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18 min read

When I bought my first camera I had no idea what I was doing.

It was very early on and I just needed something to shoot with. I had a camera, a couple of lenses, and a monopod. It was the bare minimum to get me started. I read some reviews and filled up my virtual cart at B&H faster than a ninja can move from one rooftop to another. Then over the years we upgraded to better cameras and fancier rigs but that’s only part of the equation in the big swirly vortex that represents the abyss of gear purchases.

Let’s face it, we all love our nerdy filmmaking toys. I’m not much of a gear head but every now and then I too will have a bit of gear lust, particularly for the things that will really make a huge difference in production.

So the question then becomes, how do you sort through the countless options out there?

Now to be clear, there is the gear that we need and the gear that we want. We aren’t talking about gear we need, for that list check out our complete Ultimate Ninja Gear Guide.

Here we’re talking about the nice-to-haves, the things that we can live without if we had to but are game changers that can push our visual storytelling to a whole other level.

Here are 5 tools that will seriously help you level up your skills as a DP

These are listed in no particular order and span across categories from lighting to camera accessories. As we go through each one we’ll talk about what these tools can do, and give you a breakdown of each of the following to help you make an informed choice of whether these are a great fit for you.

  • Price Range
  • Key features
  • Review
  • Example
  • Where to buy or rent

Ok, ready? 5 tools that will help you go from good to great. First up, one of our favorite lights!

1) Profoto 800W Daylight Air

So much about cinematography revolves around light and the shaping of light so what better place to start than with one of my favorite lights, the Profoto 800W Daylight Air HMI. HMI stands for hydrargyrum medium-arc iodide, which is a fancy technical way to say “really bright, high-powered light.”

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This isn’t a tool for beginners, but when you’re ready to take things to another level, an HMI is definitely worth considering.

No exaggeration – when we added an HMI to our kit, it opened up a world of possibilities for us.

See without an HMI, we would never be able to shoot into a window without blowing out the highlights, and we just wouldn’t do that because it’s such a huge distraction. Unfortunately, this meant we were limited in what we were able to do, where we could shoot, and how we could make the scene feel–and that’s not Story First filmmaking.

Without a high powered light we were also at the mercy of the weather. If it’s a cloudy day, there isn’t any chance of us making it look sunny even if the story calls for it, but with an HMI we can essentially bring our own sun, giving us a ton more options to play with.

Price – The basic kit starts at $6,630 and includes all necessary pieces. Modifiers are extra but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Key features – We’ve flown hundreds of thousands of miles with ours and it’s still going strong. It has great build quality and a ton of different modifiers that you can swap out across the entire family of Profoto lights. These modifiers, like the cinereflector and lens kit, have various sizes of soft boxes and a beauty dish. These are an additional cost but so incredibly helpful in helping you shape the light, and make the most out of what it has to offer.

It’s flicker-free ballast runs both 120/240V and has a silent mode for when you want to keep things quiet. And for you techies out there, this works with the Profoto radio remote so you can wireless dial in your settings without having to bring down a c-stand or touch the light–magic!

Review – This is our go-to HMI that we’ve added onto our standard lighting kit.

It’s great as a large powerful source for a solid key light (with the softbox or through a large piece of diffusion) but we often put it outside the room and blast it through a window as a background light. Add a 1/4 or 1/2 CTO gel to warm it up a bit and we’ve brought the sun back into the room on a cloudy day, adding in so much life to a room that would otherwise be dead.

And if that isn’t versatile enough it all fits in (1) Tenba transport case that weighs just under the 70lb airline limit and runs off a standard household circuit.

If by chance you need even more light, check out the Arri M18. It’s a bit pricier but totally worth it if you can swing it. This is usually our next larger setup and one we’ve rented plenty of times. It’s relatively small for the power you get out of it and works for smaller crew sizes, and runs off a regular 20-amp circuit.

Example – Last week we worked on a scene with two kids in an uplifting story about how their mother is able to spend time with them at home because of her work arrangement. Naturally we’d want this scene to feel bright, open, and full of life. Unfortunately for us it was cloudy  and rainy, with no chance of sunlight at all. Luckily for us, we had our Profoto HMI so we put it outside the window, warmed it up with a 1/2 CTO gel and added a branchaloris (fancy term coined by the awesome @mjeppsen, it’s basically a branch with leaves) to break up the light and act as a makeshift cookie, and boom–instant sunlight through trees!

