames per second (fps), many sitcoms and television news are shot in 30 fps, and sports are often shot in 60 fps (or higher). Higher frame rates mean smoother-looking motion, while slower frame rates provide more cinematic motion blur.
Some cameras can shoot even higher frame rates, like 120 fps and 180 fps. These frame rates are usually meant to be slowed down in post for buttery smooth slow motion footage. All DSLRs and mirrorless cameras can shoot at least 24 fps and give you that familiar cinematic look.
Fluid Head Tripod
While you can use a photo tripod for shooting video, I don’t recommend it. If you want to get smooth pans and tilts — two of the fundamentals of cinematography — you need a fluid head tripod. When I first started, I went with this Magnus VT-350 tripod. This lasted me several years before the plastic collar around the adjustable center column broke. But in the mean time, I was able to shoot my reel and get started.
Another thing to keep in mind: Tripod makers lie about the weight tolerances of their equipment. Yes, you can mount the maximum load on your tripod head/legs. But the performance will be lousy and your footage will shake. That Magnus VT-350, for example, claims to have a 15 pound. weight limit but when I put five pounds on it, it started to shiver and shake, especially if I was shooting with a long, heavy lens like a 70-200mm. Generally speaking, the cheaper the tripod / fluid head, the bigger the lie about the weight capacity.
If you already have good, sturdy tripod legs with a removable head, you can swap out your photo head for a fluid head. Manfrotto is a good brand, and if you have a ton of money laying around, Sachtler is a terrific upgrade over Manfrotto.
The goal with this kit is to help get you started with vlogging. We kept a few criteria and assumptions in mind as we created this package.
- We picked stuff that’s easy to use.
- Autofocus was a high priority.
- We assume that you’ll be shooting yourself by yourself, and won’t have any help with audio, focus pulling, etc.
- An external audio jack was a requirement.
- We assume that you’re not necessarily focusing on making a return on your investment on this gear. Rather, you just want to get started creating content quickly. So we kept it cheap.
And the winner is… your cell phone! If you have an iPhone, Pixel, or similarly high end phone, you can get surprisingly good video performance with them, and you can even hook up an external microphone or lavalier mic through the headphone jack. And chances are, this camera is always with you, so you’ll never miss a moment.
One of the benefits of starting off shooting with your cell phone is that you will quickly learn what features you need. Do you need your camera to work better in low light? Do you want your handheld shots to look more stable? Do you wish the color was better? Are you looking for a blurry background and an in-focus subject? It’s always better to answer these questions with what you have, rather than buying an expensive interchangeable lens camera just to find out that it doesn’t suit your needs.
However, if you want to step things up a notch, and you have some money to spend, check out the packages below:
The Sony A6300 crams an APS-C sensor into a tiny body, provides gorgeous 4K video (downsampled from 6K!), decent low-light capability, and has a solid autofocus system (outpacing even the cinematically-inclined A7S2). If you need 4K but can live without the front-facing flip out screen, this is the way to go. Keep in mind that this lens is designed for crop sensors and will not work with full-frame Sony cameras like the a7 mark III or a7S mark II. Purchasing the lens and camera together as a package will save you a few bucks. Keep in mind, however, that the a6300 has some known overheating issues when shooting in 4K. Do not select this package if you are planning on doing very long takes. For a significant upgrade price, the a6500 resolves the overheating issue when filming 4K.
I only recommend the Canon 80D if you already own many Canon lenses and highly prioritize autofocus and a flip out screen over other features. While the 80D has Canon’s terrific dual pixel autofocus, you lose out on 4K and focus peaking.
Canon has left videographers and video shooters behind over the last few years, refusing to add key video features to their DSLR line, thus making me hesitant to recommend their cameras and lens system. That being said, the 80D has been very popular with vloggers. If you want to cut the budget even more but still want dual pixel auto focus, you can opt for a used Canon 70D.
If you really want to go this route, and need lenses, you’ll get the best, quietest autofocus results with a stepping motor lens (abbreviated STM) like the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6. If you need a faster lens that’s better in low light, consider the Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM or the 24mm f/2.8 pancake lens. Keep in mind that both the 70D and 80D use Canon’s APS-C sensor, which has a 1.6x crop factor. This means that a 50mm lens gives you an 80mm field of view and a 24mm lens gives you a 38.4mm field of view.
If you want 4K and a flip out screen, don’t mind poorer autofocus, and have the budget, consider the Panasonic GH4 with the Olympus kit lens. The GH4 uses a micro four thirds sensor, which has a 2x crop factor, which means that you’ll get a 28-84mm field of view out of that lens. Note: Olympus and Panasonic cameras both use the micro four thirds mount, allowing you to use either brand’s lenses on their bodies.
