Making the Right Choice Pt 1 – Camera and Lens

Just look at all those choices. How in the world do you choose? Price? Popularity? Peer Pressure?

In a world where technology changes every daily, it’s pretty scary to overextend yourself for a product that might be obsolete in 3 months. With any gear I always recommend renting until you can pay cash, but professional camera packages can get pretty expensive, even the lower end of professional cameras ~$18,000 is a lot to save for, so most likely you’ll be getting a loan. This is not a new conversation, lord knows it’s been a hot topic since the release of the Canon 5DMII DSLR in 2008, but since I’m a frequent contributor to a variety of online forums I figured I’d share my advice in a detailed article so I can save myself the time of writing the same thing over and over and over and…

So what’s a person to do? What camera is the best? What should you buy?

I approach this question slightly different than some other folks. Rather than give you hard facts on camera specs I’d rather give you what I believe to be practical advice on what will get you more work and will leave you feeling secure with your purchase decision. So let’s get into it. Oh and my apologies in advance for the times when I get a little off topic and start to discuss the business side of things a little bit : )

So, the first question you need to ask yourself especially if you are fairly new-

Where do you want to be working in 3-5 years?

What I mean by this question is what area of production do you want to be consistently working in 3-5 years from now? If you can answer this question it will help tremendously on the decision of the type of camera (if any) you should buy.

If you are looking to work for the Networks shooting interviews for 60 Minutes or simply shooting as a freelancer for your local news station, the type of camera you buy and the reasoning behind your purchase decision will be very different than if you want to start your own production company to service small business clients. Likewise, shooting high end commercials will demand different needs in a camera than shooting weddings and events. Bottom line, if you know what you want to be shooting, buying a camera will become much easier.

I know for myself, I don’t like to shoot events or weddings (in fact I refuse to shoot weddings). I prefer a controlled production environment like a commercial, corporate, narrative film or sit down interviews where I can shape the light to help tell my story. I’m also somewhat of a perfectionist and that makes it difficult to shoot in a run and gun environment. I make it a point to never shoot for local news stations because I simply don’t like that kind of shooting. And weddings, there is absolutely nothing wrong with shooting them and you can make A LOT of money, but I simply don’t enjoy shooting them and weddings are definitely one of those areas you really have to enjoy to be good at shooting them. So what type of camera works better for shooting weddings vs shooting news? Keep reading.

News/Networks (ENG or Electronic News Gathering)

This is one of the more expensive areas to break into as a freelancer because of the high priced ENG gear. If you want to break in as a Network freelancer you’ll need to find out what type of footage the stations prefer (XDCam, P2 etc). With News, often times work will come to you based on the camera you own more than your skill. It’s a fast paced environment and you need a camera that is all inclusive and one you can put on your shoulder without a shoulder rig. It needs to be able to record the producers requested frame rate (usually either 29.97 or 59.94 not usually 23.98), the requested codec, and also Broadcast approved color space. 4:2:2 used to be mandatory for color space but they will now take 4:2:0.

As an example of your gear booking you the job, I know a guy who made a killing with his Sony F900 Broadcast Camera because he owned one of three that were in town and it was in high demand for Network jobs at the time. Made him rich. He is a very skilled operator, but it definitely made him money none the less. ENG style cameras for News/Network jobs are still the way to go and the prices are well into five figures. The Varicam in the picture at the beginning of this post is $60,000, however, you can get in the door with something decent for around ~$18,000.

Small Production Company

This is the cheapest and easiest way to get started now that gear has become so affordable. It used to be in the olden days of pre-2002, the gear was so expensive and the choices were so limited, you had to go work at a News Station to get experience running a camera because no one could afford the gear. Now it’s a whole different game. You can buy a Canon 60D, create a website from a template and apply for a business license and you will technically be a business. That’s scary! If you start your own little production company, it really doesn’t matter what you buy as long as the features of the camera meets your needs. When shooting stuff for small clients, all they care about is the end product, they don’t know the difference between a $500 camera and an $18,000 camera. That means if you know how to light and to compose pleasing shots to tell your story, a $500 camera could be good enough for what you shoot. With that said, there is a whole lot more to running a business than owning gear, you need to be ready for the “business” side because you will spend two-thirds of your time on the business side vs. the creative side.

Weddings/Events/Reality Shows

This one is tricky for me to comment on because I rarely shoot events anymore but if I were forced to shoot a wedding I would want a camera that can record continuously as to not miss any part of the ceremony since you only get one shot at it and I would also prefer audio straight to the camera. With that said almost every wedding shooter I know uses DSLR’s these days and I’m sure they have a system figured out to get around the limited record times. I bow down to the Wedding Videographer, I don’t know how you do it, not for me!

