Our equipment philosophy
At abbywinters.com HQ, we have several guiding principles when considering gear to purchase:
- Purchase good quality gear that never gets superseded (eg, lighting, grips, mics, stands, lenses, cables). We’ll always need this stuff.
- Purchase reasonable-quality cameras – they will be superseded in 18 to 24 months.
- After a certain level, content quality far outweighs camera quality
You may be tempted to acquire gear “on the cheap”. There is a wide range of equipment available for many budgets, but the entry-level is around US$8,000 (cameras, lights, necessary accessories) for shooting with us, assuming you start from nothing.
Trying to do it cheaper will result in compromises that will simply lead to us not buying shoots from you.
Renting equipment is possible – but renting all equipment necessary for a shoot will likely cost US$450 at least, and that’s not viable! But renting equipment to augment your existing gear, for example, just flash lighting, is more affordable.
ABOVE: Images that exemplify the lighting style expected in scenes. Large sources, no dark shadows, DoF ensures we can see everything we need to clearly (at least f8), ISO at 100 to best quality.
In common for both stills and video production for abbywinters.com, we require a very large source of light be used (at least, 3 x 3 metres / 10 x 10 feet). Smaller sources will not make shoots that are lit acceptably for our needs.
The best way to achieve this is to:
- Bounce-off or light through large thick true-white sheets (ie, king-size bed sheets), or similar plain thick white cotton fabric. Thicker fabric ensures the diffusion is good.
- Bouncing off large true-white walls (not bouncing off eggshell / beige walls!). Ceiling are usually white, but bouncing off a ceiling alone is not acceptable, as that will cause shadows under the model’s eyebrows, chest, breasts and vulva.
These large sources require powerful lights (eg, mains-powered flash, HMI, or similar) to light them evenly and brightly, to shoot at an acceptable depth of field (minimum f8), shutter speed, and ISO (100).
Lighting for stills
Required: Off-camera, mains-powered flash equipment is required. On-camera flash, or battery-powered off-camera flash are not suitable. Sources must be powerful enough to shoot at f8 at ISO 100, with the source heavily diffused.
This allows the necessary rapid-recycle time to ensure a shoot can be completed in a timely fashion (without waiting for the flash to recycle), and are powerful enough to be heavily diffused and still enable exposing at f8 nominally / ISO 100.
Flash gear we use at AW HQ
At abbywinters.com HQ, we used Bron equipment, a pack-and-head system. These are expensive (flash pack and two heads, US$10k or so, similar to this pack, and these Pulso G heads), but are very robust and powerful. We shot almost every day of the year, so it’s worthwhile for us, but may be overkill for you.
Recommended flash gear
Most mid-range mono-block (monolight) flash heads will be fine, for example, this Bowens kit at US$1330 (there are many similar kits, and brands).
Two flash heads are definitely required for making AW shoots, but softboxes that come with these kits are useless. But, the kits do come with stands, which are necessary.
Buying cheaper flash equipment is not recommended
Paying less for flash heads may mean:
- Slower recycle times (more waiting for flash to charge, less time for shooting);
- Possibly more expensive repairs (parts will be hard to find);
- Likely shorter time to complete failure; and
- Most importantly, lower power – meaning, not being able to shoot at f8 when the light is appropriately diffused. This is a significant concern!
Continuous light for stills is not recommended
It’s possible to use continuous light for stills, but increasing the ISO on the camera will be required (reducing quality, perhaps unacceptably, depending on the camera), and “hot lights” (HMI, red-head) heat up the room uncomfortably in our opinion. Kino or LED can be fine, if the increased ISO quality affect is acceptable to us. A secondary problem is that balancing existing natural light on a sunny day, with artificial continuous light – that can get expensive fast (the brighter it is outside, the more continuous light is required inside to balance it)!
Speed lights (on-camera, battery-powered flash) are not acceptable
It’s possible to use “speedlites” for flash light (typically, battery powered, on-camera flash, the Canon 600EX-RT, for example). It’s never acceptable for light in AW shoots to be on-camera, though speedlites can be triggered off-camera by infra-red or wireless trigger systems.
But, their low-power (compared to mains-powered flash) will compromise diffusion. The slow recycle time, and need to change batteries during a shoot will severely limit the flow of the shoot (a typical shoot is 1000 frames, edited down to the best 250), and extend the time for a day that’s already busy.
Strongly not recommended.
Flash needs to be triggered to synchronise with the camera shutter being open. At AW HQ, we used the excellent Pocket Wizard Plus for this. Two of them (required) cost US$270. There are many cheaper variants, and a low-powered on-camera flash aiming straight up can be used (pretty much all monobloc strobes will be triggered when they sense another flash).
To diffuse the light from flash heads, we recommend the cheapest possible pure-white king-sized bed-sheets! (or, just 240cm / 95″ wide true-white cotton drill fabric, from a fabric store). Cheap and effective!
We can shoot the light through a sheet to diffuse it, or drape the sheet over a book case, or pin it to a wall to bounce off the sheet. Low-tech, cheap, and very effective.
