The Equipment Package: The Basic Tools of Backpack Journalism

As a backpack journalist in the digital age, the options for getting equipment is stupendous—too many to even decipher. What does a professional journalist need to get good video and good audio? To help in the variety of choices, I’ll examine the kinds of equipment a video journalist needs on the publisher’s website, based on 2011 budget categories: Working on a budget (least expensive, but adequate equipment), getting the goods (good cameras, but a bit more pricey), and the best (when funds are not so limited). The equipment listed in each category is not exhaustive, and is chosen based on budget and portability—I will not be recommending any large broadcast journalism cameras that sit on your shoulder, for example. But in each case, I’ll be looking at the features needed to get the story right. Furthermore, I cover other equipment needs, such as microphones, pistol grips, and tripods.

This chapter will cover some of the basic reasons why you need certain equipment and how to set up a light travel package.

Brian Storm, founder of, mentions how inexpensive equipment has led to a “democracy of production”:

So you think about things like this magic box that we are sitting next to. This is a Mac with 3 terabyte hard drive in it. I mean, it comes with a seatbelt. It’s a multimedia powerhouse machine. This is like a Hollywood production facility that we are sitting in front of in my apartment. And it’s not that expensive. Final Cut Pro is 1,200 bucks. And it’s like a Avid system that used to cost $250,000. HD video camera used to be $70,000. Now they are $5,000.[1] I own a HD video camera, man. So that’s the democracy of production—that’s a revolution in my mind.”[2]

Below I list equipment by category, but within each budget list for the camera, I provide a total cost of equipment with a list of the most inexpensive equipment in each category—feel free to mix and match, as desired.


Equipment for Documentary Journalists

Video cameras and the end of tape: miniDV to HD

Tape-based cameras are a thing of the past. A one hour tape takes one hour to dump into a computer, while cameras with multimedia cards or hard drives allow you to drag and drop an hour’s worth of files off the media in 8-12 minutes. Those who edit using Sony Vegas, for example, have no problem editing these drag and drop files. However, Final Cut Express/Pro requires a long transcoding process at about 150% of real time (close to 90 minutes for one hour footage) and it increases the file size three to seven times. And since many journalists and documentary filmmakers tend to use MacBook Pros with Final Cut Pro or Express, this can be seen as a drawback—yet the video quality is worth it. The reason behind the compression relates to the use of key frames in the video. Since HD is more compressed, but yet looks better than regular miniDV video, the designers of the codec worked around a potentially large file size by instilling a lower number of keyframes in the video, saving them file size. So when someone does edit on a tapeless camera, using the AVCHD /H.264 codec, for example, there may be frame drops during the editing process. Apple avoids this issue by reinserting key frames on every frame, thus the increase in file size and the time for decompression.

HD Video Cameras—The 4 things every camera needs

There are four things a good documentary journalist needs in their camera, despite budget: A microphone input, as well as manual control of focus, aperture or iris, and white balance.

Without clean sound, no one will watch your video, despite how well it looks. Getting a good microphone that you can hold or attach to the camera is imperative. If the camera doesn’t have a mic input, as well as a headphone jack so that you can monitor the sound coming into the camera, then you may want to reconsider the purchase. At the same time, if you don’t control aperture manually, then the amount of light coming into the camera will change as clouds pass or the lighting conditions change. It’s another function of making the video more professional looking.

White balance expresses the ability for the lights to change the color look of your video. If you turn on a regular lamp next a window in the day time, you’ll notice a yellow glow to the lamp, while outside during noon, it’ll be more white. Your eyes quickly adjust to different types of lights, each with a different quality of light color. Camera chips and lenses are far more sensitive to light and changing the color balances fixes the issue. The automatic setting of white balance may be enough for most of your jobs, but if you can control it manually using a white sheet of paper or a standard photographic gray card, you’ll control the quality of your image much better.

The backpack journalist needs to travel light, but also have the minimum professional quality equipment to craft a professional look and audio capture. Therefore, low-end consumer HD video cameras, such as the Flip Video camcorder for $150 is not recommended, unless it’s the only thing you can afford and just want to grab video on the fly, but since it lacks manual control over focus, aperture, white balance, and does not have a microphone input, it’s nearly impossible to get professional video out of this camera. So other than a quick mention, I do not recommend or review any consumer video camera. In addition, I don’t profile larger cameras, such as the Panasonic tapeless HC150—a great camera for just over $3000. There are many good video cameras in this class, but my choice revolves around getting the most portable and professional equipment for under $3000 (except for the Red Scarlet, which is portable, but a bit pricey). Feel free to use the pricier ENG cameras.

