Guide to the Art, Science and Gear of Documentary Filmmaking

This guide to unscripted and documentary filmmaking dives deep into the nuts and bolts of crafting a compelling doc.

Docs are real films 

Since the Lumière brothers wowed audiences with footage of a train pulling into a station in 1896, documentary films have been a part of cinema. Some documentaries record life as it happens, and some films interweave re-enactments, graphics, or archival footage. But all documentaries promise to grant the viewer a glimpse of the truth. They seek to deliver insight into the truth of things instead of just the pantomime of reality that narrative fiction brings to the screen. For those brave filmmakers seeking to challenge, inspire, and illuminate the world through documentaries, we present this guide to making real films.

Some documentaries follow a “hands-off” approach. The goal of these filmmakers is to be a fly on the wall. They want to introduce as little disruption to the events they document as humanly possible. Others see limitations to this approach and cast actors to amplify the emotional impact of a story. 

We want to get into the nuts and bolts of crafting a compelling doc. Mastery of lensing, the use of audio, story structure, editing, music clearances, and distribution lead to a total package that rises above the noise. Of course, there are also different levels of documentary. You can see docs shot on phones and docs shot on RED cameras. The critical thing is that you use all the tools at your disposal to draw the audience into the emotional arc of the story. So, we will cover the planning, shooting, and editing so that you can go into your next unscripted project fully prepared. It’s true that beginners can just grab a phone and get shooting. But we want to push things to the next level and see what it takes to craft a top-tier documentary.

Filmmaker Elaine McMilion Sheldon has been on both sides of the coin. Elaine McMillion Sheldon is an Academy Award-nominated, Peabody-winning, and two-time Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker. She premiered her latest feature-length documentary, “King Coal” at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. “King Coal,” employs the latter method to weave an evocative story about the coal communities of her childhood.

In an interview with EditShare, the filmmaker describes casting the two young girls who help to tell the story visually. They were cast from the local community for their ability to “ignore the camera.” And their presence in the film provides a visual metaphor for the experiences of the locals. Elaine McMilion Sheldon wrote and delivered narration, thereby revealing her own perspective as another layer in this ethereal documentary. These divergent techniques show how much a documentary film is the product of the director’s heart and soul. Documentaries embody a point-of-view and express a desire to bring the viewer into that perspective and see real life through the eyes of another. 

Story priorities should guide camera choice

Some filmmakers get more excited about buying gear than making films. They make more videos about buying, comparing, unboxing, and reviewing equipment than actual films. This is mainly because YouTube rewards this kind of video with ad revenue. But in another way, nerding out on technology is easier than going out and shooting something that exposes your soul to an audience and invites criticism or rejection. Choosing a brand can be like choosing a sports team or a personal fashion style. It is too easy for your camera to become an extension of your ego and a mark of your belonging to a particular tribe. But with that being said, there’s nothing like bringing home a new baby cine cam and getting it all rigged up to go make a movie. The right gear prevents headaches and amplifies your creativity. So, I’m not one who says cameras are just tools. For whatever reason, they are more than that. They do become the means through which you see, create, and communicate. Like the sword of a samurai or a knight, cameras become part of our professional identity as image makers, and that’s why we agonize over the choice. Just don’t let your tools define your personal identity, and you’ll be okay.

How do you determine the best camera choice? Consider your storytelling priorities. If you are putting together a run-and-gun project, consider these questions. 

On the other hand, you might have more time to compose shots and the ability to take a bit more gear. If you have a small crew, you can take a more capable camera and give some attention to lighting. In that case, image quality may trump extreme portability.

Canon C300 MK III

The Canon C300 series has long been considered the king of documentary cameras. It works with Canon EF mount photo lenses. Those lenses are high quality and available just about anywhere in the world. You can run your XLR audio cables right into the camera as well. The C300 MK III also features built-in ND filters. That makes it easy to adjust your exposure while shooting outside. Canon is, of course, renowned for its warm, pleasing images, and the C300 MK III delivers on image quality. At $8,999, it is not inexpensive, but it provides excellent value and can be rented at reasonable rates.

