How To Get Organized: DSLR Video Production Kit

As I noted in my first post on getting organized, there are tons of crucial benefits to being well-organized when it comes to producing any kind of media. But strangely, that's one skill typically left out of everyone's formal training on how to get good at film-making and media creation.

There are plenty of areas where people need to get better organized, and I'll cover as many of them as I can in subsequent posts, but it makes the most sense to me to start with the most hands-on part of the process:

Your gear. 

Digital Single-Lens Reflex - or DSLR - film-making has exploded in the last few years, and it has some amazing benefits. Apart from producing high quality, high-resolution images at a fraction of the cost of other professional video recording devices, they're also exceptionally portable. That's why it's become such a popular option for film-makers around the world, and especially for those of us working on a budget.

However, to get the best out of your DSLR videography, the camera itself just isn't enough. You'll need audio recording hardware, cables, lights, memory cards, spare batteries and a means to stabilize the camera itself. And as anyone who's been filming on sets or on location knows, you're also going to need a bunch of adapters and other gear just to be prepared for all the unexpected things that can - and always do - happen when you're out on a gig.

I've been there, and done that... And over time - and many mistakes - I've put together a portable, effective kit filled with most of the gear I need to get almost any job done. 

Check it out: 

CitizenA-production-gear-list.jpg

Although that looks like - and is - a ton  of stuff, it all fits nicely into a single bag... At least, all of it except the actual shoulder-rig, which can actually be easily broken down and stored in a back-pack if you're traveling through an airport or going on a longer trek to your location.

See below:

gear-in-bag.jpg

What's the point of all this?

The point is to make sure that you are prepared  for any eventuality that might arise while you're out capturing the footage you need, while systemizing your gear so that everything has a place that's easily accessible when you need it.. Having your kit organized simplifies your life, and makes it so that you can grab the bag and run out the door at a moment's notice when you need to.

Plus, when you're not using it, all of your stuff is stored neatly and cleanly away right where you left it.

Now... I know I'm going to get some questions about why I included what I included here, so I want to walk through some of the reasons I've chosen certain things to put in this case over others.

First, let's talk cameras. 

Cameras: 

We'll be talking about other camera options in the future, but as I said above, DSLR's are affordable and they're really great for a ton of environments. They're light, they're small, they accept all shapes and sizes of high quality lenses, and their imaging sensors are unbeatable for the price... which is typically very inexpensive compared to other professional gear.

Problem is... Their audio capabilities are usually horrible, they suffer from severe rolling-shutter problems (which means they usually will need to be externally stabilized), their record-time is highly limited (which is a serious problem for many video production requirements), and in nearly all cases they just can't compete with more professional options in extreme low or high light situations.

Fortunately, there are solutions to (most of) these problems!

Audio Recorders: 

The biggest problem with DSLR cameras is that their built-in microphones are just about useless, and the features they offer for connecting external microphones are minimal at best - typically only a 1/8" stereo input, like the kind of connection you see on a pair of headphones.

We can correct for this problem by purchasing a separate sound recording device that either has higher-quality built-in microphones, or which accept XLR microphone and line inputs. I prefer the TASCAM DR-100 (approx. $330), but many of my colleagues like the H4N Zoom, and some people I know use a JuicedLink box, connected below their cameras.

I prefer the TASCAM because it produces a generally superior quality recording, it has a lot more features, it has better built-in microphones, and it can be more easily converted for use as a small 2-channel field mixer if you have the luxury of a separate production sound mixer/boom operator.

But all are decent options. 

As you can see in the image above, I keep two  DR-100 field recorders on hand, because good audio is a must and having a back-up (that can also be used as a battery charger) is smart - I've learned from painful experience on that one.

Of course... Along with a separate sound reording device, you'll need microphones, cables and other hardware to attach the recorder to your rig.

Microphones: 

Typically, video production sound is captured one of two ways - either with a condenser "shotgun" microphone held on a boom pole, or with lavalier microphones clipped to the subject's clothing.

Sidenote: In Electronic News Gathering (ENG) videography, sometimes reporters will hold a super-cardiod microphone while getting interviews from people on the street - but I will cover that in later posts on understanding differences in microphones.

In my kit, I usually keep a single shotgun microphone (I travel most with a fairly inexpensive one from Audio Technica), and a pair of wired lavalier mics.

