Education, Pro Tips

Six Essential Shots in Documentary Filmmaking


Hey there, fellow filmmakers and documentary enthusiasts! Today, we’re diving into documentary storytelling and discussing six essential shot types that can help you create more engaging, immersive, and visually captivating documentary films. Whether you’re a seasoned filmmaker or just starting these shot types will elevate your storytelling skills and make your work stand out.


Back to Basics

Before jumping into the six types of shots, let’s briefly review a few of the basic shot types in filmmaking. These are the wide shot, medium shot, and close-up. These basic shot types form the foundation of any filmmaking project, and you’ll need to grasp them well to effectively use the six documentary shots we’re about to discuss.

When shooting a documentary scene, it’s crucial to grab coverage, meaning you should aim to capture a wide, medium, and close-up of the action. Having a range of shots to work with will make your editing process smoother and help you create a more dynamic and visually exciting film.

Now let’s dive into the shots that will take your documentary storytelling to the next level!


The Six Essential Shot Types for Documentary Storytelling


Establishing Shot

Establishing shots in a documentary sets the scene and provides critical context to a story by placing it within its real-world setting. Unlike in fictional works where the setting may be crafted or controlled, a documentary’s environment is authentic and must accurately portray the subject’s world.

Establishing shots in documentaries like “Man on Wire” gives the audience an understanding of the real-world magnitude and context of the story. The wide-angle views of the Twin Towers don’t just convey the location of Philippe Petit’s daring tightrope walk; they also emphasize the sheer scale and audacity of his undertaking. The vastness of the towers and the tiny figure of Petit, dwarfed by their immensity, immediately inform the audience of the monumental task he has set for himself, framing the rest of the narrative in a thrilling context.


Central Action Shot

In a documentary, central action shots capture the primary activity or event in the scene, creating a focus around which the story revolves. Typically this is a medium shot that zeroes in on your subject, giving your audience a clear view of what’s happening and allowing them to connect with the subject on a deeper level. Unlike in fictional settings, central action shots in documentaries often capture spontaneous and unrehearsed events, adding a layer of authenticity that heightens audience engagement.

An excellent example is in the documentary “Bowling for Columbine.” During the scene where Michael Moore opens a bank account and, as a result, receives a free firearm, the central action shot focuses on this shocking transaction. This shot underscores the key theme of the film – the widespread availability and acceptance of guns in American society – by capturing a real-life example of this issue. The authenticity of this central action shot, capturing an actual event rather than a scripted scene, drives home the film’s message and impact on the audience.


Reaction Shot

Unlike scripted responses in fiction, documentary reaction shots offer an honest glimpse into the subject’s emotions. These shots can provide insight into the depth of the individual’s feelings, making the audience relate more profoundly to the subject.

Like those in “Free Solo,” reaction shots in documentaries offer raw, unfiltered emotional responses from the subjects. Seeing Alex Honnold’s genuine fear and relief as he climbs El Capitan without safety gear (around the 6:40 mark in the example below) provides a visceral understanding of his experiences. The audience witnesses his reactions in real-time, sharing his trepidation and eventual triumph, intensifying their emotional connection with him. This is a key advantage of documentaries over fictional narratives; genuine human emotion is presented in its most honest form, and it’s impossible to script.


Secondary Establishing Shot

These shots provide additional context and help convey your location’s atmosphere without focusing on the central action. Use secondary establishing shots to transition between scenes, create visual interest, or provide additional information about the setting. Secondary establishing shots in a documentary help portray the complexity and dynamism of the subject’s world by presenting the broader context in which the main action occurs.

The documentary “March of the Penguins” uses secondary establishing shots to deliver a more profound message about the challenging life of Emperor penguins in Antarctica. These shots, showing vast, frigid landscapes and relentless blizzards, add an extra layer of information to the narrative, emphasizing the harshness of the penguins’ environment. The audience can comprehend the adversities these animals face daily, making their survival and journey even more admirable. This technique is unique to documentaries, as it incorporates the actual environment to enhance the narrative instead of using contrived or controlled settings as in fiction.

Lead-In or Segue Shot

Lead-In shots in a documentary guide the viewer through the narrative, ensuring the story’s continuity while showcasing essential aspects that may not be central to the main action.

In the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” segue shots of Fred Rogers’ neighborhood maintain narrative continuity while subtly conveying the inviting atmosphere of his TV show. Viewers are led from one scene to another through visuals of friendly, safe neighborhoods, mirroring the values of respect and kindness Mr. Rogers aimed to instill through his program. These transitions are not merely functional but also bear narrative significance, contributing to the story’s tone and mood. Documentaries leverage this technique to weave together various story elements into a coherent, impactful narrative.

Detail Shot

Detail shots in a documentary help to create a tangible and intimate connection to the subject matter. By focusing on specific elements within a scene, these shots provide insights that viewers might otherwise overlook.

In “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” detail shots of the sushi-making process provide viewers with an intimate look into the world of sushi master Jiro Ono. The precision and meticulousness required to create each piece of sushi, from cutting the fish to shaping the rice, are made evident through these shots. Often overlooked in everyday observation, these details reveal the immense dedication and craftsmanship behind each sushi plate, enhancing the viewer’s appreciation for Jiro’s work. This approach is a strength of documentary filmmaking, capturing reality’s details and presenting them in a way that underscores their significance.


Putting It All Together

Now that we’ve explored these six essential shot types for documentary storytelling, it’s time to put them into practice. By incorporating a combination of establishing shots, central action shots, reaction shots, secondary establishing shots, lead-in or segue shots, and detail shots, you’ll be well on your way to creating a visually engaging and emotionally impactful documentary.

Remember that each scene or sequence may require a different mix of these shot types, depending on the subject matter, location, and desired effect. Be flexible and adapt your shooting style to the needs of your story.


Practical Tips for Success


    • Plan ahead: Before you start shooting, create a shot list that includes the six essential shot types and any additional shots you think might be helpful in your documentary. This preparation will help ensure you don’t miss any crucial moments and make your editing process smoother.
    • Get to know your subject: Spend time with the people and places you’re documenting to better understand their stories and the context of their lives. This intimacy will help you capture more genuine and meaningful footage.
    • Be patient: Some of the best moments in documentaries happen spontaneously, so be prepared to wait for the right moment to capture that perfect shot. Keep your camera ready, and don’t be afraid to shoot more footage than you think you’ll need.
    • Collaborate with your team: If you’re working with a group, ensure everyone understands the shot types and the overall vision for the documentary. Communication is vital to creating a cohesive and visually stunning final product.
      Embrace flexibility: While planning and clearly defining what you want to capture is essential, be open to adjusting your plans as needed. Sometimes the best shots are the ones you didn’t plan for.
    • Keep learning and growing: As with any creative endeavor, practice makes perfect. Continuously study the work of other documentary filmmakers, experiment with new techniques, and learn from your experiences to continually improve your skills.

Creating a visually engaging and emotionally compelling documentary requires careful planning, understanding your subject matter, and mastering essential shot types. By incorporating these six shots and following the practical tips for success, you’ll be well on your way to producing a documentary that resonates with audiences and showcases your unique storytelling abilities.

So, grab your camera, start planning, and let your creativity flow as you embark on your next documentary filmmaking adventure. Happy shooting!