Lighting for video
Required: As video is a continuous medium, continuous light is required. Camera settings required are f8 in a large room at 0dB of gain (ISO100), with the source heavily diffused.
The modelling lights from flash heads are not bright enough for video, and flash heads have a noisy fan to cool the flash head as well, which causes unacceptable audio-recording problems.
For video, we need to be able to shoot at f8, shutter speed of 1/50th, and gain of 0dB, in a large room (say, 15’ x 15’ / 4.5m x 4.5m square), with the model moving around in the room, and without having to adjust the lights for every shot / sequence.
That’s a lot of light – the equipment will be hot, heavy, and draw a lot of electricity!
LED fixtures for video shooting
While LED fixtures are cheap, run cool, and seem bright, they’re not bright enough for our needs. That’s F8, 0dB, 1/50th, heavily diffused, lighting a room 15′ x 15′ (4.5m x 4.5m).
A LED panel like those shown below, aimed directly at a model will light to f8 no problem… but the source is not diffused, so it’ll cast harsh shadows that are unacceptable. LED panels need to be shot-through a true-white bedsheet (for example) which creates the diffusion necessary, but also reduces the intensity of of the light significantly… so we can no longer shoot at f8 ISO at 0dB.
Or rather, the number of LED units to achieve the brightness we need (16 to 18 panels that are 30cm / 12″ square), means other alternatives become cheaper (in late 2017, Aputure are rumoured to be making LED panels that are significantly brighter – like a 1200w HMI – but the price is expected to be US$2500, more than twice a HMI!).
At AW HQ, we used HMI lights for video
At AW HQ, where we produced shoots every day, we used one or two 1.2k HMI PAR fixtures, bounced of white walls / ceiling, or shot through white sheets. While Italian Arri lights are the “gold standard” for HMI, their price – in our opinion – is just outrageous (US$7,600!).
We have been using Chinese Arri knockoffs from eBay (or here on Amazon) for the last 8 years, and are still using the same ones we bought 8 years ago! We use these instruments around 250 days a year, and they’re still going strong. And the price, US$1,000 delivered, can’t be beat! They are not as “nicely” made as Arri’s, to be sure, and the light is not as even as Arri’s, but as we’re always diffusing the light, even-ness not a big deal for us.
New lamps are around US$160, and for around 1500 hours, that’s a lot of shoots. These units are heavy, and need a strong stand. They also run very hot, and so a fire extinguisher is recommended to be on set, just to be safe.
Alternatives to HMI for video lighting
HMI’s are the most efficient at converting electricity into lots of light. The alternatives are grim – expensive, and / or lots of hassle.
- Three 2k incandescent lamps (like these Mole’s)
- Six 800w redhead incandescent fixtures (kit of three on Amazon)
- Three 4-foot Kino Flo 4banks (on-brand preferred; tubes extra)
Audio for video
Required: high quality directional mic (“shotgun”), costing at least US$650. Headphones. Wind-jammer for shooting outside.
It’s been said that sound is 70% of the picture. Maybe that’s an overstatement, but there’s no question that sound is incredibly important, to our material as much as any other.
Using a video camera’s built-in mic is not acceptable for AW shoots. Using any “Rode” brand of mic is not acceptable – they have good marketing, but low quality mics that are not suitable for the media we make (not directional enough).
At HQ, we only, ever use Sennheiser MKH416 microphones (US$999 at Amazon). These are high quality, directional microphones, pretty much an industry standard for news and film. Recommended.
They are a condenser mic, so need phantom power to run (any modern video camera that has XLR inputs will likely be able to provide this phantom power).
Using an external recorder (eg, Zoom Hx series) for audio is not practical for making AW videos. Typically a solo shoot will run to 100 short clips (each 20s to 5m long), and syncing many video clips with one long external audio clip (or worse, multiple audio clips!) is just not viable in that situation.
Monitoring audio with headphones while shooting video is essential to ensuring the shoot is usable. What if the mic was not plugged in, or the levels were too low, or there was wind noise? Or, children playing in the background? These can all ruin a shoot! So headphones are required – any headphones are fine, even the ones from a mobile phone.
When shooting outside, even the smallest breeze flowing past a microphone causes a low rumble that makes audio – and thus the whole shoot – unusable! Luckily, it’s easy to fix with a wind jammer. While many types are available (and we have tried many!) we have had most luck with the simple Rycote Classic Softie. US$95 from Amazon. It slides over the mic nicely (though must be sized for the mic you use).
Goal: Have all of the model in focus, (that is, vulva and face), but background and foreground out of focus.
f8 is a good starting point. Changing from there is fine if there’s a creative imperative to do so.
Lower than f8 means live focus pulling for video when the model or camera moves, and parts of the model being out of focus. Higher than f8 can also be fine, but requires more light.
ISO / Gain
Goal: High image quality, low noise. Always set the lowest possible ISO / lowest Gain.
ISO100 / video gain of 0dB, for maximum quality is expected. This can be pushed, but it depends on the camera. For example, on a Canon 5Dmk3, we can go up to ISO1000 (but no more). On older, or less-sophisticated cameras, this might be lower – or higher.
