Friday, 6 January 2012


Just because you’re shooting on a ridiculously tight budget (and trust us, we are right now) – doesn’t mean you have to skimp on all the essential accessories needed for a professional shoot. In fact, hunt around and you can get yourself a pretty impressive set up without breaking the bank.

One of the first accessories we purchased was a “Vari-ND” filter. ND (neutral density) filters are used to help control the intensity of light when shooting, and are essential when shooting outdoors in bright sunlight. In the old days you’d have to buy a set of ND filters of various strengths to give yourself true control over the lighting. These days you can buy Vari ND filters which are the equivalent of several ND filters in one; you change the setting by turning the filter when screwed on to the end of the lens. 

This was one piece of kit we didn't opt for the cheaper option, as when it comes to any kind of glass in front of your lens, you don’t want to take chances with inferior quality. We went for the Vari-ND filter mark II from Light Craft Workshop, as they had a good reputation. It’s not cheap at about £70 (there are even more expensive ones out there) and there are cheaper ones available by respectable companies such as Kodak. We just thought we’d play it safe with this one.
The Light Craft Workshop Vari ND Filter

Talking of shooting in bright sunlight, the problem with the LCD screen on DSLRs is that you can’t see a thing in that kind of lighting condition. This is where a Viewfinder comes in handy. They attach to the back of the camera and cover the LCD screen allowing you to look through the eyepiece to see a clear view of the LCD screen which they also magnify. They’re a pretty essential piece of kit.  Again, the well-known makes are pretty pricey, but we found a viewfinder on E-bay from some seller based in Hong Kong, who was selling some for a good price. The reviews seemed pretty good, so we ordered one. 

The company that makes the viewfinder is called Perfect, it’s not, but it is adequate and does the job.

Next on our list was a battery grip. These attach to the bottom of the camera and allow you to use two batteries at the same time, giving you twice as long before you have to switch batteries. Considering the batteries are so cheap, this is a great way to get more from your camera. Most (including ours) come with a special cassette to allow the camera to take AA batteries also. The battery grip also adds a vertical grip to your camera, with extra shutter release and other controls built in – makes shooting vertical much easier and comfortable. Canon’s own make was pretty dear at about £100, but we found one for half that on Ebay.

The battery grip for Canon DSLRs

We also needed to get a decent external microphone. Although the Magic Lantern firmware we installed on our Rebel T2i/550D does a pretty decent job of improving the on-board mic, it’s nowhere near good enough for professional sound recording. We went for a Rode shotgun video mic which fits on the flash shoe. It claims to be studio quality, and the sound quality seems to be pretty good. We also purchased a “Dead Cat” (hate that name) windshield for when shooting audio outside.

Taking sound seriously is important if you're serious about film-making.

One thing that’s been on our list of must-haves for a while has been a Matte Box. A Matte Box is a device that fits on the end of the camera’s lens to block unwanted glare from bright light. It also functions as a filter holder, allowing you to place various filters in front of the lens.

We wanted one of these, not because they look so cool, but when shooting in strong light situations, especially with the FD primes we noticed a circular area of flatter contrast in the middle of the image. We tried several larger lens hoods but none of them were any good at eliminating this “flat spot”.  This is a big problem when you’re a big fan of natural looking lens-flares.

We had our eyes on a couple of Matte Boxes with large doors (known as French flags) but they were all ridiculously expensive. Then we came across one on Ebay that was retailing at about £50. It’s from Opteka and is labelled as one of their “Professional series”. The low price made us question this, but reading up on some of the reviews, most seemed very positive, so we ordered one to try out.

The Rebel T2i/550D kitted out and ready to shoot.

It’s not actually a true Matte Box as there is no holder for filters to fit into, but we wanted a way to shade the lens from unwanted glare so it suited our needs perfectly and for the fraction of a cost of anything else currently out there.

If you are going to use a Matte Box, you’re going to need a support system – two rods that run the length of the Camera. We had to buy the support system separately, but we did find a good deal on one after a quick search on Ebay.

While shooting interviews for our current project, “All That Remains”, which is being partly shot using our Rebel T2i/550D we opted to shoot all the DSLR footage hand held. However, after 30 mins we could feel it in our shoulders. As we were stuck in Japan, there wasn't a lot we could do about it at the time, but when we returned to England we knew we had to find a good device for hand-held shooting.

While looking around we came across a DSLR rig for about £60 on ebay. What’s great about this rig is the way you can customise it – it’s like three or four rigs rolled into one! We haven’t really fully road tested it yet, but it feels comfortable and the early test shots we took came out good.

The multi rig we picked up on Ebay for about £60.

We'll try to add some test footage shot using this rig when we get chance.

Also on our list of accessories was a Portable LED light as we knew we would be going abroad to film interviews for our new film project. After a fair bit of hunting around we found a 160 piece LED light for £45.

It fits on the flash shoe mount of the camera, but also came with a handle that fits on to a light stand, for more creative lighting opportunities.

This really proved itself while filming in Japan. It takes several types of batteries, we bought a couple of Sony NP-FH70’s each of them lasted for hours and the light itself was powerful yet soft. It was a brilliant buy all in all.

Below are a couple of stills from an interview we filmed in Japan for "All That Remains". They illuminate the value of a bargain buy.

There are a few other things on our “to get” list such as a follow focus system and an external monitor. Speaking of which, we’ve come across an app on the android market that claims to turn your smartphone into an external monitor for just over £5. It’s still in beta stages, although it’s available for download, so we might give that a try, but, that will be the subject of another blog…