5 Things To Remember When Shooting Documentaries


This post is a continuation of the things I learned while attending the Documentary Camera class at the Maine Media Workshops. I'll focus my thoughts on techniques that a camera operator can use to gather quality footage for use in any documentary project.

Make your cinematography intentional. 

When you go into a location, don't go in with your camera rolling right away. Take time to learn the location, even if just for a few minutes. Map out a few shots in your mind. Know what you would like to capture before you start the camera. 

Make your cinematography economical. 

If you are intentional with your approach, you will inevitably be economical with the footage you gather. Don't linger too long on one shot and one angle. Depending on what's happening in the scene, count to seven, then reframe. Find another angle. Find another interesting look.  When reframing, remember to move at least 30 degrees from your current position or change the focal length at least 20mm.

Take risks. 

Don't be afraid to put the camera somewhere where you haven't placed it before. Do something new. Go against your own instincts from time to time. 

GIve each shot a beginning, middle, and end. 

Move the camera. Each shot should have its own story. Start your shot in one section of the action, then move it to another section of the action. Pan or tilt. Don't zoom.

Utilize the art of the reveal. 

This is important in documentary filmmaking and will help you compress time in the edit, getting your subjects from point A to point B. It could be something as simple as tilting down from a building to reveal your subjects on the sidewalk. You might pan over from a wall to reveal your subjects seated at a table. You might use your body as a jib to bring the camera up and over a counter to reveal your subject chopping food. Using the reveal will give your editors good edit points. 

The next post in this series will provide even more tips on how to gather great b-roll for your documentary. In the meantime, please use the Comments section to share your own insights on documentary camera work.