Panasonic Gh4

Jan 152014

This is the first post of a series of budget related posts I am writing. I will eventually write articles for budgets up to $5,000. I write these posts with one slight assumption: that you have a computer and means of editing video on your computer. Particularly, I hope you have software that can stabilize footage. Handheld video shot by most people is usually way too jiggly and so a program like After Affects can fix that up nicely via Warp Stabilizer. The best stabilizer used by prosumers is Mercalli V2. If you want to read my $1000 film gear buying list, check it out here.

$500 is a Ton of Money

Cheap film gear sucks for the most part. Cheap tripods break, cheap audio recorders have noisy preamps and poor microphones, etc… But, you can still get a functional filmmaking setup for under $500. You can get by with less than $500 if you buy a cheap used DSLR (a T2i or a GH1), a camera adapter, and some cheap lenses. In fact if you have an iPhone 4 or better (or a smartphone with equivalent video capabilities) you can shoot decent video and only need to address your crappy audio.

If you are buying new gear, this is what I would recommend:

  • Canon T3i Body ($385)
  • Canon 50mm 1.8 ($100)
  • SD Card ($15)

Or, a better (short term) deal in my opinion would be:

  • Canon T3i with 18-55IS lens ($420)

While the Canon 50mm 1.8 is considered a “better” lens than the 18-55IS, the 18-55IS will make shooting video easier. First off, you pay very little for it when it comes bundled with the DSLR body (a mere ~$40 upgrade). Secondly, on a crop sensor 50mm is pretty tough to hold steady, so the advantage of having a wider focal length and image stabilization is wonderful.

  • SD Card ($15)
  • Dolica GX600B200 Proline GX Series 60 or Dolica GX650B204 Proline GX Series 65 ($45-$55)
  • Audio-Technica ATR-3350 lavalier mic ($18).

Now keep in mind, while you get more “bang for your buck” with the second set of gear, most of the gear is prone to rapid upgrades. The tripod is a bit weak, the lavalier is low quality, and the IS lens is a bit slow – limiting your low light shots. So my advice is to buy few items, buy quality and save money towards your next purchase. This way, over time you will amass decent gear rather than a plethora of garbage that will have no resale value.

Also, here is a disclaimer: Don’t buy a digital recorder if you don’t plan on using it. To use a digital recorder properly you need to put it near the source (IE: next to a person who is talking). Furthermore you will want to attach a small mic to the recorder (like a lavalier) to get much better audio (the mic can be placed closer to the source). A big mistake people make with mics and recorders is keeping them attached to the camera rig/tripod, far away from the source that they are trying to capture. So if you don’t have the man power to work a mic and a camera properly, forgo the mic/recorder until you can properly record audio.

So here is my alternate recommendation:

Buy Used DSLR Film Gear and Save Money

  • Used Panasonic LUMIX GH1 ($220)

Hack the camera (Lpowell 70 Mbps hack, Flow Motion v2 Patch, Max Latitude Native 24/25p hack etc…). This camera is a bit shitty by today’s standards, but that is only if you look at the specs. If you actually watch footage, you are giving up nothing compared to other entry level DSLRs.

  • Buy a used lens ($40 – $300)

Either get a vintage lens with an adaptor and save money, or buy an MFT lens such as the Panasonic Panasonic Lumix 14mm f/2.5 G. Personally, I am not really an MFT kind of guy, so I would not invest too much in MFT lenses because I know that I would eventually upgrade the GH1 to a Canon body. The reason for this is that Canon is amazing with Magic Lantern and has a wonderful selection of lenses. In fact Canon is releasing many new lenses that have Image Stabilization (a very useful feature for video).

So the choice is yours. Are you going to choose MFT lenses and upgrade to a GH-2 or a GH-3 in the future? Or are you going to skimp on lenses for now because you might upgrade to a Canon body down the line and you don’t want to invest in lenses that won’t be compatible with Canon. Either way its not a big deal; worst comes to worst you sell your body and the two or three lenses you have purchased.

Buy a used vintage lens and a (new) adapter, or buy a used MFT lens. ($40 – $300). Vintage lenses are a good bang for your buck because they don’t have lots of features that people desire (its not a big deal for video shooters, mostly an inconvenience for photographers).

  • Zoom H1 ($100)

Buy a digital recorder (only if you plan on using it). You can get a Tascam DR-05 and save about $20, or you can buy a Tascam DR-07mkII ($120) and have a mic that will be better for recording (the microphones can be positioned to improve the stereo image). The prices I am quoting are for buying new. You can get a used Tascam DR-05 for about $60.

  • Audio-Technica ATR-3350 Lavalier ($18)

Buy a lavalier (don’t waste your money a cheap shotgun mic, save that for later). You can go cheap since it will be a huge improvement over DSLR audio. I own an Audio-Technica ATR-3350 which is very cheap and provides a lot of versatility due to the long cord. Pairing the lavalier with a digital recorder means you can be very far away from your camera and still get clean audio.

  • NEEWER CN-160 160PCS LED panels ($30 each)

If you went cheap on the lens, or decided to skip on audio, you still have money left over for a light panel. I would get one (or two)

  • SD Card ($30)
  • Dolica GX600B200 Proline GX Series 60 or Dolica GX650B204 Proline GX Series 65 ($45-$55)

Spend the rest of you money on a cheap tripod (that you will eventually upgrade). The ball head on the Dolica has a really smooth pan. But you will not be able to pan and tilt in any direction like a conventional pan head (because this tripod is aimed for photographers, you have a ball head on this tripod). Not a big deal since we are on a shoestring budget. Panning motions (horizontal) are much more common than tilt (vertical) camera motions, so this tripod head will do for the time being. The logic here is that you will someday save up a couple hundred dollars and buy a good tripod and a good fluid motion pan head. But for now, the Dolica will do.

Wow, you get 10x more when buying used and it won’t depreciate as much.

What Would I Buy If I Had $500 to Spend Towards Filimmaking Gear?

  1. I would buy a used Canon T3i (the swivel screen alone makes it worth it over the Canon T2i) ($300)
  2. I would buy an M42 to EF adapter (I like Fotodiox adapters) ($12)
  3. I would buy a vintage lens or two:
  • Pentax Super Takumar 35mm F3.5 ($70)
  • Pentax Super Takumar 50mm F1.4 ($100)

So, technically I could get away with ~$380 if I only get one lens.  This leaves me with a budget for a good recorder or a decent tripod (and no head). I could buy a Manfrotto 055XPROB for $150 new, or for about $120 used. Alternatively, I can buy a Slik 700dx for $100 brand new. I think the Slik is the way to go, if I can find one used then I am really cookin’.  So now I have reached the $480 mark of my $500 budget. What do I do with the final $20? I buy and SD card of course! And I still don’t have a tripod head to along with my tripod legs!

All that is left is saving up a for a fluid head to put onto my tripod and an audio recording setup. I think my method is the best method. You cannot have your cake and eat it. The T3i is a capable body that will last you many years. The old vintage lenses are about as sharp as modern day lenses and will be a pleasure to use in the field. I will need an extra $40-$100 for a functioning pan head. And I will have a setup that will be much nicer than any of the previous setups I have mentioned. Finally I would add an $18 Lavalier that I would plug into the camera (no digital recorder). While this setup is not as versatile as my previously mentioned GH1 setup it will last me MUCH LONGER, and it will be much more rugged/effortless to use.

So my final word of advice is: look towards your future. Take your current budget, multiply it by two (or three), and incrementally work towards that higher budget gear. Click here if you want to see what I would buy with a $1000 film gear budget!

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