04 Oct 2016

I want to make an "arty" documentary film. I can choose any camera. But which one?

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How do I choose a camera? How do I choose a camera? David Shapton


RedShark Replay: How do you make the right choice from the plethora of good cameras available today? Especially if you want to make a film on your own.

I want to make a documentary film, and I need to choose a camera and all the rest of the kit. Right now, I don't know what to choose, and so I'm going talk you though my initial thought processes, and, finally, ask for suggestions from RedShark readers.

I don't want to just shoot and edit the film. I want to write the music for it as well. I've always been a composer but have had very little time to do this over the last few, well, decades. For a year or so I made a living from composing and I even wrote a ballet score! For me, it's time to get back to work and get those creative juices flowing again.

First, let's talk about the film I want to shoot.

It's a documentary about the UK city of Bradford. I have being going there for at least twenty five years and lived there for several. I still have a house in the city (in Shipley, just on the outskirts), but don't live in it now. It’s a fascinating place with a colourful heritage. It has had some issues but I love it and want to be able to capture a flavour of it. It’s not meant to be a hard-hitting investigation but more of a “tone poem” where images and impressions are mixed with sounds and music. Sort of half documentary and half art film.

Bradford is almost uniquely photogenic, with its fine old buildings and surrounding hilly landscape. Wherever you go, and wherever you look, there's a great view. 

Bradford even has the distinction of being the worlds first UNESCO City of Film. It's also the home of the National Media Museum, part of the UK's Science Museum Group.

Crucially, it will just be me making this film. I know what I want to achieve, and I know how this stuff works, but I spend most of my time writing, not making films. So my priorities are different to those of someone who makes films all the time. I will have some assistance but let’s assume that it has to work with just one person operating it - and that includes the sound.

I do have a gut feeling for how I want to do it but I also know that others may be able to suggest a better way.

So, imagine I could have any camera I wanted...

First, let’s talk about big, expensive cameras. Sony F65s and ARRI Alexas. Well, I love both of them. The F65 has an awesomely high resolution and a very, very clean image - so much so that it is detailed enough to capture every nuance of a characterful lens.

If I had a crew, I may well chose the F65, but the fact is that I don’t have a DIT (Digital Imaging Technician), nor the time to deal with a relatively complex and demanding workflow. What’s more, it’s a big, heavy camera - which you'd expect -needing a strong, sturdy support. It may well be suitable for a one-person operation, but not this person, much as I would love to use it.

The Alexa? Well, this is the camera that has taught us that saturation, contrast, and the overall “look” of a camera are more important, perhaps, than the ultimate resolution. And I would love to use one of these, with a suitable set of Cooke Primes, for a jaw-dropping look and feel. But, again, I don’t think I could do justice to this combination without a lot of help.

Panasonic’s new Varicam seems promising, but I don’t have enough personal experience of that, and the same applies to JVC’s nice-looking 4K large sensor camera. I am open to persuasion with these.

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David Shapton

David Shapton was the Editor In Chief of RedShark Publications from 2012 to 2020. He is now a Managing Partner and Content Architect at Zazil: a UK,  Boston and New York based integrated PR and Content Marketing agency. www.zazilmediagroup.com

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