In this series of four articles, I hope to share what I've learned from making documentary films through expeditions. With the right knowledge, you don't need to spend a lot of money on camera gear to produce footage that will look really professional and tell a clear story.
After implementing filming objectives on three major expeditions, I’ve really learned what bits of kit need to be high spec, what can be cheap and cheerful and what can be left behind altogether. What is important is sound. I have captured some horrendous sound on trips when wind has caused such a loud crackle, it disrupts the whole flow of the film. I’ve also recorded some decent sound clips and it is this professional sound that will help separate a short expedition documentary from all the amateur footage there is on Youtube and similar. What isn’t as important, is the camera itself.
I have used a Nikon D7100 for films and only ever had the one kit lens. However, you could get radically better results by lowering the spec of the camera body and adding a second lens to your kit, making things a lot cheaper. Good resolution and colour are important but, if your camera kit is not your priority, you can make up for weak composition in the edit. It will not match footage obtained with a superior camera but it absolutely will not matter to an audience and will not get in the way of communicating your message.
Based on my own experience, I would suggest that the baseline kit you need to make a meaningful film that can be shown everywhere from the internet to an IMAX screen is as follows:
Any DSLR camera with interchangeable lenses: As long as it can shoot video in 1080p resolution or higher and has a mic input, it can get good footage. You can get a good package (camera and one lens) from about £500.
Polarising lens filter: This will give your footage a much better colour balance and reduce glare when shooting with reflective landscapes such as glaciers or water. Order off Amazon for best price which will likely be no more than £15.
A tripod: This will set professional footage apart from amateur. It also opens up new opportunities for stable video capture, presenting, and time-lapse photography, all of which will drastically increase the production value of your work. The cheapest models come in at around £70 and work great.
Microphone with windshield: To get good sound, an external mic is a must. Røde are a good brand and have reliable kit. Shotgun mics are great for expedition environments as they record sound in the direction they are pointed and allow you to eliminate some of the background noise such as rivers. These come in at around £100 and then add a windshield (or ‘deadcat’ as it also less pleasantly called by filmmakers) for £7 which will effectively eliminate the devastating wind crackle
With this coming in at roughly £693, it certainly isn’t cheap but it is a good compromise between some more expensive kit and will give you an extremely professional final product.