You don’t always have the luxury of contemplative cinematography when you’re shooting documentaries. You have to return with good, usable shots for editing.
In this video I show you ten shots I rely on when my mind goes blank. This will help you get adequate coverage, and it has saved my skin many times:
Here are the 10 shots (actually 9 + 1 tip):
Shot #1 to #5: The BBC 5-Shot Rule
Credit for this goes to Michael Rosenblum who taught photojournalism students with this technique decades ago. It is extremely practical and you should know it.
Shot#1: The long shot or mid shot
Get the person and the action/activity together in the best possible light and composition.
Shot #2: The close up of the face
This is a logical step from Shot #1. Just zoom in or move in closer and get the face. Don’t break the 180o rule [li. Try to get reactions, emotions, etc.
Shot #3: The close up of the action or activity
This is also logical and flows from Shot #2. Get creative closeups, hopefully from different angles (see below) of the activity itself.
By this time you have warmed up and you know you have some footage in the can.
Shot #4: Over the shoulder shot
Ask the subject to continue doing what they are doing and get another angle from behind or over the shoulder. If that is not practical get a side shot but in this case keep in mind whether it will cut well with the other shots. The OTS will most likely cut well.
Also, when you physically move around and circle the action looking for this shot your mind will start working again. You will be thinking of angles and possibilities.
Shot #5: The creative shot
Get a totally different angle of the action. The goal for me here is to get a different kind of background, so the shot provides a new context.
Shot #6: Inserts
Find interesting inserts of objects, clothing, action, jewelry, the location, etc. Once you’ve done with the first five shots you are in a good place, and you can spend some time looking for these interesting shots. Always ask yourself if it is emotionally relevant to the story. When in doubt, shoot!
Shot #7: The Environment
Once your subject has completed the activity and you have captured it, you can ask them to move around, walk, etc., so you can show them in their location or environment. This allows the editor to segue into the sequence in creative ways if necessary.
Shot #8: The Low Angle
The biggest mistake I make when trying to get interesting shots is I don’t remember to! When you’re tense and you don’t want to anger your subject by asking them to repeat their activity it’s hard to think straight. You might end up shooting everything from a fixed height, like a tourist.
Force yourself to go low and get at least one low angle shot. You can also go high angle, but that’s not always practical.
Shot #9: The timelapse or drone shots
This has become almost obligatory nowadays. Even wedding videographers use drones so documentary filmmakers should at least try to use either drones, if legal, or timelapses.
I like to use drones only if the land has something important to say, like my documentary on fishermen:
Otherwise it’s more apt to use timelapses:
For timelapses, again, I don’t have the luxury of setting up and calculating all the time, so I just let the camera running for fifteen minutes to half an hour, depending on the activity. If you can shoot at 60 fps you can do whatever you want with it in post.
Tip #10: The 5-second rule
Many professional cameras have a preroll feature, where the camera will continuously record footage to a buffer even if you haven’t pressed the record button. The camera should be turned on for this.
If this isn’t possible, try to get five seconds of footage before you need to. In other words, start recording a bit before you need to, and end the recording a bit after you need to. I’ve found five seconds a happy medium. It allows the editor to give space in editing, as well has have extra handles for cross dissolves and fades.
That’s it! Here are two articles you might find interesting:
I always try to be as creative as possible, but I’ve noticed in my short documentaries I rarely have the time to think. Most of the documentaries come together in the last minute. I show up, talk and we decide to shoot. It’s almost like video journalism in a way.
If you know any tips of your own, please feel free to share them in the comments below.