Tools of the Trade: Documentary Makers Talk Gear
By Susan Q. Yin
For as long as stories have called upon documentary filmmakers to tell them, makers have used—and evolved—technology to shape the art and business of reflecting reality. While hardly a techno-deterministic art form and impulse, there’s no question that the evolution of film gear—from early analog days to the evolving digital era—has simultaneously expanded to include new filmmakers while allowing the documentary form to capture the intimacy of private human moments. What’s possible in documentary storytelling—and by which storytellers—lives in parallel with technology innovations.
As artists, documentary filmmakers are a scrappy bunch who have long taken full advantage of the artistic possibilities of technology. Decades after photography pioneer Auguste and Louis Lumière invented the motion picture camera in the 1880s, heavy, expensive 35mm cameras dominated film—until documentarians and activists got their hands on less bulky 16mm field cameras that popped up in Army surplus stores after World War II. In the 1950s and into the 1960s, pioneering documentary filmmakers Robert Drew, DA Pennebaker, David and Albert Maysles, and Richard Leacock, notorious gear tinkerers, innovated a way to record audio and images at the same time in the field. In 1967, Sony’s revolutionary Portapack hit the market—the first battery-powered video gear that recorded simultaneous audio and picture, able to be operated by a single person. Filmmakers and activists quickly picked up on the style of intimate filmmaking powered by nimble gear, and the cinema vérité movement—alternately called direct cinema or observational film, free of the news-like construction and voice-of-God narration of the past—indelibly shaped documentary storytelling from the 1960s through the community media movements of the 1970s well into the present day.
With the help of accessible film gear and, later, video, activists filmed stories inside social movements, and voices from traditionally marginalized communities—people of color, women—demanded attention and distribution. In 1971, pioneers Julia Reichert, Jim Klein, Amalie Rothschild and Liane Brandon launched New Day Films to train women documentary filmmakers and fuel the growing women’s movement with the help of documentaries made by women on film and video. In 1994, Kartemquin Films, a leader in vérité documentary storytelling, filmed its legendary classic, Hoop Dreams, on video, converting it later to film for a theatrical release. Along the way, Kartemquin contributed to expanding audience interest and the commercial and public marketplace for documentary while showcasing an inexpensive way to film years of intimate material. In the early 2000s, film technology evolved again with the advent of home-based editing on Final Cut Pro and the move from mini-DV tapes to tapeless cameras. A democratizing gear climate and user-generated distribution on YouTube and Vimeo opened the door to new storytellers and the tales they tell. Contemporary documentaries like The Square (2013), Citizenfour (2014) and Minding the Gap (2018) are testimonials to accessible video and editing technology in the fast-moving digital age.
Today, amidst the dizzying pace of the streaming media era, documentary resides in a boom moment and expanded marketplace that ranges from legacy stalwarts like PBS and HBO to the revolutionary upstarts like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Apple TV and more. New and emerging storytellers are more likely to be women and people of color than in years past, opening cultural portals to the depth of human experiences often invisible in the media sphere. As in years past, understanding how technology empowers documentary filmmakers remains important.
2019 Documentary Equipment Survey
In 2019, the International Documentary Association (IDA), with counsel from the Center for Media & Social Impact, launched a survey designed to investigate the gear favored by contemporary documentary filmmakers in the production and post-production processes, from cameras to audio to lighting to editing software, and why and how they make their technology decisions.
The first part of the survey yielded valuable qualitative information about why respondents favored specific equipment and programs. The next phase took a deeper, more quantitative dive into both the brands and models of gear that the documentary community deploys, as well as the range of shooting scenarios in the documentary practice. For Part II of the survey, all questions were asked in terms of filmmakers’ “most recent completed or post-production-stage documentary project.”
The results of both iterations of the survey provide a robust narrative about the optimal tools of the trade for making your best work. This brief report summarizes the findings from both parts of Tools of the Trade: Documentary Equipment Survey.
Who Are the Respondents?
Part I of the survey yielded 367 respondents—57% male, 35% female, 2% gender non-conforming, and a total of 286 documentary filmmakers completed Part II of the survey—62% male, 36% female, 1% gender non-conforming. While we received responses from 27 countries, an overwhelming majority—83%—came from the United States. Given the international scope of the survey, we did not solicit information about ethnicity or cultural identity, since there is no one standard for international census data.
