Big Budget Impact with Low Budget Gear

There are a number of ways to get professional-looking shots without spending a huge amount of money, but the three basics to creating professional looking video are proper lighting, clear audio and a solid stabilization. Once you have these down, study all your equipment and film making manuals, watch as many YouTube “How to make your own equipment.” videos as you can, and then get out and shoot, shoot, shoot, and edit, edit, edit. No matter how many tricks you find and corners you cut there is no experience like good old fashion practice.

Light It Right

With such vast improvements in lighting and camera technology, you can now take a trip to the hardware store and use inexpensive clamp lights or opt for Chinese paper lanterns, LED lights, headlamps, flashlights and even candles to light a scene. The best light to shoot with is still persistently available natural sunlight. Take advantage of the golden hour just around sunrise and sunset to get that ambient glowing light reflecting off of the clouds. It may sound like common sense, but you always want to shoot with the sun behind the camera, which adds modeling shadows while exposing more of your subject’s form and keeping the color saturation constant. Also try to avoid shooting with the sun directly overhead as it tends to cast strange uneven or harsh shadows. 

Whether lighting with sunlight or halogen work lights, use the principles of three-point lighting whenever possible. 

You can manipulate whatever light you are using with lighting flags and reflectors, which can both be made from common household materials. Black fabric, plywood painted black or black plastic can be used for a flag to block light from reaching certain parts of the frame. Another way to better control light entering the lens is a Matte Box with flaps that extend at an angle off of the lens, called bellows French flaps or barn doors. You may also need to use a reflector to bounce light back onto your subject. You can make your own reflectors from white foam core board or cardboard painted white, gold or silver. Alternatively, you can purchase a Lastolite kit which are spring loaded circular reflectors that fold away for easy storage.

Whether lighting with sunlight or halogen work lights, use the principles of three-point lighting whenever possible. Use a key light to illuminate the front of your subject, a fill light from the side to fill in shadows and a backlight to separate your subject from the background.

Audio Matters

After you have the scene properly lit, the number one thing most beginning filmmakers mess up is capturing clean and clear audio. Audiences will usually forgive a poor quality picture for a minute or so but if the audio is too low, contains wind noise or is inaudible, most people will lose interest quickly.

Olympus Linear PCM recorder and Azden UHF 150 UPR wireless Lavalier Mic
Olympus Linear PCM recorder and Azden UHF 150 UPR wireless Lavalier Mic

An external microphone will always be a good investment, but it doesn’t need to be an expensive model if you pay attention to a few basics. To make sure you get good audio, shoot as close to your subjects as possible and that the mic is properly angled toward your sound source. While on set, try to reduce or remove any extraneous noises on set and make sure your batteries are charged up. Wear headphones to monitor your audio and set you levels.

Keeping It Steady

Once your scene is properly lit and the audio is set, the next thing you want to capture is a smooth steady shot. It’s always better to shoot on a tripod as it makes your shots much more clean and stable. You can also attach a slider or dolly to your tripod, allowing you to adds tilts, pans and elevation to create even more interesting shots.
For your smaller cameras, like GoPros and smaller mirrorless and DSLR cameras, $13.00 will buy you the Joby GorillaPod, which is perfect for capturing exciting shots with it’s three flexible legs that grip almost anything.

Elevating, tilting, tracking and panning are all great ways to add style and substance to a scene. Crafting your own jib arms are not all that difficult depending on your creative skills. You can use old tripods, microphone or light stands and with a trip to the hardware store, you can have your own custom jib arm for under $100. Homemade jibs are especially feasible for lightweight cameras.

Using a hardware store dolly with the Manfrotto compact, MKC3-H01 and Joby GorillaPods
Using a hardware store dolly with the Manfrotto compact, MKC3-H01 and Joby GorillaPods

For smooth dolly and tracking shots, look to repurpose. I found two different size dollies for under $20 at the hardware store that work perfect for small tripods like the Manfrotto compact, MKC3-H01 and Joby GorillaPods. I’ve even seen someone use a rain gutter and bit of grease to pull the camera across a table and the shot looked great and it only cost $13. For some shots when you just need a little bit of movement a slider will do just fine and you can even use furniture sliders to put your tripod on and just slowly push or pull it across the surface if the surface is smooth enough.

