Here Are My 12 Tips For Shooting a Documentary
Shooting a Documentary Isn't Like Shooting a Commercial or Movie. Here's How I Do It.
What’s the secret to shooting a documentary?
How do you tell a story that draws people in? That connects with viewers on a human level, and makes people care enough to watch from beginning to end?
Well, to be honest, there isn’t any secret. There’s no special technique that works every time. But there IS a process I follow, which I’m happy to share.
Let's start with a definition. What exactly is a documentary? It's a nonfiction film or video whose purpose is to document reality.
Shooting a documentary typically involves capturing interviews or conversations with real people.
Shooting a Documentary
So let’s jump right in. Here is my approach to shooting a documentary.
The first step is probably the hardest. Any writer who’s ever stared at a blank sheet of paper, or a blank computer screen, will be able to relate.
1. Start With a Good Story
Step one, as with most creative tasks, is to come up with an idea. It doesn’t have to be completely thought through. You don’t need all the details.
But at the very least, you need a subject—something that interests you. Because if you don’t care about the story, you’ll never be able to make other people care about it.
Fortunately, there are great stories all around us, just waiting to be told.
For example, a few years ago I ran into my friend Joe Dreher. He’s an accomplished mural artist in Atlanta, and he mentioned he was starting a new project.
Joe told me he would be working with inner-city kids for the entire summer, teaching them how to paint murals.
That sounded interesting, so I asked if it would be okay to shoot video.
2. Don’t Fake It
By definition, documentaries are about real people. There are no actors. No worries about “staying in character” or “what would this person say?”
The entire process for shooting a documentary is entirely different than other types of filmmaking.
Unlike shooting commercials, TV spots or movies, documentaries are about capturing real life.
You shoot real people in real situations, talking about what they’re doing, what they’re thinking or going through, and how they’re feeling.
For example, in the mural painting video, nothing was planned out ahead of time. I simply dropped by the Boys and Girls Club whenever I was in the area.
Footage was captured a little at a time, over several weeks.
I shot indoor footage of kids learning to paint, as well as outdoor footage of kids with paint rollers.
Nothing was faked or acted out for the camera. Everything was captured as it happened.
3. Camera Gear Doesn’t Matter
I can’t tell you how many filmmakers I’ve met who are obsessed about their gear. Whatever they shoot with, they want something better.
Some will even put off starting a project until they buy the latest camera,or some other type of equipment.
But the truth is, none of that matters. It isn’t the camera—it’s how you shoot with it.
Sure, it’s nice having the editing flexibility that shooting 4K offers. Or bells and whistles like drone footage, time lapse and other techniques.
But all that is secondary to THE STORY.
If you have a good story and interesting characters, everything else will fall into place.
4. Lighting Matters
Of course, having a cheap camera isn’t an excuse for bad footage. You still have to know where to point it, how to set exposure, and get footage that’s pleasing to the eye.
A simpler camera can even be an advantage—less stuff that can go wrong.
There’s nothing worse than missing a shot because of inexperience.
Maybe you’re changing lenses, or worse yet, looking through settings menus trying to figure out how to adjust something.
5. Sound Matters
Visually, audiences are very forgiving. People are rarely bothered by shaky cameras, uneven edits or strange film quality.
But bad audio—that’s the quickest way to lose an audience.
Muffled sound, background noise, audio echo, things like that can be REALLY distracting.
So never skimp on quality audio. Never.
6. People Matter
The most important element of any story is the people in that story—the characters. So you have to give viewers a chance to meet them. Get to know them.
Follow their adventures. Experience their successes and failures. And share their feelings. Joy. Pain. Anguish. Regret.
People Tell the Story
As a rule, when shooting a documentary video, people talking will be the number one way you tell the story. So you need plenty of people shots, including wide shots and close-ups.
In the mural painting example, I knew from the beginning that Joe would be the focus.
So after weeks of shooting him interacting with kids, riding scissor lifts and painting giant faces, I finally filmed him telling the story.
It was a really bright day, so I placed him near a tree, where the light was dappled on his face, and kids were painting in the background.
Then I let the camera roll while Joe told his story—the challenges he faced, the satisfaction of working with kids, and how he was able to motivate the young artists.
7. Film With a Purpose
Some documentary shooters will film hours and hours of footage, and wait for the story to reveal itself. Some don’t even think about the story until post production.
Me, I like to have a sense of where things are going.
In Joe’s case, I knew early on that it was about the journey—I wanted to show him working with these kids, his endless patience, and the joy and satisfaction he felt in helping them create art.
With that story in mind, I was able to keep shooting, with minimal wasted effort.
I shot in the morning, or in the late afternoon. Always using natural light.
8. Look for Good Shots
As the mural art progressed, I explored creative ways to shoot the art.
I tried different filters and lenses. Close-ups and wide shots. Rack focus. Unusual camera angles.
I got time-lapse shots of clouds, even shadows moving as the sun went down.
And of course, I got lots of faces—Joe, the kids, even the parents.
And if it got cloudy or rainy, I’d just leave and come back another day.
I also used different types of equipment to move the camera.
Sliders, gimbals, drones.
As a filmmaker, you’re only limited by your imagination.
9. Piece the Story Together
When filming is finally complete, or at least mostly complete, that’s when the real storytelling begins.
I start each video edit pretty much the same way—by opening a new file in my editing software (I use Adobe Premiere Pro) and importing all the footage.
Most likely, the footage will appear in the order it was shot. On larger projects, I’ll organize the shots into different folders so I can find things more easily.
Then comes the hard part: I watch all the narrative takes back to back, and look for snippets that work together.
In Joe’s case, I think there were four or five takes of him talking. He told various stories, and jumped around a lot. And of course, he stumbled here and there. I didn’t use any of his takes all the way through.
I found a sentence here, a sentence there, and flipped the order around so it told a complete story—with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
10. Tell the Story Visually
When producing any video, the goal is to let visuals tell the story, not just words.
Don’t say it, SHOW it.
So the next step in the Boys and Girls Club edit was to find individual shots, or B Roll, that would complement Joe’s narrative.
I had shots of the project at different stages of completion.
So I had footage of the Boys and Girls Club with no paint, from the first day, and then other shots of the work in progress.
And I had footage of the big reveal ceremony, with all the kids and officers from the Salvation Army.
So much great footage, I added space between Joe’s talking shots. Let the words fill in the gaps.
11. Rearrange Story Elements
Chronological order is a natural way to organize a story, but it doesn’t necessarily make the best video.
The beginning of the edit had a lot of talking, and not much color.
So I moved some of the visual elements to the beginning, to give the edit a nonlinear feel.
This added some visual interest to the opening, and would hopefully capture people’s attention sooner.
12. Match Music to the Emotion
Once the edit was taking shape, I started searching for music. I wanted something that built in intensity throughout, and would match the story’s inspirational nature.
I finally stumbled across the perfect track. It was almost eerie how it matched the mood.
I especially like the transition halfway through, when we reveal the different walls of the mural.
I adjusted the edit to match the track even better, and before you know it, had a powerful documentary video to share with Joe and the Salvation Army.
Thanks once again to the Bellwood Boys and Girls Club for letting me film there, and of course to my good friend Joe Dreher (aka JoeKingATL).
About the Author:
Harry Hayes is the owner and executive producer at Content Puppy Productions, a corporate video production agency based in Charlotte. Before starting Content Puppy, he spent 20+ years as an advertising writer and creative director.