When School Video News asked me to come up with DSLR gear recommendations over the holiday break I felt like a kid pouring through the toy catalogs right before Christmas.
Here is a collection of my top picks. They are all things that my students and I have either purchased or built for use with our DSLR cameras.
Let’s start with the essential camera bag and basic tools that should be in every bag. We have three size bags and each has its purpose. My personal favorite
when I am out shooting is the Tamrac Velocity (http://www.tamrac.com/frame_velocity.htm)($60-80). It is a sling style bag that easily swings around to the front. It can hold the camera and a few accessories along with the essentials. Next we have the medium Canon 200DG Deluxe Gadget Bag ($5-40) that fits a ton of gear and I have found a couple at garage sales for $5. Finally we have a large backpack (look up model) that we got as part of a grant (~$250). My buddy Dave Friedle has a pretty sweet setup in a waterproof case with foam inserts (include photo and list of gear).
There are a few things that every camera bag should hold. The first is an extra battery. The Canon brand batteries are about $60 but if you do some research for your specific camera you might be able to find a knock-off battery for under $15. At that price you can get 3-4 batteries for the price of one. My policy is that every bag should have a charged battery in the camera and a charged battery in the charger, both when you check out the camera and when you check it back in. An extra memory card is also critical. It is better to have a couple class 10 8GB memory cards than one larger card since they can overheat and it is nice to have different cards to organize your footage. Every camera bag regardless of the type should also include a chunk of white cotton T-shirt (for white balance and drying moisture), lens cleaning cloths and the camera manual (fondly refered to in my class as “Manny”).
Most DSLR cameras come with a nice 3” LCD on the back, with some models including an articulating screen. One of my first accessory purchases was a Sony CLM-V55 Portable 5” LCD Monitor ($350 - http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/755854-REG/Sony_CLM_V55_CLM_V55_Portable_Monitor.html ). I was hoping to use the headphone jack to monitor audio but learned that not only does the audio only work for playing back video you already shot, but that is also the only time you get full screen playback. On a cropped sensor camera like the Canon T2i the HDMI output is also cropped. Even with the built in hood it can be difficult to see while shooting outside, especially on a sunny day, so the next thing we purchased was the Zacuto Z-Finder Pro ($350 with educational discount - http://store.zacuto.com/Z-Finder-Accessories/ ). Adorama has a similar Flashpoint product that I haven’t tested for less than half price (http://www.adorama.com/CZPPVFF.html ). We use the viewfinder more because of the way it blocks out the light outside, better focus control due to the magnification it provides, and additional contact with the face provides stability when shooting handheld.
The number one tool for teaching DSLR video techniques in the classroom in my classroom is my 10ft HDMI to mini HDMI cable and my 60” Sony television. It is a great tool for demonstrating menu settings, focusing techniques or how to set proper exposure and white balance. You can also have students connect their camera to the TV when they get back from a shoot to preview and discuss their footage.
Smooth camera movement can take a student video project to the next level. There are a variety professional gear and Do It Yourself (DIY) solutions.
Sliders are small track systems that can be mounted on a tripod or laid on the ground or set on a table.
o Flashpoint DSLR Slider 100cm (http://www.adorama.com/FPSL100.html ).
o DIY Solutions http://www.premiumbeat.com/blog/diy-camera-sliders/
Shoulder Rigs are essential for keeping the DSLR cameras steady when shooting handheld. Many of today’s Television dramas and films use this technique to create a more gritty, documentary feel.
