Working with Less (or, Get Out There and Shoot!) Part 1

Ok, maybe that photo was a little over the top 🙂

David Kong here guest-writing this article, the first of a series that is all about working with less gear, for less money, and making it look good. But I’m going to start off with a big disclaimer that is also a challenge. I’m NOT knocking on quality equipment. The fancy gear is expensive for a reason: it usually is easier to use, is more durable, breaks less often, and just plain gives you better footage. I love to work with high-quality cameras and equipment. But I’m writing this post because I think this knowledge is extremely valuable to all filmmakers, regardless of budget or style.

Why this is Important

First, the ability to work with less gear is essential for the beginner, because you usually just don’t have the money for the fancy stuff. Most of the skills I’m going to talk about were born out of necessity: I started out making movies at 14 with almost no money to spend on film gear, so I was forced to be creative with what I had. That’s the reason for the second half of this post’s title, “Get Out There and Shoot!”. The democratization of the filmmaking industry has widened the playing field so much that pretty much anyone can afford a camera that is capable of shooting great films. It’s not as simple as “point-and-shoot and everything’s great” – it does take time and work and creativity – but the lack of a budget is no longer an excuse not to make a movie.

Even for those who can easily afford to spend a lot on top-notch gear, the ability to work creatively with less gear and cheaper gear can benefit you in tons of ways:

It’s replaceable. I’m a lot more willing to do crazy things with a cheap camera, knowing that I won’t be out $20,000 if it gets ruined (like going swimming with it in a fish-tank to get shots at water-level). I’m also more open to throwing stuff in the back of a car or checking it on an airplane without massive cases. That’s definitely not to say that I’ll always shoot with a cheap camera, but I can grab it when I need it.

It’s smaller and lighter. While it’s not universally true, the cheaper gear is usually smaller and lighter, allowing you to travel easier and get to hard-to-reach places. That was a major factor in the film I’ll discuss in the video.

You can just save money. If you’re creative with natural light, you can spend money on talented actors instead of fancy lights, which (trust me) will make your films so much better.

You’re more versatile. What happens if you show up on set and your Steadicam operator has sprained his ankle? If you can jury-rig a Steadicam substitute from an extra tripod and a piece of rope, you can actually get the shot. It won’t be as smooth as the real Steadicam shot would have been, but it can get the shot and the film won’t grind to a screeching halt.

Broadly speaking, it’s true that you get what you pay for. A $800 tripod will generally function much better than a $100 tripod. But you need to understand why that is, understand how to work around the weaknesses, so that if someone hands you a $100 tripod and says “go shoot,” you’ll be able to make something great. Understand its strengths too, because that $100 tripod might actually work better than the $800 tripod in some cases.

Proof of Concept

Here’s an example of a film that I shot on minimal equipment. It’s a simple portrait of the city of Macerata in Italy that I made working out of a small shoulder bag with no assistants. Take a look at that, and then below it you’ll find an in-depth discussion of the gear that I brought and the principles that helped me get high production-value in spite of the limitations.PB_promoBanner_670x67_V02


Portrait of Macerata from David Kong on Vimeo.


Here’s a quick run-down of all the gear that I brought:

  • Canon Rebel T2i/550D: (no longer stocked normally, but sells for $250-$400 on Ebay).
  • Technicolor Cinestyle and Magic Lantern: $0!
  • Canon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens: $0 with camera.
  • Lens cloth and brush: $0 with camera.
  • Canon 50mm f/1.4: $400 (often goes on sale for $300).
  • Igus DryLin W1040-A slider, sawed in half: $93.
  • Custom servo assembly: $60.
  • Velbon photo tripod (no longer available) with 8.8lb max load: $129.
  • Velbon PH-368 video head: $38.
  • Tiffen 58mm 0.9 ND Filter: $12.50.
  • Tiffen 58mm Circular Polarizing Filter: $16.

Grand total comes to about $1000.

The Making-Of:

It’s not what you have: It’s what you do with it

Would this have looked better with an Epic? Definitely. But not THAT much better. The T2i is an incredibly capable camera, especially with Magic Lantern and Cinestyle. Sure, it doesn’t resolve as much resolution. Sure, the image is compressed, and the codec is 4:2:0. But I’d much rather have footage of Italy in 4:2:0 than shots of my coffee-table in raw. There are times when you need 300 frames per second, but those times are rare. Yes, you can crop into a 4K shot. But you can also crop in by picking up the camera and walking forward 😉

If you have an Epic, you’re very lucky! You have a camera capable of amazing images. Go shoot with it!
If you have a T2i or a GH2, you’re very lucky! You have a camera capable of amazing images. Go shoot with it!