The majority of makers are filmmakers who started in the digital era—over 71% have between one and 20 years of documentary experience. The strong majority of respondents identify as directors (71%), producers (47%), cinematographers (42%) and editors (35%) (respondents were able to choose more than one role, given the multifaceted jobs documentary filmmakers take on to make their films).
Filmmakers indicated that they generally spent upwards of at least $1,000 to buy or rent new film equipment for their most recent films.
About 6 in 10 filmmakers spent between $1,000 and $9,999 on new gear, although their films were primarily funded by personal finances (51% said this).
Sources of Information about Gear
Where do the respondents say they get their information about gear? The sources are equally divided between expert reviews and recommendations (43%) and word-of-mouth (42%), with online customer reviews (33%) also a strong source.
To Buy, To Rent or To Share?
Once the community decides on their gear mix and establishes a line item for it, do they buy, rent or share? For primary cameras, tripods, microphones and audio recording equipment, a significant majority buy new or used. When it comes to prime and zoom lenses, the gap between buying new or used and renting is a little narrower. About 37% of respondents are inclined to rent prime lenses, while 37% would buy new zoom lenses. Regarding the light kit, respondents are inclined to buy new or rent. For drone and speciality cameras, renting is the preferred option.
Documentary filmmakers are filming run-and-gun material without a lot of frills—it’s primarily vérité footage with very little in the way of sit-down interviews, favoring professional-grade cameras over consumer cameras and phones. We asked respondents to rank the most important features in their primary camera; the top three are sensor, resolution and ergonomics. Rounding out the preferred features are small size/low weight, major brand/ease of finding replacement parts, lens mount capability, frame rate image stabilization and weather sealing.
The primary camera of choice is a digital cinema camera, followed by professional-grade camcorders. By far, the leading professional camera brands are Sony and Canon; only about 4% said they use the expensive RED camera.
The Sony PXW-FS7 ($7,000 body) is favored for its versatility, availability of accessories, 4K capability, ergonomics, and “most importantly, wide adoption among colleagues and clients.” Surprisingly, its successor, FS7 II ($9,000 body), has not been as widely adopted by documentarians. For the similarly priced Canon EOS C300 Mark II ($9,500 body), filmmakers value its compatibility with existing systems and lenses, ease of use, weight (0.3lb lighter than PXW-FS7), and high dynamic range (HDR). “This camera is the most manageable to me if I'm shooting, recording audio and directing at the same time,” says one respondent. Meanwhile, the entry-level Super 35-mm Sony camcorder PXW-FS5 ($4,300 body) still offers 4K recording at half the price. It is also a more compact and lighter camera than the PXW-FS7, coming in at only 1.76lb. Similarly, the Canon EOS C100 Mark II ($3,000 body) is half the weight of C300 Mark II at 2.2lb. While “small, affordable, very forgiving, and could be made to look inconspicuous,” the C100 does not offer 4K image resolutions.
For creators on a budget, more and more compact system cameras now offer 4K recording. By far the lightest camera on our top five, at 1.59lb, the Panasonic Lumix DC-GH5 ($1,400 body) was the first DSLM mirrorless camera capable of shooting 4K. While a newer version was released in 2018 (the GH5S), many of our survey respondents still used the GH5 on their last documentary.
To accommodate 4K recording, respondents increasingly opt for higher capacity and faster memory cards: 128 GB for CFast cards, and a quarter of users opt for 256 GB. For SD cards, about 40% of respondents like 64 GB, and about 30% prefer 128 GB. They preferred V10 or V90 video speed class for the CFast cards and C10 for the SD cards. Over half of filmmakers trust SanDisk with their footage, while less than 20% use Lexar memory cards.
This group of contemporary documentary filmmakers generally favors using a secondary camera along with the first one. About 66% used a secondary camera on their most recent film. The camera of choice for the secondary camera is a DSLM mirrorless system camera (29%), followed by DSLR (21%) and digital cinema camera (20%). When they used a secondary camera, filmmakers used it to film b-roll (69%), followed by vérité (56%).
Almost 7 in 10 documentary filmmakers did not use drone cameras on their most recent films (67%), but 33% did— primarily for b-roll. Virtual reality cameras (360-degree cameras) are not well used by this group of documentary filmmakers; only 1% included them on a list of either primary or secondary cameras, with a similar percentage saying the same with underwater cameras.
These documentary filmmakers were divided about prime lenses used in their most recent films; about 54% used prime lenses. Filmmakers were more likely to use a zoom lens in their most recent films; 82% used a zoom lens on their primary camera.
