I write a lot about cinema cameras and getting the cinematic look that many of us are after, especially on fictional narrative projects. But what about documentaries? This article will explore camera options that are best suited for shooting documentary material, and while some of them may overlap with cameras you could use for fictional narrative shooting, they are likely going to be set up and used in very different ways.
Initially I was going to write a post on specific cameras and list their pros and cons as far as how they apply to a documentary project. However I decided against getting too specific as far as camera choices and rather talk about camera types instead, touching on specifics when needed. Because truthfully, new cameras are released practically every day and there are an almost infinite amount of choices out there – so it really isn’t about which exact camera model you should buy, it’s about which type of camera will suit your story and production. The only camera type that I didn’t go into here are action cams (like the GoPro Hero3+) because these are specialty cameras that may be used for some specific shots, but not an entire film. To help you narrow those choices down, let’s take a look at a few categories or types of cameras, and see where they fit into the world of documentary filmmaking.
Digital Cinema Cameras
Examples: Arri Alexa, Red Epic, Blackmagic Cinema Camera, Sony F55.
These may not be the first cameras to come to mind when you think of shooting a documentary, and in most cases they are not the right choice. But there are some higher budget documentaries that can make exceptionally good use of cinema cameras to tell their story. For example, if you are shooting a nature documentary and have all the time in the world to shoot (and a large budget) – why not shoot the best possible quality footage you can get? It will only increase production value. Or if you’re shooting a docu-drama that requires re-enacting scenes, or even a mixed format doc where you want some really polished looking interview footage, this may be the way to go. As long as you have the time, money and resources to handle these cameras and they don’t become a burden on your project, then by all means consider them an option.
Besides the added cost that these cameras will bring to your budget, the biggest downside is the size. These cameras all need to be rigged up to work properly, and once you step into that territory you are now losing out on a two main things. The first is your stealth factor. Many documenaties require the director/camera op to blend into a crowd as they are often in situations where cameras aren’t allowed or where the subject matter will be compromised if a camera is visible. Any of these cameras will draw attention to you and the stealth factor goes right out the window. The second issue is dealing with the cameras set up times. These cameras do need to be rigged and you can’t just pull them out and shoot which means if you expect to get a lot of shots on the fly (as most docs do) you may literally miss shots by not having your camera set up in time.
Examples: Canon 5D, Lumix GH3, Sony A99, Nikon D5200.
DSLR’s are one of the most popular cameras for documentaries today, despite the issues and workarounds that come along with them. The reason being that they maintain a relatively stealth form factor and are easily portable, while still delivering a solid image in most shooting situations. They are also very affordable. In a lot of ways, they are the perfect balance between size, quality and affordability. You could theoretically use them for just about any shot in your documentary, unless something very specialized in required. I mentioned earlier that with Digital Cinema Cameras you might want to use them for part of your production (interviews) but not for others (run-n-gun footage). With a DSLR you can use it quite effectively for both. They can be set up beautifully for controlled interview footage and can be effectively used to run-n-gun with, although they aren’t always ideal for this type of shooting for the reasons listed below.
The cons of using a DSLR for a documentary are basically the same as using a DSLR for any other shoot. The biggest issue though, and the one that is most applicable to docs is the rolling shutter. Many docs are shot on-the-fly, and moments are captured spontaneously with a hand held camera. DSLR’s can be painful to work with for handheld work, not only because they are not ergonomically designed to shoot video with, but also because of the micro-jitters that run rampant through hand held DSLR footage. This can of course be fixed by using a rig with the camera, but then you run into the same issues that I described above when riggining up a Cinema Camera. This isn’t a deal breaker, but is something to be aware of. As long as you make sure you have stabilized lenses, and are comfortable shooting handheld, you will be okay. Audio is another issue to consider as most DSLRs don’t even have a headphone jack. So make sure if you are buying a new DSLR, find one with a solid mic input and headphone output.
Examples: Blackmagic Pocket Cam, Sony RX1.
These little cameras are absolutely fantastic for documentary filmmaking and I would be shocked if we don’t start to see a lot of new docs utilizing these small, but very powerful cameras. The upsides to shooting on cameras like these are pretty huge. The cost is very low. The quality can be very high. And the size of them is so small that it makes travelling with the camera or being discreet an easy task. Once again your camera choice is going to be dependant on the type of production you’re working on, but as an all round documentary camera these are hard to beat. They may not be the perfect cameras for a docu-drama or a nature doc (although you could definitely make it work), but they would be pretty ideal for the majority of docs. The key with these cameras is to choose the right one for your project. Don’t just choose the Blackmagic Pocket Camera because the quality is so good. Keep in mind that the file sizes will be larger than the Sony for example so if you can’t dump the footage for a couple of days, you may want a camera that will eat up less memory cards. Pick the camera that suits your needs and project best.
