Directing Documentaries

Documentaries are about real people in real places doing real things. Documentaries were the first films ever made.

In the late 1800s, the Lumière brothers presented Sortie des Usines Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory), the first commercial moving picture venture. Since the early years of documentary production, directors have had to decide how best to present their stories. In this column, we will look at documentary production and the story, aesthetic and technical decisions you as the director have to make.

In the Beginning

Documentaries can be very personal stories, but you also have to pay attention to some distinct requirements that come with the production of this film form. Always remember that the content will dictate the form the documentary will take. However, it is you as the director who makes the ultimate decisions as to the style and look of the piece. You will determine what the audience sees, hears and understands about your subject. Don’t be nave enough to believe that your documentary will not have a specific point of view. If you are passionate about the subject, your film will have a point of view, and you have to determine what that POV is. Make sure your story’s information is accurate and clearly presented. Keep in mind that your story has to be of interest to your audience and involve a compelling character or group of characters. Once you have that story, it is time to consider the technical aspects.

A Question of Format

You will need to decide what format you want to use to shoot the documentary footage. Do your research to determine the advantages and disadvantages of each format. Film, DV and HD are all very different animals in terms of equipment, lighting requirements and tech. When making your decision, take into account the accessibility of your subject matter and any difficulties a specific format or its equipment might present, the cost of each format and how the final project will be viewed.

For a project that will be seen only on the web, it doesn’t make much sense to shoot it on film. Inversely, shooting on Mini DV will not give you the picture quality you need to show your documentary on the big screen.


Choose equipment that will let you do what you need to do to tell the story. If you are going to spend days walking through the jungles of Africa or some other exotic location, you probably do not want to carry a large camera and a lot of gear. The script will dictate the type of equipment you use. Make sure you know your equipment well, so that you control it and it does not limit you.

Don’t forget lighting requirements. Good video starts with great composition and good lighting. If you must shoot with natural light, make sure you carry a set of reflectors and bounce cards. It is amazing how just a little bit of lighting control can change the look of a shot.


When shooting a documentary, you need to really know the ins and outs of your equipment. What camera settings will give the look you want? You may be able to survive mostly on factory settings, but do some test shoots in similar light conditions to make sure the results will be to your liking.

Always check your iris settings. Never use auto iris unless you have to pan or tilt from a bright image to a darker image or vice versa. For this, put your iris on auto, and make the move slowly enough to allow camera time to compensate for changing light levels. Underexposed scenes get a muddy look that is very distracting. However, if the iris is open too far, the whites may be blown out and may cause a buzzing in the audio. Always watch your background. Do not shoot with bright windows and exterior doorways behind your talent unless you want a silhouette.
White balance every time you change location or even the direction you are shooting. In Figure 1, you can see the effect on color temperature caused by just turning around. The author took these photographs three seconds apart, literally taking one shot, turning and shooting the other. Since the shots were photographed using film, there was no chance to white balance. As it is, it would be impossible to edit the two shots together without having it look like you shot the footage on two different days.

Keep your shots simple and clean. Do not move the camera unless you have to. If you do have to pan or tilt or zoom, make the movements so they are smooth and at an equal tempo.

When possible, use a tripod or other camera support. Nothing says “home movie” more than a shaky camera with no design to the movement. This isn’t to say you can’t do tracking shots with your talent; you just have to be very careful that, if the camera is not supposed to move, it doesn’t. To shoot very smooth tracking shots, get close to your talent, and zoom out as far as you can without distorting your talent’s face. Slowly walk beside or in front of your talent, rolling on the balls of your feet, keeping the camera as even as possible. If your camera has an image stabilizer built in, your tracking shot should look smooth and professional.

Don’t forget cutaways! Beginning directors often forget these little details. Get shots of the world around you, the sights and sounds that are very much part of the story. You’ll be glad, later when editing,


Never take sound for granted. If at all possible, hire a sound person whose sole responsibility is the audio for your documentary. As a director, you have to monitor what your subjects are saying, but you should be listening for content, not for whether the audio is soft or loud enough or if there are extraneous sounds. Camera operators cannot split their attention well enough to shoot and listen.

When choosing your audio equipment, decide if you want to mic your talent with a lapel mic or boom mic. Although some disagree, general opinion is that, if you can afford a boom operator, the shotgun microphone mounted on a fishing pole (boom pole) can be less intimidating to the interviewee, and you have more control over the sound. Lavalier microphones are not only visible, they are also harder to control, because they pick up a wider sound pattern. You can hide a lav mic, but you have to monitor more closely for mic disturbances caused by clothing or jewelry. Non-professionals also have a tendency to play with the cables and the mic and feel uncomfortable wearing the mic.

The boom mic, placed just out of shot, is easier to blend in post for a fuller and rounder sound. If you have only one mic, be sure the sound is as pristinely clean as possible. Unplug the fridge and turn off the air charger or anything else that may make noise, including all house, office or cell phones.

You can blend lav and boom mics with more experienced sound mixers and elaborate equipment. Either way, always record 30 seconds of room tone while on location. After the interview, have your crew sit quietly while you record 30 seconds of natural background. This will help the editor remove background noise and fill in blank spaces.

The Interview

Interviews are an integral part of most documentaries. Unless the script calls for it, don’t have the subject speak directly to the camera. Sit or kneel directly to left of the camera at lens level and have interviewee talk to you. Set your camera up for the subject’s comfort, not yours. The lens should be level with the subject’s neck, the center of a typical medium closeup (ofttimes called a bust shot, because it is from the bust line to a little above the head). Get to know your subjects; don’t feel like you have to jump right into the interview. Talk to them as you set up, explaining what you are doing and what your documentary is all about. Always turn off the tally light on your camera. It is a good idea never to tell the interviewee when the camera is on. Videotape is the cheapest component of your project, so shoot away. Often, if the subjects don’t know the camera is rolling, they will provide candid and very real performances. Most importantly: listen! Be attentive, ask follow-up questions and explore what the subject has to say. Go into the interview knowing what you are looking for, but be open to finding surprises.

Keep track of everything your subject says. Always think of B-roll shots. When editing, you will want to let the images tell the story, so make sure you shoot well-lit images that support what your subject is saying. The less we see of the interview, the better.

Discovery in the Moment

Finally, don’t forget the emotional center of your piece. Every good documentary has a compelling story with strong characters. Don’t just talk about the people and places, go there, show them and capture the essence of the moment. Document real people in real places doing real things.

Contributing Editor Robert G. Nulph, Ph.D., is an independent video/film producer/director and teaches video production courses at the college level.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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