dslr docu-rig from scratch

Recently I put together a list of all the gear I would recommend to use if building out a DSLR for documentary filmmaking from scratch.  I bothered to find pics and links with short explanations of the what and why behind each item, hope you dig it.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II Digital Camera Kit with Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS USM AF Lens

You could go with a Canon 7D and save some money.  I’ve chosen to go with the larger sensor and better low light performance.  If you absolutely HAVE-to-HAVE over cranking @ 720p60 and full time HD previewing then go with the 7D, but I will laugh at you when we compare how much better my footage looks than yours.  I’ve been pulling focus just fine with the 5D’s LCD and love the image quality I’m getting.  The shadow detail is AMAZING and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.  The above pic links to the body with kit lens which is ok.  Get the body only and save some loot to put towards the Canon 24-70 2.8 or the 70-200 2.8; your call.

SanDisk 32GB Extreme CompactFlash Memory Card

Canon LP-E6 Rechargeable Lithium-Ion Battery Pack (7.2V, 1800mAh)

You can record approximately 84 minutes of 1080p24 footage on a 32GB card.  This matches up with the approximate life of one fully  charged battery powering a 5D while recording with video preview on. So I recommend getting two 32GB cards and two batteries (camera comes with 1) for starters, giving you around 3 hours of recording time.

Joby Gorillapod Focus/Ballhead X Bundle (Black/Gray)

If you want a traditional tripod, just call up B&H and they’ll match you up with a great one for your needs (tell them I sent you).  Otherwise, the Gorillapod Focus with the Ballhead X is a wonderful, low visibility tripod that you can place on park benches, office tables, wrap around sailboat masts, bike racks, etc.  Since I’ve abandoned a regular tripod and gone totally run and gun (everything fits on my back), I’ve been amazed at how easily I can integrate the Gorillapod with a surface in the field  and have just as good if not better stability than with a regular tripod.  And typically it’s in a tighter, more natural space than I would be able to place big and bulky sticks in.  The Ballhead X is very smooth and adjustable.  By loosening the bearing a bit I get a very smooth follow both side to side and up and down.  Love it.

Mighty-Wondercam (Videosmith) Classic Shoulder Pod

No, it’s not a Zacuto or a Redrock Micro shoulder mount.  And it doesn’t cost as much either.  The Mightywondercam has been exactly what I need to support the bare minimum of my camera with a lens and a boom mic.  Bonusly, it folds up nicely and I’m able to slide it into my current backpack no problem.  Yes, it gets heavy with the Canon 24-70 2.8 on the front, but that’s why I’ve been working out with dumbbells and drinking muscle milk.  As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, it would be nice to have a counter balance of some sort but in the meantime I’m manning up and getting in better, stronger shape.

Tamrac 5550 Adventure 10 Backpack (Gray/Black)

This backpack was recommended to me by a salesman at B&H.  I haven’t used it but it’s top of my list for bags that can carry camera, lenses, laptop and gorillapod while still fitting into overhead on a plane.  I can be seperated from my clothes, I CANNOT be separated from my gear.  If that’s your criteria too, then this bag may be a good place to start.

Sennheiser MKE 400 Compact Video Camera Shotgun Microphone

Sennheiser MZW400 Wind-muff and XLR Adapter Kit for the MKE400

I first purchased this combo for using with my Canon HV30 and trusted it ever since.  Not exceptional sound, good sound.  The wind muff is a must have, especially if you’re running and gunning and this is all the sound you’ve got.  So don’t skimp on the small stuff.

Zoom H4n Handy Mobile 4-Track Recorder

SanDisk 16GB Ultra SDHC Memory Card

The Zoom H4n, on the other hand, records EXCEPTIONAL sound IMHO.  I’ve been blown away by the quality of the boom mic.  And it has two XLR inputs for recording two lavalier microphones (or whatever you want).  I’ve used this in picnic table interview settings, hallway settings, and office settings; it sounds fantastic.  Recording 4 channels of 48kHz audio eats up the 2GB card that comes with standard (in about 25min or so) so it’s worth it to upgrade to the 16GB card for recording all day (or a 4 hour event).

