Every Director of Photography (DP) has his/her favorite camera kit they’ve built to get the job done, but what tools are right for you? Let’s look at five photography tools you’d be crazy not to pack on your next shoot.
1. Lens Package.
Lens choice is one of the most powerful tools a DP has to communicate with his/her viewers. Lenses can bring us close to the subject with shallow depth of field, allow us to share in the subject’s isolation with a wide angle, or disorient us with a tilt-shift rig. It’s preferable to have as varied of focal lengths in your lens kit as possible, but the high cost of lenses usually limits most indie DPs to a few trusted lenses (usually zooms.)
Make sure that the lenses you buy are compatible with your camera mount or you’ll need to pick up a mount adapter, too. Using the fixed lens that came with your HDV camera because you got no choice? Cheer up, you DO have options.
“Why do I need lens filters when I’m just gonna create a custom look in post?” you may ask. The answer is simple: proper exposure. Although high-end HD video cameras are quickly approaching the dynamic range of film, most indie filmmakers can’t afford a 5K camera and the tools necessary to achieve film-quality latitude from it. So for a majority of the indie filmmaking community, choosing between shooting blown-out skies or having too-contrasty facial shadows is a way of life.
Neutral Density (ND) filters are excellent tools to avoid the ubiquitous overexposed “white sky” that has become an unintended trademark of amateur video production. ND filters can make your exterior shots look professional, and are really affordable to boot. Similarly, Polarizer filters work great to remove unwanted reflections on shiny surfaces such as car windshields or errant windows, and also darken skies similar to ND filters. Special glass such as colored lens filters and diffusion filters are virtually impossible to remove if you’ve shot with them during production, so it’s a good idea to leave the desired special looks for post unless you really know how to use such specialty filters on the lens.
3. Lens Cleaning Kit.
This one seems like a no-brainer, but nevertheless, many startup DPs charge out into the wild lacking the materials for proper lens care. Even if you have a permanently affixed lens to your camera body, the lens surface can still get smudged with fingerprints, dust, dirt, or liquids, so having a proper cleaning kit is fundamental to acquiring clean images. I’ve seen too many beautiful timelapse shots ruined due to a dirty lens that would’ve taken 30 seconds to clean before shooting, but alternately, would consume hundreds of hours of rotoscoping to erase the damage in post. Cleaning kits are super cheap to build, too, and don’t require much more than a bulb brush, a microfiber cloth or disposable camera lens tissues, and in cases where a lot of outdoor work is on the schedule, a small bottle of alcohol-based lens cleaner.
Never, ever use paper products such as Kleenex, toilet paper, or paper towels/napkins – such items will scratch the lens permanently and could potentially render the lens useless. Similarly, don’t use compressed air to dust off your lens (unless you’re using an approved Assistant Camera’s nozzle rig) as it could lodge particles in your lens housing. Instead, use the bulb brush as it should have enough power to blow off any stubborn dust particles. If in a bind, you can breathe hot air on the lens for safe burst of moisture and use the edge of a clean 100% cotton T-shirt to gently wipe it down.
“Shiny boards,” as they’re affectionately known, are a DP’s best friend when shooting outdoors. They also come in handy indoors when you’re hard pressed for lighting equipment and you need a little fill here or there. Reflectors come in a variety of shapes and materials, from ultra heavy 4′ x 4′ two-sided wood boards that require combo stands, to featherweight folding fabric discs that fit in a backpack and are used hand-held.
Shiny boards can add a sexy rim light to an indoor scene, or fill in the lead actor’s dark side under the high noon sun. The soft sides come in silver or gold, and the hard sides can be matte finish or an actual mirror, which are often used to create giant lens flares on sci-fi movies and music videos. Bounce boards are a type of reflector made out of styrofoam that generally have a soft white side and a hard foil side and are used often for creating fill in both indoor and outdoor settings.
Many craft-savvy DPs grab a 4′ x 8′ piece of styrofoam insulation at their local home improvement store and tape the edges with white Gaffer’s tape for stability, or cut the piece in half to make two 4′ x 4′ bounce boards.
5. Camera Bag.
Another no-brainer that often gets left behind, the camera bag serves as your mobile base of operations when out in the field, and also keeps all your expensive gear safe. It’s best to pick up a camera bag that will house your entire package, plus any “must haves” you bring along every time you shoot such as battery powered LED lights, small folding tripods, fabric reflectors, your laptop, etc.
There is a variety of good bags available, so a solution exists for even the most eclectic camera packages out there. It’s a good idea to buy a camera bag bigger than needed rather than a bag that fits your package perfectly, as your kit will undoubtedly grow if you plan on pursuing this whole DP thing as a career.
Many of the tools used in photography are essential to professional video production as well. Every DP has his/her favorite camera package they’ve built that suits their needs. A versatile lens package gives a DP the necessary toolset to communicate effectively with viewers. Filters such as NDs and polarizers make video footage look more filmic and professional. A proper lens cleaning kit helps maintain lens health and assures quality image capture. Reflectors and bounce boards are a low cost way to augment available light for cinematic lighting techniques. A solid camera bag often serves as the indie DP’s mobile headquarters when out in the field, and keeps the camera and gear safe during storage and travel.
Rory Walsh is an independent writer/director just trying to make it work.