I also travel with a wireless XLR transmitter and receiver, in case I need to leave a microphone on or near a subject and still be mobile with the camera. The drawback here is that you're relying on a radio signal to get you the audio you need, and the battery life on wireless gear is notoriously limited.

audio-kit.jpg

I also never leave home without an assortment of audio adapters and several XLR cables. Since I spent most of my earlier career working in the music industry and performing live myself as a drummer and vibraphonist (and classical percussionist), I've built up a great little kit (on right)

It includes different adapters for XLR, RCA, 1/4" mono/stereo, 1/8" stereo mini-plug, and other types of connections. I also keep a spare size "N" battery or two in the kit, for when I need to swap out batteries in my powered shotgun microphones.

Turns out, you can also buy a pre-made audio survival kit from Film Tools for under $100, and I would definitely recommend it.

Especially if you find that you're trying to film different events and get audio from different sources, these adapters can be a life-saver.

...and don't forget the headphones! 

Lenses:

I usually carry two lenses with me at minimum - both zoom lenses, for maximum versatility. One is typically a wider lens that doesn't have a huge magnification range. For this, I find Canon's 17-55mm f/2.8 IS lens is a great choice for DSLR film-making.

My other lens is typically a much longer option, for those moments when you need to grab a close-up or capture footage from greater distances. For instance, I also have a less expensive, but still good, Tamron 18-270mm f/3.5-6.5 VC zoom lens, and carry that almost all the time.

Between these two lenses, I can capture a pretty wide range of photography & videography environments.

Again... This is designed for versatility and to be prepared for unknown situations, not for any specific creative shot choices - nor am I suggesting that the lenses I carry are always "the best" possible. If you know the shots you're going to need to get, other lenses may be far more appropriate.

We'll talk more about lenses later on.

Lights: 

This one is a bit trickier, because a professional lighting set-up - which I will definitely  cover in future posts - is one of those things that simply takes up a ton of space and will never be able to fit in this little kit bag. Fortunately, in most amateur and on-the-fly settings, a simple LED video light attached to your camera or held by an assistant works just fine.

Plus they're really inexpensive (less than $50 in some cases!) and easy to find on eBay by searching for "LED video light"

Check out this video I produced for the General Electric corporation lit only with an on-camera LED light:

Apart from the basics (including all necessary chargers, adapters and batteries, etc.), I strongly encourage everyone to carry a few other absolutely essential items if you want to be prepared. 

  • Pens/pencils
  • Small notebook
  • Tape (Duct/Grip/Electrical)
  • A multi-tool with at least pliers, knife/scissors, can-opener & phillips/flat-head screwdriver attachments. 
  • Mini-flashlight (because it's just too easy to lose pieces

But don't forget that the TSA bans knives and other exceptionally useful multi-tools, so be sure to move that into your checked luggage if you're traveling long-distances.

Believe me, they've got no problems confiscating $50+ Leatherman tools. 

Apart from the kit itself, unless you're a professional, you absolutely do not  need a shoulder rig or stabilization system as fancy as mine. When I started with DSLRs, I frequently just used a simple monopod, and connected my audio recorder to the camera's hot-shoe with an adapter. I did this even while working for a news website getting interviews in front of the White House, and most people would never know the difference. 

Eventually, I'll do another post about stabilization, about my rig, and what your other options might be - but right now, I just wanted to show you all the basic organizational system, packing & set-up I use on a day-to-day basis. 


Lastly, you might be wondering: 

Why a tool-bag instead of a camera bag?

My answer is two-fold.

First, tool-bags like the one you see above (made by Husky) are incredibly rugged, well-made and are designed  to carry heavy loads. In addition, the good ones store lots of stuff and they have a ton of pockets, dividers, and work exceptionally well for this kind of all-encompassing video-production kit. 

Second, camera bags tend to be ridiculously - and unreasonably, in my opinion - expensive. For example, Portabrace (one of the leading manufacturers of professional cases for the film industry) makes an 18.5"x12"x9" camera case which is comparable in size to my Husky tool bag. It is softer, has a fraction of the internal pockets, no dividers, and isn't as rigid.

It costs $419.00 - $469.00. 

My bag: $40. I'll leave you to do the math for yourself.


I hope this post helps you get a better sense of the gear you'll need to go out with your DSLR and shoot your own videos.

Just remember: Organization really will set you free.

The better you are at keeping track of everything and being prepared for all kinds of recording environments, the more you can just concentrate on the business of actually creating your videos... And that's what it's all about!

As always with this blog, e-mail me at citizena.media@gmail.com with any and all media production questions, and I'll try to get back to you with an answer!

Sean Malone

Washington, DC