I write a lot about cinema cameras and get the cinematic look that many of us are looking for, especially fictional storytelling projects. But what about documentaries? This article explains camera options that are best suited for shooting documentation. Some of them may overlap with cameras that you can use for fictional narrative shots. However, they are likely to be set up and used in very different ways.
At the beginning I wanted to write a contribution about certain cameras and list their advantages and disadvantages as they apply to a documentary film project. However, I decided against being too specific when choosing the camera, and instead talking about camera types and going into details when needed. Because frankly, new cameras are released practically every day, and there are almost endless possibilities. So it is not a question of which camera model you should buy, but rather which type of camera suits your story and production. The only type of camera I haven't covered here are action cameras (like the GoPro Hero3 +) because they're special cameras that can be used for certain shots, but not for an entire movie. To help narrow down this selection, let's take a look at some categories or camera types and see where they fit into the world of documentary making.
Digital cinema cameras
Examples: Arri Alexa, Red Epic, Blackmagic cinema camera, Sony F55.
These may not be the first cameras that come to mind when thinking of documentation, and in most cases they are not the right choice. However, there are some higher budget documentaries that cinema cameras can use exceptionally well to tell their story. For example, if you're shooting a nature documentary and you have the time to shoot (and a large budget) worldwide, why not shoot the best possible footage you can get? It will only increase the production value. Or if you're shooting a documentary drama that requires scenes to be re-enacted, or even a mixed-format document that wants really good-looking interview material, 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 burden your project, you should definitely consider them an option.
In addition to the additional cost these cameras add to your budget, the biggest downside is size. These cameras all need to be upgraded to work properly, and once you enter this area you will now lose two important things. The first is your stealth factor. In many documentaries, the director / camera has to fit into a crowd, as is often the case in situations where cameras are not allowed or where the subject is compromised when a camera is visible. Each of these cameras will draw attention to you and the stealth factor goes straight out the window. The second problem concerns the setup times of the cameras. These cameras have to be manipulated and you can't just pull them out and take them. So if you expect to take a lot of shots on the fly (like most documents), you can literally miss out on shots if you haven't set up your camera in time.
Examples: Canon 5D, Lumix GH3, Sony A99, Nikon D5200.
DSLRs are one of the most popular cameras for documentaries today, despite the problems and workarounds involved. The reason for this is that they maintain a relatively hidden form factor and are easy to transport, while providing a solid image in most shooting situations. They are also very affordable. In many ways, they are the perfect balance between size, quality, and affordability. You can theoretically use them for almost any shot in your documentary unless something very specialized is required. I mentioned earlier that with Digital Cinema Cameras you may 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 very effectively for both. They can be wonderfully set up for controlled interview material and can be used effectively to run with a gun, although for the reasons below they are not always ideal for this type of recording.
The disadvantages of using a DSLR for a documentary are basically the same as using a DSLR for other recordings. The biggest problem that works best for documents is the rolling shutter. Many documents are recorded during operation and moments are captured spontaneously with a handheld camera. Working with DSLRs can be painful for handheld work, not only because they are not ergonomically designed to capture video, but also because micro-jitter is common through handheld DSLR footage. Of course, this can be fixed using a camera rig, but then when upgrading a movie camera, the same problems that I described above arise. This is not a deal breaker, but something to keep in mind. As long as you make sure that you have stabilized lenses and can take pictures comfortably with your handheld, everything is fine. Audio is another issue to consider because most DSLRs don't even have a headphone jack. So if you buy a new DSLR, look for one with a solid microphone input and headphone output.
Examples: Blackmagic Pocket Cam, Sony RX1.
These little cameras are absolutely fantastic for documentaries and I would be shocked if we didn't see a lot of new documents using these small but very powerful cameras. The advantages of taking pictures with such cameras are quite large. The cost is very low. The quality can be very high. And their size is so small that it is easy to travel with the camera or to be discreet. Again, your choice of camera depends on the type of production you're working on. However, as an all-round documentary camera, they are difficult to beat. They may not be the perfect cameras for a documentary drama or nature document (though you could definitely get it up and running), but they would be pretty ideal for most documents. The key with these cameras is choosing the right one for your project. Don't just choose the Blackmagic Pocket Camera because the quality is so good. Note that the file size is larger than that of Sony, for example. So if you can't output the footage for a few days, you may want a camera that uses fewer memory cards. Choose the camera that suits your needs and project best.
The disadvantages of these cameras are comparable to those on a DSLR. They'll usually give you pretty bad rolling shutter artifacts, and this can be a nightmare to work with if you don't upgrade them. The good news here is that the rigs are smaller and cheaper due to the size of the cameras, but there is still something to keep in mind. You must also pay attention to the audio recording functions. The Blackmagic pocket camera, for example, does not offer the strongest audio performance. It is useful, but by no means perfect. Therefore, you may need to record a dual system with a zoom h6 or similar, or buy a good preamp to improve the audio levels in the camera. And, like DSLRs, these cameras have no built-in ND filters. So keep in mind that you must always have some NDs or a single variable ND with you.
