Making Documentaries: a step-by-step guide to filming like a pro

Award-winning documentary filmmaker and Canon Ambassador Joel Santos shares his top tips for video storytelling.
Canon Ambassador Joel Santos crouched among the ferns in a forest with his Canon camera.

Everyone has a story to tell – and what better way to share yours than with a high-quality video documentary, shot using a Canon EOS camera? Canon Ambassador and award-winning filmmaker and photographer Joel Santos is passionate about discovering fascinating stories and bringing them to life on screen. He has shot and produced more than 50 television documentaries, set both in his native Portugal and across the globe. Here, he shares his top tips for enthusiasts wanting to make their own documentaries.

1. Find your story

Canon Ambassador Joel Santos standing below a large tree with his Canon camera.

Portuguese travel photographer and documentary filmmaker Joel Santos has a knack for capturing compelling imagery and video.

The easiest way to begin creating documentaries is to tell a story that's close to home, and close to your heart. Joel suggests chatting with people in your wider family and asking them about their past. "If it's an older person, perhaps ask them about what things were like when they were your age, or about an adventure that they had," he says. "It could also be someone that lives in a different urban or rural context than you." Given that life has been so different for most of us over the last year or so, that could make a poignant story.

"You have to find something that sparks your curiosity and makes you want to find out more. When that happens, there's a story to tell. I really like the idea of creating documentaries based on the experiences of friends and family. Some people say that documentaries shouldn't be personal, but I say: why not? If you have a strong view about something that really resonates with who you are, there's a documentary to be made there."

2. Location, location, location

A camera mounted on the front of a car, showing a small road through a forest.

Joel is passionate about good storytelling in video. "Find an original story and perspective, and then let your passion drive you, always seeking to learn more and to improve on every shot you take," he says. Here, Joel's top tips for video also give an insight into what a day in the life of a documentarian is like.

Location and lighting are cornerstones for any documentary, but you don't need an exotic location to tell a story. "It's not about having a picturesque backdrop, because every story is fundamentally linked to where it plays out," Joel explains. "You're shooting a documentary, so it's more important to stay true to where the story is taking place, whether it be somebody's home or an office block.

"Just as with stills photography, you have to take care of where everything is positioned within the scene," he adds. "Are the colours right? Is there a telegraph pole coming out of someone's head? Even though you're not actively staging the story when shooting documentaries, you must be able to compose the shots in the best possible way. When you put all the elements in the scene together, are they effective?"

For Joel, light is the most important raw material you need to be aware of when shooting video, just as much as when taking stills. "It's the light that's going to shape your subject, your location and everything that comes of them. Everything funnels into the magic rectangle of a screen that pulls viewers in and makes them want to watch it."

But remember that you can paint vivid pictures wherever you are, with whatever kit you have. It's fine to use natural light, to backlight a subject or to create deep shadows for an added sense of mystery.

3. Visualise your storyline

A woman shooting with a Canon camera, crouched among some ferns in a forest.

Having a clear idea and knowing what your storyline is going to be is vital when filmmaking, and can be planned out in advance.

The key to effective storytelling is to always consider how individual shots will work together later down the line. This is something that is easy to practise, even if you're just starting out shooting documentaries at home. "You need an establishing shot that reveals where the action is going to play out," says Joel. "Then you have to present the subject – the face shot, half-body, full-body, the person in the context of their surroundings, moving on to action and reaction showing the arms and gestures. While shooting, think about how different scenes will transition into each other when you go on to edit everything together. It's also a must to keep continuity in mind – you might end up taking different shots that will follow sequentially in the documentary."

"Every good story needs a climax. A documentary is strongest when it finishes with a solution that gives the viewer the feeling of being rewarded. It's different to making videos for Instagram. You're not making a documentary to get 'likes'. You need to have a journalist's spirit, and stay true to the subject and location."

4. Create something unique

A woman standing in a forest shooting upwards towards the tree canopy.

Experiment with different techniques when starting out with video and try and make something unique to you.

A shot taken directly upwards, showing tree branches filing the sky.

Really get to know your subject and make what's interesting about them shine.

Joel believes that if you're a documentary maker starting out, you need to be as original as possible. "Even when a story itself is not original, the way that you perceive it will be unique. Concentrate on that and just be yourself, rather than trying to emulate somebody else's style.

"It also pays to dig deep. Is there something special about the person you're filming? It's that kind of element which makes for a standout documentary, so the key is to be open, engage with your subject and find what is fascinating about them."

5. Life in motion

A woman walking between mossy rocks in a forest.

Make sure to shoot from different angles to make your final video more dynamic.

