Kevin Knoblock is an award winning documentary director, who has written and produced powerful films focusing on social issues, historical events and popular culture. With another successful documentary recently completed, Knoblock has some advice about which cameras to use on your own low budget documentary.
How to Shoot Your Documentary on a Budget/Low Cost Camera Choices
Last year I was in Guatemala directing a documentary shoot on a team of eye surgeons performing free eye surgeries to the needy high up in the mountains near Salamá. It was a long journey to our location in a beautiful country, yet one where personal safety and logistics were also considerations.
I needed to bring a small crew and very little gear. I decided not to bring the higher-end cameras I usually work with – Arri Alexa’s, Canon C300’s, Red cameras and various Sony cameras including the F5.
I wanted a great image at an inexpensive price point. Fortunately, today’s documentary filmmakers have a huge selection of cameras to choose from – shooting in HD, 2K and even 4K.
As I teach in my full-day, and two-day Documentary Film Class workshops (next stop – Raindance in London. March 28, 2015), making every penny count is critical when you are planning and then shooting your documentary.
My crew and I decided to take to Guatemala a Sony NEX-FS100 Super 35 Camcorder with 18-200mm lens as my A camera, and a Panasonic Lumix GH4 as my B camera. We also rented a drone with a GoPro to shoot our aerials.
The Sony FS100 is an excellent camera for the price, which is just under $3,000 US. You can also rent one for around $150 a day, body only, depending on your location.
Its large-sensor is said to match that of standard Hollywood film cameras, and is compatible with many cine-style lenses with adaptors. It has great control over depth of field, and is outstanding in low light.
Normally I would use the FS100 or a FS700 as a B camera and intercut it with a Sony F3 or F5. But again, we needed an extremely small footprint on this trip. We were shooting in very tight places. This camera came through with amazing images.
This was the first time I had used the Panasonic GH4 and it was very impressive. It’s a mirrorless micro four thirds digital camera that can shoot HD in a variety of formats and even professional 4K video, which is remarkable in a camera this small.
We shot in 4K several of the eye surgeries we documented over the course of 3 days. The results were stunning. Later, in post, we were able to ‘punch in’ on these 4K images and resize our framing with no perceptible image loss. This camera is a knockout.
We brought our own lenses for the Panasonic and various adaptors. The GH4 body retails for around $1,700, which a few years ago would be unthinkable for 4K video recording.
We rented our drone camera from a crew out of Guatemala City. They arrived at dawn after the four hour drive up to Salamá. These days you can buy the latest DJI Phantom 2 Quadcopter with a GoPro Hero 3 for around $750. The prices have really come down. But we opted to rent, as we needed an operator as well.
This was my first time using a drone and what immediately struck me, after seeing the incredibly cool images on my monitor, was how far they can fly from your base controller and into potentially dangerous situations, which is why there are now ever-evolving regulations on using drones for commercial image gathering. But using the drone really gave our shoot the added perspective I wanted, showing the remoteness of the location.
So, yes, with proper pre-production, you can shoot your documentary film on equipment that is very affordable and yet produces broadcast quality HD or even 4K images.
This is really a golden age of affordable image capture that will only get better. Add in the Sony Alpha 7 lineup, the Blackmagic cinema cameras, and the groundbreaking workhorse HDSLR’s from Canon and Nikon and you’ve got plenty of low-cost options to bring in your production on time and on budget, with stunning results.
Award winning filmmaker Kevin Knoblock presents his one day Documentary Filmmaking crash course in London on Saturday March 27th.