Indie Cinematographer’s Kit
The goal of this kit is to get you started shooting your own films. Here’s the criteria we used for this package:
- Depth of field. That lovely “sharp subject, blurry background” look is more than a nice aesthetic – it tells your audience where they should focus their attention. Selective focus is a key part of cinematography, and we wanted to recommend lenses / cameras that can help you achieve that look. Cameras with larger sensors and lenses with larger apertures provide more attactive looking bokeh.
- LOG color availability. LOG is short for “logarithmic color” and without drowning you in science, LOG color provides you with a larger dynamic range, which means more details in your shadows and highlights and more latitude when you’re color grading in post. While shooting in LOG is an advanced skill, and you probably won’t want to do so right away, you’ll want to have the chance to grow into this. Many compact hybrid camera companies offer this feature, including Sony, Canon, and Panasonic.
- 4K capability. While most projects are still delivered in 1080p (FHD), once you go 4K (UHD), you’ll never want to go back. Also, even if you’re delivering finished video in 1080p, you can downsample for greater detail in FHD.
The King of Low Light
Camera Body: Sony a7S II – $2,400
Lens: Rokinon Cine DS E-mount Lens kit (24, 35, 50, and 85mm) – $1,900
The Sony a7S II has unsurpassed low light functionality, but suffers from some rolling shutter issues. Folks who are taking extremely long exposures (20+ minutes) should also beware: The a7S II can suffer from overheating and shutdown issues, especially when used in hot environments. This is common when you’re shooting for coverage at live events, but much more rare when shooting cinema. Another caveat: Given that Sony has upgraded its a7 and a7R lines very recently, the a7S III might be coming soon.
These Rokinon cinema primes are an amazing bargain for what you get. While the housing is plastic, they still feel very sturdy, and are geared for follow focus use. Manually focusing with them feels great, and the manual aperture lets you move seamlessly from bright shots to dark ones. They’re also full-frame E-mount lenses, which means that they’ll work with any full frame E-mount camera, or Super 35 E-mount cameras like the Sony FS7, if you choose to step up to that model in the future.
You save a few bucks buying the kit, but you can also buy each lens separately. If you want to cut down on your cost, I recommend the 50mm and the 85mm.
Small But Mighty
The GH5 costs less than the a7S II, but don’t let that fool you — the GH5 is an amazing video and stills hybrid camera. It provides in-body stabilization, 10-bit color, a wide range of 4K video options up to 60 fps, cinematic 4K, ALL-I codecs, and a ton of other features for professional video shooters. If you don’t know what all of that means, go ahead and Google the terms. You’ll be grateful to have these features if and when you end up needing them.
Many of its autofocus issues have been fixed in the latest firmware update, and while it’ll never be phase-detection dual pixel autofocus, it gets the job done, especially in well-lit settings. You need to activate V-LOG, which costs $100, but it’s absolutely worth it for the expanded latitude in color grading. (But if you’re not grading your footage, you don’t necessarily need to worry about this.)
You should note that the GH5 uses a smaller micro four thirds sensor, which is not nearly as good in low light as the a7S II or even the crop sensora6300. Also, the GH5’s sensor effectively doubles the focal length of any lens mounted to it. So the recommended 25mm lens will provide the same field of view that a 50mm would on a full frame camera.
We recommended the 25mm f/1.7 as an extremely low-priced alternative to larger, heavier cinema lenses. It also allows you to take advantage of the GH5’s autofocus for run and gun shooting situations, as well as stills. However, keep in mind that this lens is focus-by-wire, which can make manual focus pulling a bit difficult.
Rokinon also makes Cine DS lenses for the micro four thirds mount as well. If you want a solid manual focus lens, grab the Rokinon Cine DS 16mm for the micro four thirds mount. This will give you a 32mm field of view, which is pretty flexible.
Also, if you’d like, you can mount Canon EF or Nikon lenses to the GH5 with a Metabones speedbooster adapter. This will provide you with an extra stop of light or so, a wider field of view, and more bokeh. Folks are absolutely loving the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 for the GH5 if you choose to go this route.
This combination offers you a ton of bang for the buck. This combines the older, but still excellent, Panasonic GH4 with a Rokinon Cine DS 16mm lens, allowing you to shoot in 4K with decent bokeh and acceptable low light performance. Like with the GH5, activating V-LOG costs an additional $100, but it’s worth it if you’re planning on grading your footage.
Keep in mind that the Rokinon has manual focus and aperture, but this is really what you want for cinematography. It’ll help you practice pulling focus, which is a skill you really want to develop.
Did we miss anything? Did you have any questions? Let us know in the comments!