Becoming a filmmaker for ultra-cheap

Now that the world can have a 24p camera for one hundred bucks, it’s time to revisit my video hardware suggestions with this new blog post about how to put together the necessary equipment to shoot a short movie, or music video, for very cheap, without sacrificing quality in any substantial way. So, there are three main aspects to on-set filmmaking: video, audio, and lighting. Here’s how to properly shoot with a small P&S Canon camera. Here’s what to buy with your weekend money:

– Video equipment
1. A 24p video camera with at least exposure compensation, exposure locking, and some color control. That would be the brand new Canon A1200, for $110, capable of 720/24p. If you have the ability to pay more, get the S100 ($430), which offers 1080/24p and adequate shallow depth of field when zoomed in. First thing to do after you acquire any camera: set custom colors to minimum contrast/saturation/sharpness, so you can shoot “flat”. While shooting, always set and lock exposure (usually it’s best to set it to -1 outdoors). If your camera supports continuous autofocus (e.g. the S100), you will have to lock focus too before recording.

2. A tripod. I would suggest the Velbon VideoMate-607/F ($70), because it has a smooth-pan head. If you’re not planning to pan while recording, ever, you can get pretty much any tripod, as long as it has leveling indications.

3. A charger for rechargeable AA batteries for your camera. This Sony one, that comes with four batteries too, costs $16. You don’t need this item if you’re going for the S100 instead.

4. Four 8 GB SDHC cards, Class 6, like this one (4×13=$52). Whatever you buy, make sure they’re Class 6 or faster.

Optional, but highly recommended:
5. You don’t need this item if you’re going for the S100 instead. A filter tube, like the Zeikos Universal Lens Adapter ($20), which allows you to connect…

6. …ND filters. Digicams tend to shoot at very higher shutter speeds outdoors, so adding a filter can help out control the effect. Get an 0.9 ND filter, like this 37mm Tiffen one. As I write this, it sells on Amazon for $14. Please read here, on how to estimate your shutter speed at 1/48th by using [stacked] ND filters. Shooting at 1/48th or 1/50th shutter speed is important for movie’s “motion look”. Alternatively, you can buy a variable strength ND filter, which allows to use many different strengths, all-in-one filter. You don’t need this item if you’re going for the S100 instead (the S100 has a built-in ND filter in it).

7. An action stabilizer, like the Opteca X-Grip Pro ($35), so you can go mobile while shooting action. Alternatively, this one is a good option too.

Here’s a short movie shot with a P&S digicam

– Audio equipment
1. The AudioTechnica ATR-6550 microphone ($50) which has a tele-mode in addition to its normal mode. The tele-mode will be able to pick up single-directional audio from your actors from further away other microphones and your camera can.

2. The Olympus WS-600S audio recorder ($60), which is able to record from an external 3.5mm microphone, both in stereo and in mono modes, and has 192 kbps MP3 recording support. Which is fine-enough quality for your first steps.

3. Some over-the-head headphones to monitor captured audio, like the Sony MDR-V150 ($16).

4. Some PVC pipes, to strap your microphone onto with some tape, and use them as a boom stick ($20). Ask a friend to operate the audio recording while you’re shooting.

5. A clap, so you can sync your audio with video later in post processing. They can cost as low as $10, but you don’t need to buy any: use two stones, or two old tapes/cassette cases and bang them together.

– Lighting
1. This Smith Victor KT500U $99 continuous lighting kit. Never underestimate the importance of good lighting. When its light bulbs die (usually they’re good for many hours though), you can buy even stronger bulbs.

Another short movie, shot with the Canon SD1400 IS digicam

For 24p short movies, and 24p music videos:
Try to buy all of the above, but if you’re really short on money, lose the lighting kit, action stabilizer, and the filter tube/ND filters.
Basic setup: $400
Full setup: $560

For music videos, you can lose the audio recording equipment too.

