Do I Need Expensive Gear to Make Great Films and Take Great Photos?

examples of new and old cameras and phone. Let me save you some time, no you don't need the latest and greatest expensive gear to create great work. If you like your articles short and to the point, then youíre done. However, if youíd like to understand why we think itís a no, then read on. Itís no surprise we canít get enough of gear, photographers and filmmakers love it and without it weíre just people who dream of making things, put it in our hands though and weíre people who create, tell stories, inspire and maybe even change the World. Powerful words for an article about Ďgearí but any film or photo that ever made a difference started out when a creative made a decision about what gear they wanted to use to make their work.

We all know about gear, we see what the big-budget filmmakers and photographers use and dream about using it for our own productions. So why donít we use that equipment? It simply boils down to cost. For the vast majority of creatives, the price of the top-end kit such as cameras and lenses runs in to thousands of whatever unit of currency you use in your country. This is disappointing and for some I think it puts them off making anything as and this is just my personal opinion, not using the latest and greatest kit stops some folks dead in their tracks. The thing is, cost must never stop us from making our work for one simple reason: nobody ever thought a film or photo was great because of the gear.

Look back on the great work created over the years and consider the equipment the creatives had to make it. Back in the 1930s, photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson used a Leica rangefinder and a 50mm lens. (Reference: here) which by todayís standards and compared to even the most simple of cameras, was somewhat basic. But look at his work! His images have throughout the years been held up as iconic examples of photography. He never let the restrictions of his technology stop him from creating great work. What about the filmmakers? Go back to a similar time and think about the tech that Buster Keaton or Laurel and Hardy had to use to make their famous comedy films. Using equipment that would be considered primitive today was good enough for them to record their work and has easily stood the test of time as great examples of their genre. These are just two examples and I'm sure you can name many more great pieces of work that weren't held back because of the technology of its time.

So what does that mean for todayís creatives where even basic equipment is better than much of the high-end technology used in the past? It means that whatever kit we use, the story will always outshine the gear. Today, when a filmmaker or photographer puts together a great story, the gear they used will not be important. Lets face it, today you can pick up even a basic smartphone and you can film something or photograph something and if the story is interesting enough, the viewer wonít care whether it was captured on a phone or a multi-thousand Dollar/Euro/Pound DSLR or cinema-camera. Its just as possible to make something bad on great gear as it is to make something great on cheap gear.

"Whatever kit we use, the story will always outshine the gear." Taking filmmaking as our example, most cameras now will shoot full HD 1920x1080 which is still a great format even today in a world where many people drool over 4K or even 8K cameras. Sure, 4K means some future-proofing (for now) but if you made a 4K film, how many people are going to watch it in 4K? I expect the vast majority would choose a smaller viewing size, closer to full HD or even HD. There is an argument that says we can shoot 4K and then crop the film to allow creative editing for a final film sized at full HD but this is where we can start to see a reason why we donít need the latest and greatest gear, we simply have to work around the limitations of the gear within our reach to make our work. Here the creative would have to ensure they had the cropped scene in their shoot list rather than using the edit to expand the clips they have available. What about the other bits of kit we lust after? Huge lenses, anti-shake levelling stabilisers and gimbals, wide dynamic range and high-frame rates to name three are all things weíd like to use but are expensive. With some thought though, the creative creative can work around this and make the best of what low-budget gear has to offer. Who hasnít wanted a huge lens to draw in those distant objects? Longer lenses are perhaps the first accessory we wish to purchase when we start our filmmaking and photography journey but if we donít have the budget to buy them, can we just put the camera closer to the subject or maybe come up with an alternative angle that works with the lenses we do have? Of course itís not always going to work, sometimes the long lens is the only thing that will do so we just have to suck it up and walk away. I expect though an alternative is on the cards, we just have to use our creativity to find it. Frame rates like 120FPS mean beautiful slow-motion playback but if we donít have that what do we do? Whilst 120FPS isnít found on cheaper gear (yet), 60FPS also offers a useful slow-motion option. It might not look as good as slo-mo from 120FPS but itís still slo-mo and used well can enhance the look and feel of a film. If even 60FPS isnít available, then maybe the editing software can slow down a normally recorded clip or why not consider software such as Twixtor. The final result will never look as good as a clip recorded at 120FPS but if it helps with the story within our budget, why not use it?

Stabilising gimbals are amazing bits of kit and now offer the filmmaker incredible cinematography options. What are the choices for the budget filmmaker? Would a film suffer if it doesnít feature a handheld shot steadied by a gimbal? Again the story should always outshine the need for expensive gear so if all we have to steady the camera is a tripod then so be it. In the past when I wanted to shoot a slider-type shot and not having a slider, I improvised and used a skateboard, attaching the camera to it with a screw. The final shot looked great and nobody knows how it was made but the end-result was the same as though I used a more expensive bit of kit.

Today national TV broadcast organisations are showing documentaries shot on iPhones. Films are being made on smartphones. They might be using technology to enhance the clip like a gimbal and extra gear for the sound recording but even so, the camera is something many people already have in their pocket and this is perhaps a very usable alternative to one of the the biggest investments for any filmmaker. I donít think there's any greater testament to using the gear we already have to make films than the recent popularity of the smartphone. We featured an interview with Eleanor Mannion who made one such iPhone documentary for Irish TV which you can read about following the link below. Now that programmes made in this way are shown on TV the quality is obviously considered acceptable and therefore will be equally suitable for the work we shoot. Itís up to us as filmmakers to work with the limitations of the gear we have and find interesting alternatives to the things we consider restrictive and holding us back when using that technology.

Imagine though if we did have access to some high-end gear like a Red Epic camera, just how different would the final film actually be? I thought this clip by DSLRGuide on Youtube was very interesting where he shot the same scenes with two cameras, one low-end, low-budget and one high-end, very high-budget, side-by-side. The results are surprising in that mostly, the very expensive camera doesnít make that much difference to the final edited footage and where it does, we could probably live with the limitations of the cheaper model in our limited-budget film. Take a look for yourself in the Youtube clip here.

What I notice with so many productions where high-end equipment is used, is that the original footage is always shot using flat profiles so there's a lot of retained detail in the highlights and the shadows and yet, after the edit, the final cut is contrasty with much of the detail lost in the shadows. If that's the look everybody wants anyway, it's very easy to get to that using most equipment today, almost all cameras will shoot contrasty footage straight out of the box. That's not to say we shouldn't strive to shoot the flatter footage with more dynamic range to start with because it certainly gives us more options in the edit but from my viewing experience at least, contrasty scenes seem to be very popular. Maybe that expensive camera we lust after isn't going to make much difference afterall.

Weíre lucky that even the most basic technology we have today, that we take so much for granted, is very capable of making great work but it's a fact of life that whatever gear we have access to, there's always another piece of more expensive kit we'd prefer to use. As has always been the case though, no matter what equipment we're working with, throughout the history of the creative world, the audience doesn't care about the gear, they care about the story.

Camera image © Peter Hatter

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