How to Become a Better Documentary Cinematographer


I wanted to expand a little on a particular point I made in my post "5 Things To Remember When Shooting Documentaries," because I think there's an important exercise we should all practice to help us become more intentional and economical with our shots.

In that post (taken from lessons learned during the Maine Media Workshops) I mentioned that a documentarian shouldn't linger too long on any one shot. This is so important when getting coverage for a scene. It can be tempting to find a good spot at the location and simply "camp out," letting everything play out in front of you. Soon, the scene may be over and you realize (once you get into the edit) that you don't have enough coverage to cut together anything compelling.

I've run into this scenario personally while covering a patient's clinical appointment at St. Jude. I'm standing in a small exam room with a patient, parent, nurse and/or doctor and it's easy to stand in one spot, due to the cramped space. But it's also important to get coverage, so I will politely maneuver around the action as it's happening in order to get different angles of the scene. Remember to be discreet and polite when changing angles. Most of the time, as a documentarian, you are an observer and you don't want to put yourself in the scene or interrupt the flow.

A good exercise to help break the habit of standing in one spot is to shoot from one angle for only seven seconds, then quickly move to a new spot and reframe. Shoot from that second spot, then move on again after seven seconds. Obviously you wouldn't want to actually shoot a scene in only seven-second bursts (because you run the risk of missing something vital). Rather, this is simply an exercise to train yourself to always think about the next angle.

What other exercises can you think of to help improve the way we shoot documentaries? What experiences have you had in challenging shooting conditions? How did you overcome them to get the coverage you needed? Leave your thoughts in the Comments section.