The Top 5 DSLR Video Accessories You Need, Mr. Beer Budget Filmmaker

Lots of articles have been written online about what gear you “need” as a DSLR filmmaker, most of them quite useless, e.g.: “Buy a memory card!”

Yes, dear, we will.

Hence, I present the following list of what will truly help you as a budget DSLR filmmaker, and – most importantly – the reasoning behind these suggestions so you may make an informed decision.

FYI – the following items are related to camera accessories only. You should already have a good lighting kit.

Drumroll, please.

1. A good fluid head tripod

This seems obvious – unless you don’t have one. Basic, fluid head Manfrottos are generally a good bet and easy to find on eBay or Craigslist. The Manfrotto 501HDV or 503HDV are generally more than enough for most needs; simply check the weight ratings and choose the one that best suits the rig you intend to build (in short, do not cheapen out on yourself and buy a head that will support your existing camera, but not the endless 15mm rail system you are planning to get in the future. You’ll be surprised how quick the future arrives).

Manfrotto MVH502A shown with extra (dual) panning arms
While I do not recommend the Manfrotto MVH502A – shown here – it is more or less a good visual example of what to expect.

You would be wise to stay away from the new, Chinese-made Manfrottos such as the 502HDV (MVH502A) – which are quite troublesome, for what they’re worth (more on that in a later blog post). Ultra-cheap Ravelli/Dynatran (amongst others) “fluid” heads bundled with tripods are even worse, as they get their fluidity through greased nylon bushings under pressure. These bushings do not last long, and – as a result – neither will your tripod head. This is one place where cheaper isn’t always better, and used is an advantage.

2. A lens with image stabilization (IS)

It seems as if every single DSLR photographer on the internet will swear to you that IS bad for video. What they aren’t telling you is that they’ve never used their DSLR for video. Ever.

Though most Canon and M43 IS-equipped lenses are not primes (Canon, we want that 50mm IS-equipped prime. Now), you’ll thank your lucky stars for having an IS zoom lens on hand if you find yourself in need of a shot that cannot be done with a tripod.

Why? An IS-equipped lens is its own built-in Steadicam.

Don’t believe me? Here’s some footage:

Not a single bit of the IS footage was stabilized in post production, and the only other thing assisting me in those shots was a handle on top of the camera. I didn’t make much of an effort to hold the camera steady in either shot. Pretty neat, eh?

3. An audio adapter and a good microphone*

I don’t care if you’ve just shot something that makes Roger Deakins’ Skyfall look like a clip from America’s Funniest Home Videos (and you didn’t) – if you used onboard AGC audio from your DSLR as your one-and-only microphone, you might as well dub Yakety Sax to your footage as a soundtrack.

One of the cardinal rules of video making is to make sure your audio is just as good as your video, if not better. Even mediocre SD 480P can be made to look better than it is if the audio has a professional sound to it.

In short, onboard camera audio is home-video territory. Don’t go there.

BeachTek DXA-5Da on the Canon 5D Mark II
The BeachTek DXA-5Da.

If you’ve made the effort to invest in a DSLR, consider an onboard, XLR mic audio adapter part of the package. A used BeachTek DXA-SLR can be had on eBay without much fuss (the one in the photo is a BeachTek DXA-5Da, and it can be mounted directly under your camera if you don’t have a rail system, as can the DXA-SLR). Both adapters have a pair of XLR outputs, and connect to the camera with a 1/8″ or 1/8″-to-1/16″ audio jack.

You can set one up with a pair of Rode NTG-2s (which are about the best you can get in a high-quality budget microphone) and have excellent sound that will last you a long time.

*Ok, ok – that’s two things. But one doesn’t work without the other.

4. A focus LEVER – not a follow focus unit

No, you don’t need to go rushing out to buy a follow focus unit just because everybody else is.

First of all, most sub-$150 follow focus units are poorly made to the point that you’re better off without them. Second, you’ll find that a focus lever will pretty much do everything you want for less than $20 – which is a heck of a lot better than plunking down $150+ on a follow focus unit, plus the price of a rail system to support it.

Yes, this little doohickey will do just as well for the time being, and will even serve as a spare gear ring once you do save up for that follow focus unit: 

Lumiere LA L60400 zoom lever ring on Canon 5D Mark II
Lumiere LA L60400 – not great, but it does the job.

If you can’t afford anything else because you blew whatever you had on your camera and lenses, heed this bit of advice. Get the lever and hold off on the 15mm rail jazz that only serves to make China a bit richer every day.

5. A decent external monitor or eyepiece

Pulling focus on a DSLR is more difficult than you think, especially if your monitor doesn’t swing out (case in point, all Canon 5D models to-date). If so, I hope you won’t have to shoot any shots from ground level.
At any rate, an external monitor – despite appearing to be a frivolous expense – will save you quite a bit of time and embarrassment re-taking shots that you flubbed up due to pulling focus incorrectly. Find one that runs on a common rechargeable camera battery (unless you’re running an external battery adapter, in which case, see if you can find one that will run off the external feed). 

Feelworld FW678-HD 7" monitor
Feelworld FW678-HD 7″ monitor. More than you’ll need, but I chose it because I wished to power the monitor from my Anton-Bauer battery with an XLR4 power input. This turned out to be the cheapest monitor available with the feature.

If all else fails, just get the eyepiece – it’s cheap, and it’ll do the trick.

-Kurt K. – “Man With the 5D”

P.S.: None of the companies listed above have paid for the above mentions, nor provided their products for testing. Most unfortunate, for me.

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