5 More Things to Remember When Shooting Documentaries


This is the third post in a series, reflecting on the insights I gained from attending The Maine Media Workshops. If you're interested in catching up, here's where you can find article 1 and article 2.

In this post, I want to share five more things one should remember when shooting a documentary film. These tips will help you capture footage that feels more intentional, immediate, and intimate.

Know first where you want to end the shot.

Take a moment before shooting, to rehearse your shot. Start with where you would like your shot to end. Find that composition. Then think about how you will move the camera to get to that point. Bring the camera back to point A, rehearse, then shoot. This will give your footage a more deliberate feel and will avoid shots that feel incomplete.

Utilize the Close and Wide technique.

Too often we have the tendency of standing away from our subjects, and zooming in to get the framing we want. Although this does a nice job of blurring out the background and bringing our focus to the subject, it can also feel too distant, when the audience needs to feel right there with the subject. So, try using the Close and Wide shooting technique. Leave the lens at its widest focal length, then physically move in closer to your subject. This gives the shot a unique perspective and puts the viewer right in there with the subject. The added benefit of the Close and Wide technique is that you will be able to hold the shot more steady (if handheld) and you will still be able to see the background surrounding your subject. This will orient your viewer to the space. You can even use the surrounding architecture as a nice compositional element.

Concentrate on detail shots.

There will be a tendency to get a number of different wide shots. Let's be honest, though. How many wide shots do you actually need for the final film? You will use one or two wide shots in the edit before moving in to the action. So, concentrate on details.

Not every shot should include people.

When shooting documentaries, your subjects are always moving from place to place. In the edit, you will need to compress time to shorten sequences. Therefore, you need to think about getting cutaways that can be used in your edit as an option for when you need to move your story along quicker. This will help get your subjects to their ultimate destination without seeing any jump cuts.

See things out of your periphery vision.

The beauty of the shots you capture come from you reacting to what you are seeing in front of you, and your relationship to the space and your subjects. Keep that left eye open and be on the lookout for important moments that will help you as you tell your story.

Have anything to add? Feel free to share it in the Comments section.