For artistic videos and slow-down’ed music videos:
If you’re trying to shoot artistic videos, I’d suggest the Canon A2200 instead, which shoots in 30p. This way, you can slow-down to 24p (0.800x in Sony Vegas), which makes everything look ethereal. Discard your camera’s audio, add music instead. For artistic videos, you only need the video equipment, and without the action stabilizer. Lighting kit is optional (depending on the style and subject of your video).

For music videos with A2200’s 30p, you shoot as described here. The slow-down to 24p will make the video look very cinematic and film-like. As for the equipment needed, it’s the same as what I mentioned for 24p music videos above. The following excerpt video sample is one such music video I shot with a similar small camera for a local artist:

And here are some very useful tutorials on how to shoot proper video.


Michael C. wrote on January 6th, 2011 at 11:11 AM PST:

Exposure locking is important, but what about focus lock on these digicams?

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Eugenia wrote on January 6th, 2011 at 11:23 AM PST:

My focus never changes while recording with these cams. There is some focus setup menu, I have it set to a single focus effort. The option exists on my SX200 IS’ menu. On my SD780 IS doesn’t exist, but the focus doesn’t jump anyway…

Edit: You only need to be careful about focus lock on the newer Canon cameras, e.g. the SX230, S100 etc. the ones that support continuous autofocus. For these cameras, yes, you need to lock focus. The feature exists on them.

Juan Urquhart wrote on January 7th, 2011 at 7:28 PM PST:

this is my favorite post so far , thanks for all the advice ( specially for a guy like me who lives in Uruguay)

glenn wrote on January 9th, 2011 at 10:36 PM PST:

you have some really good recommendations here. i like the opteka grip…i might have to get one of them. one could spend a few extra bucks and get a little better of a mic…a different audio technica or an azden but this one will definitely do…and don’t forget the cheap but good quality audio technica lavalier that goes for around 30 bucks…you can drop the recorder in the actor’s pocket and run the wire up his/her shirt and tape the mic to their chest/lower neck with some gaffers tape…it works great. also if you’re going to spend 60 bucks on a recorder…you might as well spend the extra 40 and get the zoom h1…which i have and can tell you is a great piece of equipment…especially for the price range.


all in all no beginner filmmaker, or poor filmmaker, can go wrong with any of your suggestions.

thanks again for your hard work contributing to the indie community!!!

glenn wrote on January 9th, 2011 at 10:37 PM PST:

BTW, thanks for the focus suggestion.

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Eugenia wrote on January 9th, 2011 at 11:46 PM PST:

>one could spend a few extra bucks and get a little better of a mic…

It depends if that other mic has an equivalent tele-mode or not. If not, then it won’t do for short movies, despite having better overall audio quality.

glenn wrote on January 10th, 2011 at 6:33 AM PST:

good point

Michael C. wrote on January 11th, 2011 at 3:14 PM PST:

The Zoom H1 and the Sony ICD-SX700 cost about $100, but they have manual control of audio levels. I think this is worth extra $40 over the Olympus that you recommend.

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Eugenia wrote on January 11th, 2011 at 5:56 PM PST:

The Olympus is currently $46 at Amazon, special price. For a beginner, this is an unbeatable price IMO.

Valdi99 wrote on January 13th, 2011 at 10:58 AM PST:

Hallo from Poland Eugenia, your articles are a big help to the amateur filmmakers like me and it is also a big pleasure to read them! Thank you for that. I really appreciate your reports (beside brilliant tutorials and advices) regarding new products on the consumers’ market. And I would love to read your thoughts about new products aimed at semi-pro market, I mean some camcorders with interchangeable lenses and wider manual control. Like Sony Nex-VG10 camcorder or any other available.

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Eugenia wrote on January 14th, 2011 at 3:40 PM PST:

The Nex-VG10 has no 24p, or true 25p, so I would personally not touch it. It’s a joke. They give you interchangeable lenses, and then they take away from you other, more important, video characteristics. Get a dSLR for now.

Michael C. wrote on January 16th, 2011 at 12:38 AM PST:

The European VG10 has 25PsF, which may be just enough for someone who wants a large-sensor camcorder. But it has very few image controls and auto-gain microphone… for $2K. This is a beta-version of something that could be much better. I’d rather get a GH2.

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