DSLR Documentary Film-making on a Budget

Making low-budget documentaries has been one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had. The frustration of dealing with cut-price equipment can be a nightmare, but there’s a certain satisfaction to be gleaned from getting quality content from cheap equipment you’ve cobbled together personally.

If you’re thinking of getting into documentaries, or even short film, this is a quick guide to the gear I used to make my short, Right of Way, and my upcoming doc about mental health. Still untitled.

Much of what I used is technically unsuitable for what I was doing, but with some effort and skill, and the help of some excellent online tutorials, you can make good content with cheap gear. It just takes a little ingenuity.

First off, the camera. You’ll want a 1080p capable camera. You’ll also want full manual control over exposure, focus and everything else. You won’t get the quality you need, nor the control, from a camcorder costing less than around €1,500. Even at that, the ideal is something along the lines of the Sony EX-1, 4 times more expensive.

The alternative, and there are compromises to it, is a DSLR. The cheapest model that gives you fully manual control is the Canon 550D. For a little more you can pick up the almost identical 600D, it has a flip out screen and manual gain control, which are worth every extra cent.

The 600D is not without its problems. The lens that comes with it isn’t amazing. It’s not too bad, but lacks the sharpness of a better lens. The main problem, however, is focus. You have to focus manually, there’s no continuous autofocus.

A DSLR also offers very shallow depth of field, so with a small area in focus, moving subjects require you to use a fairly cheap focus ring to try to retain focus. The upside is that shallow depth of field is easy to achieve and you can create some really gorgeous shots.

The video quality is incredible, and far better than any camcorder in this price range. It’s close to broadcast quality, with DSLR cameras becoming commonplace on sets. House, the TV series, used a 5D Mark II for an episode, for example, and recent movie release Red Tails used a DSLR for action sequences.

The Mk II is a better camera, but the 600D isn’t far off. Comparing footage, it would only be on a large screen that you might notice the difference. For web video (I use vimeo) you won’t see the difference, you might not even notice much difference between the EX-1 and the 600D, though there is a leap in quality.

The real quality image wise, comes from the lenses. Now since you’re on a tight budget, and you just ploughed most of it into a camera, you won’t be likely to look at the likes of Canon’s ‘L’ series. This is a problem, because there are advantages. A lens with a constant aperture, for example, allows zooming without the f-stop changing, which is great in low light.

The best option for budget filmmakers is the 50mm f1.8, Canon’s budget prime. It’s around €120 and is a wonderful, wonderful lens for the price. It gives you more light to play with, sharper images and a very usable focal length for interviews.

If that’s too expensive you should be able to buy some older, manual only lenses and pick up an adapter. I have an Olympus OM 50mm 1.8 that originally came with an OM-10 film camera. With a €10 adapter you can use it on the 600d and the lens cost €30. It’s similar in quality to the Canon, with a much nicer focus ring. Worth considering if you have no desire to shoot stills. Ebay is great for older lenses and for the adapter.

You may also need a longer zoom, depending on what you intend to shoot. The companion to the 18-55mm kit lens is the 55-250mm. It’s identical in build quality and image quality, and you won’t use it too much, being honest, unless you shoot sports, so it’s not essential. Very handy to have though.

Now that you’re all set up with lenses and a camera, it’s time to make sure your shots don’t look amateurish. Simple answer – buy a tripod. If you can’t afford lenses or a decent mic, you still can’t get by without a tripod. You’ll also need one that can pan and tilt smoothly.

I started with a tripod I inherited. It’s heavy, awkward and rubbish for panning. The weight does keep it from moving in wind (I have a €15 tripod that wobbles in any wind) but it’s too heavy if you’re working alone.

The Hahnel Triad 60 is a very good budget option. It comes with compromises, but gives you smooth head movement, and solid support for static shots. The drawback is the plastic parts on its legs, which feel cheap, and the head only being capable of slow movement.

For the price though, it’s hard to beat. This tripod and the camera with kit lens is your absolute bare minimum. You will really need a decent mic too though.