For events I prefer ENG camera’s because they are so ergonomic to run around with and everything is built in like ND filters, Audio and Servo zoom. Also when you need to change settings you have physical switches instead of having to go into a menu. This makes it so much easier when walking along side someone when you go from outside to inside or vice versa. You can change white balance and other settings by feel so you can keep your eyes on the shot. I feel this is a must for a situation like run and gun events where if you blink you could miss something. Also, the zoom lenses on ENG cameras usually have more range and are really sharp.

I lumped “Reality” or scripted Reality Shows into this category because they shoot on the same type of cameras that I would recommend for shooting events. In fact, they use the same cameras as news and also the smaller Sony FS7's, GoPro’s, Canon C300′s and other similar cameras. Usually they will have a few full sized Broadcast Cameras and then supplement with the smaller cameras. It’s all about capturing everything that happens and sifting through the junk later. The use of the smaller cameras makes it a lot cheaper to break into this market as a freelancer. Many shows now supplement the ENG camera’s with DSLR’s. As a side note, in the Reality world, unless you are one of the main ENG camera operators, expect your rate to be much lower than normal cam op rates

Commercial/Film Work/Network Drama

If you want to get involved in high end Commercial, Film or TV (Drama), you will be around cinema style camera’s.  Any Alexa is the hot item right now as well as RED Dragon and also C300. This is where a lot of us aspire to be and it is the most difficult area to break into. The truth is, in this area you don’t need to own one of these cameras, very few people do. I myself haven't purchased a camera in 10 years and I’ve worked with a number of very experienced DP’s who shoot features and commercials and don’t own a camera. You simply need to be experienced at using these cameras and it needs to be known that you are. Most DP’s at this level drool over lenses more than camera’s : ) My advice here is to get on as many sets as possible that are shooting on these formats. RED will be more common to run across as more people own RED than Alexa.

This is a very tough market to break into and it's essential that you know lighting. Establishing the look of the project using lighting (with the Director’s vision in mind) is traditionally the main job of the DP. It is only recently that people are considered DP’s if they don’t know lighting (which is not accurate in my opinion) 

If you are lucky enough to be on these gigs you will be working with a slew of veterans who can see through bullshit faster than you can dish it out. They’ve been doing this for 25 or 30 years and they were working in the film days when you had to know lighting. If you are inexperienced and find yourself on a set like this the best thing you can do is seem eager to learn, work fast and safely, and be humble. If you don’t know how to light you really should be considered a Camera Op though the term “Camera DP” gets thrown around a lot. If you are reading this and thinking this sounds like you then what are you waiting for…get on learning how to light! Start small (interviews) and work up from there. Your work will look WAY better, you’ll be more respected and you will be more valuable on set. Lighting is a never ending process, you will never know it all and that’s why I love it so much.

So how do you work your way into the higher end market?

Most people sort of fall into it one way or another but here is my advice on things you can do to help your chances-

-Learn how to Light (Practice, Practice, Practice)

-Don’t be an Asshole (You can be confident without being cocky)

-You need experience on RED/Alexa (visit your local rental house and they will be happy to set one up so you can get acclimated with the menu)

-You need to understand lens selection (know how and why we choose the lenses we do for specific shots)

-Learn to pay attention to background lighting (not the back lighting on your subject, rather the lighting used to shape the look of the background in the scene)

There’s a whole lot more to it including a lot of luck, but the things mentioned above will only make you better in the long-run.

Other things to consider when looking to buy a camera.

Can I pay this off quickly or better yet pay cash for it?

If you can pay cash or pay off the camera quickly it’s instantly more valuable to you because you will make a profit sooner. If you can pay cash for a 5DMIII for a few thousand bucks and get steady work with it, then it’s a great camera purchase. It takes a lot longer to pay off an Alexa Package that costs $80,000 (no lenses) than a 5D Package for $5500 (including some lenses) If your day rate with camera is $2800 for an Alexa and $1250 for a 5D, it’s going to take a hell of a lot longer to start making a profit from the Alexa. So at that point which is more valuable to you, the Alexa or the 5D? 5D all the way.

