The Minimalist Videographer: Why Gear Isn’t Everything with Rob Adams
More than 10 years ago, when wedding cinematography was elevated to a whole other level with the introduction of Video DSLRs, the world of filmmaking was infused with a flurry of new products and gear aimed at amateur filmmakers and wedding professionals. Sliders, Steadicams and Glidecams, jibs, loupes, external monitors and shoulder-rigs; there was just a ton of new equipment that allowed us to achieve cinematic-looking shots for a fraction of the cost of big-budget filmmaking. It opened all kinds of new creative doors and I dove in head-first.
My wedding kit ballooned from 2 cameras with integrated lenses and a tripod (the Dark Ages as I called it at the time) to the following:
- 3 DSLRs, sometimes 4
- 8 lenses
- 2 heavy sliders
- 1 Glidecam or Steadicam rig
- 4 audio devices
- 2 on-camera mics
- 3 monopods
- 3 tripods
- 2 viewfinder loupes
- 3 large ARRI lights
And let’s not forget all of the cables, batteries, chargers, and cases. It was ridiculous. I went from being able to carry all of my gear in the back of a 2-door Jeep Wrangler to having to buy a large SUV and it was packed to the gills on every shoot. My second-shooter would also bring a ton of stuff, so the staging area of the banquet halls we worked in were routinely covered in equipment much to the dismay of maitre d’s and banquet hall staff. It was like gear vomited all over the floor surrounding the DJ booth or bandstand.
Over time we learned to incorporate the use of this gear into our workflow and we were able to produce some pretty awesome work. The problem, however, was that the more gear we tried to use the more time-consuming it became to set up and implement into filming in a run-and-run situation. It actually made it hard to capture moments that would pass in an instant. It also made us more obtrusive on the wedding day and frankly more difficult to deal with in the eyes of other vendors. For a while I adopted an “I don’t care” attitude, but over time it started to become noticeable to the couple and our colleagues, and ultimately as more and more wedding filmmakers started to emulate this process, word got out that working with wedding “cinematographers” was an annoyance.
A few years into that mindset, I actually started to notice fewer and fewer referrals coming in from other vendors and that fewer and fewer brides and grooms cared about a complex wedding film production. By 2016, things had reverted back to the way they were before this so-called revolution and couples just wanted a wedding film that didn’t feel like a film-shoot the day of the wedding. The mystique of something new had worn off. Even same-day edits—which were all the rage from 2010-2014—were becoming passé. Times were changing and I also started to get tired of dragging a ton of crap with me on wedding days. Getting up in years didn’t help either. I’m 44 and I found myself getting more and more fatigued with the process. I decided I had had enough.
Thinking back, I know I could’ve been more creative and would’ve been able to capture more impromptu, emotional moments cleaner if I wasn’t hampered and hindered by cumbersome equipment hanging off of my body and my camera. Looking back at my previous work, it’s obvious. Shots that I had time to set up and shoot intentionally looked great, but shots where I needed to be adaptable and quick on my feet were shaky, sloppy, incorrectly exposed, or didn’t encompass the sweet-spot of the moment.
These realizations led me to rethink what I would bring on weddings from this point forward. This required some tough analysis of my process, and honestly, it was scary to cull down my kit because I always thought “what if?” What if I needed something that I would no longer have with me? But the first time I ever shot a wedding with a trimmed-down kit, I instantly discerned that I was lighter on my feet, able to capture moments quicker and with better focus and framing accuracy, and that I was ultimately more creative and involved in the creative process of capturing the wedding day.
Getting back into the studio and editing the films became an easier process, too. We were no longer sifting through 15 takes of a slider shot to find one that didn’t stick or shake and I wasn’t concerned about missed focus on a Glidecam or gimbal shot. We would lock down and nail a shot repeatedly and often times singularly. That made editing so much faster as we knew what to expect from our footage overall.
So here’s what I ultimately cut out from my gear kit:
I no longer take a slider. I’m finding that I don’t need to shoot all my detail and establishing shots with a slider. One fundamental rule of filmmaking is that composition and letting the action of the subject provide the motion of a shot is more effective than camera movement. There is a true place for camera movement in filmmaking, but for weddings, I feel like it’s overdone by many of today’s wedding video makers and isn’t used intentionally, but simply because it’s available with sliders and gimbals. By simply locking down my detail shots and establishing frames, I’m able to capture more footage quicker and focus instead on the lighting of the shot and movement of the light to make the shot dynamic. The video that accompanies this article will illustrate this.
I’ve come to surmise that any gear other than a monopod, camera, and a tripod slows me down and actually keeps me from being as creative as I can be. I do bring a motorized gimbal along, but only one that can be carried with one hand. I don’t subscribe to a gimbal that has a roll-cage attached and requires two-handed operation or that draws too much attention. Having a simple, small handheld 3-axis gimbal with a compact mirrorless camera allows me to get a few slow-moving wide shots, which will help bring a small element of motion into my footage. This is useful in large, grand venues or settings. My drone operator will add another level of motion with his aerial shots, which play nicely with the static shots that make up about 85-90% of my other shots.
So, my kit now basically consists of a couple of cameras (my second-shooter will supply a third), a few audio devices for mic’ing the groom and officiant, and tapping into the sound systems for ceremonies and receptions. I bring about 5 lenses total and use 3 of them in rotation regularly: a 50mm, a 14-24mm and a 135. I don’t even bring a 70-200 anymore since with the cropped sensor formats we shoot with I don’t need a longer focal length than 135, which is effectively a 200mm. I bring two tripods, one for me to use on detail shots and ceremonies and one for an unmanned camera or time-lapse shot if necessary. My second shooter brings one for him/herself along with a monopod which I also have. Between the two of us, we are now shooting on monopod or tripod most of the time. I’m quicker, lighter, and more agile now on wedding days. We have the ability to move from place to place with ease. We do carry a 2-light kit for receptions and stands for them. The lights are fully battery-powered as I don’t want to deal with running power cables. The lights and the stands are carried in one large case, a ThinkTank Production Manager 50, which also houses the gimbal, the audio, and some other gear we don’t need at the ready. This brought our kit of 5 or 6 cases down to two. We load-in to venues faster and during jobs in the inner-city we can move around in Ubers with relative ease. Add an assistant and the second shooter into the mix and I can completely concentrate on filming and not logistics. This is my perfect place for filming weddings.
I honestly feel like my work has improved and I’m able to look at light and shadow and the beauty of a shot without being weighed down by gear. I’m able to whip-turn fast and get parent reactions and grandma tearing up. I’m free to move around and adjust focus quickly, yielding me more quality shots to use in editing and tell a better story. I’m also less of a nuisance to work with in the eyes of photographers.
The production value and quality still remains, but at a cheaper cost to my body and my wallet. I used to lose gear all the time on weddings. We would move from place to place so quickly that often times equipment would get left behind. Sometimes we could retrieve it and other times it just wasn’t worth traveling 3 hours to recover. We now rely on the built-in electronic viewfinders of our Panasonic Lumix mirrorless cameras for focus and exposure accuracy outside and for greater stabilization, rather than having to use an external monitor or hood loupe attached to the back of the camera. Today’s technology and improvements to these camera features make this possible. Hood loupes would always fall off and get lost. I don’t even use external mics on my cameras anymore. I simply rely on the built-in camera microphone to capture reference sound and ambient voices.
Take a look at a film we recently shot and count how many shots are actually static still frames that allow the subject or light to provide the motion—and you’ll see what I mean. I believe it’s an example of quality wedding filmmaking that doesn’t require hundreds of pounds of gear or cost precious minutes of setup to achieve.