Resource: One-Person Documentary Shoot

Normally I only post my own projects here. However, I’ve just stumbled upon a resource from the Shutterstock blog that could really be useful to folks who shoot like me: one camera, at least one subject with a story, a few hours, and the project is due Friday. I wish this tutorial had been around before I went to the Dominican Republic in March. It could have saved my back from lugging around 50 pounds of gear I never used.

I feel like so much of photography and filmmaking is just life-hacking the situation - making one patch of grass and a bush in a parking lot look like a lush garden your subject is lounging in. Or shooting so that a boring white wall looks intentionally sleek and minimalistic. If you got your start with camerawork all scrappy under the “fake it ‘til you make it” principle - own that stuff. I’ve found that those skills will never leave you. You don’t need the newest camera on the market or an elaborate studio. Give you a white bedsheet as a reflector and some window light and you can create gold. Or one camera and a mic in the desert, like these guys.

The beginning of this video is their final product: a short documentary about a guy who shoots film photography at Big Bend National Park (the scenery and film talk are glorious). There’s one guy shooting that documentary. Then there’s a crew shooting him shooting the documentary for this tutorial. But it’s good; it works.

A good bit of the tutorial’s content is straightforward but I love when someone vocalizes relevant information that I’ve never quite been able to put into words. That being said, you may watch this after all my hype and be like, “Well duh.” But it could also help you a whole lot. I watched it twice.

My notes from the video:

  • Shoot in slow motion (as long as that makes sense in your context). On a functional level it doubles the content you have to work with in post.

  • Use a super-wide lens. He uses 11-16mm Tokina F2.8.

    • Short minimum focus so you can get up close to subject. Able to get more varied coverage - close like you’re there with subject, plus wide epic scenery shots.

    • Really deep depth of field so you’re able to move quickly and not worry as much about getting out of focus. Free-flowing.

    • Put a little bit of foliage, etc. in foreground to highlight movement.

    • Personal note: I might toss in a 50mm prime for closeups and portrait-style. They’re super small and lightweight, so why not?

  • Bring filters.

    • Variable ND filter - like sunglasses for your lens.

    • Circular polarizer

  • Keep the gear out of your way. Find an easy method that works for you and don’t be afraid to repeat it. If there’s gear that stresses you out or takes forever to put together - it will show in the work.

    • Slow-motion and wide-angle come into play here.

    • Really creep by slowly with the camera, keeping your motion to a minimum.

    • Toss on some warp stabilizer in post.

  • This doesn’t have to be complicated.

  • His process so he tells the whole story:

    • Start with getting your closeups - let the audience make a connection with subject.

    • Pull back and get all establishing and wide shots - let the audience see where your subject is located.

    • Get creative after you have all of that. Spend whatever time you have left finding interesting angles and cool shots.

    • Interview in car with lav mic plugged directly into phone so he didn’t have to take a separate audio recorder. (Personal note: Reviewing his audio it was a bit noisy and not the best of quality - but undeniably efficient and it did make the most of their driving time.)

Here’s Shutterstock’s original post on the subject if you care to read more.