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Old February 16th, 2012, 06:10 PM   #1
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Where should I put my money?

This is going to be a long post, so feel free to blow me off and go do something more exciting. If you've got some time and want to give me some advice, I'd appreciate it.
I'm a fledgling filmmaker with a small kit, I've got around $5k to sink into upgrades and while I've got some thoughts, I want to get some advice from other filmmakers on where I should put this money. Obviously there's no right or wrong answer and it's a ridiculously broad question, but if you've got some thoughts I'd like to hear them.

What I have now:
Canon 7D
Canon 18-55mm f3.5/5.6
Canon 50mm f1.8
Canon 28-135mm f3.5/5.6
Terrible $50 tripod that holds my camera well but any movement besides a straight pan is crap
2 16g cf cards, 2 batteries

One lowel v-light, a couple scoop lights (various expendables)
One light stand
gobo head/arm

Rode NTG-2
Zoom h4n

A fairly basic kit that's gotten me by for the dumb shorts me and my friends like to do... I'm starting a production company and trying to build my kit into something sustainable.
Almost all narratives, but we pick up other work when we can (music videos, documentaries). The narratives are our focus. At this point we're almost exclusively doing shorts, but we do have a feature planned for next year and I occasionally get feature work... so I'd like to have something that can sustain theater distribution, not just internet. However, I'm not opposed to renting for the features, but I do want to buy when I can as I'd like to do freelance work as well, and more and more the paying gigs (at least the ones I'm capable of getting with my limited resume) go to the people with the gear.

And here's the kicker... I rarely have $5k to spend all at once, so I'd LIKE to get something big that I wouldn't normally be able to get. $500 isn't out of my range for a new piece of equipment every other month or so, so I'd like to stay away from buying lots of smaller things (but i'm not ruling it out, especially if I can cross a department off my list, e.g. buy a great lighting kit that will work in most situations)

Potential thoughts (but feel free to make suggestions) and what I'd realistically want to spend on them if I go that route:
Decent tripod ($1.5k-$2k)
Camera gear (sliders, dollies, FF rig, matte box, etc) - $1k-$2k
New lenses ($500-$1k range)
Light kit (various fresnels, case, stands, frames for flags/nets) ($3-$4k)
SD702 and a few different mics $3k-$4k)
SD302 and a few different mics (still recording to the zoom in this option) ($2k-$3k)

Normally I'd stay away from sound stuff, because any major project I'd just rent the equipment and/or hire a guy. But... we all know that sound equipment loses its resale value slowly, and it is a MAJOR step up from my current kit. It also opens the possibility of doing some sound freelance work to help make back that money (I'm pretty much never going to get real sound work with the ntg-2 and zoom h4n).
I've come up against limitations in every part of my kit, so it all needs upgrading... but I can only do so much at once. So where would YOU put the money, if the idea is to be self-sustaining and fully-servicing? Remember, the idea is to be able to make my own shorts and features but also be able to do any freelance work that comes up.
Furthermore, if what I'm hoping to spend on any given item is unrealistic for good quality, maybe point that out too?

Any questions that could help you make a more informed opinion?

Thanks guys.
(I also don't need to sink ALL of the $5k into something, if I get one or two things for $3k total I can put the other $2k into smaller items or a specific production, for example)
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Old February 16th, 2012, 06:55 PM   #2
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Re: Where should I put my money?

The obvious places to spend your money are on upgrading your lenses and tripod. At a first whack, I'd get the 17-55/2.8 IS and a Vinten Blue. If you find that you're using the 28-135 toward the long end, consider a 100/2.8L IS Macro - but only if you shoot long and/or close stuff.

Alternately, you could go for fast primes, but that gets into a bigger discussion. (Do you want autofocus for stills? How wide do you need to go? How fast do you need to go? Vintage?)

After lenses and tripod, it's really between lights and grip gear. Do you do handheld? How about a slider? A small dolly and jib? It really depends on the shots that you like to - or want to - do.
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Old February 16th, 2012, 07:06 PM   #3
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Re: Where should I put my money?

Wow, tough question. The 7D was a breakthrough camera, but is a little "long in the tooth" now. Having said that, you can't refresh everything. My basic thought is that you can add more to your productions with increased sophistication versus a slightly better camera. Assuming you stay with the 7D for the next year or so, here's my try at your question:

1. Definitely need a better tripod. Sachtler FSB4 or Vinten Vision Blue (if you can make weights to overcome counterbalance's 3 lb limit). Around $1250.

2. Merlin Steadicam with Vest. Seems everybody wants follow motion nowadays. Around $2,500 and lots of practice.

3. Tokina 11-16 EFS lens. Around $650

4. Pico "flex" skate dolly kit. $100. Cheapest, easiest way to get some smooth motion interest shots. It's limited, but it's very good.

5. If you want to break the bank slightly, consider the Canon t3i as a 2nd cam. Around $650 for body only and will match well with 7D and uses the same lenses.

It's really tempting to tell you to go the GH2 route. It's sharper than the 7D, but a smaller sensor and still flawed in many ways. I hope some better options will be out by year's end. Once you see what happens then, you might change course.

Last edited by Roger Shealy; February 17th, 2012 at 04:26 AM.
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Old February 17th, 2012, 12:36 AM   #4
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Re: Where should I put my money?

Yeah, I thought about the steadicam thing too. Not a bad way to go. More flexible than a jib/slider, but takes more skill.