We asked respondents to elaborate on their rationale for opting for prime lenses over zoom lenses, and vice versa. Overall, prime lenses work best for vérité footage (61%), b-roll (59%) and sit-down interviews (56%). They are fast, produce sharp images, especially in low-light settings, and are more portable. Zoom lenses are the preferred option for b-roll (81%) and run-and-gun/vérité filming (80%), and for their overall versatility and flexibility.
Among the comments that respondents shared about prime lenses: “Primes take you out of your comfort zone.”...“They force you into a certain relationship to your subject.”...“It requires you to be decisive in framing.”... “Films that are shot with primes usually have a more thoughtful visual quality to them.” However, respondents noted that “zoom lenses give [you] more options for seamlessly building the series of shots needed for cinematic visual storytelling in the edit, without having to switch lenses and risk missing the magic.” ...“They are [also] a lot more travel-friendly than primes, due to the consolidation factor of needing fewer lenses to build a versatile kit."
So, given what our respondents shared about prime lenses and zoom lenses and what works best for specific scenarios in the documentary practice, Canon, Zeiss and Rokinon/Samyang figure as the top three favored prime lens brands. As for lens systems, the Canon EF, ARRI PL and M4/3 and Sony E earn high marks. The Canon is lauded for its lightweight, and affordability; the ARRI, for its speed and beauty; and Sony, for its image stabilization. For focal lengths, respondents prefer 50mm, then 35mm and 85mm, and favor lower apertures (F1.2 or F1.4) for their primary prime lenses, to accommodate low-light settings, and higher apertures (F2.8 or T2.8) for their secondary prime lenses.
In the zoom lens category, the Canon EF family dominates by a significant margin. As for the top zoom lenses, the EF 24-105mm f/4 is the preferred primary lens; users note that it’s a “great all-around lens for vérité doc shooting.” The EF 70-200mm f/2.8 is the preferred secondary lens; and the EF 16-35mm f/2.8, recommended for its “clarity of image,” is the favored third lens. The survey also revealed that filmmakers overwhelmingly favor manual focus over autofocus.
Tripods and Support Systems
Over 90% of our respondents used a tripod with their primary camera on their most recent documentary. Manfrotto (39%) and Sachtler (25%) were preferred over Miler (7%) and Benro (6%). While we did not receive enough data to yield a top five, the Manfrotto 504HD ($350) fluid head with 475B ($350) or 546B aluminum tripod legs are great entry-level options for creators on a budget. They are “relatively portable if broken down, but heavy enough to work in wind.” The Sachtler Flowtech 75 ($1350) and 100 ($3300) carbon fiber tripods are noted as dream upgrades. One current user comments that their “speed, versatility, durability, quality and reliability is unprecedented.”
Due to improved in-camera stabilization, these documentarians are not inclined to use hand-held stabilizers with their primary camera when they film, but when they do, it’s usually for b-roll and vérité material with the Zhiyun CRANE 2 ($400), DJI Ronin-M ($900), or DJI Ronin-S ($630).
Similarly, shoulder rigs are not used as much with primary cameras; 64% do not use them at all, but when they do, documentary filmmakers are filming vérité footage (85%). Zacuto and Easyrig shoulder mounts alleviate pressure on the back and “make long shooting days more manageable.”
When it comes to audio, these documentary makers generally employ multiple systems simultaneously. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the heavy dominance of vérité material, the strong majority of filmmakers—82%—used shotgun microphones on their most recent films. As with primary cameras, makers use shotgun microphones primarily to capture sound in vérité material (75%), followed by b-roll (69%) and field interviews (65%).
Sennheiser is the most frequently cited brand for shotgun microphones, with the MKH 416 ($1,000), the MKE 600 ($600) and the ME 66 ($210) occupying the top three spots among models. The Rode NTG3 ($700) and NTG2 ($200) also rate highly. While we didn’t yield enough model-specific commentary, the Sennheiser brand is frequently cited for its isolation capabilities, its durability, its sound quality and its weather-resistance.
Along with shotguns, most documentary filmmakers (78%) also used wireless microphones in their most recent films, using this system to capture audio from field interviews (76%) and vérité (69%) in particular; user-friendliness and battery life are the top reasons cited for choosing particular brands over others. The Lectrosonics L series, priced at $2,800, is the top-rated model, with the Sennheiser EW 112P G3 and the Sennheiser EW 100 taking the number 2 and 3 slots, both a quarter of the price at $600.