You can also make a pretty simple dolly out of some wood, a few bolts, some wheels and some string. Basically you cut the wood and make a rectangle for your tripod to fit on and attach four wheels to the box and drill a few holes in the front of the wood to put a piece of string through to pull your dolly in a smooth motion toward you to get a great looking shot.

Using a skateboard as a dolly with the Manfrotto compact, MKC3-H01 and Joby GorillaPods
Using a skateboard as a dolly with the Manfrotto compact, MKC3-H01 and Joby GorillaPods

Another fun and easy way to simulate a dolly shot is to use an ordinary skateboard. Put your tripod legs directly on the skateboards grip tape or drill some holes into the board and attach a tripod head directly to the board. It’s very important you lay down some masonite, plywood, linoleum, cardboard or other thin flat material to make sure the surface is as smooth as possible. Do a couple test shots and figure out if your need to adjust anything. You can eve use the mini finger skateboards as a dolly for small action cameras to get some short movement shots. Just put the camera on the skateboard and — voila — you have a dolly for $10.00.

There is also a way you can get a professional looking dolly shot for free by just retracting the front leg of your tripod and slowly and smoothly moving your camera up and down. This only works for short dolly shots but it really does look cool and you don’t have to purchase any extra equipment. 

Robert Rodriguez wrote, directed, shot, edited, cast and produced his film, “El Mariachi” all for $7,000. He used a wheelchair from the hospital where he was undergoing medical testing to pay for his film to capture his moving dolly shots. Alfred Hitchcock also used wheelchairs as dollies to get his signature dolly zoom effect in “Vertigo.” Try simultaneously zooming in and dollying out to give your shot a frightened, rushed, surprised look.

Beyond DIY

If you would rather purchase inexpensive quality  equipment on the internet go to They offer great gear at very affordable prices. The Varizoom Stealthy Stick is very affordable at $109, has a clamp and remote for GoPros, small point-and-shoot cameras and smartphones. Or, you can upgrade to the Stealthy Pro with its six-bearing gimbal which provides a much smoother shot.

Willow Jon's equipment spread out and packed up into a backpack
Willow Jon’s equipment spread out and packed up into a backpack

With digital technology evolving every day there is no telling what the future holds for filmmaking. Years ago you would need to hire a helicopter or a crane to get professional looking areal shots but now with a variety of drones carrying HD, 2k and 4k cameras you can get Hollywood shots for a couple hundred dollars and a little practice. Remember, these are unmanned flying devices, so it’s a good idea to take some classes in drone flying and safety before you just go out and start flying.  

Put into Practice

So there you have it, a bunch of ways to get more professional looking videos without a truckload of expensive equipment.  Everyone can shoot like a pro when you have good light, audio and stabilization. The hardest step is the first one so just put one foot in front of the other and start by making short videos and make sure to have fun!

Willow Jon Collamer travels the world on a shoestring budget with his guitar, skateboard and video camera creating fun inspiring videos for his website

Willowjon Collamer
Willowjon Collamer
I'm a one man multi-media production team with unlimited potential, clarity of vision, strong adaptability, great communication skills, and an engaging and inspiring personality! Storytelling has been part of my life since I was a young child and I became aware of the awesome power it had to influence, engage, and entertain others. I've written for magazines and newspapers, received a scholarship to attend Wild Mind Film Camp, appeared as the main participant on Discovery Channel's survival show, "Tethered", and traveled the world on social media branding campaigns with Toasters and Vacuums spreading the word of cleanliness and grace. The WillowJonT.V. brand focuses on authentic mind, body, spirit conversations.

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