Sony FX3

Sony has been working hard to elevate the mirrorless camera form factor to provide the functionality of a cinema camera. The FX3 has a full-frame sensor, excellent auto-focus capabilities, and built-in image stabilization. Its tiny size makes it perfect for shooters who need to be agile and low profile. While it can send a RAW signal from the HDMI jack, you won’t get ProRes or RAW recording in the camera body itself. The Sony comes in at $3,899, making it less than half the Canon C300 MK III cost. 

Panasonic Lumix GH6

Panasonic combines a smaller “micro 4/3rds” sensor with the professional ProRes recording format. This makes the GH6 attractive because its lenses are smaller and lighter. Since it has a professional codec, you eliminate the need to record externally. At just $1,697, it is less than half of the Sony FX3. Panasonic’s weakness is that it does not have the same autofocus performance as the Sony or Canon. But it does offer enhancements to Lumix lenses. You can set up those lenses so that they are able to pull focus manually instead of focus-by-wire. This is important if you are shooting a scene where an actor needs to hit a mark. 

RED Komodo X

When image quality takes priority over the speed of operation, you might turn your attention to cine cameras, like the new RED Komodo X. At $9,995, it is the most expensive camera on the list. RED offers in-body REDCODE RAW. That is a 16-bit RAW recording format that offers maximum flexibility in post. As a documentary shooter, I love shooting in REDCODE RAW because it is the most forgiving format when you’ve over- or under-exposed a shot. You can’t always control the light in a given situation; that is where raw codecs shine. To my eye, the images that come out of the RED cameras “look right.” REDCODE RAW is also flexible, allowing for quality levels that deliver raw images at data rates lower than ProRes. But RED cameras are designed with a crew in mind. Yes, you can use them solo. For instance, RED offers a PL mount with electronic ND filters, but this solution does not come cheap. So remember that RED cameras work best when paired with a camera assistant. 

iPhone 14 Pro Max 

I won’t lie. When in a pinch, the iPhone Pro Max will deliver a ProRes (512GB version $1,399) image that can work. The new cinematic mode even allows you to pull focus in post! The software will denoise footage and manage highlights for you. Its in-body image stabilization is just amazing. The biggest issue I have with it is the lenses. It can be challenging to rid your image of unwanted glare when shooting with a backlit subject, and the “smart” features of the camera can often work against you. Battery life, heat, internal capacity, and file offload speed are issues with this camera. But every year, Apple delivers better video performance. Most of all, if you are trying to shoot unobtrusively, the iPhone could be your go-to tool of choice.

The high end:

The cameras listed above favor a lightweight style of documentary shooting. If your project demands the highest quality of images, and you have the budget for lights and crew, the RED V-Raptor ($24,995) makes a lot of sense. When a project calls for high-resolution images, the V-Raptor delivers 8k at 120fps in REDCODE RAW. It is RED’s best camera for low light and combines superior dynamic range with a body built for efficiency when you work with a team. If you are working on the next “Chef’s Table” cinematic-style documentary, then the RED V-Raptor might be the right choice.

Even if a film doesn’t use a “high-end” camera, that doesn’t mean a documentary can’t have a cinematic look. Lens choice, quality camera support, and lighting techniques can create beautiful images with low-cost equipment. The real challenge to creating compelling b-roll is not in equipment but in conceptualizing sequences that communicate concepts. Visual metaphors and vignettes go a long way toward engaging a viewer than merely pretty visuals. So, work to find ways to shoot sequences of shots that amplify the message of your interviewees.

Audio is more important than video

You’ve probably heard the old adage, “People will watch a video with bad video quality but not with bad audio quality.” That is especially true for documentaries. Viewers understand that capturing life as it happens means trading off polished visuals for behind-the-scenes access. 

The best way to ensure top-quality audio for your documentary film is to hire a sound mixer when you shoot. They will be able to provide the microphones for the right situation, balance levels on the fly, and ensure that unwanted sounds aren’t affecting your recording. 

Documentarians often don’t have the budget to hire a sound mixer or their setup calls for something as minimal as a shotgun mic on a boom pole over a seated interviewee. Here are some recommendations for gear to help the solo shooter get the best audio for their film.

