The majority of dSLR shooters require a light gear load as we usually do not have the luxury of a full crew to help carry our stuff. We also might move to several locations in a single day, and more equipment means slower set ups and breakdowns which can make a tight video production schedule even tighter. There are, however, a few things that I recommend even one-man-band shooters to carry around due to their light weight, small size and tremendous utility.
Zoom H4N or TASCAM DR-100
These little devices are indispensable as video production field recorders, thanks to their low $300 price tags and stunning stereo sound quality. You can use the onboard mics, which do a great job on their own, or attach external microphones, each of which can be recorded onto its own separate track in 4-Channel recording mode on the H4N. The sound quality of these affordable devices adds a tremendous amount of production value to a low-budget dSLR shoot, as dSLR onboard mics sound pretty terrible. Even if you have a higher-end field recorder and mics for your main capture, the H4N can be used to capture ambient sounds to layer in during post or do quick ADR sessions while your actors are on set. Have an assistant take your actors to a quiet area and re-record all their lines while you continue shooting. These takes can then be used to replace any garbled lines recorded by your main unit. One note: the units lack Time Code generators, meaning all syncing has to be done visually using waveforms.
Having a lightweight, collapsible monopod tucked into my gear bag has come in extremely handy when I least expected it on dSLR video productions. A decent monopod costs around 20 bucks and is way lighter than any tripod. In addition to allowing me to shoot smooth pans with my dSLR with a much smaller footprint than a tripod, I have also used my monopod as a boom pole which I attach my H4N to directly. For shoots in nature, I have used my monopod as a walking stick. A bonus is the security felt by having a six-foot pole with which to potentially beat off wild animals! In a festive mood? Instant limbo-stick! Seriously though, it’s a very versatile tool which can even be used as a stabilization device as I explain in this other ShutterDown article on Cheap or Free Stabilization/Steadicam Tricks.
18% Grey Card
Setting proper exposure is best done with a professional light meter. If you find yourself without one (they can be a bit pricey), then another solution for setting exposure quickly in the field is an 18% gray card. This is a card with a neutral color cast that contains 18% black (on a scale where 0% is pure white and 100% is pure black). You can use the card to set the exposure on your dSLR and avoid blowing out your whites. A secondary use of the card is to set your white balance. For most dSLRs it works just as well as a white card without having to carry something else in your gear kit. For even more accurate color correction in post, invest in a three-card set containing pure white, 18% gray and pure black. After you frame your shot and set exposure, shoot a few seconds of the cards and use this footage in post to adjust your white, grey and black levels in your color corrector using the eye-dropper tool. Need a free card? Wilsonart will send you FREE samples of their laminate which will come in handy in a pinch. I ordered a black, white and grey card from them in 3 x 5 sizes (choose “matte” finish for low reflectivity), and used a brass binder to hold them all together. The gray is quite close to a pro gray card, close enough to neutral to do the trick for most shooters on a budget.
When on a dSLR shoot, I like to travel as lightly as possible. For this reason, I prefer collapsible reflectors as opposed to carrying Styrofoam boards around. In addition to being inconvenient, large boards have a tendency to act like sails when not in use and fly around, potentially whacking your actors or your gear. The collapsible reflector I use shrinks to 12” when folded and put in its case, making it much less of a hazard and easy to carry around. It’s great to bounce a little fill on an actor’s face or to reduce harsh light by acting as a shade.
Extra Media Cards
Media cards, such as SD or P2 cards, can die at the worst possible moment. This unfortunate event happened to me once while setting up to shoot a live theater performance. I had tested the camera earlier and all was well. For some inexplicable reason, however, when I turned the camera on to start recording, my camera reported an SD card error. Thankfully, I had a spare, which I quickly formatted and used to record the show without further problems. What would I have done without this extra card? I shudder to think of the disappointing conversation with my clients that would have occurred had I not had that spare little card in my gear bag. p.s. While buying an extra media card, pick up at least one spare battery for your camera as well.