Which camera gear to buy?

Save yourself money

Every self-shooting course I teach for Landmark Film School, I get asked the same thing: which camera should I buy and what else do I need? I  realise gear is expensive and work/income has been hard to find. Few of us are exactly flush with dosh. But, if you are going to be buying pro gear then here’s some take it or leave it advice which I hope will save some of your hard earned cash. Advice will change over time – as new models come out, manufacturers drop prices of existing ones and this can make for bargains.

Subjective, personal etc…

I only write or talk about stuff I know about so I’m basing this on gear I’ve owned and/or used. I’ve never owned or used much gear made by BlackMagic, Fuji, Nikon or Panasonic (apart some some rickety old DVX200s which the NFTS used to have). Those brands may have some terrific products but my knowledge base comes from Canon and Sony – those are the two brands I’ve encountered the most in the TV industry. So, that said, at the moment, I’d go for the following…

Camera

If you want to buy new and if you’re Sony inclined, I’d go for an FX30 (left) – but make very sure you get the XLR handle with it. Have a look at Sony maestro Alister Chapman’s laudatory YouTube review. Remember it’s an APS-C smaller sensor camera. Its full-frame equivalent, the FX3, is around twice the price.

If you’re a Canon person, then I’d go for the full frame R6 mark II (below). I used to own the R6 mark 1, which was a good camera hobbled by overheating and internal recording time limits. For the whole Canon/Sony thing, see my other blog here. Both those cameras will back up as a stills camera – though the Canon is a more natural stills camera.

If you don’t need something which doubles as a stills camera, then you could go a different route and opt for a more traditional cine-type build. That will rule out buying new. You could get a second hand Canon C300 (mark II) or Sony FS7 (get the mark II) at around the same price points as those new mirrorless cameras. Both are APS-C smaller sensor size. That doesn’t bother me.

Grey markets

Hmm. This is a decision for you. I have bought several new cameras as so-called grey market purchases – that means they’re shipped from Hong Kong/China. The benefit is they will cost you less – around £500 to £1,000 less on the examples given below. The risk is that the manufacturer may not offer support to cameras sold outside the zone where their serial number is registered. I’m not sure how much this matters – in the worst case they all offer guarantees BUT I notice Sony firmware detects cameras outside their “home” area. There has been some chat online about the camera flipping to NTSC after the last update. That didn’t happen to mine, FWIW.

So, with that proviso…

In the past, I have bought from Panamoz, who have a rock solid customer support reputation and from E-Infinity. For usually around £50 more you can deal with a UK supplier so there are people you can talk to in this country if anything goes wrong with delivery – I use Cotswold Cameras and they’ve been utterly reliable and extremely competitive. The FX30 is currently at £1,699 with Cotswold Cameras and the Canon R6 mk II is £1,729. From a UK (non grey market) supplier, the FX30 is around £2,224 and the Canon R6 mk II is around £2,780. Yikes.

That’s a lot when you’re starting out but my advice is to regard it as a long term – and very economic – rental. Canon and Sony keep their resale values really well. So you buy it, use it for two years and then re-sell it at two thirds of the purchase price. Obviously the older the model and the longer you’ve used it, the less that applies.

Both those cameras will serve you well as a B cam if you’re setting up a shoot and hiring in a bigger camera like the Canon C300/C500 etc or the Sony FX6 or FX9 as an A cam. Then you can recoup some of your outlay as hire income.

Smaller isn’t always better, IMHO: you end up bolting on so many add-ons to an initially tiny camera body. But that’s for another blog.

New or second hand?

For the mirrorless cameras, I’d go for new – on the grey market but that’s my decision on risk and yours may be different. You’ll find the prices are often cheaper than second hand stuff through reputable UK suppliers like MPB. If you do choose to buy second hand, you’ll want the guarantee all the above suppliers will give you. You’ll get better resale prices through Ebay yourself but I wouldn’t buy high value items on Ebay – you don’t know where they’re been and you don’t have the assurance of the gear having been thoroughly checked before sale by someone who knows what they’re doing. So buy from reputable suppliers of used gear: I’ve recently bought from CVP, Digibroadcast, MPB, Suffusion UK, ProAv

Big tip: keep the packaging. Ridiculous but true. Keep every item of packaging and when you come to resell it, repack it meticulously and photograph it – that adds around 20% to your resale value. For cardboard. Yes, it’s a pain storing it but…

Lenses – what you want and what you need

If you’re putting together a budget lens kit then I’d start with zoom lenses for documentary work – but make sure they are f/2.8 right the way down the zoom – cheaper lenses lose light as they zoom and start at around f/4. I’d start with a so-called standard zoom. In full frame numbers, that’s something like a 24-70 f/2.8 zoom. Remember to apply a crop factor for APS-C cameras – roughly 1.5 times – to all these focal length numbers.

The second lens I’d go for is a long zoom, in the 70-200mm range. Again, you’re looking for a constant f/2.8 through the range.

If you’re flush with cash then I’d go for a fast, fixed length interview lens – something like an 85mm f/1.2 or f/1.4 lens – to give you the option to cope with lower light and soften the backgrounds of your interviewees even more.

And – my own personal thing – I’d add a 100mm f/2.8 macro to your kit. That can put a whole new dimension of lovely, gleaming close-ups into your work.

