You're sitting at a café sipping a turmeric latte when your phone starts ringing. You answer - on the other end is a potential client saying how lovely it'd be to work with a creative person like you. You tell them how lovely it'd be to work with them also; you're new to the business and are still working on building a portfolio, so you settle on an introductory rate, thank them for calling and hang up. Immediately your palms get sweaty and your mind starts to wander from the awful beverage in front of you to stressing about the many intricacies of the project you're about to begin. Sound familiar? Read on.
Welcome to a blog post that will try to explain the many ways you can squeeze a higher production value out of your lower-value equipment, during those early days when your kit isn't quite as extensive as your dreams may suggest it should be.
It's about more than the camera
"OMG I love your content, your camera is ah-may-zing, where did you buy it?!"
While meaning well, this 'compliment' usually gives the middle finger to the person behind the camera, because while the camera is totally an amazing feat of technology, it takes many hours of learning how to use it to be able to create high-quality things with it.
Most people don't realise this, and they're forgiven, but if you think you're going to pick up a DSLR from the parallel import store and pump out 5-star content right away, you are mistaken.
"All the gear and no idea"
Personally, I've invested far more in lenses than in cameras. I've made data management and post-production a higher priority than having the camera body with every bell and whistle. I spent months using my gear in a personal setting before embarking on any solo commercial projects too, which means I know every piece of my gear inside and out and am confident come crunchtime on shoot.
Know the basic things you really need
Imagine if the windows on your bedroom were so cheaply made that they distorted your view of the outside world to a point where your view of the garden (or streets below) appeared fuzzy, dark and undesirable? Crude example, but when you attempt to use an inferior lens (usually meaning the lens that came attached to the camera when you bought it), you're setting yourself up for a loss. With a little extra investment you could be using glass that creates a sharper, more professional looking image, and if you can't afford those lenses, maybe you should consider a cheaper camera body to compensate.
The current use of the word 'video' is a lie, because 'video' isn't just video. Half of 'video' is audio, unless you're making some weird arthouse drama film (in which case you're probably reading the wrong blog). So really it should be called Vaudio or Audeo, but those are silly names so let's move on. The funny thing is that half-decent audio gear is not expensive at all, but it can make a world of difference to your work when used correctly. For example, picking up a two-channel DSLR mixer, shotgun mic and lapel mic could take your content from a world of 'what did they say' to 'understood'. Nice.
Hard drives - you need 'em, don't @ me on this one. If you're not backing up your footage to at least two separate hard drives or SSDs after each shoot, you're doing it wrong. How embarrassing would it be if halfway through the edit your hard drive broke down and you had to ask the client for a reshoot? While working as a DIT in the film industry I was backing up footage on shoots with seven-figure budgets, so the above scenario could be considered a worst nightmare. Call me paranoid, but storing footage in duplicate or triplicate is a recipe for success should a drive (or two) fail on you.
As you probably know, post production is where the magic happens. Investing money in the best software and investing time to learn your chosen software will ultimately pay off in the quality of your work, and will ensure you're as time effective as possible on jobs that pay less than you'd like. I'd totally recommend Davinci Resolve (it's free) and I've written about it already over here.
Look for a bargain
As you probably know, you can sometimes find quite the steal on the ol' internet. If you're looking for a specific piece of gear but it's a little out of reach financially, do a search on eBay or a similar website and you may be surprised. Buying used is a great way to minimise your business' impact environmentally and save money while expanding your kit, but do consider the positives and negatives of buying pre-owned on a case by case basis, and make sure you're buying from a trustworthy seller.
Other ways to save money without sacrificing production value include working from home, travelling smarter on shoot days, purchasing gear within film hobbyist communities, making the most of free trial production software and borrowing techy friends' computers if yours isn't quite beefy enough.
Probably an obvious one, but it cannot be stressed enough. You are the most important asset to your portfolio's greatness, and you should be spending as much time as possible pouring knowledge into yourself with the goal of becoming a human Swiss Army Knife of video creation. You should be working towards a headspace where even if handed an iPhone 4, a selfie stick and a flashlight, you'd be confident you could deliver something brilliant. You should have the gear AND an idea! Because if you know how to do things really well by yourself, you can save a whole bunch of money and get that production value from the very beginning.