ProfotoBTS from Amina

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Buy / Rent – These aren’t cheap but it really does add a ton of lighting options that help you get through tough situations. A great way to figure out if this is a good fit for what you need is to rent it. The Profoto is a bit harder to find as it’s a relatively new player in the video world of continuous lighting but you can check out their site here for rental locations in your area. The Arri M18 is an industry staple and you can rent that from most grip houses in any major city. And if you love it as much as we do, you can buy it directly from B&H.

2) Good ol’ standard ND gel

Say you’re shooting in a room with lots of windows and you find yourself either exposing for your subject and blowing out the windows, or holding the exterior but severely underexposing your subject. It’s like picking between what’s bad and what’s worse!

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So what do you do? Add more light.

Sure you can add all the light you want to a room to try and find a balanced image but at some point it’s just not practical. How many lights would you need to bring in if you were shooting in a huge room? Big lights are expensive, they’re hot, and don’t work well if you’re stuck in a cramped space. And even if you could bring in more light, it still might not be enough.

When that happens you need some good ol’ ND gel to help cut the light from the outside.

ND stands for neutral density and it’s basically a roll of tinted see-through film that reduces the intensity of the light coming through it without affecting its color. You’d put this film on the windows in your frame and voila–it’s like putting sunglasses on certain parts of your image so no one has to squint because the windows are overexposed.

Essentially, this is a low tech way of tackling the same challenge we mentioned above except this one is much cheaper. Unlike a light you can move and alter to do different things, ND gel only does one thing but it does it exceptionally well.

Price – You can get a large roll of Rosco cinegel for roughly $120, a smashing deal for what it can do.

Key Features – Gels come in different gradings with the amount of light it’s rated to remove. These are manufactured so that it is a true ND that imparts little to no color change to the light as well as the number of stops it takes off. They generally come in increments of 1 to 3 stops, with N.3 rated to reduce light by one stop, N.6 two stops, and N.9 three stops. You get it as a roll and just cut it to the desired length needed for each location’s window size.

Review – It’s low cost, adaptable, scalable, and simple to use. The trick is to realize you need it during pre-pro and come prepared with it. You can task a PA or grip with applying one during setup, which can happen one of two ways. You can go the full squeegee and water route and have it affixed to the window or if you’re in a hurry and can hide the edges just tape it on neatly. The benefit of the latter is that it’s quicker and you can remove it easily when you’re done and possibly reuse it, but it likely won’t have as clean of a look as doing it right. The great thing is that you can put it on as large or as small of a window as needed, it’s completely scalable to the room you’re working with.

Example – We were shooting a commercial last year in southern California, where the sun beats down overhead daily. The scene was set in a large restaurant with expansive windows that lined every wall, allowing in a lot of light. And this was fabulous because we wanted that bright open feeling, but the windows were allowing in too much light. We had multiple HMIs flanked outside shining in to bring up the ambient lighting but all the back windows were still blowing out.

So what did we do? We put ND gel all along the back wall of windows.

This took a considerable amount of time (about 2.5hrs) but it was worth it as those wide shots were so much stronger when the background didn’t have the distracting element of overexposed windows.

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Buy – It’s a great piece of gear to have with you in your kit (it’s often easiest to keep it in a tube in a long support case with tripods for travel) and you can order it here. This is also a standard expendable item that you can purchase at any grip house.

3) Small HD OLED-Pro 7” Monitor

Cinematography is the art and science of motion picture photography. By definition, that refers to a visual image. So wouldn’t it make sense for us to have a great way to viewing that image for its aesthetics, story relevanc,e and technical accuracy?

For years we’ve owned both the SmallHD DP6 and the DP4 and while those are very good monitors, we rarely leveraged them to help us do more. As shooters we would often rely solely on our viewfinder and our directors just have to trust that we were getting something story relevant.

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And that might be ok if you’re a solo event shooter but when you’re collaborating with a team, particularly in narrative or commercial work, you need to be able to share that image with others so they can help make it better.

As DP, we aren’t always behind the camera but we are always responsible for the picture that goes on screen.

Having features like waveforms, vectorscope, and peaking lets us keep an eye out on the scene while helping the cinematographer behind the camera make adjustments if needed. Additionally one of the biggest pluses is the ability for LUT support, which allows us to shoot flat in camera but load in a look so that other people can see an image that’s close to what the final look would be, which is so huge in the commercial world.

We’ve rented the SmallHD OLED 7” a ton of times from LPTG and found it so incredibly helpful that we ultimately added one to our kit.

