The Best Documentary Filmmaking Kit for Budget Air Travel
Are you looking to travel with your filmmaking gear but don’t want to spend your entire budget on checked baggage every time you fly? Or maybe you’re trying to put together a documentary video production kit that is flexible enough for all kinds of shooting scenarios, while maintaining the highest of broadcast and aesthetic standards?
Two years ago I wrote a post about a complete documentary filmmaking kit that fits in just one backpack. Amazingly, over 20,000 filmmakers have used that kit as a guide for putting together their own traveling video production kit. And although that post is still very useful today, I think it’s time for an update.
Also since that post two years ago, my productions for PBS and corporate films with Video Dads have become much more sophisticated, my Video Dads partner and I have experimented with loads more gear, we have produced over a hundred new documentary videos around the country, and through it all, we’ve honed in on a kit that is much more comprehensive than a bare bones backpacking kit. In fact we both carry the exact same kit.
In the past two years I’ve personally traveled nearly 100,000 air miles with this kit. I’ve brought every piece of gear I need for a complex production in any corner of the country. And I’ve never checked more than one bag.
Please trust me when I say this, the gear and approach in this post is not just a random collection of equipment – I’ve had the unique experience of trying tons of gear on all kinds of shoots, and this is the system that I believe is the best documentary filmmaking kit for traveling producers today.
Essentially, this packing approach boils down to a few simple guidelines:
1. Pack the most expensive items like your camera, lenses, and laptop into a backpack that stays on your back at all times. On the plane, it can go under the seat in front of you.
2. Pack less fragile accessories in your official carry-on, but pack your gear in a way that you can safely gate check it on smaller flights that have tiny overhead space.
3. Pack the least fragile and heaviest items in your checked suitcase, along with clothes.
4. Instead of buying photography or video bags with built-in dividers, use neoprene wraps and small pouches to protect and organize your equipment.
5. When possible, choose the lightest equipment you can, but don’t leave anything behind you might need. It’s better to have slightly more gear than necessary, than be stuck without something because you wanted to pack really light. You’ll regret leaving something that could help tell the story, more often than you’ll curse carrying heavy bags through the airport.
In my suitcase I use Tom Bihn packing cubes for clothes in one half of the bag, and in the other half I pack my tripod and fluid head, my monopod and fluid head, two light stands, a boom microphone kit, a Westcott Ice Light 2, batteries for my C100, Sony batteries for other lights, a small slider, and a few clamps and other knick knacks. On flights that have tight battery restrictions, you can take these out of the checked bag and bring them along in your carry-on.
I have about 20 Domke 19″ neoprene wraps I use to protect just about all my gear. For other accessories I use Domke pouches in various colors, as well as Porta Brace pouches. This system is way more flexible than buying into photo or video bags with pre-built dividers, and you can use luggage and bags that don’t scream “expensive equipment inside!” I wrap the tripod and light stands in the Tom Bihn 520mm Quivers, which attach to the side of the backpack upon landing.
My hardshell suitcase is a standard medium size spinner, but I recommend going for a larger 28″ or 30″ suitcase, so you can fit a more standard length tripod and monopod (more on that below). That’ll be my next purchase. I got my Samsonite hard suitcase from Kohl’s for about $100 – it doesn’t have to be fancy or offer intense protection (that’s what the Domke neoprene wraps are for), but it should be lightweight. Mine is about 8 lbs empty, and full it’s usually right at the 50 lb cutoff. On the other hand, the very durable Pelican hard cases that video professionals use worldwide can start at over 30 lbs empty, which means you’ll have to pack a handful of them and that add up quickly in luggage fees.
Here’s everything that’s in the suitcase, in addition to clothes:
- 2 Manfrotto 5001B Nano stand light stands – the smallest, most durable light stands around. I swear by these.
- A small video monopod – I use a small monopod and epoxy’d these feet to the bottom, but you can now buy the Manfrotto 560B-1 which has the same dimensions, and add the fluid head below. Or get the Benro S4 Monopod and you’re good to go.
- Benro S4 video head for the monopod.
- Smartsystem Reflex S 410 slider – if $750 is too steep or you can’t find this slider in your region (they’re made in Italy), pretty much anything at two feet or under will work for portable documentary filmmaking. But if you can swing it, the Smartsystem Reflex is awesome for a 2lb slider. There’s a distributer list here: www.smartsystem.it/retailers/
- Gitzo GT1542T tripod, Acratech leveling base and Varavon 815 fluid head.
- K-Tek KE-79CC traveler boom pole with internal XLR, Matthews Minigrip Head, boom pole holder, and microphone shock mount.
- C100 batteries – don’t skimp and get the older BP-970G batteries without the intelligent meter. Use the Canon BP-975 or a backup of the small BP-955 battery that comes with the C100.