That wraps up this post, but please comment below and let me know what you think, and especially, let me know what you’d like to see in the second video/post. I’m totally open to your suggestions. Here’s a quick list of what I’m intending to cover in the next video:

• Working with highly-compressed codecs and color spaces.
• Maximizing dynamic range.
• Magic Lantern and monitoring.
• Color-correction, editing, and exporting.


  1. Wow what a thorough and enlightening post/ video(s). Thank you very much for posting this philip, and even more thanks to david kong. I am just about to buy my first camera and I have been stressing out so hard core about which camera to get that I have almost forgotten how much more important mind over matter is. Extremely relieving and helpful David, thank you very much. Cant wait to see your follow up. Also, if you have the time please do elaborate on your dope motor setup. Thanks again Phil and David.

    1. I’ve very glad you liked it! 🙂

      I think that I’ll probably end up shooting a third video focused completely on the slider/servo assembly with detailed instructions on how to make it, since that would be somewhat off-topic for this post series.

  2. Excellent film thanks. Very informative, very inspiring.

    Would be good to see something separate on how to build a servo puller like yours.

    Suggested topics for part 2 sound good.



  3. Nice post! Coincidently I’m going through the process of minimising my gear and selling stuff so I can go back to basics.
    It would be great to see some more stuff on colour correction if you can. Cheers!

  4. Good stuff, thanks. I’ve tried finding out more about Technicolor Cinestyle and Magic Lantern camera compatibilities, but I can’t seem to locate a list. Can anyone suggest a link, many thanks.

    1. Just about any Canon EOS DSLR can use the Technicolor Cinestyle preset. If it supports “Picture Style Presets” then you’re good. All of the Canon EOS cameras in the last several years support it.
      You’ll find some more info here:

      For Magic Lantern, look under “Current stable release” on this page to see the officially supported cameras (they’re listed with their international names not US names. i.e. 550D instead of T2i)
      Below that, you’ll see separate links for other cameras that are in development. Magic Lantern works on those cameras too, but the software isn’t finished yet, so it will probably have some bugs, errors, etc.

      – David

  5. very good video. As a person who owns no high end stuff preferring to rent it out when it’s called for and therefore rely on my 5d and 60d for more modest less demanding web work can really use info on how to maximise quality with the barebones, how to overcome the limitations etc etc – look forward to other topics you plan to cover, especially monitoring and magic lantern which haven’t made the move to yet – please cover magic lantern thoroughly, both benefits and any problems or dangers associated with the hack.

  6. “I’d much rather have footage of Italy in 4:2:0 than shots of my coffee-table in raw”

    BRILLIANT!!! I can’t think of a more profound statement; It’s all about CONTENT! I’m a gear head too, but we can never forget that we’re all storytellers!

    BTW, thanks for the C100 review; I use mine with the Atomos Ninja 2, and I’m thrilled with the results…all I need to tell my stories.

    Keep being the voice of reason,

  7. Beautiful, inspiring movie! You are a natural teacher with a great screen presence.
    I have a T2i and this has taught me to value it for what it CAN do rather than what it can’t.
    Can’t wait for video 2 – I’d personally like to find out a lot more about the features of Magic Lantern, and also about getting good colour results with Cinestyle footage.

    Thank you very much for posting.

  8. nice explanations! even if you thought about all this things earlier, i find it helpfull if someone reminds you every now and then that it’s more important what you do then what gears you need.

    ..just in case if someone wants to try out the slider. haven’t used mine (1m) a lot. if you want it contact me.

    1. another thought about getting a smooth starting of the slider motion is to attach a kind of rubberband between the camer plattform and your hand if you doing it manually or the wire that goes to the motor. with this you could achieve a more natural look, some how like an easing-in effect.

