Lights, Camera, NewsOne: Beginners Guide to making Your Own Documentary

special hands on by Ayaz Malik
Title Image Ayaz Malik

With most of you on the rush to make your own videos and make them available online, we at NewsOnepk thought it best to give you one proper guideline how to make you very own Documentary!

All over the world countries with no access to holiday spots used to get enthralled by watching documentaries, getting a feel of foreign places they could not visit. The very meaning of the word documentary is to compile facts and information and present it in a viewer friendly way. We have all watched documentaries now and then on various subjects ranging from nature, animals, happenings to in-depth all informative and revealing genres. The viewership, worldwide went to such figures that companies formed documentary channels.

So How is a Documentary Made?

Documentary production is something that is solely subject dependent. There are documentaries which are location based and require the crew and equipment to be taken to that particular location. Although, it may seem ardous work but the results are worth the effort.

Scripting and Storyboard

The first thing you have to do is have your subject’s full knowledge sheet ready. In turn you prepare a storyline for you feature and if you want to go real pro you might consider picking up a storyboard for the entire length of ‘shot division’. The storyboard may seem difficult at first but don’t worry too much about it. From the storyline script that you have prepared as a guideline voice over, pick out the most important of the script lines and form a working storyboard. There are nowadays softwares and templates available made to ease the hassle. Still, if you are brimming with creative juices you may opt for a traditional paper and pencil style. You also have an option of shooting the entire video with a shooting script and then adapting a voice over later.

Camera and Recording

Now comes the preparation for your shooting equipment. If you are not shooting a paranormal venture or visiting a ghost town you surely do not need frequency sensing equipment. For a normal subject the suggestion is to keep a light camera with a large recording capacity. Beware if you’re still sticking to cassettes and loading HDD’s (Hard Disk Drives), don’t run out of them. For most, memory cards work best. Do keep in mind a good set of lenses ranging from near field to zoom lens. You might need these to shoot from afar (Distant Shots). If you cannot afford a ‘lens set’ (which definitely does not come in cheap) you may want to keep the most important of the lenses’ choice between 35mm to a zoom lens. Unless you’re going prime there is no use for the 70mm to 105mm lens ranges. Let them remain for the pros. You may spend a lifetime testing various lenses and getting to know their usage.

Keeping the Shot Still

A tripod is essential for those steady, establishing shots. Not just these, a tripod also helps you get the shot in its true perspective. There are a range of tripods to choose from. Fiber foldable and handy ones to semi-professional ones which are a little cumbersome and heavy. Unless you have opted for a professional series of camera you may easily do with a fiber tripod and it also come inexpensive.

Recce The Location

We assume you are at the location if you are shooting an outdoorsy documentary. You may consider a reconnaissance of the entire shooting location to get the best possible shots for your masterpiece, even if it is your first venture. Knowing the area that you would be saving to your camera for later editing and dubbing is a good and sensible thing to do. After a full charting out of the area you can now add these to that storyboard we talked about earlier. This is if you are shooting off the cuff and haven’t visited the location beforehand.

Light em Up

All done, now what you need are the lights. For that eerie kind of first person perspective feel you may want to attach the camera light there and then. However, you will need at least a couple of good lights with stands if you are going to go about shooting in the dark or low light conditions. Although your camera may be able to adjust to low light with its lux settings you are surely going to need lights. As a beginner choose the standard lights with dimmers. The placement of lights is something you will learn by trial and error. The ideal positioning is from where your subject is well illuminated. you may also want to consider bouncing (reflecting) lights at full brightness to get a more desired natural shadow throwing effect. You may also choose to bounce and cross lights for a more dramatic effect. Tilting the direction of the lights using their shutters is a very common practice and yields good results in balancing the amount of light being thrown on the subject. Try playing around with lighting and you will get the feel as a novice documentary maker. It is a splendour while experimenting with light conditions and temperatures matching your camera’s light settings. As for the camera after you’re done with the ISO settings try to set temperature by matching it with your lights’ and environ conditions.  Conventionally it is a good formula from using One lights to three.


Recording sound is one of the most important part of your documentary. You may have opted for a person to take your viewer through the journey that your documentary may be. That one microphone is going to be a ‘uni-directional’ with less feedback and foamed covering. You may opt for the same wireless collar model.
A thing or two to keep in mind; use only one track of your camera to capture the main sound of the entire documentary. Keep the other channel for capturing natural sound or better still record the natural sounds separately (easier to deal with when you sit down to edit). The natural sound in your documentary that plays in the background is known as the wildtrack and is most important if you want to give a true feel of richness and completion to your documentary. Background sound is essential in creating an authentic and believable documentary.

So you’ve used up all the HDD’s and memory cards, and done with your first outdoor documentary shooting. let’s proceed further now.

Edit That Footage

Once, back at your place and your editing gear, we assume you know how to transfer all the data to your computer. Surely, you’re not using the Digital VTRs the biggies do. That computer you have is good enough for you to get rolling with. We can conveniently assume that you are familiar with a few good editing softwares already. After transferring your footage to you computer or external editing HDD all you need to do is edit and record the voice over where it is required. These are done separately and then joined together in one single file. The task is not overly difficult. You may easily do it with the help of the editing softwares.

Using Transitions

As for some editing tips you may want to use appropriate transitions for relevant scenes of your documentary. Use Fade-Outs and Cuts where required keeping the need of the voice over theme matching the visuals. Do not jump around using anything and everything that catches your fancy. Transitions are meant to create a certain effect. A generic rule is that fades are used for a smoother transition for continuing a certain sequence. Cuts may be used to create impact or when moving from one topic to another, signifying something. In simple language a Fade-In and Out are commas and cuts are full stops. There is more you can do during the editing (post production) like create some missing effects, change light conditions if needed, enhance colour and so on. These are all part of the process. once you sit down doing it, the grasp on these is sure to be there.

Title and Credits

Polishing it off you need to create a good title for your documentary and equally good closing (credits) meaning the end of it. Pay a lot of attention to these and toy around with several ideas. Let it rest. Sleep over it and choose what is most pertinent to you documentary’s subject.

In this blog we took you to the realms of making your own documentary outdoors. We’ll soon sometime update you with how to go about making a documentary indoors. Fun isn’t it. Watch this space.           


The views expressed by the Author and the reader comments do not reflect the views and policies of The NewsOne.

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