If you plan on using higher ISO/gain than 100 / 0dB, send some samples of people and nominate the ISO used, so we can make a “ruling”… before shooting the scene!
Goal: Whatever suits technical requirements of ISO and Aperture.
Fastest shutter speed for stills: Under the sync speed of your flash gear and the camera – usually 1/200th or 1/160th, but as fast as possible, is required. If shooting with continuous light, as fast as you like is fine with us.
Fastest shutter speed for video: As the motion we’re capturing is reasonably static, faster than 1/1000 is not necessary. At HQ, we seldom use anything other than 1/50th (occasionally ND filter when shooting outside).
Slowest shutter speed for stills: If the model is mostly lit by flash, but there is some continuous light in the background (for example, outside, or a desk lamp), shutter can be as low as 1/30th (so long as the camera is held steady). The model will be “frozen” with the flash light, and while there may be some minor motion blur in the background, it’s not a concern – so long as the model herself is sharp.
If the model is lit by continuous light (eg, daylight), as slow as you can hand-hold while ensuring there’s no motion blur. 1/lens length is a good rule-of-thumb (so, shooting at 80mm, most people can hand-hold with a shutter speed of 1/80th). Typically, 1/100th to be safe. Add a monopod, 1/50th if you’re young and steady. 🙂
Slowest shutter speed for video: No slower than 1/25th! 1/50th recommended.
For stills: 80mm or greater preferred. 60mm acceptable, 50mm or less unacceptable.
For video: Typically, fully zoomed out on a consumer or pro-sumer video camera; ~22mm to 35mm equivilent. On a full-frame (35mm) video capture device, 18 to 22mm is likely to be suitable. Please provide some test footage of a real person, so it can be discussed, before providing shot media for real.
For video, zooming in to a longer lens is never acceptable. Always be closer to the model, and fully wide (we work to place the customer face close to the action, and emulate their peripheral vision).
Required: Colourful, vibrant sets.
As will be learned in the Location and environment selection training session, the context in which models appear is important. While it’s preferable to shoot models in their own homes (meaning no set-dressing is required), around 70% of the time that’s not possible, so a kit of colourful fabric pieces is very helpful.
Fabric can be used to make a masculine or gender-neutral location instantly feminine, but also adding bold colours to the scene making it “pop”. If you look at existing shoots on the site, you’ll see fabric used like this in almost every shoot (every shoot, different fabric).
The good news is, this fabric can be had for around US$3-5 a piece (roughly 1.5m x 1.5m, or 5′ x 5′) from “remnants” stores (shops that sell the ends-of-rolls of fabric), but often also from larger fabric retailers.
When our HQ was in Amsterdam, each month there are fabric markets – a sewers delight! – with hundreds of small stalls selling this sort of thing. We visited once every few months and spent a few hundred Euro stocking up. Perhaps your city has something similar?
From April 2016, at AW HQ, we have made hundreds of shoots shoots with Sony CX900 cameras, with an XLR-K2M audio adapter, and a Sennheiser 416 mic. All told, the kit cost is around US$3000 or so.
Shoots with this setup meet our technical requirements, and allow the Shoot Producer to spend the most amount of attention on the model, with no effort needed around camera steadiness, and audio just “manages itself”.
The CX900 is a little dated now (and cannot be bought new), the replacement is the 4k model of effectively the same camera, AX100E.
These setups are very reliable, high quality, robust and cheap compared to a DSLR that can do the same thing. This camera model is a little out-dated now (means it’s cheaper!), but there are also more modern equivalents (4k is the main change, the Sony FDR-AX100). Let us know before you buy, and we can provide some tips.
If not this specific set up, other vendors have similar solutions (Panasonic, Canon, etc). It needs to meet this criteria:
- Shoot true HD 1920×1080 video, or higher
- Allow connection of an external, XLR mic, and provide phantom power to the external mic
While these two requirements seem simple, there are actually not many cameras that meet it on the market at any one time.
We have a page about shooting video with a DSLR (or similar digital cinematography equipment), which is strongly not recommended.
Almost any modern DSLR will be fine for our needs for stills. We have used a Canon 5DmkIII since 2012, and have been very happy with it. We use a battery grip, which also makes the camera more comfortable to hold when shooting portrait orientation.
Acceptable alternatives include cameras with similar specs to:
Nikon D810, D750, D500, D7200.
Canon 70D, 80D, 6D, 1DX, 5DS, Rebel T5.
Sony A7S, A7R.
Stills camera lenses
Around 97% of the images on our site were captured with the venerable Canon 24-70 F2.8L. A brilliant and versatile lens, strongly recommended. Of course, a similar lens will also be fine. We very seldom need to shoot at f2.8, and lenses that do a maximum of f4.5 are considerably cheaper.
We use and recommend the Canon 500D Close-up lens (US$149). This screws on to the front of your regular lens, like a filter, but enables much closer shots (for example, almost fill the frame with a nipple). Without this lens (or similar), it’s not possible to get the closeness of shots we require (unless a dedicated macro lens is used – much more expensive).