Sennheiser EW112-p G3 Camera Mount Wireless Microphone System with ME2 Lavalier Mic (B / 626 - 668 MHz)

You want to make a documentary?  You got to have a lavalier microphone.  It is imperative that you have isolated and good sound of your subject’s voice and a lavalier mic is the best way to get it.  The boom on your camera and the boom on the Zoom (say that one 5 times fast) are essentially complimentary and backups to the sound recorded on the lav.  Yes, they cost considerable money.  Yes, your doc will have crap sound if all you record is audio of your subject 10 feet away in a crowded room with distractive, ambient noise.  I wear cargo shorts and put the Zoom and receiver in my pocket when I need to run and gun, otherwise this stuff lays on the picnic or boardroom table.  Combining the Zoom boom audio with the lav audio makes really, really nice full sound.

Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM Lens

Hoya 58mm Ultraviolet UV(0) Haze Multicoated Filter

Pearstone LHC-ET65B Dedicated Lens Hood (ET-65B)

This is my ultimate run and gun in the great outdoors lens.  Stand a minimum of 4 and a half feet from your subject and you’re good to go.  It’s light, reasonably priced, and consistently gives me the photogenic bokeh I’ve been longing for.  I’ve bothered to include links to a haze protection filter and a lens hood.  The haze filter is mainly on to protect your lens, some are more expensive and some are less.  The lens hood will help prevent unwanted stray light from entering the lens plus they look cool.  With this baby clicked onto your 5D, your camera is truly your gun.

Canon Zoom Telephoto EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM Autofocus Lens

I recommend this lens for interviews on sticks and limited hand held work.  You can film 10 feet from your subject and still have multiple focal lengths available for reframing.  It’s 2.8 all the way through so you can zoom while filming without forced exposure ramping.  And it’s great in low light.  It’s HEAVY so know what you’re getting yourself into.  For interviews I wouldn’t go with another lens unless it’s the…

Canon Zoom Wide Angle-Telephoto EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM Autofocus Lens

This is the other lens I’ve done extensive interviewing with, picnic table style and hand held.  Essentially, you want to be 6 feet or closer to get multiple focal length options.  Incredible in low light, good bokeh and works well wide open.  Flesh tones look amazing.  A superior alternative to the kit lens; you get what you pay for.  And just because I didn’t list it here don’t forget your protection filter.

Canon Normal EF 50mm f/1.4 USM Autofocus Lens

Pearstone LHC-ES71II Dedicated Lens Hood (ES-71II)

The nifty fifty is extremely fast, very light, and the first prime lens I would recommend to a dslr documentarian.  Shoot in extreme low light, shoot solid landscapes, even run and gun with it when you don’t need to zoom.  Again, don’t forget the protection filter.

Canon Zoom Super Wide Angle EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM Autofocus Lens

Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention this wide zoom.  I purchased this for my initial rig.  In retrospect, I may have been better off ordering the 24-70 but work already owned it.  This is an amazing lens for doing time lapse and landscape work.  I’m still learning to wrap my head around the wide angle perspective it offers; this lens will make it into my oft-mentioned but yet to be executed indie film work.

I know this has been a long list.  I really appreciate all of you that stop by to read what I write up so I want to make sure you get your money’s worth.  Hopefully this post gives you a good list to start with and customize to your own documentary needs.  Happy DSLR-ing!

proactively • the best things in life are free • peter

Disclosure, to comply with the FTC’s new rules

None of the manufacturers listed above are paying Peter Salvia to write this article and, so far, none have sent him any samples or demonstration items.  Peter is a B&H Sales Affiliate and receives a commission from items linked to B&H and purchased through this site.  Oh yeah, and he’s an Apple Certified Trainer so you can derive his bias for yourself.


2 Responses to “dslr docu-rig from scratch”

  1. October 11, 2010 at 7:51 pm

    Kind of a nitpick, but there are a couple references in this post to the Zoom’s “boom mics.” A boom microphone is a mic on a long pole (not to be confused with a shotgun mic). (http://www.mediacollege.com/audio/microphones/boom.html) The Zoom’s built-in mics are stereo condensers.

    “The Zoom H4n, on the other hand, records EXCEPTIONAL sound IMHO. I’ve been blown away by the quality of the boom mic.”

    “The boom on your camera and the boom on the Zoom (say that one 5 times fast) are essentially complimentary and backups to the sound recorded on the lav.”

    • 2 psalvia
      October 11, 2010 at 8:15 pm

      Right on Jim. I’m using the Zoom’s stereo condensers the same way I would a boom mic, at least in a picnic table interview setup.

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