We just finished shooting this TV commercial for Zach Theatre. It's "Harvey."

It's tuesday and editor, David Munns, already has our Harvey spot ready to go. We shot the footage on Sunday morning with Martin Burke. Click on the  YouTube logo on the bottom right corner of the video frame to go directly to YouTube if you want to watch the HD version.

Nearly a dozen loyal VSL members chimed in to me personally after I wrote about shooting this video last Sunday. They were interested in trying their hands at DSLR video and the common question was: "What do I need to get started?"

I'm just at the beginning of this whole video journey myself but I'll tell you what's come in handy so far.

1. While it's wonderful to have a camera that includes a headphone jack we've done a bunch of projects with the Sony a77 and some with a Canon 5D mk2 and neither of them were so equipped.  The most important feature (as far as sound goes) for me is the microphone input and a set of manually settable level controls. The headphones are critical to hearing problems with sound as you go but there are workarounds. You can record your audio to a digital audio recorder, listen to the sound via the headphone jack and output the same sound with a "line out" or "aux" to the microphone input of your camera with a 3.5mm to 3.5mm male, stereo plug. Kind of cool because you're making a back up as you go. Honestly, all the APS-C and FF DSLR cameras can record great HD video. Even a lowly Rebel. (The Sony's are the only ones with good, fast focusing during recording...if you don't mind losing manual exposure controls..).

2. I think you'll need two different external microphones. You probably won't use them at the same time but you'll end up needing each kind sooner or later. For interviews or direct to camera content where you have a subject or actor talking to the audience a lavalier microphone is great. There are all kinds. It's sexy to get wireless radio mics but it's not necessary. People have been using cabled microphones for decades and decades, and they work. Seems like every microphone sounds different so you'll probably want to go to a store and try them out with your camera. Bring someone else along to talk so you don't end up thinking you don't like a microphone when you really just don't like the sound of your own voice.

I bought a wired Audio Technica Lavalier microphone and it sounds great. I spent about $125 and I bought it used. I also have a Sennheiser wireless system and it sounds insanely good but it was a whopping $600. Start with the wired one and move up when you find a pressing need to. The audio is not that much different.

The second kind of microphone you'll want to get is a good shotgun microphone. We use these when it's impossible to hide a lavalier mic on someone and you need to hear them well.  Contrary to popular belief they're not made to function like a telephoto lens and bring far away sound close to you.  They just tend to be good at isolating the sound of a voice right in front of you and dumping away the sound that's off access. These work great if your subject is stationary and you can carefully aim the microphone and put it on a stand. They are also great if you have someone who can hold a pole and aim the microphone for you as the person is moving and talking. Also, if you only have one microphone and you need to record a back and forth conversation you can have a person swivel the microphone back and forth between them. Plus, when equipped with the fuzzy wind sock they look so cool and all Hollywood.

Play around with your microphones and cameras until you find a need you can't fill and then start looking at things like mixers and stuff that lets you hook up several microphones simultaneously and control their levels separately.

3. Depending on what sort of video you want to shoot you'll probably need a fluid head tripod. It's just a tripod with a dampened head that allows you to pan or tilt without too many jitters or false movements. Mine cost $500 but there are many priced down in the $150 range that might work. Alternately, if you are a big spender and your wallet comes well equipped there are numerous models up to the $5000 range and over. Go play with some and see how they work before you drop big dough. A lot of successful camera movement is from practice, not the gear. Sound familiar? But the fluid head are helpful. You probably find a decent head that will fit on a tripod you already own.

4. Unless you plan to be an available light videographer you'll need some continuous lights. And if you do this commercially you'll need some big, bright ones. You can go old school and buy a bunch of tungsten hot lights pretty cheaply. You can play around with LEDs which, for big commercial video are either expensive or need a few nudges of filtration for good color, or, you can go with some of the recent fluorescent panels from Alzo, Fotodiox, KinoFlo and other.
I'm not going to tell you how to light anymore than I would tell you how to dress but I find I usually need one big main light and two or three additional fixtures for lighting up backgrounds, creating fill light or making accents. I'll assume that, if you've been shooting photography professionally, you'll already have light stands, diffusers and the like.

5. You'll need a totally different mindset from that of a photographer. Stuff really needs to move and it needs to tell a story so rather than just shooting from the hip you have to slow down and create some sort of narrative framework to use as a guide to your shooting. I found it very revealing to sit down for the first time with a non-linear video editing program and try to cobble something together. It humbled me. Still does. That's my weak spot and the area I need the most help on.

Good luck with your efforts in video. It's a nice commercial adjunct to still photography.

Tomorrow I'm doing a total immersion kind of assignment. We're shooting portraits, interviews, and some stuff they call "b-roll" which means all kinds of footage of a manufacturing process, the smiling faces of the workers and staff and the sexy detail shots that will make nice cutaways for the main body of a comprehensive video. Crazy, but it means I get to try my hand at a bit of everything that I've either studied up on or practiced in the studio. Wish me luck.


  1. Wow Kirk
    It looks professional and everything. Your camera takes really nice video ;-).
    As always, thanks for sharing your experience. Hopefully it will make my own and others first steps a little smoother.
    Ed Posthumus

  2. Thank you for a great "gear" post. This was the simple, but very well written, explanation I was looking for.

  3. I hope you guys clicked through to YouTube to watch the high res version. YouTube compression can be unpretty.

  4. The last point you make about needing to have a narrative arc in mind before you begin is what keeps me from trying video. I have a hard enough time trying to create one good photograph, much less stringing together multiple scenes! I'm a terrible story teller as well, maybe the two are connected.


  5. Thank you! Great example work and nice overview. The recommendations are pretty close to what I've been reading in "The DSLR Film Maker's Handbook" by Barry Andersson. I've given this a modest try before only to discover that having a GH2 doesn't instantly make me into Alex Payne or Ken Burns :)

    He basically lays out the priorities s camera, lenses (especially a 50mm fov), tripod (fluid head) and then worry about extras; viewfinder (for the EVF impaired like myself on Nikon), camera support rig to enable reasonable quality mobile shooting, lens filters, small lights (but mainly buying bulbs/dimmers to use in existing fixtures), a reasonable microphone (renting higher performing audio gear when needed), renting a follow focus until you can afford to buy one and having a quality carrying case.

    Since I want to double down on being able to reuse stuff for stills and video I grabbed a dual tone, reversible gray backdrop for both interviews and portraits. The one thing I may have jumped too early on was a Zoom H1 sound recorder to take input from the little lavalier microphone and feed the aux output to the camera to make it easy to sync up in post processing.

  6. Out of curiosity, have you ever tried the Glidecam stuff or any other means of steadycaming video?

    I used one years ago with a Canon GL1; it was quite finicky but the camera was just at the edge of the weight that the model was rated for. I can imagine they might be either hit or miss with DSLR video - the package has lower weight overall, but also a centre of gravity that transits based on lenses (and is in any case out in front of the mount point most of the time) so I'd be curious to hear any experiences or observations.

    1. Not yet. I'm pretty old fashion. I like dollies and track. I"m sure I'll try a "poor man's" Steadicam sooner or later. Push me a bit more... right now I'm collecting microphones and mixers.

  7. One of the reasons I got the 12-50 kit zoom for my EM-5, rather than one of the fast primes I wanted, was a desire to push myself more into video.


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