The Ultimate Guide to a Camera Assistant’s Toolkit

Every camera assistant will have different tools depending on how they work. That’s why it’s important to peak into what other camera assistants have to offer. So I’m going to show you what I have in my toolkit today and also give you advice on what I think you should have in yours.

“What should I have in my kit?” “What are the essential tools?” “Do I need to bring gear to set?”

If you are just starting out within the camera department, these are crucial questions. You know that part of your success in the industry depends on obtaining the right tools to do the job and you aren’t sure where to even begin.

And that’s why these questions get asked a lot.

But here’s the rub: every camera assistant will have different tools depending on how they work. That’s why it’s important to peak into what other camera assistants have to offer.

So after dozens of emails and questions about it, I’m going to show you what I have in my toolkit today and also give you advice on what I think you should have in yours.

Film Kit vs. Digital Kit

Just as a carpenter would use different saws for different types of wood, different cameras require different tools to maintain them. In the most basic sense, this comes down to digital versus film cameras. One has many moving parts on the inside, the other remains mostly static. One has a gate to check, one has a sensor to clean.

No matter how it is sliced, these two styles of shooting demand different styles of maintenance.

It is important when first building a kit to cater to a general base of tools, but it is also important to question what kind of productions you will be working on. Do you plan to mostly work on commercials with HD cameras? Do you plan to help local art students shoot on 16mm film? Or are you absolutely crazy about shooting with the RED camera?

While film vs. digital is an easy delineation for me to make, it goes even deeper with the types of digital or film cameras and even types of work like commercial or features.

For me, I started out working heavily with the RED One on feature films. As such, my initial toolbag purchase was catered towards that kind of work. Nowadays I have been working a lot on commercials that use DSLR’s. Many of the tools I had acquired to work with the RED don’t have functions while shooting with a DSLR. On the flipside, many of the basic tools I have work in both types of gigs.

So, before you make a windfall purchase on FilmTools that includes HDMI adapters for shooting on DSLR or RED, ask yourself it that is the kind of work you will be expecting.

There is no right answer and the answer you do come up with will largely depend on the job market you’re entering or within. Remember, this isn’t going to lock you in, you’re just trying to save money. If a film gig comes up, you can always purchase the tools necessary when it does, but your toolkit should be built around a certain assumption of what you’ll be doing to begin with.

1st Assistant Camera vs. 2nd Assistant Camera Kit

Depending on which position in the camera department you plan to take, you’ll build out your kit differently. If, for instance, your first job happens to be as a 1st assistant camera (AC) on a small student film, then you will prioritize 1st AC tools before you need 2nd AC tools. This might mean you buy a solid tape measure before you ever invest in a slate.

There is one caveat, however, to building out a 1st AC toolkit: you’re pretty much expected to have everything — even for the 2nd AC.

You will run into this problem quite a bit when training new 2nd ACs who have little to no experience. They won’t know what to bring to set let alone what they find useful and essential to buy. On my very first gig as a 2nd AC, I used all of the first AC’s tools and was lucky he had such a complete kit.

But there’s another reason you’re expected to have a full kit as well.

Oftentimes when you get hired on one-day jobs or small commercials, you will be the only AC. So your tools = the tools. And the last thing you want is to desperately need a certain tool to fix the camera when you’re under pressure from production.

So if you plan to build a kit for potential 1st AC jobs, make sure it is at least 90% complete with the essentials.

If, however, you think you’ll be working as a 2nd AC or lower within the camera department, you can build your kit more slowly. Part of the reason for that is because, like I said above, you’ll be able to piggy back on some of the first AC’s tools to supplement your own.

Taking Inventory of Your Tools

Tools are tools and a lot of the same instruments you use to fix a desk are used to fix a camera. Chances are you already have a significant portion of a toolkit built up lying around in your garage or closet. Not every tool used in home repair proves useful in filmmaking, but the most basic ones end up coming in handy.

The reason many of the same tools we use to repair toilets get used to repair cameras is their practicality. Pliers are used in many different applications and not always in the way they were intended. The most basic of tools are versatile and will adapt to whatever scenario you need them to. It is key to have some of these in your bag for situations when you need to improvise — they will get used a lot.

Some examples of common tools that I have in my kit are:

  • Screwdrivers; Phillips & Flat Head
  • Wrench
  • Pliers
  • Scissors
  • Work gloves
  • Zip Ties
  • Tape Measures

These are just a few of the items you probably already have.