Here’s where some outside the box thinking comes in. Following advice on various forums I picked up a Rode Videomic. It’s been a disappointment in some ways. It’s a great mic for picking up ambience and background noise, but for interviews it isn’t brilliant. It leaves a quiet, but audible hum under the vocals.

I use mine to provide a usable backup, and a better scratch track than the on-camera audio, which is horrendous. Do not use it, under any circumstances. I’d drop an interview before using the on-camera audio, it’s that bad.

If you can’t afford a mic just for backup audio, you’ll want to look at the Zoom H1 or H2n. I use a now-discontinued H2, which has broadcast quality sound and is affordable. The H1 even more so. They both lack XLR inputs, so for later upgrades it might be worth getting a Tascam DR-40, but with budget in mind the H1 is a great choice.It has a tripod size thread mount, so you can, with an adapter, mount it on top of the camera. For interviews you’ll want it on a boom pole. Boom poles are a bit out of the budget range, so I bought a cheap monopod. I picked the longest one I could find (almost 2 metres) in the Hama Star 78.

The problem with it is that it without a shock mount, any move your boom operator makes will cause an audible clicking sound. There are solutions, but mine is for the H2 and won’t work with the H1 because of the placement of the screw thread. You’ll have to get creative.

I used a solution from RickVanMan on youtube. Basically it’s a Samson shock mount with two added washers allowing a nut and bolt with the correct thread size to then screw on the zoom, locking it in place. Because the mount is built for a particular mic, you’ll need to tape or glue down some moving parts, but it works very well.

The monopod solution has the wrong thread size at the top, however, so you’ll need to make the thread on the monopod 3/8”. I used an adapter I bought for around 75c in a camera shop, which allowed me to directly mount the shock mount to the monopod.

There are issues. The monopod is weighted in the opposite way to a boom pole. A boom is heavier at the bottom, making it easy to hold. The monopod is top heavy even before adding that shock mount, which is far from light.

Using the zoom also means that your gain controls are out of your hands while recording. You need to set gain then hope the interviewee doesn’t get quieter or louder. Thus far medium gain at 125 (you’ll know how to set that when you buy one) on the Zoom H2 has been fine in almost all situations, so it’s not too big a problem.

Do be sure you choose only the front mic if you have a H2 or H2n, and point it downward. It’s easy to get this wrong. The H1 is simpler, being omni-directional.

If you don’t have a boom operator, consider buying a cheapo tripod and just sitting the zoom off camera on top of it. You won’t get the same quality of sound, but it is usable and in a quiet situation almost identical.

Additionally you’ll need a few accessories. A Transcend SDHC class 10 card is cheap and cheerful. 32gb if you want to be safe is a nice choice. You should never fill it realistically, if you upload your footage after shooting.

Spare batteries are a must, ebay has plenty of cheap Canon batteries. They work fine. I have three and have never needed more than one of them. An ND filter is useful, but only if you live in a sunny country. Here in Ireland I’ve never used mine.

Canon lenses don’t come with lens hoods, which reduce flare. I like a little flare in the sun, but if you hate it you can pick up a hood for ~€3 on ebay. Just look up your lens on Canon’s website for the hood’s part number and search ebay.

Get a lens cloth. Ask for one in an opticians, they have thousands of them. A lens cleaning kit is handy, but just a cloth should be fine.

If you want smooth zooming, a cheap jar opener is a must. They’re really cheap on ebay, and can just be clamped onto the zoom ring and make zooming much, much smoother.

Proper furry windcovers for your mic or mics are great to have, but expensive. If you have access to a sewing machine, pick up some elasticated thread and some faux fur. Cut the size you need and just sew in the elastic so you can wrap a piece of fur around the mic to cut wind.

If you can’t sew (like me) a hot glue gun and some foam from a craft shop will do. Cut a 1” sliver of foam that wraps around the bottom of the mic. Glue it with the hot glue gun so it slips on and off with a tug, but stays on if left alone. Then just cut some faux fur to size and glue it to the foam for a cheap windcover.

