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. Alternately, If 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.