Life is unpredictable - and there is no place where this is more evident than in documentary production. However, with the right equipment, you can not only be confident of capturing every important part of your documentary, but also confident in capturing it well.
Though shooting, audio, and lighting gear are incredibly important, they're not the only items that make make your documentary look great. That's why we'll go over what to look for in stabilizing equipment like a tripod or a sled, arm and vest system, dollies, and lastly essential grip gear for any shoot. With items like these in your kit, you will be able to quickly and easily get footage that makes your documentary look professional.
Keeping an image stable is a surprisingly tough task, yet it can go a long way in making a documentary look good. The most common equipment used to keep cameras steady are tripods or sled, arm, and vest systems.
The triangle is the strongest of all geometric shapes. That's why tripods do such a great job of keeping images steady. They are a portable three-legged collapsible frame that you can attach a camera to. (Still) Since a documentary productions need to be lightweight, you'll want to get a tripod with carbon fiber legs. Also, for quick set up and versatility, you'll want a tripod with two-stage telescoping legs, and a release that allows the legs to spread out low to the ground. This way, you'll be able to get both high and low shots easily. (DR) Besides the legs, you'll also want to get a fluid head. A fluid head tripod has hydraulics inside that provide a varying amount of resistance to movements. This resistance helps operators achieve very smooth pan and tilt movements. Also, you should look for a head with a handle grip on both sides so that two handed or left-handed movements are possible. (DL) Many tripods also come with spreaders to help you quickly determine the span of the legs and to prevent slipping. Though they are helpful, make sure your tripod has spreaders that can be taken off in case you need to travel light. (Still) Lastly, having a tripod plate that has a safety catch in case the locks fail, is always a good idea. No one likes to lose equipment! (DR) If you don't have room for a full tripod in your field kit, make sure to pick up a carbon fiber, multi-stage, telescoping monopod. Though it's not balanced from every side, it can eliminate a lot of camera shake and keep your arms from getting tired.
One of the most unique pieces of shooting equipment is the sled, arm, and vest system. This is because they not only keep your image steady, but are versatile enough to also give your shot a unique, smooth movement as well. (Still) A sled arm and vest system is made up of a sled or carriage which counterbalances the weight of a camera, an iso-elastic arm which dampens walking vibration, and a vest which distributes the heavy weight of the unit across the upper body. These systems are meant to isolate the camera from any of the operator's movements. (DR) The beauty of this combination of equipment is that it allows for dolly and truck movements over uneven terrain, for very long follow dolly movements, and takes less time to setup than a dolly and track. (Still) Though a full system is great, if you only need a handful of dolly or truck movements in your shots, you may want to just use the sled system instead. Doing so might be tiring on your arm but will be less expensive, still give very smooth movements, and is a lot easier to carry in the field.
Though documentaries are mostly shot hand-held and on tripods due to their subject matter, adding dolly movements are still a good ideas since they can really help your footage look professional. Dollies are simply wheeled mounts that sit on either tracks or smooth floors for smooth truck and dolly movements. (Still) As with everything in documentaries, having a simple set up is key - so using either a slider dolly, or a floor dolly will probably be your best bet. (DL) A slider dolly is a camera mount placed on tracks that can be mounted to either light stands or a tripod. They usually come in small lengths but are very easy to setup and incredibly lightweight making them easy to fit into any shooting kit. (Still) On the other hand, a floor dolly is simply a set of wheels that can be attached to a tripod. These types of dollies require very smooth surfaces to roll on so they're best used indoors on short carpet, wood floors, or cement. Similar to the slider dollies, floor dollies can often be collapsed for easy transport which makes them easy to use in the field.
Of course no production is complete without good grip equipment. Some of the essential grip equipment to have for any field shoot is gaffer tape for securing cables, power strips and cables, and cases to protect your equipment.
By far the most useful grip equipment is gaffer tape. Gaffer tape is a cloth based tape that leaves no sticky residue on cables or equipment. (Still) It usually comes in 60 yard rolls and in a black color so that it can be easily hidden. This tape works wonders on everything from securing cables to floors and stands to temporarily fixing broken equipment. (DL) In fact, quite a number of shoots and equipment have been saved by having a roll of gaffer tape on set so it's important to have two to three rolls for your production.
When it comes to electrical cables, make sure that you have at least 12-14 gauge wire. This way you'll be able to safely power your gear from distances up to 100 feet without a significant drop in power. You should also bring plenty of power cables on a shoot, especially if you have a lot of equipment. (DR) Also, since you can expect to not have a lot of plugins to draw from, you should also bring several power strips with surge protectors in order to protect your valuable equipment.
The best way to protect any equipment is by using cases. If you are going to be doing a lot of the packing of gear on your own, a soft case is inexpensive and can protect your gear fairly well. (Still) However, if you have a crew that will be helping you with your loading and unloading, you'll want to use hard cases instead which can take more abuse.
There is an astounding amount of gear meant to help documentary productions. Unfortunately, there is only so much room for equipment in a gear kit, so by having a knowledge of what is essential, you can keep light and prepared for almost anything.