Zoom F3 Audio Recorder

The Zoom F3 audio recorder features 32-bit float recording technology. This technology means that you don’t have to worry about your recording “clipping” when an interviewee gets too loud. The F3 offers timecode sync via a Bluetooth adapter, the UltraSync Blue, and UltraSync One combo of timecode boxes. When recording an interview, you can run a cable out of the line out into your camera. This setup gives a nice, clean recording in the camera and a higher quality 32-bit float recording in the F3 itself. (It also provides a little insurance if you forgot to press record on your audio recorder, not that anyone has ever failed to do such a thing!) The F3 is small yet can power XLR microphones that need phantom power. If you need more than two channels, the Zoom F6 is a good choice.

Another popular method of syncing timecode is the Tentacle Sync system. Tentacle Sync is used by sound professionals worldwide to ensure that the audio recorder and camera stay perfectly in sync. 


There are so many choices for microphones. And more than any other area of audio/video production, “you get what you pay for” applies to mics. More expensive mics sound better. But for the typical documentary shooter, the keys to success are simplicity and reliability. 

Apogee ClipMic Digital 2

Just about everyone has a smartphone. You can use the Apogee ClipMic Digital 2 to plug into a phone and record right to it. It works with the same UltraSync timecode system as the Zoom F3 to keep all your recordings in sync. At $199, the ClipMic provides one of the least expensive ways to get quality audio for the documentary shooter.  

RODE Wireless PRO

Rode just released a 32-bit float, timecode-enabled lavalier system. This solution eliminates the need for an additional audio recorder like the Zoom F3. You also won’t need external timecode boxes like the UltraSync. 

Sennheiser AVX-ME2

Sennheiser delivers a great-sounding and simple-to-use lavalier mic system. The build quality of these mics is a step up from the lower-cost solutions. They fall into a space in the market that is short of the higher-end professional solutions and better than the prosumer offerings. 

Hiding lav mics

When a lav mic shows in the shot, it really reminds you that you are watching a produced piece. Ironically, it takes more work to hide the mic. Sean Woods has a great 3-part series on how to hide lav mics on different shirts and then how to easily EQ the mic to compensate for it being under clothing.

Sennheiser MKE 600

If your subject is stationary, like in a sit-down interview, or if you have a boom op on set, you’ll want to consider a shotgun microphone. Shotgun mics reject noise around the subject and focus on a narrow pickup pattern. This pattern makes it great for environments where you can’t control the ambient audio. The Sennheiser MKE 600 lets you power it from the camera or audio recorder’s phantom power jacks. But you can also use an AA battery and power it without phantom power.

Sennheiser MKH 50

As microphones increase in price, they become more specialized. As you consider the various environments you’ll record in, you begin to see why sound pros bring a selection of mics with them on location. One of the most highly regarded microphones for indoor recording is the Sennheiser MKH 50. It provides a beautifully warm natural recording that will elevate your audio to a professional level. It isn’t the best choice when you are outside or if the mic has to be far from the subject. 

Rigging a boom pole

If you are conducting a sit-down interview, having a solid rig to hold your mic over your interviewee is essential. You’ll want to position the mic out-of-frame and pointed toward your subject’s chin. Here are the key pieces of equipment that will help you build a solid and lightweight rig.

Matthews Reverse Stand

The reverse stand is great for packing in a case when traveling. It is lighter than a standard baby stand and easier to work with than a C-stand. It has a “baby pin” on the tip, which makes it compatible with video-oriented rigging gear, unlike many light stands designed for still photography. 

Matthews Grip head

Place a grip head on the reverse stand to hold accessories firmly. Don’t skimp out and buy a plastic grip head of some sort. This piece of kit prevents your boom pole from slipping and bonking your interviewee on the head. 

Boom pole holder

A boom pole holder, or yoke, will enable you to position your boom pole at a slightly upward angle. This positioning will compensate for the flex in your boom pole when it extends. Make sure that you don’t skip this piece and try to put your boom pole through the grip head.

Boom pole

The most important tool for rigging your mic is the boom pole. You can use it handheld or as a part of a rig. This boom pole from K-tek has an internal XLR cable that will keep your rig tidy. It extends so you can place your stand away from your subject and keep it out of the shot. 

Shock mount

Your shotgun mic is held in place by a shock mount. This mount eliminates handling vibrations from being transferred into the microphone. Make sure that the shock mount you choose fits your microphone. For instance, the Sennheiser MKH 50 P48 has its own shock mount.