      1. I actually tried doing that, but the problem is that, since static friction is much greater than kinetic friction on the rails, the spring stretches out for a bit while the camera is still, then when it breaks static friction, the camera moves forward too quickly for a moment before slowing down to the correct speed. So, the speed eases up, but it eases up too far and has to ease back down to reach the target speed. At least, that’s what happened when I tried it. Maybe I wasn’t doing it right…

  9. Beautiful video and great blog post! As a still photographer, moving into video is fairly new and daunting endeavor. Could you talk a little more about preparing for this shoot? Did you have any some sort of script, idea, story board, in order to shoot the various scenes? Or did you simply shoot a bunch of footage and then created the story while editing? How long did you prep, shoot, and edit?

    1. Ok, I’ll address this in the next post. The short answer is: no. I didn’t prepare very much. I really wanted to discover the inherent beauty of this space rather than bringing preconceived ideas about how I would present it. While I was shooting, I was coming up with lots of ideas on the spot that drew me in certain directions, but I consciously tried to avoid planning it ahead of time.

      I shot over two afternoons and one evening, plus the night timelapse. All of the post-production including the edit, color correction, sound, rendering, etc. took about three or four days.

    1. The polarizer is useful only in certain situations, but it can make a big difference, especially when you’re working in a bad color space, because the polarizer can help compress dynamic range. I’ll explain in detail in the next video 🙂

  10. Really well done David! One question though. In the opening scene (00:07) it looks like you have a vertical slide to reveal the roof and then go seamlessly into a horizontal slide of the tile roof. How did you accomplish this?

    Thanks for the great post!

    1. That’s actually an optical illusion. Because the edge of the roof is complete silhouette, you can’t see any texture and can’t tell which way it’s moving. The camera actually only slides sideways, but the angle of roof make it look like the camera has moved up.

  11. Thanks for the video. Really great. Could you speak a little about how you managed to get the image to look so good in terms of sharpness and resolution? My footage always seems a little bit muddy when using my 600d. Thanks again.

  12. Great video, and great post/tutorial!
    I’m interested to see more on the workflow and post production work.
    Like if you did something on the road, what was used, etc.
    I recently had an even more limiting experience with equipment… stuck with a GoPro Hero 2 and a Nokia 808 to do a video on a weekend event. Nothing to actually stabilize the photos other than a… mini tripod thing that worked as a handle. And then the GoPro Hero 2 monitor died on me, and all sorts of worst case scenarios, but it happens.
    Suffice to say it came out crappy, shaky, etc. But all things considered, the end result wasn’t completely bad.
    Good enough for an experience I wasn’t expecting much out of anyways…

  13. Excellent, David! Excellent idea, video and explanation. It’s great to see a post on getting the most out of basic equipment. The T2i/550D has never looked better. As you point out, Magic Lantern does wonders for this camera (e.g. to help stay within its limited dynamic range). What I take away from your video is how much the occasional subtle camera movement enhances the picture (e.g. 3:34). Thanks.
    – a T2i owner.

  14. Wonderful film David.
    I would love to view your proposed second post. I’m starting from scratch with DSLR video but I am fortunate enough to have some nice SLR bodies and lenses from my long affiliation with still photography.
    I have 2 ideas for short documentaries that I would love to realise. Your film proves its do-able but I could really do with the knowledge you’re offering. I’m at the flat bottom of the learning curve.

    BTW what is the title/artist of the music in your film?

  15. Thanks for that, always good to reflect on what you really need in view of the products we produce. Loved your little servo-driven dolly and look forward to a post on it’s construction. As someone who regularly works in extremely remote and challenging environments a slider like that is probably preferable to my motorized konova.
    Good stuff,

  16. Great video, really appreciate it.

    look forward to how you dealt with the issues of the codec and limited DR in post.

    How did you go about avoiding the Moire?

    Currently these are my two biggest issues

    1. in fact:

      “• Working with highly-compressed codecs and color spaces.
      • Maximizing dynamic range.
      • Magic Lantern and monitoring.
      • Color-correction, editing, and exporting.”

      these are simply put exactly what i’d like to see in the follow up

      anyways, thanks again!

    2. I’ll address moire in the next post. It is a challenge, one of the bigger downsides to these cameras.

      First, keep the sharpness all the way down all the time.
      And then, you just have to learn to spot patterns that might be problematic. When you see something like a brick wall that might produce moire, zoom in on the live-view to check it. If it’s a problem, then you either need to reframe your shot or else throw it out of focus.