Price – 7” monitors from SmallHD start at $599 but the one we recommend for DPs is the OLED-Pro at $1999

Key Features – This monitor comes with a pile of features that include all kinds of scopes like waveform, vectorscopes, histogram, RGB parade as well as peaking and zebras. It’s OLED HD display has LUT support and has a beautiful image through either HD-SDI and/or HDMI with pass through. You can select your choice of battery options and it also has the option for a built in accessory port for things like a Paralinx wireless video feed to keep everything together nice and clean – no longer will you have that hot mess of cables and bongo ties!

Review – This is our monitor of choice and comes with us on every single shoot.

The menu system is intuitive and allows you to customize it to your liking through setting the hot keys to what’s most important to you. It has a solid feel to it yet isn’t too heavy to hold on set. The image is gorgeous so while it can be great for you as a DP or director it can also double up as a client monitor.

Example – We shoot a fair bit with the Red Epic and that camera has a great touchscreen with the menu items all laid out. The challenge with that though is it takes up the top and bottom of the image and makes it difficult to check the edges of your frame.

Having the OLED 7” monitor gives the DP a clean look at what’s on screen and be able to share that with the director and the art department, both of which is extremely helpful during setup when we are dialing things in and when reviewing takes to ensure things look good.

Buy / Rent

4) Sekonic L-478D Light Meter

A light meter is part of every Hollywood DP’s kit–and with good reason!

More than just a nifty gadget it’s an incredible tool to help you accurately measure how much light there is and what you might need to adjust for it. It takes light readings and gives you an objective and quantifiable number to help you assess the environment.


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As a DP you’d need to be able to communicate effectively with both the camera and lighting department and a light meter is a great way to remove ambiguity, making things like lighting ratios a tangible objective measurement as opposed to a subjective feel.

This can help you calculate how much light you need to bring in if you wanted to prioritize say shutter or aperture for a particular scene. It’s particularly important if you are working with multiple crews across multiple sets and want to maintain some kind of consistency in your lighting setup.

Looking back, this would have been great to have when we shot A Game of Honor. We were shooting interviews across a span of 5 or 6 months, in over a dozen locations with six different shooters. Needless to say, our lighting setups were far from consistent and that did hurt the film.

It wasn’t part of our standard lineup back then, but we’ve learned from our mistake and now see this as a great addition to our toolkit.

Price – Sekonic is a trusted name in light meters and we love our LED one, priced at $339

Key Features – It has a bright LED touchscreen so everything is at your fingertips and you can customize your menu so that can adapt it to the modes and information you need most frequently. Measurement and memory buttons are on the side of the unit, which is convenient as you can hold it up to whatever you want and click without having to see the screen, and it can store up to 10 different exposure readings so you can refer back to them as needed.

Review – While we don’t use this on our more run and gun type shoots this has become our go to light meter when we get onto larger sets for commercial and narrative. The batteries lasts for a while and it’s relatively easy to learn. It’s lightweight and compact so there’s no excuse not to bring it with you.

Buy / Rent

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5) Redrock Remote Follow Focus

Just like lens choice or camera movement or lighting, focus is an important storytelling tool. It leads your viewers’ eyes to where the story is and literally guides them through the visuals.

We’ve learned to be quite good at focusing and knowing when to leverage depth of field to further the story, but have always run into a huge challenge when we do shots with movement, with say a steadicam or a MoVi–we couldn’t operate the rig and focus at the same time!

For years we just settled for less, we compromised and that’s not Story First filmmaking.

We would stop down and shoot deeper so most everything is in focus and setting the lens at its hyperfocal distance. It’s ok and the client won’t know any better but it wasn’t the best we could do.

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In comes the remote follow focus to save the day. This tool gives filmmakers the ability to do more advanced shots that can help further the story through depth of field than if everything was at fixed focus. This was something that held us back for years and it. totally. sucked.

Getting a wireless follow focus system like the RedRock Micro Wireless FF was a game changer for us.

Price – The RedRock wireless system is one of the most economical options out there at $2690.

Key Features – It works with any lens with standard 0.8mm pitch gears and supports both left or right handed operations. The unit can be powered via D-tap which simplifies things as you can run it off the same battery that’s also powering your camera. With some accessories you can even pair it with third party devices like the new MoVi Controller so that you have an all-in-one motion and focus control device – pretty rad!

Review – It may seem daunting but it’s actually quite simple to use.