There’s also Sony NP-style batteries for lights and the Ninja Blade external recorder, Letus Helix batteries and accessories, Aputure Amaran LED AC adapter and light stand mount, a Tom Bihn snake charmer with various stuff like a SOG knife, allen wrenches, extra Manfrotto 494 quick release plates, tape and audio connectors. And because I only bring one light stand for my key light (the Ice Light) and one light stand for the boom microphone setup, the other lights go on accessory clamps like the Dinkum ActionPod Pro, and Gorillapod.
For my carry-on bag, I love the Sachtler Dr. Bag-3 (mine is the older Petrol version, which is identical to Sachtler before they merged brands). It’s particularly great because when it’s unzipped the hard sides make it an extra tall bag, which means on location I can fill it with gear to the brim, and leave it unzipped while I carry it around. The only downside is the little feet on the bottom sometimes get caught when I’m placing it in the overhead compartment, an annoyance that makes my partner Travis prefer the trusty Porta Brace DV4 bag instead. Both are superb.
In this carry-on bag I keep everything that is expensive and kind of fragile and want to keep by my side, except the camera, lenses, and laptop that goes in my backpack. The beauty of this setup is for smaller flights where the carry-on space is limited, you can gate check this bag and be comfortable that all your stuff is still padded and safe.
By the way, I highly recommend replacing the strap in all your bags with a Tom Bihn Absolute Shoulder Strap – it’s amazing and comfortable even when carrying 40 pounds of gear.
Here’s everything in this bag:
- Letus Helix Jr. gimbal.
- Aputure Amaran HR672W daylight rated LED – we have another one that is lighting this scene from above. There’s also a spot version for a more powerful interview key light, and a bicolor version. These lights are a super good deal and have become popular with documentary video shooters.
- Westcott Ice Light – the original version, which can’t go in checked baggage like the Ice Light 2 because of its battery.
- REI self-inflating travel pillow, a car power inverter to charge stuff while driving, Rycote 12cm softie for my on-camera shotgun mic.
- Sennheiser MKE2 lav mic,
- Canare 25 foot XLR cable (try to get this in a color other than black, so you can color coordinate different lav/boom mic coming into the camera),
- Another Sennheiser MKE2 lav which connected to the Sennheiser MZE900P Phantom Power Adapter to become a wired lav,
- Small Cineroid bi-color LED for backlight, Core SWX TorchLED Bolt light,
- Cinevate Universal Accessory Mount,
- a couple HDMI cables (18″ Paralinx and 3 feet ultrathin cable), SSD connector to USB3,
- Ice Light 1 external batteries and a couple Ice Light 2 batteries, rechargeable Eneloop AA batteries,
- WD My Passport 2TB drive, Macbook charger,
Countless full time travelers swear by the Tom Bihn Brain Bag, but I believe it’s also the best kept secret for photography and video production people too. The Canon C100 can get quite bulky when it’s assembled, which makes it hard to fit into many bags. But the Brain Bag has a front and back compartment, and the assembled C100 fits perfectly in the front section, while all the lenses go in the back section, housed in the Tom Bihn Camera I-O. The I-O is its own little lens/camera carrier that you can take out and wear when you want to just carry around your camera, lenses, and nothing else.
When I’m using it for air travel, the Brain Bag is my “personal item” that never leaves my back, and I store it under my seat while my carry-on goes in the overheard compartment or is gate checked. Camera body and lenses go in the back part, and my Macbook Pro goes in a Tom Bihn Brain Cell laptop protector, which fits into the front part of the bag. I have the Horizontal Brain Cell, but I recommend the Vertical one instead, so you can easily reach in and remove your laptop when going through TSA scanners.
In this backpack go the essentials:
- In the Tom Bihn IO I place the Canon C100 Mark I with Dual Pixel Auto Focus body, though if you can afford it, the Canon C100 Mark II is newer and better.
- Canon 70-200mm F4 IS telephoto lens, I always keep the Canon 1.4x extender on the lens and remove it only for interviews,
- Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens, and a Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens. Those are the bread and butter lenses that cover everything you’ll need for a documentary shoot.
- I also carry a few spare lenses for other uses. The Canon 18-135mm STM lens is an all-purpose kit lens that has great autofocus on the C100 and I keep it on when I can’t bring along other lenses with me, since its zoom range goes from wide to telephoto. But its build quality, manual focusing, and low light ability is not very good.
- And finally I always bring the Canon 35mm f2 IS along, because it’s the smallest, most light sensitive lens out there for the C100 that still has Image Stabilization (IS). You can get a cheaper lens that’s more light sensitive, but I believe IS is essential to shooting run ‘n’ gun documentary video. Also the 35mm f2 IS is just a damn good lens.
- Not pictured: Canon 10-18mm STM lens, which is being used to take this photo. It’s a very lightweight lens that is suitable as a replacement for the Tokina 11-16mm, but its build quality is inferior and its not very low light. However, it’s 1mm wider, lighter, and I use it on the Letus Helix gimbal pretty much full time.