Boa bag

The last thing you want is for your microphone rig to fall over. You can take a boa bag or other shot bag and wrap it around the base of your stand. This is a critical piece for the safety of both your gear and the on-camera talent. 

XLR Cable

Don’t forget a high-quality XLR cable. This cable will go from the back of the boom pole to the audio recorder. It will transfer power to the microphone and signal to the audio recorder. It can be convenient to have this cable be a different color than black to distinguish it from all the other cables in your kit.


A good pair of closed-back headphones is essential to successfully recording audio on location. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to use an old pair of Apple headphones from an old iPhone. Sennheiser’s HD280 Pro headphones are relatively inexpensive and will serve you well both in the field and when you are editing. The key is to use a pair of headphones that deliver a relatively flat frequency response, unlike Beats or other headphones designed to accentuate specific frequencies for music listening. 

Closed-back headphones are critical because you want to hear the environment through the headphones only. It is also essential to avoid audio bleed-through, like on a pair of “open-back” headphones, which will affect your recording. If the Sennheiser headphones are too bulky, you might like the Sony MDR-7506 headphones.

Listening to locations

Half the work is done if you can scout out a location ahead of filming. Listen for heating and cooling systems. Clap your hands in the room and listen for echoes. Ask about construction projects in the area. If there are ways to reduce the background noise in the location during filming, it will save you an enormous amount of time in post-production. 

In addition to listening for sounds to remove, listen for sounds to capture. Can things like fans, vehicles, or natural sounds enhance the story when used with b-roll? If you have hired a sound mixer, bring them on the location scout and treat their ears like you would treat the eyes of a cinematographer. They can help enhance the story by identifying both sounds to remove and sounds to capture.

Archival documentaries

Some docs shoot interviews, and some just use archival footage to tell their story. In the Netflix documentary WHAM!, the filmmakers didn’t film interviews. Instead, they used extant footage and interviews. They combined this with footage of a scrapbook one of the pop duo’s moms made during her son’s journey to stardom. The National Geographic documentary LA92 took the same approach. The filmmakers used news footage and archives to demonstrate the strife that shook that city and the nation. The effect of archival footage is powerful. As a viewer, you get a sense of the bigger narrative. The filmmaker’s point-of-view can be just as effectively portrayed through archival footage as through original video. 


The challenging aspect of archival documentary is known as “clearances.” This involves balancing the need to contact the original TV network or studio that created the media in the first place against the “fair use” doctrine. Fair use is a legal doctrine allowing media to be reused in specific ways. It is intentionally vague. A documentary filmmaker must carefully evaluate the guidelines for fair use and determine their willingness to take on the risk of using media under fair use. If the owner of that clip contests the use of that media as not being legitimate under fair use, you could face a legal fight. 

The other option is to contact the media owner and pay them a licensing fee, which will be negotiated based on your project’s budget, the places the documentary will be shown, and the license duration (e.g., ten years or in perpetuity). 

In these cases, it is a good idea to enlist the services of an entertainment attorney to help guide your decision-making process. Sometimes, a clip needs multiple layers of releases to clear it. 

When it comes to music clearances, it is helpful to employ a music supervisor who can help you navigate the complex world of licensing songs. Using a famous hit will be expensive and time-consuming, so keep that in mind before attempting to license a television performance of a famous musician. You may need to negotiate with their estate if they have passed on.

Photo licensing can be more straightforward. Getty offers services for licensing its catalog of images. It can be easier to license a photo of a famous person than to license audio or video footage.

After Skid Row

Sometimes, a documentary comes together after months of careful planning; other times, an opportunity presents itself, and you have to move quickly. That was how Lindsey Hagen was able to assemble a small crew and capture the experience of “Gangsta Grannie,” Barbie Carter, in her short doc film After Skid Row. Lindsey is a Director, Executive Producer and Story Producer at Gnarly Bay. Together, the team at Gnarly Bay has garnered multiple awards and produces films for Fortune 500 brands. In 2022, they won the Vimeo Film Festival award for the best branded video for Cannondale, which Hagen directed. Lindsey Hagen It went on to be Oscar Qualified, and L.A. Times distributed it. 