For Joel, movement is also a vital tool. "If it's a static scene with no movement, the viewer will quickly lose interest. You need to convey a sense of progression, the feeling that time is passing and moving forward.

"It's always good to play the angles. Make the most of your imagination. Don't be rooted to one spot but feel free to move around while you're shooting," he continues. "If two people are in a scene, changing your shooting position can help you capture the action and reaction, and reinforce the differences in perspective." Most recent Canon cameras have highly effective electronic image stabilisation for video capture, so you don't need to use a tripod to eliminate distracting camera shake.

The Canon EOS R5 and EOS R6 have sensor stabilisation that helps counterbalance any movement within the camera. Zoom lenses can also be a powerful tool for changing the focal length while shooting, as well as lenses with built-in IS and STM that allow you to focus during video recording in near silence.

"Frequently changing your shooting position can add a sense of rhythm," adds Joel. "Without changes in viewing angles, a documentary won't be as rich. Filming is like cooking – sometimes you have to mix things up."

6. Make the most of your Canon camera

"Canon cameras like my Canon EOS R5, as well as more affordable models like the Canon EOS M50 Mark II, Canon EOS 850D and Canon EOS RP, have Dual Pixel CMOS autofocus, which works really well for video capture, as well as enabling you to transition smoothly from one area in the frame to another. They also offer Movie Servo AF, which can continuously track moving subjects within the frame."

However, Joel stresses that every technique you use should improve the story. "Never use a technique just for the sake of it. If you want to draw the viewer's attention to a specific thing, focus is one of the things that matters most. For a fisherman, you might want to focus on a fish in a net, then transition the focus point to the fisherman's face to show the reaction."

When you're starting out, Joel recommends mastering the use of aperture to create different cinematic effects. "Along with light and exposure, aperture controls depth of field. Wide apertures [low f-numbers] can help you to focus the attention on the subject by throwing the background out of focus," he explains. "Narrow apertures give you a large depth of field, for when you want to keep near and far objects simultaneously sharp.

"When it comes to shutter speeds, the ideal is usually the inverse of twice the frame rate. So if you're shooting at 25 frames per second, it's best to aim for a shutter speed of 1/50. If you use a faster shutter speed, moving objects tend to look jittery rather than moving smoothly. If you're shooting in bright light you will need to enable a sufficiently slow shutter speed with the aperture you want to use, fit an ND (neutral density) filter to the lens. In dark conditions, using a slower shutter speed can work well, as it enhances the motion blur and avoids the need to use a high ISO setting that can degrade the image quality."

Joel's techniques in action

  • An imaginative opening shot will capture attention as well as rooting your documentary in its location. Here, Joel mounts a camera on the bonnet of his car and uses the free Canon Camera Connect app on his smartphone as a remote controller, leading the viewer into the scene. The next step is to introduce the key person who is the subject of the film, bringing them into the location.
  • When you're filming people in motion, face-detection autofocus is great for keeping them sharp as they move around and making sure that they're the main subject of attention. Use a fairly fast Servo AF speed to keep pace with the movement. The opposite applies when you're changing the focus point from one area of a scene to another, which can be emphasised by using a narrow depth of field, blurring the background. This time, switch to a slower Servo AF speed to create a smooth transition.
  • Don't assume because you're shooting video, there will automatically be movement in the shot. To keep the viewer's interest when filming static objects, create movement by tilting or panning. You can even combine tilting and panning to create an interesting rotary movement effect.
  • In high-contrast scenes there's a danger of bright highlights washing out to white, and dark shadows dropping out to black. Use Canon's HDR (High Dynamic Range) shooting option for a more balanced overall exposure, reigning in highlights and boosting shadows. Another good trick is to use a circular polarising filter. This can cut unwanted reflections and boost colour, while the reduction in light transmission through the filter enables the use of wider apertures and avoids the need for overly fast shutter speeds.
  • And finally, don't limit yourself to talking heads. Just like any other film, a good documentary should have pace and rhythm. Change your position to shoot from different angles, or make the most of Canon's Movie Digital IS to minimise camera-shake in handheld shots. This gives you the freedom to move around when you're shooting, instead of being rooted to one spot. And it doesn't stop with shooting – creative editing and the way you cut between shots can add an extra layer of drama and interest.

Two Chinese cormorant fishermen sat in long boats with lanterns.

To see Joel's video tips in action, check out this story* on shooting fishermen in low light. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens at 24mm, 1/320 sec, f/2.8 and ISO3200. © Joel Santos

Keep these tips in mind next time you want to tell a compelling story with your camera, and you'll be a master documentary maker in no time.

*Available in selected languages only.

Written by Matthew Richards

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