The cinematographer, also known as the director of photography (DP), is the director’s right hand on any given project. After all, it may be the director’s “vision,” but it’s up to the cinematographer to actually capture that vision on camera. That's why so many of our greatest directors use the same DP for all of their projects—it’s a sacred partnership. Like any profession, it takes time to master the skills of cinematography. However, an easy way to get started is by having all of the necessary equipment.
Wondering what equipment you need to become a cinematographer? Here’s a breakdown of all the filming equipment cinematographers need to get started—as well as rough estimates of what each piece costs. That way, you’ll know exactly what kind of budget you should work with when purchasing your gear.
1. Video Camera
Let’s start with the most obvious piece of equipment that a cinematographer needs: a camera. Which type of camera you purchase depends on what kind of projects you are looking to shoot (documentary, action, etc.) and where you intend to display your work. For example, online-only tasks have different camera needs than television news. Nowadays, you also have the option to shoot on a smartphone. Oscar-nominated filmmaker and cinematographer Sean Baker shot one of his most acclaimed films, “Tangerine,” entirely on an iPhone (with help from downloaded apps) and many more upstart creatives have followed his lead.
Cost of a video camera
The range of camera costs is the widest on this list; you can get a used iPhone for $100 or less, while the cameras used on big-budget film sets can cost tens of thousands of dollars. There are, however, many options in between; you can find sophisticated models for around $2,000.
If you’re just getting started as a cinematographer, you don’t need a ton of lenses, which are the “eye” through which your footage is captured. But having a couple of lenses at your disposal allows you to capture very different shots depending on what you’re filming. Beginners should have wide-angle, zoom, and macro lenses on hand.
Cost of lenses
You can pay a lot or a little for various lenses, depending on how high-end you want to go. Basic non-zoom lenses start at around $30.
3. Sound Equipment
Recording quality sound is just as important as capturing images—it may even be more important. High-level film sets have a separate audio department and boom operator. But during the self-starting phase of your DP career, you’ll frequently need to capture sound yourself—and you’ll need equipment to do so. The most cost-effective and simple-to-use microphones are lavalier mics, which adhere to the clothing of the subjects you’re shooting. There are also portable recorders, which can be placed directly on the set.
Cost of sound equipment
Decent lavalier microphones start at $30; portable recorders start at around $100.
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Depending on the kind of film you’re making, you may not need to rely too heavily on a tripod, which is a three-legged stand that stabilizes the camera. However, because almost every project has at least one shot or instance in which you’ll need a static camera position, a tripod is an essential piece of gear. You can either get a basic tripod, which does not move, or a “fluid head” tripod, which allows you to swivel the camera around.
Cost of a tripod
Quality tripods for video cameras start at $125.
A gimbal serves a similar purpose to a tripod in that it stabilizes the camera. The difference is that you as the DP can fasten the gimbal to your own body, allowing the camera to move with you (as such, gimbals are ideal for shooting action). The gimbal counters natural human movements, creating a smooth shot even as the cinematographer is in motion.
Cost of a gimbal
Basic gimbals start at around $200.
On a studio or even an indie film set with a bit of a crew budget, there will be someone whose job is lights and lighting. But you want to be a one-person cinematography machine, right? So you’ll need some basic lighting equipment. Many filmmakers nowadays use LED lights, which are cooler—temperature-wise, though they are also hip—than traditional halogen lights. They are also the greener option as they run on batteries, whereas halogen lights need to be plugged into a power source. The bigger the panel you’re using, the softer the light will be.
Cost of lighting
The most inexpensive multipurpose LED panels start at around $250, though if it is within your budget, you should plan to spend about twice as much for a more enduring option.
Reflectors go hand-in-hand with lighting, and, often, one can be used in lieu of the other. Still, you should want to have both on hand—especially if you are shooting outdoors. Reflectors use three different methods to manipulate natural light to serve whatever purpose you need: they diffuse (reduce and/or soften light), they fill (eliminate unwanted shadows), and they flag (block out the light that’s coming in to enhance shadows for effect). Each of these feats is achieved using one of five colored variations of the reflector; luckily, you can get a single reflector that performs all of these functions in one.
Cost of reflectors
Five-in-one reflectors (meaning a reflector that has five colors: gold, white, silver, black, and translucent) start at about $13.
Video editing is an art all its own, but as a cinematographer trying to make inroads in the industry, being able to upload and edit your footage—in a basic fashion, at least—will go a long way. You will need a computer to organize your footage, but which computer is best for filmmakers is a hotly debated subject. While you can edit on Macs, PCs, and most tablets, the commonly held belief is that Macs are more user-friendly when it comes to filmmaking. PCs, however, are less expensive.
Cost of a computer
You can get a used Mac for as low as $300, and new ones can run up to several thousands of dollars. Used PCs can be found for under $200.
9. Editing Software
Along with your computer, you’ll need some form of editing software to—you guessed it!—edit your footage. There are free programs available depending on which computer you’re using; Macs come with iMovie, for example. But there are great, reasonably priced options, too, including Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere Pro. Of course, which software you use will depend on your working style and which computer model you have.
Cost of editing software
Some software is a one-time purchase, while others are subscription-based with ongoing payments. You can buy Final Cut Pro for a one-time cost of $299, including updates. Meanwhile, you’ll pay for Adobe Premiere Pro via a monthly subscription, which starts at $20.99 per month.
Video footage takes up a whole lot of digital space, and you’re definitely going to need an external location to store it. Cloud storage is an option, but it can be very costly when storing large files, so an external drive is the more cost-effective option. You’re going to want to have at least two external hard drives: a primary storage source and a backup. There are tons of basic options available; the WD My Passport external hard drive is a favorite among filmmakers and can store up to 5 terabytes.
Cost of storage
A 5T WD My Passport runs for $109.
11. Camera Bag
Finally, you’ll want a durable camera bag to ensure your equipment doesn’t get damaged—particularly when you’re traveling to and from your shooting locations. Needless to say, buy your camera first and then figure out which bag is the best fit.
Cost of a camera bag
No-frills video camera bags—those with compartments for lenses as well as other material storage—start at around $60.
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