The crew was small, and their gear was light. That helped them to take a “fly-on-the-wall” approach to this film. Hagen notes that the story was really about their subject “reclaiming her identity.” As a result of the film’s impact, the crew was able to raise funds for Carter’s medical needs as well. It really stands out as a beautiful example of how an audience can enter into the suffering of someone, and yet the subject of the film can retain their agency so that it is their story, told on their terms. 

Editing a documentary film

Walter Murch edited the brilliant documentary Particle Fever. In this look at the editing process, he talks about the ratio of footage shot to footage used as 300:1.

This presentation is a tour-de-force in the level of organization that it takes to surface a compelling narrative from so much footage. The story is there, and the tension and drama are real, but the effort it takes to form that story into a movie is immense. 

The key is to organize and log that footage. One of the best tools for doing that is transcripts. Here is a case where AI comes into play. Adobe Premiere, DaVinci Resolve, and Lumberjack Builder (initially designed for Final Cut Pro) use machine learning to generate transcripts. Those transcripts are key to identifying common themes and making those spots quick and easy to access. 

Transcripts allow editors to do a “paper edit” or “radio edit” based on the interview content. This edit can help the editor build a backbone for the story with the drama necessary to maintain the audience’s interest. Because no matter how important your story is, it won’t matter if you lose the audience’s attention.

Ode to Desolation

Lindsey Haggen also directed the short documentary Ode to Desolation, where she and her cinematographer/editor, Chris Naum, voyaged into the North Cascades. The gear for this film was even lighter. They shot on camera designed for stills but paired it with some beautiful lenses to capture the majestic landscapes that can be seen from the fire lookouts of Washington state. The filmmakers captured Jim Henterly’s role as a “keeper of history” and “maintainer of the story” of one of the last fire lookouts in North America. 

The shoot took four days. They slept at altitude, hiked up a mountain for hours, and traveled by boat. This goes to show that you truly can tell a majestic story with a kit that can fit into a couple of backpacks. 

Storage and Workflow

It takes a team to execute a film. That’s true on set, and it’s true in post. The assets you create and share with your team need to live in a central location that is separate from your editing team’s MAM (media asset manager) and accessible remotely. 

When creating a world-class documentary, you accumulate a huge number of assets. I’ve written about the challenges of organizing massive amounts of footage. This is especially true when you are trying to shuttle drives back and forth. I once heard a story of someone who shipped drives via FedEx and the truck got into an accident, and the drives were lost! It’s best if you can deploy multiple strategies for backing up footage. Shipping two drives separately would be one approach that gives you redundancy. But as upload speeds have greatly improved, cloud-based collaboration workflows are revolutionizing the way teams work.

The team at DEFINITION6 shoots everything from unscripted work to Sesame Street. MediaSilo is their tool of choice for collaboration. According to their Chief Engineer Luis Albritton, DEFINITION 6 uploaded over 10,000 assets, sent nearly 7,000 review links, and hosted almost 24,000 viewers of their content in MediaSilo during 2022 alone. With MediaSilo, producers, executives, and stakeholders can stay in the loop on the post-production process while maintaining the security that is critical to their clients.


Documentary filmmaking can be your ticket to see the world or see the world from a new perspective. It’s taken me to Oxford, Cambridge, the Jerusalem Museum, and the Vatican Library for Fragments of Truth. Some projects are small and tell the story of your family; others can be on the cosmic level. They can showcase the beauty and struggles of a community, like King Coal, or the beauty of nature. But one thing all good documentaries share is a point of view. They show the world from a unique perspective and seek to touch the hearts of an audience and challenge their perspectives on the world.

Reuben Evans (Member, Producers Guild of America) is a director, an award-winning producer, writer and director. His company Visuals 1st Films, LLC is producing a documentary on the hymn Amazing Grace, starring John Rhys-Davies. He is the former Executive Producer at Faithlife Films & Faithlife TV. He’s produced and directed multiple feature-length documentaries including Fragments of Truth (2018) and The Unseen Realm (2020). Most recently Reuben produced “The Disappearance of Violet, Willoughby” (coming in 2023).

EditShare’s video workflow and storage solutions power the biggest names in entertainment and advertising, helping them securely manage, present, and collaborate on their highest-value projects. To learn more about how EditShare can help your video production team, contact us today.