Examples: Canon XA20, Panasonic AG-AC90, Sony HXR-HX5U.
For many of us, these types of cameras are a thing of the past. In the days of the DVX100, Canon XL1 and HVX200, camcorders were all the rage. They have been used for everything from television content to indie films to documentaries and everything in between. The popularity of DSLR video has weighed heavily on this market, but there is still a strong need for camcorders, and they have come a long way in recent years. These cameras are really designed for documentaries, which is why so many shooters using these cameras work in journalism. The image quality of most of these cameras is really quite good, although they are more clinical and video-like than the other cameras on this list. Not only do they produce sharp, razor-sharp images, they are also designed to be easy to photograph. The ergonomics are fantastic and they are equipped with functions that are crucial for fast recording – such as built-in ND filters and XLR inputs. Some of the newer models even have built-in WiFi, so you can upload your footage via FTP while you are still taking pictures on site!
The negatives that come with recording on a camcorder are nothing new to most of us. These are the same problems that caused most of us to switch to DSLRs years ago – lack of interchangeable lenses, relatively poor performance in low light, difficult depth of field, etc. Another problem is that almost every other camera is on this list (Except for the cinema cameras) can be passed on as something else (usually a still camera), these cameras definitely cannot be. When you're shooting with a camcorder, you can't fool anyone because the average Joe on the street knows exactly what you're up to. However, if this is not a problem for you, the footage itself is the only other important factor. If you don't mind making your footage more journalistic and newsworthy, you don't need to worry. However, if you expect flat DOF footage to compete with DSLRs and want a more cinematic look to your footage, these cameras are not for you. No matter how hard you try, they always look more like videos than most other cameras on this list.
Examples: iPhone 5s, Galaxy S4, Lumia 1020.
Recording your documentary or even parts of it on a smartphone may feel strange, but it is becoming more common every day. In fact, the Oscar-winning documentary "Searching For Sugarman" was partially shot on an iPhone. While the quality of these cameras doesn't match the other cameras on this list, they beat every other camera in the size department. Nothing is more restrained than recording video on a smartphone, as you can easily hide what you are recording. And even if someone prevails, they probably won't pay too much attention to you if the only equipment you have on you is your phone. The big advantages of recording on your smartphone are size, portability, availability and anonymity. I wouldn't suggest taking an entire document on smartphones (unless you have a very specific idea that works for it), but I would suggest looking at it as a tool that you can use when needed.
The main disadvantage when shooting with a smartphone is the quality of your footage. While phone cameras are getting better with every new version, they still don't have the quality that comes close to other affordable cameras like the Blackmagic Pocket Camera. You have a particularly bad roller shutter (and chances are you won't upgrade your phone), so you'll likely have to deal with these shortcomings. You also get stuck with the lens built into the phone, which doesn't give you much flexibility. But perhaps the biggest disadvantage is poor light performance. Since smartphones have such small sensors, they are notoriously bad in poor lighting conditions and night shots are always grainy and loud.
So which one do you choose?
It depends on. If you're shooting a highly structured, well-funded documentary that mainly consists of talking heads and some reenactments, choose a movie camera. You get the best possible quality and have the money to overcome the hurdles. At the other end of the spectrum, a pocket cam or DSLR is the best choice if you want to take pictures in full operation with no real structure and little or no funding. With these types of cameras you still get the quality you are looking for and anonymity is maintained when needed. In fact, I would say that pocket cams, despite their problems, could be the best all-round documentary cameras if you still prefer a cinematic look. However, if you're shooting footage that requires a more journalistic approach and is not so keen on making the film look cinematic, but making sure that you capture everything you need with a suitable camera, then there is one Camcorder no striking shooting. This of course leaves phone cameras that are not ideal to use, but can be the only option in many scenarios. I don't recommend using them if you don't have to, but I definitely recommend them if there is no other option. Coarse footage from a phone is better every day than no footage. You can save it with good audio and editing at any time, especially if you only use it in small quantities.
The fact is that there is no perfect camera for any job, but we're fortunate to have a lot of great, affordable options these days. Choose the camera that best suits your project and take advantage of the fact that you can mix formats as needed with documentation. Don't be afraid to shoot RED camera interviews and pull out your iPhone the next day to keep something hidden in public. Documentaries are great because they allow this flexibility. So use them whenever you can.
I wrote an article about last week How to get away with guerrilla style. It was written from the fictional point of view, but most, if not all, of the principles apply to documentaries. So be sure to check this out!
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Noam Kroll is an award-winning filmmaker from Los Angeles and founder of the boutique production house Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television and in various publications around the world. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!