Whether you're putting together a porch swing or building a bookshelf, one of the first things you'll find printed on the assembly instructions is a list of the tools needed for the job. If your toolbox contains the right tools you're good to go; without them you won't get far. The same is true for your camera bag. With a small collection of essential production tools you'll be equipped to tackle every obstacle on any shoot. Here is a list to the top tools a serious shooter shouldn't leave home without.
1) Tripod. Shooting steady shots and making smooth camera moves are absolutely essential for professional production, and the best way is to work from a tripod. Remember, all tripods are not created equal. Make sure yours is designed for shooting video, not still photos. This typically means the tripod has a true fluid pan/tilt head, pan handles and adjustable drags.
2) External Microphone(s). While your camcorder's built-in microphone typically has a decent quality omni-directional pickup element, its fixed position on the front of your camera keeps you from getting great sound unless you press your lens right up against your subject. The best way to record clean, clear audio is to get your mic close to the subject. This means getting it off your camera. Microphones come in many shapes and sizes to do a variety of jobs. The most commonly used and versatile are handheld "stick" mics and clip-on lavalieres. If you are shooting with a DSLR, you should carry an external audio recorder like the Tascam DR-07mkII, or the Zoom H4N.
3) Headphones. Invest in a pair of good quality over-the-ear headphones that block outside noise and let you clearly hear what your mic is recording. What's the biggest trick to getting great results from headphones? You have to plug them in and put them on. They may look cool hanging around your neck, but they aren't effective unless they are actually on your ears. Because you will be wearing them for the duration of your shoot, choose a pair that not only sounds good, but fits comfortably.
4) Reflector/Bounce Card. Reflectors and bounce cards will help you light right while you run and gun. A properly positioned reflector lets you create a polished lighting look from a single source, whether it's the sun, an incandescent bulb, or a Fresnel. Professional photo/video reflectors are often flexible, circular and shiny, with silver or gold surfaces.
They tend to bounce hard, intense light, and are susceptible to "wiggle" when used in the wind. White foam core cards are a popular alternative that many pros prefer. In addition to being inexpensive and easily accessible, they are rigid, and cast a soft, diffused light that is appealing on talent. You can also use them for setting white balance and for blocking your mics from buffering breezes.
5) Gaffer's Tape. A big ol' roll of good gaff tape is one of the most useful tools for the resourceful shooter. Gaffer's tape is not the same as duct tape, electrical tape or masking tape. It is a specially formulated cloth tape with glue that holds firm without making a mess. Although gaffer's tape can be a little pricey, this is not the place to cut corners on cost. Use it for taping down power cords, taping on microphones or taping up a loose tripod leg. If MacGyver made video, gaff tape would be his favorite tool.
6) Backup Batteries. As advanced as our cameras have become, they still rely on battery power. If those pint-sized power packs decide to die and you are unprepared, you're done. So, always bring a backup battery, and your charger. While one battery is powering your camera, keep another on the charger and plugged in. It's also a good idea to carry a collection of 9-volts and AAs to use with your mics so you are never without.
7) Your Camera. Don't forget to pack your camera itself! Batteries, microphones, tape and reflectors aren't much good on their own. When you pack your camera, be sure to put on your lens cap, and make sure the camera is held snugly in place so it doesn't jostle around. Even hefty-feeling cameras are vulnerable to damage if they bounce around loosely in the bag.
Before you head off to your next shoot, make sure your production toolkit is equipped with these 7 essential tools. You'll be glad you did.
Chuck Peters is a 3-time Emmy award winning writer and producer. He is currently VP of Production at KIDMO/Rivet Productions.