If you have any interest in filmmaking then chances are you tend to deal with a bit of gear envy. You could make that movie if only you were shooting on that new 8k sensor! We're here to tell you that the gear doesn't matter as much as you might think. The main thing that matters is the story you want to tell; that will outshine any technical equipment used to capture it. If your only option is a slightly older DSLR, camcorder, or even just your smartphone; we're here to help you out with some tips to get the most out of your options!
1: Exposing your image
Whatever you end up telling your story with it is of utmost importance you understand the basics involved so that you know the rules to bend or even break when conveying your vision. The first thing you need to understand is that your camera needs light! Properly lighting your scene, knowing how to use and bounce daylight are all essential to making your image look pleasing. Of course there are scenarios where you might have a creative reason for doing things but 99% of the time you are going to want to have correct exposure.
ISO references a standard that measures the sensitivity of a camera's sensor. Cameras have a native ISO they can shoot in and some fancier options can even have a dual rating, say of 400 and 3200 making them good cameras for poor lighting conditions. There is a big push for cameras that can shoot at crazy high ISO ratings, some as high as 25600! So there are some who now look at the lower native settings of a camera as a negative. But for our purposes, to truly get the most out of these sensors, you are going to want your ISO as low as possible for your camera. ISO 200 to 400 being ideal.
The next steps to focus on are your aperture settings and your shutter speed. The wider your aperture the more light you let in but this will also make your depth of field more shallow. This is a desired though slightly overdone effect which some consider to be very cinematic. Your background will be quite blurred but you may find keeping your subject in focus quite difficult. If you are shooting a close up you may find the eyes of your actor are very sharp but their nose or ears and beyond won't be, depending on how wide you can go with your lens. Typically you should stop down a bit, shooting at an f3.5 or f4 may still give you the effect you want which is called bokeh but will ensure your
subjects are still quite sharp.
The shutter speed when played by the "180 rule" is what really helps set that film like experience. Shooting at 24p and a shutter angle of 180 or 1/48 is what the industry considers a standard for shooting a cinematic image. A lot of what makes shooting a film on a smart phone so noticeable if you aren't using a dedicated app to shoot manually the camera will wildly adjust the shutter speed depending on what it thinks you are shooting. Which can give the image a very juddery or unnatural look, and not the cinematic motion blur your movie needs. So using an app that will let you keep fine control over your shutter speed is crucial to making that option work the best for you.
There are many times when playing with the shutter speed can enhance your scene, trying playing with a higher speed for action scenes to get that sort of Saving Private Ryan/Bourne Identity look or slower to introduce a lot more motion blur for dream like sequences or timelapses. Our eyes naturally are accustomed to motion blur so some blur can be a very good thing! The 180 rule is more of a guideline really, especially for delivering your video to the web but there is a reason it's a standard and I think you will be very pleased with your results if you start adhering to it. I recommend investing in ND filters that act like sunglasses for your lens. But some people feel that even the best ones can influence the image of the camera so will compensate by using the shutter angle. Whatever you can do the ensure your footage isn't blown out which is what happens when your sensor is taking in too much light.
2: Know your settings
It will make things much harder for you to get the "film look" if you leave anything on "auto" so you are going to want to learn how to use your camera in it's manual mode. This will ensure that your captured images stay consistent. Try to shoot in either a flat profile if your camera offers it or at least a natural one, if your camera gives you the ability I recommend turning down the contrast and sharpness. Also make sure you are shooting at the correct color temperature.
If you can shoot a white reference on set this will help you a great deal in post to making sure you have the correct white balance for your image. Using your editing software to color grade your footage will definitely elevate your image. Using your camera's color settings to make sure you are getting the most dynamic range you can squeeze out of your camera is key to letting you get rich blacks, detailed shadows and pleasing skin tones.