We’ve used this on commercial and narrative sets large and small and it’s a great addition for shallow shots in motion. Calibration is super easy and you can set stops as needed.

This unit doesn’t have great range and loses some of the tactile feel of more professional wireless follow focus units but at this price is a great option for those working on smaller budgets. The battery cover requires a screw and isn’t convenient so don’t forget to pack a small screwdriver in your kit!

Example – In the narrative we did last year, My Utopia, we needed an opening shot that would pull the viewer in and paint a picture of the environment all while introducing our main character.

That meant that it would likely need to be a longer shots and one that reveals her over time, so we decided to start at the back of the classroom and follow her up and end with a tight face shot. Sure we could have shot this at f/11 and kept everything in focus but the shot was so much stronger at f/4.0, shallower so we could focus on just the elements we wanted to add more intrigue.

We accomplished this shot by rigging this up to the Red on the MoVi, check out the setup and resulting shot!

Buy

Whoa. That’s a lot of talk about gear. What does this all boil down to?

Gear is important but we believe that the most powerful piece of equipment is you, your ideas, and your vision.

The lights, cameras, and tools are just a means to help you achieve your goals and while you can certainly make do without these tools and use just what you have–taking a step further, having the right tools, and knowing when and where to use them will no doubt better help you realize your vision on set.

So there you have it friends, our short list of 5 tools that we’ve added to our toolbox as we’ve grown in our filmmaking adventures. All of these have helped push us to re-evaluate how we can take our cinematography to a whole new level.

These are great tools for any DP to have and while they aren’t needed for every single shoot, they do open up opportunities and challenge you to think bigger, pushing the envelope of what Story First filmmaking really means.

That was our list but we’d love to hear about yours.

What is one tool that has helped push you as a DP–the one that’s done more for your cinematography than anything else?

About Joyce Tsang

11 Comments

  • Mike Schreurs says:

    Just what I needed! Thanks. Should help on my documentary adventure ahead of me.

    • Joyce says:

      Thanks for checking it out Mike! Would love to hear how if any of this helped you on the making of your documentary :)

  • Angel Andres Rosado says:

    Thanks Joyce!

    Battery operated lighting. The one piece of gear that has dramatically changed my storytelling style is my LED lighting kit. I have four, Yongnuo LED300 lights that are battery operated. I no longer compromise my location just because I can’t find power outlets.

    I get to choose the location that’s comfortable for my characters and right for my story.

    1UP!

    -Angel :-)

    • Joyce says:

      “I no longer compromise my location just because I can’t find power outlets.” – Now that’s Story First filmmaking :)

      Joyce

  • Drew McCuistion says:

    Great article Ms. Joyce. One observation: I don’t think my definition of the word “economical” is the same as yours.

    • Joyce says:

      Hey Drew,

      Totally agree, that’s certainly a relative term and is going to be different for everyone. My reference for that was based on the costs of professional wireless follow focus systems that are $30k. That costs considerably more and most folks would rent before having projects with big enough budgets to make a purchase like that.

      Joyce

  • Carl Stevens says:

    I use squares of ND all the time but I have never ordered it by the roll. Great tip!

  • Brad Fugere says:

    This is an awesome post with a lot of useful information… thank you! I love the reasoning behind the Profoto 800W Daylight Air HMI! That would definitely open up some lighting options that my current setup (Westcott Skylux) couldn’t handle because it’s not bright enough. However, I simply cannot afford that light at this time. Do you have any other lighting options that could put out that kind of light with a price tag around $1000-$2000?

    Thanks again!

    • Joyce says:

      Hey Brad I don’t know of any HMIs in that price range but it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. A lot of these things don’t have to be purchased either. If you have a shoot that calls for an HMI I’d suggest just renting from a local grip house and include it in your budget. We rent HMIs all the time when we need something more powerful than what we own and it’s very common in film to do that since lighting can be very costly.

      Renting in general is a great option because its considerably more economical and you can use that to figure out what works best for your needs before buying one to own. For lights check out the local grip houses and for cameras, lenses, accessories and support check out our friends at http://www.lensprotogo.com

      Joyce

  • J.J. says:

    Joyce, how do you feel about shooting on RED cameras for run and gun- documentary work? A lot of filmmakers will only shoot canon c100 or 300 for doc work, but I really love the quality and work flow from RED. In your experience is shooting on a RED for doc work a viable option? Are there any issues you’ve run into (audio? file sizes? touch screen?), I’m embarking on a feature in September and any insight into this would be greatly appreciated!

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