And the reason you want to take some inventory when you’re building out your kit is to save yourself from spending more money than you need to. Tools — even the small ones — add up after you fill an entire bag with them. The ones already lying around your house can be added into a set bag with no additional cost.

Of course, if they are your families, or a roommates, it is a good idea to invest in your own set.

Essential Tools for Your Kit

Not all tools are created equal. Some matter more than others.

Don’t believe me? When was the last time you really used that laser pointer for an entire shoot? Or the homemade hoodman you constructed during lunchtime last week?

The fact of the matter is, we don’t need every tool on every job at all times. There are some that are more important and used nearly 100% of the time. They are essential to AC work and you’d have a difficult time doing the job competently without them.

Here is the list of tools that I consider “Must-haves” before you step on a set:

  • Screwdrivers (Phillips and Flat-head)
  • Pliers
  • Scissors
  • Wrench
  • Hex Keys/Allen Wrenches
  • Sharpies
  • Dry Erase Marker
  • Flashlight
  • Measuring Tape (Soft, Hard, or Laser)
  • Grease Pencil or Marking Pen
  • Camera Tape
  • Velcro
  • Compressed Air or Blower
  • Lens Tissue
  • Lens Cleaning Fluid
  • Pen
  • Pencil
  • Advil

This list is not gospel, but it is a good starting point. Remember, it’s only a bare-bones kit at this point. If what I listed above are the only tools you own in your kit, you will be ill-prepared in certain situations, but you will be ready for most.

Make sure you vet your own list thoroughly and tweak it according to the type of work you plan on doing and the jobs you expect to get, as well as your budget. If you can afford to get more tools — such as a slate — then I encourage you to do so.

You will also need to get a toolbag to hold everything. For a professional grade kit bag, I highly suggest the Cinebag CB-01 Production Bag. I have had no problems with it at all. But if that’s out of your budget, just stop by a hardware store and look around.

I also wrote a post that you should read about why owning two toolbags is a good idea.

Customization and Do-It-Yourself Gear

Don’t let yourself be bound by the normal context in which tools get used. Some of the best tools are homemade or are re-purposed for another function.

If you find a way to use a wrench to hold camera tape, then put it to use. It’s worth trying to see if it helps you, and if it does, you’ll have a new trick up your sleeve.

You should also turn to other camera assistants and crew for ideas on customizing your gear, which is how I found out about the slate tagboard among other things.

It seems silly to me not to dive into your kit to try and find better ways to use your tools. If something is frustrating you, look for a workaround. They’re your tools so make them work for you.

Part of the reason DIY projects are so awesome is because you get to customize the tools to your own working preferences. That will ultimately make you faster and more efficient. For some ideas, check out these 12 DIY Projects for Camera Assistants.

Rounding Out Your Tool Selection

Once you make the initial purchase/investment into your toolkit, you can start to round it out with fancy gadgets like a laser distance measuring device or a smartphone loaded with apps.

This is where you start to use your money to buy tools that are not only needed, but will make you more efficient. Can you get a screwdriver with automatic torque? Or a tape measure that will last longer? Perhaps a USB lens light to make pulling focus in the dark easier.

There’s always something more to add to your toolbag (trust me) and you can prove that point by going to your local hardware store and walking up the aisles. Even after just 10 minutes, you’ll start noticing all the cool gadgets that would make life on set easier.

Some of these non-essential tools could include things like a Brother P-Touch for labeling the slate, a Leatherman, a high-quality slate, sandbag T-marks, and the list goes on…

While all of these provide very real use to you on set, none of them are do or die unless you’re stuck in your ways.  Yell at me all you want in the comments for saying so, but you could get away without a leatherman or a super expensive slate for a couple months.

That doesn’t mean you should never buy these tools, but it does mean you can wait until you’re a little more solvent before doing so.

Rounding out your kit might also involve adding some tools that aren’t specifically in the camera assistant territory. For instance, I also bring with me on digital shoots my Macbook Pro, a card reader, and some cables to transfer footage. While not all productions require the use of this stuff, I like to bring them for backup.

Once you have a few jobs under your belt and you’ve been on set with your kit, you’ll start to notice the holes in it. Be aware of those moments and make a note — mentally, digitally, on paper — to add those missing items to your kit. It’s best to do right after a shoot when you can immediately reinvest the paycheck.

So, What’s in My Toolbag?

Everyone always wants to know what’s in my kit and I tend to avoid the question because it’s crammed with a bunch of stuff – so much stuff that I made the video at the top of this post. It’s almost twenty minutes long and I talk about every little thing in my kit and why it’s in there. I recommend you watch it if you truly want insight into what I have in my kit and why.