The cons to these cameras are pretty much on par with shooting on a DSLR. They are typically going to give you pretty bad rolling shutter artifacts and that can be a bit of a nightmare to work with unless you rig them up. The good news here is that the rigs are smaller and more cost effective because of the size of the cameras, but it is still something to be aware of. You also need to pay attention to their audio recording capabilities. The Blackmagic Pocket camera for instance, doesn’t have the strongest audio performance. It is useable but isn’t by any means perfect. So you may also need to look into recording dual system with a Zoom h6 or similar, or getting a good preamp to help out your audio levels coming into the camera. And these cameras, much like DSLR’s don’t have built in ND filters, so keep in mind you will need to have some ND’s, or a single variable ND, on you at all times.
Examples: Canon XA20, Panasonic AG-AC90, Sony HXR-HX5U.
To many of us, these types of cameras feel like a thing of the past. In the days of the DVX100, Canon XL1, and HVX200, camcorders were all the rage. They were used on everything from television content to indie films to documentaries and everything in between. The popularity of DSLR video put a huge dent in this market, but nonetheless there is still a strong need for camcorders, and they’ve come a long way over the past few years. These cameras are really built for documentary style shooting, which is why so many shooters that use these cameras are working in journalism. The image quality on most of these cameras is really quite good although more clinical and video looking than other cameras on this list. They not only produce sharp, crisp images, but are built to be easy to shoot with. The ergonomics are fantastic and they are loaded with features that are critical for shooting quickly – like built in ND filters and XLR inputs. Some of the newer models even have wi-fi built in so that you can upload your footage via FTP while still in the field shooting!
The negatives that come along with shooting on a camcorder are nothing new to most of us. They are the same issues that caused most of us to switch to DSLR’s years ago – lack of interchangeable lenses, relatively poor low-light performance, difficult to get a shallow depth of field, etc. Another issue is that while almost any other camera on this list (other than the Cinema Cameras) can be passed off as something else (most often a stills camera), these cameras definitely can not be. There is no fooling anyone when shooting with a camcorder, as the average Joe on the street knows exactly what you’re up to. If that isn’t an issue for you though, the only other big factor is the footage itself. If you don’t mind having a more journalistic, news-style look to your footage, then you have nothing to worry about. But if you expect to get shallow DOF shots that rival DSLR’s and a more cinematic look to your footage, then these cameras are not for you. No matter how hard you try, they will always look more like video, than most of the other cameras on this list.
Examples: iPhone 5s, Galaxy S4, Lumia 1020.
Shooting your documentary, or even parts of it, on a smartphone may feel odd but it is becoming more and more common every day. In fact even the oscar winning documentary “Searching For Sugarman” was partially shot on an iPhone. While the quality of these cameras isn’t at the level of any of the other cameras on this list, they do beat out every other camera in the size department. Nothing is more low-key than shooting video on a smartphone as you can easily conceal what you’re shooting. And even if someone catches on, chances are they aren’t paying too much attention to you if the only gear you have on you is your phone. The big advantages of shooting on your smart phone are size, portability, availability, and anonymity. I wouldn’t suggest shooting an entire doc on smart phones (unless you have a very specific idea that lends itself to doing so), but I would suggest considering it a tool that you can utilize when needed.
The biggest downside to shooting on a smartphone is the quality of your footage. While phone cameras are getting better with each new release, they are still not at a level of quality that even comes close to other more affordable cameras, like the Blackmagic Pocket Camera for example. They have a particularly bad rolling shutter (and chances are you’re not rigging up your phone), so you will likely have to deal with those shortcomings. You’re also stuck with the lens that comes built into the phone, which isn’t going to give you much flexibility. But perhaps the biggest downside is the low-light performance. Since smartphones have such small sensors, they are notoriously bad in low light and night footage will always come out grainy and noisy.
So which one do you choose?
Well it depends. If you’re shooting a highly structured, well funded documentary that mainly consists of talking heads and some re-enactments then go for a Cinema Camera. You’ll get the best possible quality and will have the money to work around the hurdles. On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re shooting completely on-the-fly without a real structure and little to no funding, a Pocket Cam or DSLR would be your best bet. These types of cameras will still give you that great quality that you’re looking for, while maintaining anonymity when needed. In fact I would say that despite their issues, Pocket Cams might be the best all-round documentary cameras if you are still going for a cinematic look. With that said, if you’re shooting material that calls for a more journalistic approach and aren’t as concerned with making the film look cinematic, but rather ensuring that you adequately capture everything that you absolutely need with a camera that is tooled to do so, then there is no beating shooting on a camcorder. That of course leaves phone cameras, which are not ideal to use, but may be the only option in many scenarios. I don’t recommend using these when you don’t have to, but I absolutely do recommend using them when there is no other option. Rough footage from a phone is better then no footage any day, and you can always save it with good audio and editing, especially if you’re only using it in small amounts.
The fact is there is no perfect camera for any job, but we are fortunate to have lots of great, affordable options these days. Choose the camera that best suits your project and take advantage of the fact that with a documentary, you are able to mix formats as needed. Don’t be afraid to shoot interviews on a RED camera and then pull out your iPhone the next day to capture something covertly in public. Documentaries are great because they allow for that flexibility, so be sure to take advantage of that whenever you can.
Last week I wrote an article on How To Get Away With Shooting Guerilla Style. It was written from the standpoint of fiction narratives, but most if not all of the principles apply to documentary shooting as well, so be sure to check it out!
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