      As a last resort, I have occasionally done clean-up in post. It’s impossible to remove the patterning completely, but you can remove the horrible flicker when the camera moves. I never had to do that on the Portrait of Macerata video, though.

  17. Great tutorial. Thanks.

    Approximately how many hours (!?!) of video did you record for this 5:51 video? Was this more or less than you would have recorded if you had a full kit available?

    1. That’s a great question! I actually recorded quite a lot of video considering the length of the project. Altogether, the footage adds up to two hours and twenty-two minutes. I could easily have cut a 10-minute short out of the footage I had, but I decided to trim it down to five minutes partly because I really wanted to use this song which was five minutes long, and partly because I was just afraid that 10 minutes would be too long for internet attention spans.

      I definitely could not have shot nearly that much if I had had a full kit of gear with me. The huge advantage to the super-light and super-simple setup was that I could throw the tripod over my shoulder with camera and slider still attached and all ready to go. I could set it down and be shooting in about 15 seconds if I wanted to. That allowed me to work extremely quickly, so I was able to take a lot more shots than I could have with a larger setup. I was also able to keep walking around and shooting for several hours without getting exhausted and having to stop to rest.

  18. There should be more of this on the web. I got so much out of this post as you were cutting the tools right down to the bone and bypassing the ‘everything you need list’ to work on ‘what shot do we want with what we have got’. I had to dive into my own kit, drag it all out and say to my elements: “Do I need you?” and “What about a divorce?”. I am really keen to see how you set up your servo to get the slider to work for you. Keep them coming!

  19. Hey! Thanks for the article and videos, I’m looking forward to the rest in the series! When you say 58mm filters don’t you mean 52mm? I thought those canon lenses take 52mm filters.

    Thanks again.

    1. No, these lenses actually have a 58mm filter size. I think that similar Nikon lenses tend to take 52mm filters, but Canon 18-55mm kit lens and the 50mm f/1.4 both take 58mm filters.

  20. I am so glad that a T2i was used to capture this video. I strongly desire to upgrade when my wallet tells me not to. I currently have two T3i’s that I use for photography and videography. I have cheap lighting equipment, and second hand lens’s but my final product output is stellar! I have never heard a complaint and people think I use the top of the line out there. They dont know my secret that I really am a broke joke who is good at what I do. All though my desire is to have that Mark 3 I do really well with my T3i’s. This has given me new ideas and eager to see the next tutorial.
    Thank you for taking the time to show me your behind the scenes!

  21. David,
    Can’t thank you enough for this post. It was tailored made for my growing skillset. I just don’t have the money to spend on pro-level equipment but want to create pro-level images. You have got me re-thinking my whole approach to this. Can’t wait for the next post. Please keep them coming.


  22. Awesome video. So great to watch your film, and then have you step through with not only the technique and equipment used, but the thought process that went into the shots. Looking forward to more posts, especially the servo build!

  23. I very much enjoyed your video. You have a good analytical mind that has helped you to become very technically savvy with video. I also am impressed with your passion. Gerry in Calgary.

  24. Hi David: I hope it’s not over the top to say that was inspiring (and inspired)! I’ve been holding back for ever thinking I gotta save up to get a Canon 5D mk iii or something before I transition from using a traditional video cam recorder to DSLR. I just love the image quality with these things. I cannot criticize your presentation in any way. Just very relaxed and informative without any “cool” thing going on. I can hardly wait to see your future videos on this subject. For me, I’m especially interested in the slider motor. I’d been scratching my head about this for some time (before your video). Probably with only a parts list I could probably now figure something out. Anyway, excellent stuff and thanks for doing this!

  25. Its a pity I just bought canon 70D before watching this wonderful and explicit video. Almost every site I had visited requested for money before this could be viewed or accessed. Please hope my 70D can perform this same magic I just saw? I will also like to know if magic lantern and other softwares used could also work for the 70D captured during post production. Thanks.

    1. Unfortunately, Magic Lantern has not come out for the 70D yet, because it’s such a new camera. It usually takes quite a long time for the developers to come out with ML for a new camera because it takes a lot of hard work and they’re all working for free in their spare time. There’s no current estimate for when it’ll be ready.

      You can, however, use the Technicolor Cinestyle preset, which I explain in detail in the second video in this series:

      Most of the rest of my techniques will apply to all DSLRs, not just the ones that run Magic Lantern, so don’t worry too much.

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