Camera Techniques for Documentary Movie Making

When you create a documentary about your family to tell the story of its people, reunions, events and travels, use the methods the pros use in big-budget, big-screen productions. Your camcorder may be more compact than pro gear, but its HD footage looks crisp and bright on your HDTV and home theater system. Follow the basics of camera setup and operation as you shoot, and connect your camcorder to your set to review shots and refine your techniques.

Made by Hand

The handheld camera provides a hallmark of the documentary style of movie making. It conveys a sense that what you see on screen represents a journalistically accurate truth, captured as it occurred and faithful to that moment. The look has crossed over to become a style in TV series and movies, with the slight movements that signal a handheld camera used to signify the point of view of a human observer.

To capture the best possible handheld footage, establish body posture that minimizes unintentional camera movement. Bend your elbows and hold them near your torso with the camera held waist high. Stand with your feet apart and knees bent to absorb movement. If you need additional support, lean on an object such as a wall or piece of furniture. Instead of zooming in to decrease the perceived distance between your subject and the viewer, move closer and capture the shot from that vantage point, avoiding the potentially shaky appearance of zoomed shots.

Talk to Me

The "talking head" serves as a staple of documentary camera work. A fixed camera position records a person who addresses the camera, explaining an event, describing a person or otherwise responding to an interviewer's questions with answers that sound like spontaneous exposition. Along with these shots of the speaker talking directly to the camera, documentaries can make liberal use of close-ups, some of them extreme, that the editor cuts in to provide additional visual information about the speaker. For stability, talking-head footage typically uses a tripod-mounted camera. Avoid capturing interviewees in profile or three-quarter view for long sequences of footage, as this viewpoint deprives the audience of the ability to see the speaker's eyes and full facial expression.

Stay Put

Another effective use of a tripod-mounted camera in a fixed position comes in its ability to provide capture shots, documenting ongoing activity in a scene as the action of your documentary unfolds in the moment. These long shots can begin before anything appears to happen, establishing a scene and allowing the viewer to absorb a detailed view of an interior or outdoor location. Unlike scripted productions, documentaries presumably display slices of reality, so planning for the unexpected becomes an important part of the process. Continuing to shoot after the expected moment allows you to capture its unexpected consequences. To assure that you don't run out of storage space, keep plenty of high-capacity memory cards in your camcorder bag. Use a tablet device or your home computer to keep an inventory of what you shoot on each card.

A vs. B

Documentary filmmakers refer to two categories of shots: A-roll, which shows interview footage of the subjects of a production and other primary action, and B-roll, which captures and establishes the location in which action occurs but does not constitute the main subject matter of the production. B-roll footage enables the person who edits a documentary to add atmosphere and ambiance to a scene, showing the place an interviewee describes or an object that proves central to a narrative. Even the shots you don't expect to find useful in your final production can help tell your story, so you're better off with what you think is too much footage than with what seems like just enough–or worse, too little.

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