Lenses – where to buy and how to save money

For the Sony FX30, I’d buy Tamron’s 17-70 standard zoom£489 from Cotswold Cameras (left) BUT bear in mind it’s specifically an APS-C lens, meaning that you can’t use it on Sony full frame cameras if you’re planning to upgrade that way. Well, you can, but you’d need to crop the image to S35 size. There’s a massively positive review of the Tamron lens here. Remember that with the 1.5x crop factor, the lens translates to roughly the same field of vision as a standard zoom on a full frame camera – with a bit more reach.

For a full frame equivalent, I’d look at the Samyang 24-70 That’s CVP’s price but you’ll find it on Amazon for around £645.

For the Canon R6….that’s a bit more of a to-do. The R6 is an RF mount camera and RF lenses are bigger, heavier, optically sharper and more expensive. If you’ve got the dosh then buy the Canon RF 24-70

That’s a really great “cover-it-all” standard zoom with a relatively fast 2.8 aperture right the way through the zoom – the cheaper lenses lose light as you zoom in. It’s an expensive lens so try and get it second hand from the used gear sections of CVP, Digibroadcast, MPB or ProAv. At the wide end, it will cover your establishing shots and at the long end it will do you nicely as an interview lens – you could cover a whole shoot on it when you’re learning. All those suppliers will give you a guarantee. Remember you’ll be able to recoup two thirds of the cost on resale if you’re not using it.

Or – more likely – you could plunder the vast stocks of used Canon EF glass out there in the world. You’ll find EF equivalents for the focal lengths I’ve mentioned above but – for the R6 – you’ll need an EF to RF adapter Canon’s basic model is cheap but you may think it’s worth buying the one with built in ND as the R6 mk II, like other mirrorless cameras – doesn’t have built in ND filters (see below).

EF glass fits straight onto the C300 mkII  and you don’t need the ND filter so there’s a bit of money saved. One downside of Canon is they’re not so obliging of third party manufacturers making lenses for their R series cameras.

If you’re looking for a bargain…be nice!

All those used gear suppliers will negotiate on price but more so if you are buying a package of gear from them. It pays to get human on the phone and be nice – I’m sure you’d do that anyway.

Second hand suppliers often end up with a glut of a particular lens or camera so keep an eye out for that – they’ll be more amenable to bargaining if they need to shift 20 models of the same lens. So be aware how many they have in stock.

At the moment, there seems to be a lot of Canon EF 85mm 1.2 lenses out there – that would make a lovely interview lens. I might get one myself if the price drops a bit more.

Sound’s more important than picture…

So I’d get a second hand Rode NTG2 because nothing beats the quality of those longer directional mics for location sound and interview sound. You’ll need some sort of cheap pistol grip and a mic stand. And I’d get a Rode Wireless Go II set – you can pick that up pretty cheap on Ebay as Rode

have brought out a newer fancier model fairly recently. For interviews, it’s worth using a lav mic – use Rode’s own make because Sennheiser lav mics don’t line up with Rode transmitters. There – that’s two inputs/channels of sound but, FWIW, I’ve recently bought a couple of shorter, stubbier top mics from Audio Technica because that NTG2 can be a bit unwieldy when mounted on top of the camera.

Three of the cameras I’ve listed above have their own XLR sound inputs either on the body or the handle. The Canon R6 only has the 3.5mm mic jack input. So if you want to plug in XLR mics like the NTG2 then you’ll need some kind of adapter like this one (left) from Tascam. That’s a sizeable cost and is worth bearing in mind when choosing your camera.

What else do you need?

A tripod, silly. Professional models are fearsomely expensive so have a look at the new budget models from Smallrig and Sirui. Haven’t used them myself but they have decent reviews from reputable people. They’re both around £160-ish. No doubt they won’t last you a lifetime but that’s a fraction of what you’d be paying for Sachtler, Manfrotto or Vinten brands. Whatever you do, make sure you buy a video-type tripod with a platform-type fluid head. If you buy one of those ball and socket-type stills tripods, your life will be one of pain, sorrow and lamentation.

For the FX30 and R6, you’ll need to buy a variable ND filter so you can control exposure. It’s a non negotiable. Money saving tip – check the diameter of the largest lens you’re buying and buy a variable ND filter which fits that one. Then just buy a set of cheap stop-down rings. That way, you won’t have to buy several different filters for different lens diameters.

Second tip: whenever you buy a new lens, buy a skylight filter and fit it to the lens immediately and leave it fitted. That way, if the front gets scratched, it costs you £15. If the front glass on the lens proper gets scratched, well….

You’ll need back-up batteries and data cards for any camera you buy. My advice would be to buy the highest capacity you can afford. Be aware that Son’y firmware now detects third party batteries and warns you it’s at your risk. And they don’t tell you the remaining battery capacity.

I’d also buy a couple of reflectors with cheap stands and grips if you can afford them. Selens 5-in-1 are cheap and do the job. Different shapes; bigger is better.

Last thing: I’d get some gauze to diffuse light coming through windows, along with a few clips and/or gaffer tape. Something like this. Go for the biggest/widest you can find – they tend to come in frustratingly narrow strips. That will enable you to soften light coming in through windows. You may want to add some cheap black drapes and a cheap stand to hang them over – you’ll find loads of cheap stands on Ebay.

To answer the obvious question: no, I’ve no commercial link to any of the vendors linked here and I don’t get a penny for mentioning them here. Wish I did.