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Run and Gun Documentary Shooting

Updated on March 24, 2016

Tips to Good Documentary Shooting

I've been documentary shooting for several years now. I produced a documentary on my grandpa that aired on a local cable network. My grandpa has lived quite the life and it was important to me to capture his stories on film. I didn't want this to be some "high school project," so I took the time to get the right gear and invested quite a bit of time into it. It was one of my earlier projects so I can look back on it now and see my mistakes. At the same time it was good enough for the local neighborhood cable network to notice it! I've also produced an educational documentary on the growing of, harvesting and selling of corn. My first paid film!

I'm writing this Hub from the perspective of shooting documentary footage on mission trips. I've been on several missions trips and on many of them I've been in charge of capturing footage. Just recently I've returned form Hong Kong, Cambodia, and Thailand shooting footage of our churches projects in those nations. I shoot both pictures and video to be used as advertisements for my churches ministries and to build excitement and interest for trips in the future. In my experience I've had to become good at what is known as "run and gun" videography. Run and gun simply means to be able to shoot quality work and get the shot while quickly on the move. There is a difference in planned documentaries where you interview people or have a prepared professional shoot and the journalistic run and gun variety that I've experienced on mission trips. There are a few keys to keep in mind when shooting for a documentary that will make your experience and outcome more desirable.

  1. Pack the right equipment
  2. Be focused but be flexible
  3. Be safe

Pack the right equipment is the first key to success. It's important to know your equipment and how to make it effectively serve you and your shooting purposes. On a run and gun documentary shoot I can think of two different ways to shoot.

  • Professional Camcorder
  • DSLR Videography

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Professional Camcorder

You can get a great professional camcorder for $2000 to $5000. Sure you can spend more than that if you want, however you shouldn't have too. You can get an adequate shoulder mount camera for less than that! If you have to literally film while moving or will be standing for quite some time while filming, then a shoulder mount will be worth its weight in gold. They are designed for just such times. My drawback with the shoulder mount cameras that I've used is that the manual control options are limited.

Specifically I suggest you rent or buy a camcorder with available manual controls. You do not want to have to go into your menu to change your settings. Not at least on a "on the move" documentary. No, I much prefer to to have a camera with a lens that has the three manual rings. That is much more convenient when having to change settings quickly. Make sure you can make and get to presets easily. Presets are great but if you can't get to them readily in a speedy manner; it becomes a real burden instead of a tool for freedom and flexibility. On that note your buttons for color temperature, white balance and ND filters should also be easy to access and change.

Be sure that your camera has a built in boom mic. This will save on the amount of equipment that yo will have to bring with you. If you really want you can bring lavaliere mic's that can be plugged into the XLR slots. Now unless you are shooting specific indoor audio in which you want and need a lav mic then be sure the camera has that XLR capability. Otherwise a good boom mic ought to do just fine. Prepare to bring a sturdy tripod with fluid head in the event that you would need one for long recording sessions, such as a speech, sermon, presentation or long ranging event. You don't want to have to lug a tripod everywhere with you to film.Trust me on that. Bottom line, bring your camcorder with its boom mic and you're ready to run and gun documentary shoot.

Unless you are traveling with a film crew that has enough people to haul around lighting c-stands,lights, boom mic, zoom recorder, lens kits, and big heavy cameras, then don't worry about bringing lots of equipment. This is a journalistic style shoot that you're preparing for, there is no time for all that equipment change. It's going to be raw and edgy. It will not look as pristine as a set up, planned and staged shot; but your viewers will enjoy it and get more out of your style of documentary footage.

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DSLR Videography

The other option for run and gun documentary shooting is with a DSLR. This is probably the more difficult of the two options because of the large sensors that allow for shallow depth of field; thus resulting in it being hard to keep your subject in focus. At the same time it may also be very practical to shoot documentary footage with a DSLR. Try this approach to capture video and pictures at the same time. Have two cameras at the ready. Put a zoom lens on one, preferably a "L" series lens with a f-stop of 2.8 or less. The other camera should have a medium range zoom lens on it, like a 24-70 mm. Use the medium zoom for capturing video and the other for capturing pictures. Sling one strap over the left shoulder and sling the other over the right shoulder. Now you don't have to keep changing settings to go back and forth between video and stills.

If you're just shooting video you can get a hand grip piece of rigging to attach to your DSLR making it easier to move around with and capture those "on the move" shots. You can get rigging as expensive as you want but a small lightweight $20-$30 piece will be adequate enough. Rigging will really help on stabilization. For audio be sure to get a boom mic that will attach to the hot shoe on your camera. If you want to get really good mobile audio, buy a small zoom recorder and a lav mic. Stick the zoom in your subjects pocket or somewhere on their person, and that way you can get good audio while running and gunning. Quick over view, use a DSLR, medium range 24-70 mm "L" series lens, hand held rigging, and a boom mic/ pocket zoom recorder and you're ready to rock.

Well Stated Video

What is your favorite documentary style?

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Be Focused But Be Flexable

When shooting a documentary you'll be doing all the work by yourself. Maybe you might have one or two others helping you but my experience has been on the solo train. That's a lot of responsibility on your shoulders. Be focused on what your doing. You need to have a check list in your mind if not on paper. Check your lighting, color, white balance, framing, and more. Make sure the shot is as steady as you can make it. Be loose and flexible when standing with the camera. Use your knee as a prop for the camera if need be. You've got to be sharp and listen to the quality of the audio while also helping the talent listen through the statement for any stutters or things that did not make sense or flow. You have to be a word smith while also crafting a killer shot. This is run and gun shooting so be ready to move and set up for the next shot on a moments notice. You must be able to be flexible and focused at the same time.

Final note on flexibility, don't be so proud that you can't use the auto mode. There may be a time or two where you don't have time to mess with the settings and you need to capture the shot right now! Eat humble pie and put the camera in auto mode. Part of being a professional is capturing the shot right now. In documentary shooting, whatever you wanted to shoot is not going to happen again. The moment has passed and it's one and done. I know that we all love to be artsy and crafty and we should be because we're professionals. In the same breath put the camera on full auto for a moment if the moment requires it. Often we have to shoot for the sake of the moment.

Example of My Work

Be Safe

  • You're hustling and bustling with thousands of dollars of equipment so it is imperative to be safe with it. A single trip can bust your lens, camera etc. Watch what you're doing at all times. But also be aware of how hot or how cold your equipment is getting. It will not function properly past certain temperatures. Know the limits of the equipments to properly and safely handle them.
  • Don't leave the equipment out of your site and if so then leave it with a trusted associate. Once you turn your eye from your camera there is opportunity for it to be stolen. This could happen anywhere, not just in the third world. Always be aware of where your stuff is.
  • In some countries like India or the far east, wear your back pack over your stomach to help prevent theft. If you wear it traditionaly over your back, some thieves will come up behind you and cut the pack open and steal your gear right out from under you!
  • If you ever find yourself at gun point and the gun toter wants your camera; try to slip the SD card out and then give them the camera. This way you might be able to keep your footage even if your camera is destroyed. At the end of the day, your life is not worth the price of your gear.

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The Wrap

That's a wrap! I hope that this Hub will help you be a better run and gun shooter. Think about what equipment will be more flexible and profitable for you. Think about being focused yet flexible. Finally think about being safe while shooting.

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