But if you’re still interested in a full inventory, I have pain-stakingly listed each tool below with a link where you can buy it.

Please note that this list also includes my basic data management kit not shown in the video. Also keep in mind that my kit is not necessarily a full kit — there are lots of things I don’t have that other camera assistants like to use.

The Toolbag Money Pit

Everytime I open my Cinebag, I notice something else I need. Even a few years after making my first of many huge purchases from FilmTools at $201.86, I feel my toolbag is incomplete.

It has become what I can only describe as a money pit: I throw money in and watch it disappear.

You can start with expendables, which more and more productions are starting to assume the AC brings on their own dime. Then there’s all the little things I buy that get misplaced or broken on set. Those add up. And let’s not forget the bigtime buys like laser tape measures.

Couple this with the fact that there’s always something else you need and suddenly all your money is getting sucked into the anonymous void of film production supplies.

The point is you will never have a complete kit.

There is always going to be something to exchange, to add, to rework. Tools get lost and damaged or used and worn. More likely is they get replaced by better versions of themselves.

But whether you decide to build a kit slowly, in one fell swoop, or with tools you already own, I wish you the best of luck. From here on out, it’s an endless journey as you constantly refine and rework your tools to work better and more efficiently for you.

Is there a tool you especially love to use? Please let me know what it is and how you use it in the comments!

  • Sean Goode

    Evan, I have been following your blog for a while now, and I love it. I found this article to be the most informative list of camera assistant tools I have seen. I am attending film school now in LA, where I work as a camera assistant on student shoots. My toolkit is very similar to yours and this article has given me ideas on things that would help me speed up my work flow. A couple of items that I keep in my bag that I didnt seen your list are:
    Knife
    Cine arms, I found mine on amazon, a 7 inch and a 11 inch for less than 50 dollars for both of them.
    Insert slate
    Ear plugs

    Hope this helps someone,
    Sean

    Sean

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Hey Sean,

      I am glad you feel that way! Thanks for the kind words.

      Great additions to my list. I’m sure others will appreciate you sharing.

  • Megan Mitchell

    In my bag I also make sure to have gum or mints because after lunch the DPs i work with are always looking for it. I also will have a few packs of Emergen-C. I find that many sets, especially low budget don’t carry this and i feel like Camera department is always fighting off something.

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Ah yes, gum and mints are crucial. So is Emergen-C or something like it. I also forgot to mention in the post/video that I always have this little bug spray bracelets that I wear when outside. Too many shoots where I’ve spent the whole day scratching my legs.

  • Andrei C.

    In my camera BAG i make sure to have ONLY camera aks ,because it’s not too happy when i have to carry a bag full with tools which i will use them only once or not at all.. in a production. ( camera assistent not a car mechanic :P )  Tools @ the truck 
    Regards from Romania dear Evan 
    Love your Blog . 

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Lol thanks Andrei! That’s why I use two toolbags. My big one stays in staging or on the camera cart, while my smaller one I fill with what I know I will need or think I will need throughout the day. That’s the one I carry with me to each setup.

  • Jeff

    Great article, Evan! I take a lot of pride in having things on set just when people ask for them, whether its gaff tape or an HDMI-to-mini HDMI connector. The most valuable tools I have found are the ones that make me the most efficient on set. These include a tool vest where I can stow my leatherman, cleaning supplies, allen wrenches, led light, etc. Not having to go to the bag at every request is such a time saver. I also rely on knee pads, which get made fun of, but make me faster and more comfortable when moving and working low on hard surfaces, or even wet ground. That makes me a happy AC, which makes for happy DPs.

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Hey Jeff, thanks! I can see why people would make fun of you for knee pads, but you know, if you’re doing your job then who cares? Whatever you need to do to get it done. Like you said, all that matters is your DP is happy with the job you’ve done.

    • Cotyjames

      I have thought many times about wearing a vest rather than a belt. Port-A-Braceakes a nice one (though expensive) but I think a fishing style vest would work well, too.

  • Steveo

    Bug Spray. once you leave the ‘burbs you’ll be every one’s #1 friend if you have a can of it, especially when doing nite ext’s.

    next is sun block.

    you also could of added a Wild Thing or hunk of sash. I always have some for tying down sticks to dolly or bagging sticks when you need to.