- On the C100 handle I keep an Audio-Technica 875R shotgun mic on at all times. Anything longer and you’ll end up seeing your mic in the frame with the ultrawide lenses. I also put a C-Cup eyecup on it and it stays on.
- And of course the unbeatable Apple Macbook 15″ Retina with 16gb ram. Mine is an old one, but still running as good as it did the day I got it (used), several years ago.
- I bring a few extra phone batteries, a set of earbuds in case I don’t have my big headphones nearby, and a clipboard with our personal appearance release form. Also don’t forget to bring some Tums, because heart burn.
As I mentioned, my partner in crime Travis brings the same exact kit as I do on all of our trips. But because he has a larger suitcase, he gets to fit a larger, more heavy duty tripod and a more sturdy monopod. He also brings some alternative gear than I have in my kit, partially because we train a lot of PBS staff around the country in video production, so we want to show them different kinds of gear we use.
Here’s what’s in the above photo:
- Petrol tripod bag – Travis stuffs this in his suitcase, so when we land we can place our tripods, monopods, light stands, boom pole, and slider in this bag. This is the Petrol PEPT703 model which has been discontinued.
- Canon 17-55mm f/2.8 IS lens – some people prefer this lens over the 24-105mm lens, as the bread and butter lens for documentary production. There’s a valid argument for each lens, I think.
- Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 lens – also a popular choice for shooters, since it’s incredibly light sensitive in a pretty good zoom range, with constant aperture. But, no Image Stabilization kills it for the majority of non-tripod work.
- Manfrotto 561BHDV-1 – the original video monopod that started the trend towards monopod shooting over shoulder rigs (or handheld, or tripod). Now discontinued, the replacement model is Manfrotto MVM500A.
- Gitzo GT2531LVL, now discontinued – I believe this is the best video tripod out there, period. For traveling video shooters. If you never get on a flight, you can get away with a more standard video tripod that’s bigger, wider, and heavier. But, then you still have to lug it around on foot.
- Manfrotto 701HDV fluid head – now discontinued, but practically every video shooter has at least one around. It’s still the smallest, most lightweight fluid head you could get, when it was available. Not as smooth as others, but gets the job done.
- Manfrotto MVH500AH fluid head – the current replacement for the 701HDV, and unfortunately bigger. But a great all purpose fluid head. I personally still prefer the Varavon 815 as the best deal in video heads for flat-base tripods out there.
- ASUS MB168B+ – this is a 15-inch LCD screen that is powered via USB 3 to the Macbook, which we use as a second monitor for editing on the road. Very handy and takes up no room. The newer version is the MB169B+.
- Sennheiser G3 Wireless kit – as an alternative to the Rodelink wireless filmmaker kit.
- Vpedal – for transcribing interviews when we’re editing.
- Not pictured: we also bring a Westcott 42-inch reflector for both indoor and outdoor use, mostly for interviews but sometimes one of us will hold it during B-roll shooting.
Alternative Cameras to the Canon C100 – Canon XC10
Although I still believe the C100 is the best large format video camera for traveling documentary filmmakers, there are other cameras out there that I think fit the same type of shooter, but with slightly different needs. The good news is they all work with the above travel system.
The Canon XC10 is a great little camera that can shoot 4K (if needed), it matches the other Canon colors well with its C-log picture profile, but most of all, it has a huge zoom range while maintaining amazing image stabilization. You can shoot this camera handheld while zoomed in to 240mm, with the 2x teleconverter on, for a 480mm shot that is definitely usable. It doesn’t have XLR inputs, but you can always add a Juicedlink RM333 preamp for a super compact package.
So in this tiny form factor, you have a camera that has the power and range of the C100 with two big lenses on it. That’s quite a difference in size, for much the same range. For shooters who value a compact camera above all other considerations, the Canon XC10 might be worth looking into.
Sony RX10 II
A cheaper alternative to the Canon XC10 is the Sony RX10 II, which can also shoot in 4k, also has a built in lens with a long range, but it beats the XC10 in that you can get an XLR adapter that gives you full audio control. The Sony XLR-K2M is also powered via the camera’s hot shoe, so you don’t need to worry about batteries. The above pic also shows a wireless lav receiver mounted to the top of the XLR adapter.
And finally, there’s Sony’s answer to the Canon C100, the Sony FS5. It can do everything the C100 can do but more (except autofocus reliably), and with the Metabones Speedbooster EF to E-mount, you can use your Canon lenses and gain a stop of light, and a slightly wider Field of View. There are lots the FS5 has going for it – I own one and have tested it with the above travel system, and the good news is it works just as well as the C100 does. Cheers to that!
Here’s the two cameras side by side.
I hope this post helps you on your documentary filmmaking journey. Thanks and take care!