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Critics and movie buffs alike have rightfully recognized documentaries as essential contributions to the art of film. The best documentaries can be every bit as riveting as narrative films, even if they cost a fraction of the budget. And representing your subjects honestly, while making a statement about the world at large, is what puts great documentary filmmakers in a class of their own.
Documentary filmmakers often have to prioritize things like portability, battery life, weight, and discreetness when selecting equipment. At the same time, a great filmmaker will never want to sacrifice picture or sound quality. With these considerations in mind, we’ve gathered some of the best equipment for documentary filmmakers including cameras, microphones, and mounts that offer a blend of flexibility and quality.
All film sets have long days, but on Hollywood productions, much of that time is spent setting up shots and making adjustments. A day of documentary film shooting might last just as long, but the camera will be rolling most of the time. Because you are documenting life as it happens, you’re forced to make certain sacrifices to ensure the camera stays rolling.
Although the list below is primarily geared towards on-location documentaries, content creators will also find a lot of this equipment very useful. If you’re using moving images to tell stories, these items will be super helpful. See below for must-have gear for documentary filmmakers, and for more shopping suggestions read our list of best cameras for all budgets and best camera accessories.
If camcorders are not for you, a good, old-fashioned DSLR will more than suffice. The Panasonic Lumix DC-GH5 is one of the most portable cameras on the market, making it easy to take on even the most remote documentary shoots. It’s small enough that you might not notice it was a film camera, and journalists will appreciate its excellent still photo capability. But it can shoot 4K at 60FPS without any cropping and contains in-body stabilization, making it an excellent choice for filmmakers. All of that for less than $1,500 is a purchase you can’t afford to not make.
It’s always good to invest in a tripod. Perfect for shooting on location, the Magnus TR-13 Travel Tripod with Dual-Action Ball Head includes an Arca-type-compatible quick release plate, and a head that has a separate locking knob for the ball, and one for the 360-degree pan. There’s also a cut notch on the side of the ball head that allows you to place a camera at a 90-degree angle. The tripod has foldable legs and supports DSLR, mirrorless, and point and shoot cameras weighing up to 13.2 pounds.
Headphones are essential to all kinds of filmmaking. Sony’s MDR-7506 headphones are among the best, budget-friendly options for filmmakers. Engineered for a combination of strength, comfort and practicality, the MDR-7506 professional headphones come complete with protective carry pouch and gold-plated UnimatchTM 3.5mm/6.3mm adaptor. These headphones are used daily on everything from film sets to broadcast and recording studios.
Memory cards fall in line with other tiny must-haves that you might just forget. Luckily, it’s easy to stock up on a few of the SanDisk Extreme Pro memory cards. The brand’s most powerful SD UHS-I memory card is perfect for recording 4K UHD video, as well as capturing action shots (shot speeds up to 90MB/s, and UHS Speed Class 3) in stunning high-resolution. Because your pace doesn’t let up after you leave the set, SanDisk Pro delivers up to 170MB/s transfer speeds for a faster postproduction workflow. You might also want to add an external hard drive to your shopping cart, and be sure to check out our list of essentials for video editing.
Of course, you’ll need something to carry all of your gear around. The multifunctional Adventure Bag from Shimoda has easily accessible compartments on the rear and sides. The adjustable torso height makes it suitable for adults of different heights, plus it’s waterproof, sturdy, and can withstand the rain, mud, and a range of camera lenses. For more options, see our list of best camera bags.
At less than a quarter of the cost of more expensive options such as the Lectrosonics ZS-LRLT, these portable microphones are a fantastic bargain while still providing professional quality sound. Sennheiser prioritized portability on these models, and the result is some highly portable, stripped-down gear that records some excellent, omnidirectional sound. Looking for more variety? Check out our roster of best microphones.
If you’re on a tight budget (nobody gets into documentaries for the cash), the Movo Photo WMIC70 is an unbelievable option for recording audio. This wireless lavalier system costs less than the boom pole on many larger productions, but still produces sound that is clear enough to tell high quality, honest stories. By definition, documentary is one of the most accessible genres of filmmaking, so these make a great gift for someone who is just beginning to explore the craft.
Tripods work well for interviews, but when you’re trying to capture history as it happens, you need the flexibility to move with the action. While there are a variety of stabilizers available to filmmakers (check out some of our favorites here), mounting your camera on your shoulder is one of the best options for documentary filmmakers. And during long documentary shoots where you don’t have the luxury of pausing, weight is of the utmost importance. This DSLR shoulder rig kit is one of the lightest options on the market, making it an easy choice for people shooting documentaries. Pick one up today and your joints will thank you.
Documentary filmmakers often rely on camcorders for their ease of use and extremely long battery life. And if you don’t have the luxury of taking long breaks to reset and charge batteries, these are fantastic options. The Sony XDCAM PXW-FS7 is one of the smoothest camcorders you can find, and while it may be outside the budget of some amateur filmmakers, professionals can vouch for the fact that it’s one of the best values on the high-end market. It can shoot 4K at up to 60FPS, and can go quite a bit higher if you add aftermarket accessories. This means you can also use it for non-documentary projects and it’ll more than hold its own. Many filmmakers who use camcorders are happy to sacrifice the “cinematic look” in exchange for increased ease of use, but the incredible resolution on this Sony camera means you never even have to choose between the two.