Bare Bones package for the lowest budget: Canon 60D, Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens, Zoom H1 kit, Manfrotto monopod, reflector: ~$1400. For just about $1300 this setup will provide you with a solid professional kit. Put Magic Lantern on this camera, and you’ll be able to use advance audio and focus assist material. Click on each item to see details.
Canon_70DCanon 70D body: ~$1000 (sale price)(+ spare battery: ~$57
+32GB SDHC card: ~$20
+card reader: ~$10)The 70D is a solid DSLR with the option to record in All-I mode, providing better recording of images (all frames recorded equally as opposed to data recorded across shared frames).
Canon50mmCanon 50mm f/1.8: ~$125 The best buy Canon has—this is a “fast” lens, meaning the aperture opens to f/1.8, so you can get a shallow depth of field and shoot in low light situations. This should be your go-to lens for most of your shooting situations.Other good lenses are the 85mm f/1.8 (~$400) and the so-called pancake lens: 40mm f/2.8 for ~$200. Tascam_DR70DTascam DR-70D field audio mixer and recorder: ~$300. This is the best piece of audio gear you can buy for a DSLR. It’ll give you pristine sound with up to four channels; you can plug in a shotgun mic and a lav mic. There’s an output to the dslr mic input, so you’ll have two recordings–audio on camera and on the mixer.
Sennheiser EW112 wireless lav system (use for interviews): ~$630Great tool for interviews, especially if someone is walking around doing action. Manfrotto monopod with 500 series fluid head:~$250 (sale price)Yes, this is more important than a tripod, since you’re given the flexibility to not only do steady shots but you can do moving shots with this (see Patrick Moreau’sStillmotion video tutorial on this piece of gear: Screen Shot 2015-05-15 at 8.32.00 AM Screen Shot 2015-05-15 at 8.35.01 AMInduro legs: ~$300Manfrotto fluid head: ~$200Induro makes some of the best tripods in the business–blows the doors off the competition. This tripod has a 75mm half ball for quick leveling without having to adjust tripod legs.  Add this solid Manfrotto fluid head and you have a winning combination.
Additional equipment. Add the other gear as you can afford them.

RodeNTG2 Rode NTG-2 shotgun mic: ~$330 kit (with windscreen)

 A solid shotgun microphone that can be powered with a AA battery, so you can save battery power on the external recorder (Tascam DR-40). Use this if you want something more substantial than the Zoom H1.

Rycote Pistol Grip: ~$120

A quality pistol grip designed to absorb sound from your hand as you mount a shotgun mic. Good for documentary work. Use a boompole when shooting fiction dialogue. You may be able to mount a Zoom H1 (sideways) with this setup, which will help if you want to bring the mic/recorder in close.


zfinder Zacuto Z-Finder Pro: ~$375
The best DSLR viewfinder on the market.

Vidpro LED light: ~$160

Great light for indoor and outdoor. Includes variable dimmer dial. Be sure to get the light stand. Even though this can fit on a camera, it’s much better to shoot off axis, since face on lighting will flatten the image.


 Smith-Victor RS75
light tripod: ~$33
Use for the Vidpro LED light.

 ImpactReflectorImpact 5-in-1 Reflector 32″: ~$39It’s good to have a reflector and diffuser on hand so you can control where light falls on your subject in close-up and medium shots (not useful for wide shots).

G-Technology G-Drive 1TB 7200rpm FireWire 800/USB 3.0: ~$200

A great portable hard drive with FireWire 800 and USB 3 interface. USB is 3 is over a third faster than FireWire 800. Also useful for dumping footage in the field (since it’s powered by the computer).

LowePro DSLR video pack 250AW: ~$120You’ll need to hold your gear and this will provide room to add additional lenses and microphones as you expand you kit.It’ll hold a DSLR, a couple of lenses, audio recorder, a laptop, among other gear.


7 thoughts on “Equipment

  1. Kurt, Didn’t you provide instructions on how to make an expensive dolly as a cheaper alternative to to the Kessler?

    Your book is great, thanks!

  2. Hi Kurt,
    have you got any experience with the Olympus LS-5 Voice Recorder?
    It seems to be very solid and the price is okay!


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