On the 11-16 Tokina... That's a great lens - if you want wide to ultra-wide. If you were shooting extreme sports, it would have been at the top of my list. However, for narrative, I find the 17-55 range (28-85 on full frame) to be the bread and butter. (You already own this range, so you will know better than I if it's what you tend to use.)

For narrative, you can move a 17mm view all over the place without looking stretched or weird. By 15mm you're starting to get noticeably wide. By 13mm you're in no-mans-land between an effects shot and a regular wide - this is the most difficult view to use well, IMO. At 11, it's clearly an effects shot. For horror or for an altered state point of view, ultrawides are great for narrative. However, for straight-ahead story telling where you don't draw attention to the presence of a camera, you generally want to stay at 15mm and above and to use wides gracefully.

Not that I have anything against wides - I recently bought a 16-35L II for my 5D2 and I love the creativity it offers. Still, I'd upgrade the bread an butter range first. And if wide to ultra-wide is part of your style, then consider the 11-16 as well.

Regarding the 100L, you can use a lens this long without drawing quite so much attention to the lens. Still it's only for closeups and distant views. Again, it depends on your style. If you shoot tight and intimate, it's a good choice. Otherwise, the 55mm view may be as tight as you need. This is a 160mm view on the 7D. I found that we didn't use our 200L much at all for narrative works and sold it; however 100mm on the 5D2 is quite useful as it enables macro shots and is almost a classic 135mm tight portrait lens.

Again, it all depends on the style of your productions. Fortunately, with your existing zooms, you should have a feel for what ranges you tend to use.
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Old February 17th, 2012, 04:25 AM   #5
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Re: Where should I put my money?

The 11-16 is definitely something you don't use every day. If find myself using it more and more, though, especially for trying to get a wide shot in a small room - a positon I find myself much too often. It's a lens you love to have when you need it - but not often needed for narrative.
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Old February 17th, 2012, 07:25 AM   #6
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Re: Where should I put my money?

to me this one is easy, I'd get :
1) second camera - T3i most likely - $630
2) samyang f1,4; 35mm, 85mm - $700
3) couple manfrottos 546 with 504 - $1400
4) kessler pocket dolly - $500
5) glidecam 2000HD - $570
those are essential pieces of equipment that will bring your production to the next level,
when budget is tight, getting a few OK pieces instead of one top notch piece makes perfect sense;
just a quick note regarding stabilizer:
you don't need full rig for DSLR, handheld will do just fine, try it first and buy it only if you are ready for a long and hard wok, it will take you more than couple weeks of practice to get a decent shot, but when you'll start to understand how it works, that piece of equipment will give you shots that will set you apart from the crowd right away.
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Old February 17th, 2012, 08:49 AM   #7
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Re: Where should I put my money?

Don't forget DIY stuff this can save you some money for the things you can only buy. Lens, camera, audio...
Check out Frugal Filmmaker If you have not already.
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Old February 17th, 2012, 01:34 PM   #8
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Re: Where should I put my money?

The suggestions above all look great in terms of camera improvements, but...

Waaaaaayyyy more bang for the buck would come from new lighting capabilities, if you would actually use them on shoots. The 7d and kit lenses + 50mm are still making great images, even if "long in the tooth". Getting more lighting on shoots and applying it well will up your production value considerably.

1 v-light on a stand and a couple scoops isn't in balance with the good basics you have for camera and sound. I'd make improvements there before coming back to cam & sound... You could sink maybe $1,000 or a little more into some used tungsten lighting and softeners. Old school, but it's portable and does the job for not much money. Say, 2+ 500 to 650w open face, and a fresnel or two, stands, and some support for cards and spun. This also will hold its value...

OTOH, if you have easy access to other lighting already, great. Above suggestions on camera support will indeed increase production value... and would be next on my list. Then I'd start to think about lenses. But that's just me, YMMV.
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Old February 17th, 2012, 03:05 PM   #9
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Re: Where should I put my money?

Seth is right. It's light that makes the scene. I recommended the 17-55 and the Vinten Blue as the basic upgrades with the 100L as a long option - if long is important to you. That leaves $2-3K for grip gear and lighting.

On the lighting side, make sure to get enough stands and arms so you can hang stuff to block light, cast shadows, hang gels, etc.

On the audio side, the cheapest improvement you can make is to get some moving blankets and enough C-stands and arms to hang the blankets to block sound reflections from windows and hard walls. The best mics and recording equipment in the world still sound bad in an ugly sounding room. And when you don't need to hang blankets, those stands can be used by your "lighting department".

What the discussion really needs to come back to, though, is what you shoot, how you like to shoot, what genres you do, and what you next, most important project might be. The best equipment is the equipment you rely on in your productions.
Jon Fairhurst
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Old February 17th, 2012, 03:22 PM   #10
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Re: Where should I put my money?

Here's another thumbs-up for the EF-S 17-55mm IS lens. It is an "L" class lens in every sense except the name.

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Old February 17th, 2012, 05:28 PM   #11
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Re: Where should I put my money?

In fact, here is a good tradeoff...

If you buy lights, as Seth recommended, then the 17-55 is a great choice. At f/2.8 and tighter, you need light indoors.

On the other hand, maybe you're a "found light" type of shooter. In that case, the money saved on not buying lights can be put into fast primes.

Neither approach is right or wrong, but my gut feel, based on you currently doing narrative with relatively slow lenses, is that the zoom and lights are the way to go.
Jon Fairhurst
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