15 tips for run-and-gun DSLR docu-verite shooting

Docu-verite DSLR shooting is a difficult road to travel when you’re a one-man crew.  By docu-verite, I mean filming the unpredictable, i.e. spontaneous conversations; going from exterior to interior lighting; dialogue scenes in noisy environments; night shots from vehicles.  You can attempt to use your DSLR like a video camera (stopped-down zoom lenses, auto mode), but you end up getting a video-ish image. Use them like film cameras (prime lenses, wide open apeture, manual focus) and you could end up with a lot blurry crap.

My day job is shooting reality TV, so I haven’t been able to resist attempting to get something of a filmic image out of these things while shooting real verite stuff.  Here are some essential tips I learned the hard way:

1. Shoot video-style when you have to and film-style when you can.  When in unpredictable environments, use a zoom such as a 17-50mm, 24-70mm, or something like an 18-200mm.  When things slow down and you can compose your shots, switch to primes.  Ideally, you would have two camera bodies, and mount them with complementary lenses.  A good combo would be  a wide zoom (17-50mm or 24-70mm) on one camera, and a fast prime (50mm or 85mm f/1.4) on the other for soft close-ups.  As for carrying these things, try the Rainbowimaging dual-camera strap.  It’s cheap and works great.

2. If you can’t have two camera bodies, carry another lens in a lens pouch on your belt.  AlternatelyIf you’re shooting with a Panasonic GH3, Nikon D800 or D4, you can take advantage of the lossless digital zoom mode.  But be warned: tele mode will increase noise and deepen your DOF because you’re essentially turning a large-sensor camera into a smaller-sensor one.  Additionally, you will see more abberations in the image because you’re using a smaller portion of the lens’ glass.  It’s not at all the same as having a longer lens of the same aperture.

3. Don’t carry too much at once.  I try to leave the main camera bag(s) in the car or hotel if at all possible.  When running around, I have two cameras on my shoulder strap, a lens/filter pouch hooked to my belt loop with a carabiner, and a couple spare batteries in my pockets.

4. On your cameras, have these two picture profiles in your custom settings: one where everything is manual, and one which is Shutter Priority and auto-iris/focus/ISO.  The idea here is that you use manual when you have time, and you switch to your semi-auto mode when things get hectic.  Note: if you’re shooting on a Canon, autofocus is useless.  But you already knew that.

5. Lav mic your talent and post-sync it.  Plug a lav mic into a Zoom H1 or similar recorder, and drop the recorder in your talent’s pocket.  You no longer have to worry about the subject being too far from the camera, or having a boom operator, or wireless frequencies, or running out of audio channels.  Sync it with Pluraleyes in post.  The caveat is that you can’t monitor the audio during recording, but the technique has proven reliable enough for me to use it on MTV shoots.  More details in this article.

6. Buy lots of batteries AND chargers, or if your camera takes USB power, try using a portable power pack.  You can find off-brand batteries for cheap on Amazon, and if you have Amazon Prime, it gets even cheaper.  The trade-off with off-brand batteries is that some of them won’t communicate their charge level accurately with the camera, so you have to guess if your battery is going dead.  Depending on your shooting style, this could warrant paying extra for the name brand.  For details on how to use an external battery pack instead, see this article.

7. Use a variable ND filter in daylight.  I use this filter from Lightcraft Workshop.  It gives me 2-8 stops of reduction, which lets me keep the aperture wide open while racking focus and exposure with one hand.  It’s very handy to be able to smoothly adjust the exposure  on the fly. Buy the filter that fits your largest-diameter lens, and then use step-down rings to adapt it to the rest of your lenses.  If you are really gunning it, you can buy multiple sets of step up rings and adapt your lenses so they all have the same diameter (this makes life easier with lens caps as well).  You can also use a matte box for your filters – I just never have because they’re a bit bulky.  One more thing: you will be removing these ND filters frequently.  So it’s good to have a lens/filter pouch attached to your belt loop via a carabiner.  There is a software solution if you decide to skip the variable ND.  ReelSmart Motion Blur has a plug-in that can add blur in post.  More details in this article.

8. Post-stabilization can save your ass – if you use it right.  FCP and After Effects both offer stabilization. Your main problems will be the CMOS jello effect and motion blur artifacts.  To minimize these while shooting, increase the shutter speed to anywhere from 1/80 to 1/500/sec.   In situations where the subject isn’t moving across frame rapidly, the strobe effect will be  fairly subtle.  If someone moves too fast, it will look like Saving Private Ryan.  But you can add your motion blur back in post – details here.

9.  Use the biggest SD card your can afford. 64gb can be had for $ on Amazon.  It’s one thing you definitely don’t want to worry about changing during a shoot.

10. Have a GoPro or other compact camera like the Sony RX100 in your pocket or camera bag at all times.  These come in handy when it might not be practical to use your DSLR – trick angles, car interiors, scuba diving, self-shooting, undercover shooting, and extreme activities are a few situations that come to mind.  Pack an extra battery.

