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Critics and movie buffs alike have rightfully recognizing 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. These cameras, microphones, and mounts offer a mixture of flexibility and quality.
Making documentary films can be frantic, to say the least, so if you need equipment at a moment’s notice, many of these items below are available on Amazon Prime. Prime members get free two-day shipping – which means your dream project won’t be delayed by slow delivery times. You can sign up for a free 30-day trial to Amazon Prime (the subscription costs just $12.99 a month after the trial ends). Aside from shipping perks, a Prime membership comes with access to tens of thousands of books to research your next project, and Prime Video, the huge film and TV library where you can watch all of your favorite documentaries.
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, journalists 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.
Documentary filmmakers often rely on camcorders for their ease of use and extremely long battery life. 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.
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 $1500 is a purchase you can’t afford to not make.
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.
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.