If you fancy running and gunning with the camera you must get something to stabilise the camera on your shoulder. A rig can cost thousands, seriously. The cheapest shoulder rig is fine, and comes in at around €70. Don’t bother with the matte box unless you desperately need to look more professional (it can be useful). If you do get one, make sure you get the rods to connect it too. Also, follow focus is unnecessary and expensive. It would be great to have, but costs around €100 on top of the rig.

Documentary ‘Undercity’ was shot with a shoulder rig, allowing director Andrew Wonder to follow his subject without giving the viewer motion sickness. Philip Bloom’s website has a great article about the techniques used to make the film.

If you can’t afford the rig there are some brilliant instructables to make your own, but my personal preference is for a small bendy tripod. I bought one in lidl for €10. You can bend it’s legs to sit one on a shoulder and hold the other two. It’s not as steady as the rig, but it works surprisingly well and costs next to nothing. It has an added use too, if you’re stuck for a spot to place your zoom recorder, just pop it on the mini tripod, and bend it’s legs around your main tripod’s legs. Works great.

So to recap, the essentials:

Camera – Canon 600D

Lens – 50mm f1.8

Tripod – Hahnel Triad 60 Lite

Mic – Zoom H1

Those are the absolute essentials (you can lose the 50mm lens if necessary) that you can’t live without. Plus 2 SD cards, one for the H1 and one for the camera.

In post production you can save some money too. I use Adobe Premiere Pro, and Mac users will lean to Final Cut, but a free alternative is Lightworks. It’s a totally different workflow, but if you haven’t used FCP or Premiere, it might be worth a look. Just don’t use Windows Movie Maker, it will make things harder, not easier.

For syncing sound between camera and recorder, you can invest in Dualeyes, which automates the process. It’s an incredible tool, but costs quite a bit. If that’s not an option two pieces of wood, a hinge and some screws, or even a free clapperboard app or clapping, can give you a marker at the start of both video and audio to match up the waveform of the sound in post-production.

More options, and some very specific video-related options at that, can be made available by downloading Magic Lantern, a custom firmware. I haven’t used it much, but if you’re coming from video cameras, you may want it for things like zebra bars. I would definitely look into Picture Profiles, which allow you more creative control over your footage in post. An excellent tutorial is available at PhilipBloom.net.

It’s not that hard, but it is time consuming. Although I managed to record only recorder audio once, and no scratch track, so with no waveform I had to sync up the lips with the audio. Not recommended. It takes hours. Be careful with sound, bad sound kills a film, no matter how brilliant your visuals or interview content are.

Now when I say budget, your basic setup (which I promise you’ll want to upgrade pretty quickly) comes in at just under €1,000. It’s hardly cheap, but it’s certainly better than buying a pro video camera, which costs a huge amount more.

To learn more about DSLR film-making there are some great resources online.

Creative Cow have brilliant tutorials and a very helpful forum.

Nofilmschool are a regularly updated source of tutorials and advice.

They even offer a free DSLR film-making book to download. It’s quite good, but it does focus on more expensive gear.

Philip Bloom’s website is an excellent resource.

2 Responses to “DSLR Documentary Film-making on a Budget”
  1. Nice article! A few things that also come up (particularly for documentary shoots):
    Camera overheating. The Canon DSLRs are only designed to run for a brief period before the sensor overheats. This can be disastrous for documentary shooting.
    Audio sync. If you shoot with “disconnected” audio, it can be hard for introductory editors to sync up the audio, since NTSC and SECAM run at different frame rates than realtime (particularly drop frame). Dualeyes is usually not adequate for long format.
    So, there is no panacea for easy, inexpensive documentary acquisition.

    • James says:

      Thanks, and I agree with all of that. It’s definitely a huge compromise to shoot with a DSLR. Compared to a purpose-built camera it’s night and day.
      Those sound issues aren’t something I’ve had to deal with yet, so I’ve been lucky, but I did have the camera overheat and it’s a nightmare.

      Thanks for the input, very good advice for anyone considering the DSLR route.

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