Here is another thing I want to mention, a really common mistake people make when first getting into this business. This is a mistake that has become more common since gear has become really affordable. It goes like this:

Say you rent a camera for the jobs you book, let’s say it’s a Canon 5d package with a couple lights and you charge a pretty normal rate of $1250/day for that type of package but you only take home $850 after you pay for the rental. Since it’s hard to stay competitive while charging a normal rate maybe it’s six to eight months later when this income (combined with all that Starbucks change you’ve been collecting) finally allows you to buy that $5500 Canon 5D package mentioned above. At this point you may be really tempted to think “Sweet, now I can charge less because I don’t have to pay for the camera rental anymore! Jobs will be so much easier to book yadda yadda yadda……”

Hold on there cowboy! This is the wrong way to think and here’s why. For those six months you were closing jobs at the normal rate out of necessity because you had to make up the difference for the rental.  Why on earth would you now give up the $400 additional profit you are now able to collect. You can now book fewer jobs and make the same amount of money. You have just entered the world of success as a freelancer or business owner.

Lesson here? Charge for your gear, you are completely missing the point if you don’t. 

I’ve seen this with mid-sized production companies also. They will use their “in-house” business model as an excuse to not charge for their gear and they use it as a selling point. It makes absolutely no sense to me because inevitably they will have to add gear for a job and then what? They can either nickel and dime the client or try and hide it somewhere else. Chances are they will hide it because if they don’t the client will say “Why am I paying for these 3 lights that only cost $75 when I’ve never paid for those 30 lights?” What is the point of an “in-house” business model if you aren’t collecting the profit on the gear?

Lesson here? Charge for your gear.

Gear doesn’t grow on trees. I sure wish it did, I would plant 50 Kino Flo trees : )

Can I buy something that will make me money as a rental?

This is a bit riskier as technology keeps changing. Also, you have to pay for a different type of equipment insurance if it’s a rental. I opted to invest my money in lighting rather than camera and I have never regretted it. Lighting doesn’t change nearly as fast as camera, and it holds it’s value better especially Kino Flo. I make additional money renting  just my lighting gear. Cameras are a lot riskier and stressful since there is more that can break. I really don’t recommend this but if you are thinking about it, I would look at lighting over camera as a source of rental income. Cinema lenses are a great source of rental income but the buy in is very high.

If you are going to be the editor you need to ask yourself-

Can my system handle the type of footage this camera shoots?

As 4K has become very common and 5K with the RED Epic and now 6K (geez make it stop) the software and hardware continues to scramble to keep up. Make sure your system can handle the footage. Nothing puts the breaks on faster during a project than a major editing issue. Test, test, test. If you search hard enough, you can find samples of nearly every type of footage online to download so you can test your system. It doesn’t have to be RED 5K to bog down your computer. GoPro footage can be difficult to work with and a RAW DSLR Timelapse will just crush your computer if you aren’t prepared for it.

Lenses – Cinema or Stills glass?

Cinema PL mount lenses are expensive. When buying a camera, lenses are a big factor. Still photography lenses (SLR/DSLR) are way cheaper to buy or rent than Cinema PL Mount lenses however still photography lenses make it a lot harder to pull accurate focus when the subject is moving.  And while somewhat trivial, they aren’t as consistent between lenses since they are measured in f stops vs t stops.

Still photography lenses have autofocus while Cinema glass does not. Finally, manual still photography lenses (manual meaning you adjust the iris with your hand on the lens) have a solid click between f stops and do not like to be set between hard stops whereas cinema lenses are smooth when opening and closing the iris allowing on the fly changes that don’t shake the camera or make noise. One other feature with newer sets of lenses including the ones in the picture below is that they all have the same size casing as far as diameter is concerned. This allows the use of the same threaded filter size for the entire set. With lenses that are all different sizes, having to make adjustments to camera accessories will be more common after a lens change. This takes time which is the enemy of a production day.

A popular lens set right now based on function, price, look, and versatility are the Zeiss CP.2 Super Speed series lenses. (same as the set pictured above only they are t/1.5 not t/2.1 as pictured) They cover full frame DSLR sensors and Super35 like Alexa and RED and they have great looking bokeh. The coolest feature of all by far is that they have interchangeable mounts so they will fit on almost all of the most popular professional cameras. At ~$4500 per lens they are a great deal. (Additional mounts are extra) They rent for $75/lens so it’s affordable to try out. Another notable feature is the 14 blade aperture that gives you round bokeh at every T-stop. Many people shoot wide open to get round bokeh, but it’s not always the best idea especially say with f/1.2 or f/1.4 lenses. Not only is your depth of field a mere sliver but most lenses (dare I say all lenses) are not as sharp wide open as they are at say f/4.  Here is a short clip of a Zeiss CP.2 lens opening and closing followed by a video still example of the bokeh. The video still was pulled from a shot that was captured at a t/5.6 and yet the bokeh as you see is round.

So I hope this gets the wheels turning if you are struggling with buying a camera. Feel free to start comment conversations if you have specific questions and I’ll answer them for you.

Christopher MeurerComment