    I actually keep a small plastic crate of all this stuff and more in my van so its close when you need it. 

    packing a spare USB power supply & iPhone cable also makes you a very likable person too :)

    in terms of things that don’t fit in the bag, but can make your life a lot better -
    1-2 sound blankets
    large umbrella that you can put on a C stand for shade
    clear plastic garbage bags
    XLR->BNC adapters for TC connectors that don’t match
    HDMISDI adapters at around $300 ea. for when you need them

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Great additions Steveo! Some of the stuff I do tend to bring with me but on a case-by-case basis depending on what the location is like.

      But yeah, there’s tons of stuff that’s nice to keep in a truck/van/car to have just in case.

  • Matt

    Hey Evan, great blog!

    I find that the most useful bit of kit i own is a leatherman and pouch. It can save so much time than having to retrieve a tool from the floor bag or pouch.

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Definitely. Although there are times where the pouch gets in the way and I find myself living it back in my kit.

  • Jackson

    Love your blog!

    Most of the guys (and gals) up here in Toronto like to split our tools / things into multiple bags.
    Big Cart ditty, Smaller On-Set ditty, Marks bag (with all our chalk, tee’s, etc etc), Weather bag (with our weather-proofing tools). Sometimes we have even more bags: Battery bag (for the cold weather up here, Build bag (so we don’t have to tear apart the camera overnight, Wheels bag (for those fragile gears, etc etc. We also tend to carry a bunch of extra cooler bags on the truck for any misc AKS.

    Just a suggestion as working out of one (even two) bags is quite tough when you have multiple cameras, and lots of gear.

    Most of us use bags by this company:
    http://www.modular51.com/index.php?main_page=index&main_page=product_info&cPath=1&products_id=5
    They are well made, slightly weather-resistant, customizable, and often have clear pouches for speed.

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Definitely using small bags is a good idea, but you have to beware of using too many bags that it’s slowing you down more than speeding you up. Most I use is two of my own and maybe my 2nd AC has their own too. A lot of things factor into that — whether we have a cart, if I’m the only AC, etc. But good suggestions for those who may be cramming too much into a single set bag!

  • http://www.hawkeyevp.com/ Kevin Austin

    Hey Evan…

    Just wanted to tell you how much I have enjoyed your webpage and this article in particular.  I discovered your site by accident a few nights ago and I think I’ve read your whole page now (close to it anyway). 

    I own a small video production company comprised of me, myself, and I.  I don’t work in the film industry (maybe someday), but it’s amazing how much of your experience and great advice relates to what I do.  As a one-man-band videographer I have to chip away at everything that slows me down when setting up and shooting.  Some of your advice on this page is really going to save me some time, I can tell already.  Thanks!  I’ve acquired my entire education in this profession online from professionals like you who are modest, straightforward, and generous with their knowledge. 

    Thanks for taking the time.

    Kevin Austin
    HAWKEYE VIDEO PRODUCTION

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      If you read my whole site in a night I’d be impressed! Thank you for the kind words Kevin, I’m happy this article was a high point for you.

      I am used to working on small crews and perhaps taking a load bigger than I should have to which is why you may relate to a lot of what I talk about. Plus, much of the advice I preach is just good for any profession — attitude, speed, excuses — not just filmmaking.

      I wish you best of luck with your video production ventures and make sure you keep stopping by and keep in touch!

  • Tomtom355

    Hello Evan, really like your blog. I live and work in Berlin but most things do apply in Germany as well. Another great tool is this here: http://www.rocknrescue.com/acatalog/Kong-Frog-Express.html
    Especially if you’re using an EasyRig but also as a quicker alternative to a carabiner. Well worth the extra money. With regards from Berlin, Thomas

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Hey Thomas from Berlin! I’ll be making my way to your city this summer. Really looking forward to it. Any places you suggest I go?

      As for your comment, good looks on that link. I find that most of the tools that seem expensive are worth their money. Your toolbag is something you shouldn’t cheap out on if you can help it.

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  • Daniel Mimura

    Goggles and ear protection.  (In addition to my SureFire earplugs for myself, I always have disposable earplugs for others.)  

    Even if it’s not “your job” to supply people with things like that, earplugs are cheap and light and small, like the mints.  I second that—mints are a big plus when you have a whole bunch of people huddled around a 7″ monitor with a hood on it.

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Haha good point with the mints! And I agree. Its best to be generous even if its not “your job” — as long as the lost cost is minimal, of course.

  • Brian

    Hey Evan great blog.  Havent found a thing in your blogs I dont agree with.  One thing I have in my kit is a golf ball and golf tees but not for goofing around.  I use the tees for outdoor markers in grass dirt etc. in a shot where the camera might see the ground in front of the talent.  They are super hard for the camera to spot and easy for our eyes to spot.  I use the golf ball to push the tees into the ground because its pretty much the perfect tool for pushing them into hard packed ground. 
    hope that is useful to others!