o Flashpoint’s All-Inclusive DSLR/DV Cinema Bundle is an outstanding shoulder rig for under $500 especially when you consider it also comes bundled with a matte box system and focus ring! (http://www.adorama.com/alc/0013939/article/Flashpoint-DSLR-DV-Cinema-Bundle-Hands-On-Overview-Adorama-Photography-TV ) Not only does a matte box system allow you to control the light hitting the lens you can also quickly add filters. I highly recommend getting a variety of ND filters for shooting outside. The focus ring is a huge plus for DSLR video because it gives you much better focusing control but plan on spending some time practicing. If you are looking for a super simple and relatively cheap solution I just discovered the FocusShifter for $50. I talk more about this next month when I cover cameras and lenses. (http://www.adorama.com/ENFSHIFT.html )
A cage is a great option when you want to go handheld and need to attach things like lights and microphones. They usually consist of bars that surround your camera and often have form handles on the sides and standard shoe attachments on the top. We built one out of PVC (http://www.instructables.com/id/Making-A-Steady-Cam-Type-Rig-For-Your-HD-Vid-Capab/ ). For an inexpensive professional solution I am considering the purchase of a Gearbox GB-1 from Photography & Cinema (http://www.photographyandcinema.com/products/gearbox-video-camera-accessory-cage ) The Xgrip by Opteka (http://opteka.com/xgrip.aspx) is a favorite of my student skater/snowboarders for holding their cameras while riding. At about $25 it should be a no brainer.
Battery Grips are not part of a camera rig but once you get your camera nestled into one of these rigs you don’t want to have to pull it off to change the battery. Not only does a battery grip double your charge by using two batteries you can access the batteries off the side or back making it easy to switch them out. Here is where I recommend going with a brand like Vello instead of your camera brand to save around 50%. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z8ucYuxx6YE )
Dollies are a great way to create smooth motion especially if you want to follow a character.
o A used wheel chair makes a great dolly on smooth ground and doubles as a prop! Don’t spend over $50. You might even want to start by asking your PTA.
o A small group of my students built a track system dolly out of plywood and rollerblade wheels. It uses PVC pipe as rails which allows you to smoothly move the dolly over uneven ground like grass. The trick is to put a couple sand bags on the end so you don’t roll off and a couple sand bags on the dolly to give it a little weight. http://www.microfilmmaker.com/tipstrick/Issue3/dolly1.html
o A skateboard with an old tripod head mounted on it make a great tabletop dolly or can be very effective for low angle shots.
o Another option I am really interested in trying out is the new crop of small wheeled dollies like the CineSkates from Kickstarter Cinetics. http://cinetics.com/
A couple other things that really come in handy include a light weight on-camera LED light like the Flashpoint 312. http://www.adorama.com/FPVL30L.html I like it because it has a dimmer, can change between daylight and tungsten, and uses the old Sony batteries that most schools have left over from our legacy Digital 8 or Mini DV cameras. When you want to reflect this light I recommending using foam core boards. I have scored a ton of these for free. Just ask the people cleaning up at the end of the next technology conference you attend. All that signage gets recycled, so why not in your classroom. Another neat tool I recently acquired is a digital calibration target that makes is easier for setting exposure and white balance.
Well if you take half of my advice you will have either blown your entire budget on cool toys or spent most of your weekend up to your elbows in PVC and plywood. I try to purchase locally as much as possible because these stores offer my students and I valuable advice, training and tech support. I really like the Flashpoint products from Adorama because they offer the winning combination of quality construction at a budget price. http://www.adorama.com/catalog.tpl?op=brands&brand=flashpoint
Just make sure to involve your students in the decisions and solicited as much help from your PTA as possible. I will cover camera/lens combinations in February and audio solutions in March.
Joe Dockery teaches digital media courses at Mount Si High School in the Snoqualmie Valley School District, just east of Seattle, Washington. He weaves service learning into all aspects of his curriculum to ensure his students receive an authentic learning experiences. Dockery also consults and trains nationwide as an Adobe Education Leader. He has taught courses for Washington State University, Seattle Pacific University, The Puget Sound Educational Service District, and a variety of other school districts.
The Washington State Golden Apple Award
Radio Shack National Technology Teacher of the Year Award
Educator of the Year Award from the Snoqualmie Valley Schools Foundation ISTE’s “Best of the Best”
ISTE “Making IT Happen”
Adobe Education Leader "Impact" Award
Pacific Northwest Key Club Advisor of the Year