Finally, portable recorders were used in most filmmakers’ most recent films—64% used them, again primarily for vérité material. Zoom is the go-to brand for our respondents. They are inconspicuous and easy to transport. Both H4n PRO ($200) and H5 ($280) are smaller and lighter than the H6. However, the higher-priced H6 ($320) is cited for its “sound quality; one can select the signal sensitivity from various sides of the microphone.” It is equipped with four XLR/TRS inputs versus two inputs on H4n PRO and H5.
In the past decade, a plethora of smartphone applications have emerged to assist creators during the production process in this new digital filmmaking era. Nearly 39% of survey respondents reported using filmmaking apps, with Filmic Pro, Artemis and Sun Seeker as front-runners.
While available on both Android and iOS, Filmic Pro is a favorite of iPhone users. Priced at $14.99, it allows creators to hijack the phone cameras, adding more professional manual controls for focus, exposure, shutter speed, frame rate, white balance, audio metering and waveform monitoring, just to name a few.
An 2018 Engineering Emmys winner, Artemis ($29.99) was the first digital viewfinder for smartphones. It accurately simulates various camera and lens combinations, affording filmmakers the ability to trial focal lengths, aperture and shutter settings prior to gear investments. “I use Artemis as a Finder app to frame up interview shots or when scouting to see how long a lens I need from a certain distance,” said one respondent. “It's customizable to Camera package and lenses and is fairly accurate in terms of field of view. You can snap photos and generate scout report PDFs for yourself or clients to review.”
Lastly, SunSeeker ($9.99) employs 3D AR to help filmmakers track the sun’s location on set. Additionally, its solar compass shows the sun’s hourly direction intervals and schedules notifications for desired sun-events such as sunrise or “golden hour” sunset times. For alternatives, both Sun Surveyor and Helios offer moon-tracking for nighttime shooting needs.
In terms of lighting, documentary makers favor vérité existing light over-elaborate setups. About 8 in 10 makers (79%) did not use an external light with their primary or secondary cameras in their most recent films, but those who did—about half of those surveyed—used LED lights for on-set sit-down interviews.
Documentary filmmakers said they primarily used Mac computers to house their post-production workflow on their most recent films; about three-quarters (75%) used Mac, compared to 25% who used a Windows operating system to edit their films. In general, documentary filmmakers primarily employ human-operated transcribers for their films or don’t use transcription at all.
Minimum configuration for post-production computer to edit documentary films:
CPU lower end: Intel® Core™ i7-2700K 3.5 GHz quad-core Processor
16 GBs of RAM
4GBs graphic processor
Better configuration for post-production computer to edit documentary films:
CPU higher end: Intel® Core™ i7-9700 3 GHz 8-core processor
32 GBs of RAM
8 GBs graphic processor
For the post-production software programs, Adobe Premiere Pro is the favored video editing program by a significant margin; Final Cut Pro X and Avid Media Composer are the second and third preferred programs. For color correction, DaVinci Resolve is the overwhelming favorite, followed by Adobe’s Lumetri and Final Cut Pro X. Avid Pro Tools is the top sound editing program, followed closely by Adobe Audition, with Logic a distant third.
More to Come
If these responses are any indication of broader trends, it’s clear that documentary style is heavily focused on verité footage, and filmmakers prefer to use high-end equipment that suits their story purposes, even if the adoption of the newest gear (the RED camera and drones, for example) seems slow at this moment. Chronicling the evolution of the craft—including the tools of the trade—will be important as the digital era of documentary continues to evolve and the streaming age of distribution creates new opportunities for nonfiction storytelling.
The process of developing, executing and analyzing the results of both parts of the survey, and sharing them with you, does not stop here. Documentary magazine will continue to reach out to you about the tools you used for specific shooting scenarios in your work, the optimal kits you assemble, the line item-by-line item specifics of budgeting for acquiring equipment, and a host of other tech-oriented content that will optimize your creative decision-making in your documentary practice.
Caty Borum Chattoo is executive director of the Center for Media & Social Impact at American University’s School of Communication. She is also the author of the forthcoming book from Oxford University Press: Story Movements: How Documentaries Empower People and Inspire Social Change (July 2020).
Susan Yin is Documentary's Creative Director and manages communications, design and digital projects at IDA.
Part I Research and Survey Design: Sandra Ignagni; Part I Data Analysis: William L. Harder
Part II Research and Survey Design: Susan Yin; Part II Data Analysis: Caty Borum Chattoo and Susan Yin