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Hey Brian — Thanks for the kind words. I love your idea with the tees and the golf balls — do you have any pictures? I’d really like to do a blog post about it.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/peteharper Pete Harper

    You know something I wouldn’t go without when I’m on set (and therefore technically “in my bag”) – a small folding camping stool.

    Now maybe I’m not doing enough on set if I have time to sit around or maybe the sets I’m on aren’t big enough budgets to have proper chairs for everyone, whatever, there will ALWAYS be a time when you just need somewhere to park your bum – while lights are being changed, while sound is finding a place not to cast shadows (we all know how long THAT takes!!!) or just when you’re all just stopping for 2 minutes to have a cup of tea, a small folding camping stool saves you from having to sit on the floor or on the concrete or the grass or wherever you’re shooting.  I actually keep about 3 or 4 of them in the back of my car because not only do I need one but also the DoP/op might need one too, the other AC’s – even the director sometime!  You can park a small monitor on it if there’s absolutely nowhere else to put it so that again it’s not on the ground, which might be wet or become a tripping hazard.  These can be picked up online or even in larger supermarkets with a camping section for less that $5.

    On a similar note, a small pad that gardeners use for weeding their flower beds is also a must have in my kit – again, how many times have you had to knee next to a camera on a concrete floor?  Also great for the comfort of the operator in the same conditions.  And can be picked up for about $1 at discount shops!

    On a SLIGHTLY more serious kit note, I was told that a real good AC should have a Magic Arm in their bag too – what do you think, Evan?

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Great tips Pete! It’s always nice to add some items to our kit to make us more comfortable, if possible.

      As for the Magic Arm… maybe. I mean there’s tons of stuff I could add to my kit that would be useful or that I may need every now and then. It would be nice to have an extra follow focus, whip, crank, etc. and the list goes on. But at some point, you have to draw the line between what you want in your kit and what production should be paying for.

      So, if you have the extra cash for a Magic Arm and you find you need it enough, then sure go ahead and get it, but if you are on a set where you need one and no one thought of that or paid for it in the first place, then someone isn’t doing their job.

      Plus, on a final note, I don’t get a lot of kit rental fees these days, so I push as much gear cost onto production as I can.

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  • Manon

    Thank you so much Evan for sharing all this impressive knowledge. Your all website is just amazing. I’m just starting as a 2ND AC and your website is really helpful. Thanks a lot!

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Thank you Manon for the kind words! It means a lot to me. Glad you’re finding the website informative. Best of luck on your 2nd AC career :)

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  • Ra’anan

    THANKS!

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  • Drew Dutton

    Nice site… Good work…, I have found that having your own camera cart is priceless. I own two mag line sr. Carts with custom top shelfs , 10 inch swivel casters for rough terrain, and umbrella mounts. One cart is used for moving built camera and for lenses. The other cart is for schlepping all the cases of gear along with tripods, hihat a, and battery charging station. One just isn’t enough. It helps a lot when you are running and gunning in a city or out on the countryside, and all you have to do is buddy up with a pa or a grip who isn’t doing anything at the moment to get staged. I have made a habit of bringing a cooler full of beer to the shoot. At the end of the day, the crew will love the cold brews.

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      I’ve been looking into camera carts lately. How much work did you put into yours? Like what’s the ratio between your cart being pre-built and stuff you did to customize it?

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  • Patrick

    Great post, great blog! I’ve got my first proper camera trainee gig coming up and I want to be prepared to do as much 2nd AC duties as possible, so this post and video are brilliant! Ear plugs have been mentioned twice in the comments, and I can’t figure out why they would be important. Anyone want to shed some light on this? Thanks.

    • http://www.facebook.com/amishjim Amish Schulze

      Earplugs are good to have when there’s going to be a gunfight in a small room. Or when you’re shooting an Industrial video in a mill. Or at the end of a runway. Don’t depend on Production to provide them. Get a good pair, or if you don’t like things in your ears, get a pair of over the ear muffs. Also, add a pair of safety glasses.

  • http://twitter.com/FishHearts Я. Fish

    This may not be the post to ask, but I’m curious; how do you go about attaching your laser pointer for dolly moves? I’ve not ever had to do this, but two days ago a DP asked on set (which I was working on as a grip) for a laser pointer from her ACs. None of them had one, and it got me thinking.

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