11. Your body is your tripod.  If you’re really gunning it, you probably won’t have time for a tripod or maybe even a monopod.  Hold the camera close to your breastplate, hold your breath, support the lens ring with a hand, reduce your focal length.  Pull against your shoulder strap for tension.  If you’re using a monopod, wedge the base into anything you can – a corner of a building, a spot of soft dirt, the waistline of your own jeans.  A collapsed monopod can also steady out your walking shots a bit by adding weight to your camera.

12.  Your body is your slider.  Practice holding the camera at waist level, elbows wedged against your abdomen, widening your stance, and tracking laterally with your hips. Think tai chi.  With a tiny bit of post-stabilization, you can create some convincing dolly moves.  Details in this article.

13. Your monopod is your jib.  Mount the camera on it, hold the monopod at the base, and go for the high shots.  The pocketable X-Shot 2 provides a compact alternative for smaller cameras.

14. Your iPhone can be a light source.  If you have a white screen (the flashlight app or google’s homepage work nicely), you can hold it just out of frame for a bit of fill.  You can also use the white balance app instead of a grey card.

15. Use a gorillapod mounted to a chair back as a perfect eye-level camera support for seated subjects.  Perfect for interviews.


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Latest Comments
  1. Lee Mackreath

    Great info thanks for all that. You have highlighted many of the issues I face as an armature videographer trying to capture life around me!

    I always try to shoot in Manual mode but when filming friends in family in varying scenes of exposure I have to pull away from the perfect “filmic” look and shoot in A mode or S mode. The problem with both of these modes I find is the misinterpretation of lighting in a scene and how these modes then expose these scenes.

    Last night I was testing shooting in A mode in a darkly lit room and it was obvious the camera was trying to over expose the shot because it thought it needed to. This whacked my iso up to 3200 and left me with very grainy footage and an overly exposed shot.

    I had a similar issue shooting in A mode in the garden shooting wide open at 1.4 on my new Canon FD. The shutter speed maxed out at 1/4000 to try expose the image correctly because it was so bright I in the end had to manually change my Aperture to 11 to get the right exposure. I am investing in a variable ND as we speak to get round this issue to allow a shallow depth of field in bright conditions!

    • brandon

      Yeah, I try to keep the ISO on manual if possible, and only let the camera auto-adjust aperture and possibly focus (depending on the camera and lens). Otherwise most cameras will try to over-expose dark scenes and blow out highlights. A variable ND filter will solve all your bright-light issues and make it really easy to manually adjust exposure without worrying about compromising your shutter speed or aperture.

  2. Lee Mackreath

    You suggest using only two profiles…Manual and Shutter Priority…why would you not also include Aperture Priority in that list?…

    • brandon

      When shooting video, I try to keep my shutter locked at 1/50, which most closely replicates the shutter angle of a film camera. I find it unnatural looking if the shutter speed is varying during a shot.

  3. Lee Mackreath

    Do you find any loss of sharpness or obviously colour shift when using a variable nd filter?

    • brandon

      A bit of sharpness loss if you’re shooting with a long telephoto lens. I think maybe it makes the image a bit warmer, but nothing noticeable or bothersome.

  4. Nick

    Nice footage Brandon, what do you suggest for run-and-gun audio? For example, what did you use to capture the speech in the ultralight-flight clip?


    • brandon

      Hi Nick, I discuss run and gun audio in this article. That’s the method I’ve been using for about six months now, and it’s been very reliable. Now that Pluraleyes 3 has been released, audio syncing in post is up to 20x faster than before. I am currently experimenting with other audio recording solutions, but until I have enough experience with them, the method in my article is the one I would recommend.

      • Nick

        Thanks, read that one too, very informative. Is that the technique you used in the video above? That is, did you mic each individual beforehand with a lav?

        • brandon

          I did mic everyone, but in that particular shoot I used Sennheiser G3 wireless lav’s connected to a Zoom H4n recorder. This method was hellishly clunky and didn’t necessarily deliver cleaner sound. While the stronger preamps of the Sennheisers can sometimes deliver a cleaner signal, the benefit is offset by numerous downsides: size and weight, radio interference, and having to keep track of many sets of batteries that die frequently. And I still had to sync in post because the Canon T2i DSLR has a poor mic input that adds hiss. So once I discovered the portable recorder method, I never went back. I used it on MTV’s True Life: I Have a Strange Habit, which airs on MTV on 10/6. I also shot this episode with two cameras at once, a method I’ll cover in another post.

  5. John

    Great post Brandon, sometimes when shooting fast reality I’ve made the mistake of trying to shoot everything in a cinematic way, like the idea of having 2 x camera bodies set up for both modes.

    • Brandon Li

      Lately I’ve been shooting mostly with the RX100’s, and I just use programmed scene modes. One for daytime and one for night. I’d be interested to know what kind of reality you shoot and what gear you use.

  6. Anna

    The best article on running & gunning I have ever read! Solutions for so many frustrations. Thank you Brendan. I will be sharing the heck out of this one 😉

    • Anna

      The best article on running & gunning I have ever read! Solutions for so many frustrations. Thank you Brandan. I will be sharing the heck out of this one

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