As counterintuitive as it may seem, hearing is just as important as seeing for the documentary cameraman. While you are shooting, every bit of information about what is going on outside the frame comes to you through your ears. It may seem odd to admit, but it is the rare cameraman who really hears what the subject of his/her close-up is saying. And I don’t mean just hearing. I mean thoughtful listening. You are shooting a conversation between two people. Is the subject that is speaking about to finish? Has the person said something that is going to make the other subject react? Does the listener change her breathing rate? It is time to pan from one to the other? Is the conversation getting more general? It may be time to drop back for a wide shot.

"Valentino: The Last Emperor"
"Valentino: The Last Emperor"

While shooting “Valentino: The Last Emperor,” I was filming in the limousine with Valentino, the great designer, and his partner, Giancarlo Giacometti, as they left the couture show in Rome that was the finale of his career. I only understand a little Italian, but I did understand that Valentino asked Giancarlo, “How did I do?” I panned. The next tone of voice told me everything, though I didn’t understand the idiom at the time. What Valentino’s partner said was, “If you want to know the truth… you are too tan.” I swung back to catch the furious response. (In addition to learning how to listen, it’s good to know a few words in a lot of languages.)

Even in an interview, when there is a great temptation for the cameraman to zone out, the subject is going to tell you, by word or tone, when to go close, when to widen your shot. There is nothing like being in the close-up for the moment when the unexpected tear appears… It is our job to expect it.

Seize the moment.

The hard and unforgiving truth about documentary photography is that the odds are against anything really good happening twice. So we must get it the first time. If it does happen twice, we should be filming it both times, with different frames. Sometimes this means taking risks or pushing limits. It can take a career to learn when to push and when to step back. In a combat situation, one’s life can be in the balance. In less lethal environments, one’s ability to continue filming may be at risk.

When I was filming David Siegel, the billionaire father of the family of “Queen of Versailles,” we were prohibited from filming in his home office while he was there. The financial straits of his businesses more and more depressed him. His room was his refuge. He would retreat there, surrounded by boxes of business papers, going over them while Fox News played on the huge TV screen.

"The Queen Of Versailles"
"The Queen Of Versailles"

It had been a particularly tense day for David, followed by a tense evening with his wife and children. Lauren Greenfield, the director, ventured in to talk to him. Since he was facing away from the door, I crept behind him and filmed him from behind as he talked to her. Her questions became more probing, turning into an interview. He began to answer them openly. As he began to discuss whether he might lose everything, I moved quickly, but as smoothly as I could, to stand next to Lauren. There he was, lit by the one lamp in the room, speaking his heart. Was he going to be furious that I was in his office filming him? Would he kick us out, as he had done before when we walked in, blowing the moment? Would we rupture our relationship by invading his inner sanctum?

I made a bet that he was too involved in unburdening himself to worry about me. I thought we had a good chance… and we did. We got one of the key moments in the film.


The most general mistake made by my students at the Graduate Program in Social Documentary at the School of Visual Arts is hesitancy — hesitancy in where to point the camera, what their frame size and composition should be. A student is filming a demonstration by Occupy Wall Street. Rather than imagining the frame that she wants to compose and then turning on the camera and holding the shot, she equivocates. She adjusts the frame, or searches around for the right composition while filming. When she finds it, she doesn’t hold it long enough to make a good cut. Find your frame and hold it.

Know what is going on.

The three points above are hollow if you don’t understand the action of the documentary scene you are filming. This may seem obvious, but it takes a lot of thought, and discussion with the director, before you turn on the camera so you understand how the scene that you are shooting fits into the concept of the film.

While filming the upcoming “Koch,” I caught former Mayor of New York Ed Koch walking through an election-eve party. He is a major celebrity to his fellow Democrats, and homage is paid as he passes the great and small, flesh is pressed. But the film knows that he is basically alone, a lonely man. The director, Neil Barsky, has talked to me about this, thus I shoot in a way to emphasize his singularity, his lack of deep connection to other people at the various parties through which he passes. At the end of the night, he walks by himself down the corridor to his apartment, a bent old politician. Your photography can be strong and full of meaning or merely coverage, based on understanding the action and where it fits into the film.

If you use my suggestions, I can’t guarantee that you will succeed. There is a whole world of things to learn, and it takes about as long to become a good cinematographer as it does to become a good surgeon. (The competition is worse, too.) However, I can assure you that they will make your work better. We documentary cinematographers have chosen a job that is among the best in the world.

Listen! Seize the moment! Commit! Know what is going on!

And always improvise.