5 Ways to Shoot Verite

Shooting verite is a documentary filmmaking technique that involves capturing the real essence of a scene without script. A documentary filmmaker may immerse themselves in a community, follow the characters, and make sure that trust is built. It can be a challenging style of filmmaking, but we are sharing 5 ways to help you shoot verite more easily.


1. Have a plan

When you’re shooting verite there can often be a lot of things happening at once, or nothing happening at all. So while you really need to plan for both, I’m more referring to the former with these comments.

By nature, verite kind of assumes that you’ll be following action, and it will most likely be done handheld. In verite, there isn’t really a lot of time for set-ups or even tripods and lights. The whole purpose of verite, is to shoot the truth, right? Shoot as authentically, as possible.

Now, it’s not observational, in that the subject is unaware of the camera. Quite the contrary, in verite, often-times the subject is more than aware of a camera, and may be entirely affected in their actions because of it. However, that doesn’t mean elaborate lighting schemes or dolly camera set ups.

Verite is pretty bare-bones and certainly pretty run and gun, by nature. And so because of this, one wants to do as much research about their subjects and locations as possible. You want to be able to try and familiarize yourself as much as possible with these sorts of things so that you can be ready for anything when cameras start rolling. For the most part you’re just not going to have time to stop action so that you can get in a better position to shoot or so that you can look up a list of questions to ask while you’re following action.

So do as much research as you can before you start rolling cameras. And speaking of rolling…


2. Roll on everything

Verite shooting ratios can tend to be astronomical. But with good reason. You’re following action and recording conversations and events as they are unfolding. And because of this, you don’t want to risk missing anything important, it may be the one and only opportunity to get a particular soundbyte or shot of your subject doing something.

Unless you’re shooting film – which 99 percent of us are not – drive space is relatively inexpensive. So just keep rolling on as much as feels comfortable. Yes, it’s going to be a pain in the butt in the edit room sifting through 100+ hours of footage, but what problem would you rather have as a filmmaker… not enough footage or too much footage? Having more footage just increases your chances of harvesting the gold. So yeah, keep rolling, #doclifer.


3. Be ready to go

Because of the often times run and gun nature of shooting verite, the worst thing that can happen to you as a shooter is either (1) not rolling, which we’ve just addressed (2) missing a moment because you simply weren’t ready. You might have still been putting your camera together, you might have run out of juice and were trying to find another battery, you might have been trying to wire someone’s lav. The point here is that there are steps that you can take to give you the best chance at being there and rolling when a moment happens that you don’t want to miss.

You need to have your camera built at all times. Unlike a standard commercial shoot, you won’t be breaking down camera gear between locations. You’ll most likely keep your camera built for the entire day.

And you should have everything set-up so that it is easily accessible. Unless you have a sound person and someone else assisting you, you may be doing the one-man crew thing. And even if you aren’t, if you’re shooting verite, I would argue that you should still approach your day as if you are a one-man crew.

You should have extra camera batts, extra media cards, a few lenses, maybe a nutrition bar and some water. Have what you need on your person so that you don’t have to go find anything in the middle of a shoot. You want to be able to seamlessly go between lenses, cards, batts without substantial down time and without interrupting any action.

The last thing I’ll recommend about being ready to go is that before you start your day, you’ll want to have your camera on a shoulder mount or at least a monopod that you can run around with without having to constantly remove it. I’m not a fan of the monopod, but some people really like it. I find them clunky and I like my hands on the camera at all times. But it’s a matter of taste, I suppose.

Remember, it’s verite. So you want to be ready and following action at all times. So do everything you can to be prepared for whatever may take place during the day. Be ready to go.


4. Anticipate conversations

A lot of the time you’ll be shooting interactions between your main subject (or subjects) and other people. So moving with the flow, trying to naturally follow action and conversations will be a pretty important part of your shooting. It could, in fact, end up being 75 percent or even higher of what and how you’ll be shooting. So you’re going to not only need a steady hand, but you’re going to need to be able to follow conversations as unobtrusively as possible. And I’ve got a couple of suggestions for doing so.

If you’ve got a shoulder mount for your camera that is going to help take some weight off of your camera set up, certainly. But if not balanced properly, it can also create more weight in the front or back, and then you’ll be fighting that all day. So make sure if you’re using a shoulder mount that you’ve got it properly balanced before you start.

Now, don’t assume that if you’re shooting verite that you have to be using a shoulder mount. Yes, it may help quite a bit, but there are some ways in which you can simply shoot hand held and still get a pretty effective, smooth pan between people having a conversation. Some camera bodies are better than others for this. But the idea here is to hold the camera tight to your own body, at times nearly cradling the camera, as you pan back and forth. This works great when people are seated, but maybe not as great when they’re standing, especially if they’re pretty tall. Then you’ll constantly be tilting up to catch their faces. That’s going to give a very particular feel to your shot, so just be aware of that.

When you’re following conversations, what you want to avoid is moving your camera too quickly between people. This can be very jarring for the viewer, and they end up feeling anxious and trying to catch what people are saying, just as you the shooter clearly are! So what’s critical here is that you must become a good listener when you’re shooting conversations. If you can follow what’s being said, you’ll have a better chance at anticipating replies or certain reactions. And when you’re not always able to get to that other person talking immediately, that’s okay.

Remember, don’t quickly swing over to them – unless you have a very specific reason for doing this. Just kind of casually pan over to that person when you feel it makes sense. Keep in mind, sometimes hanging on a person who is not talking can be just as effective, because you’re getting their reaction to what’s being said.

But above all else here, the simplest thing to keep in mind is to listen, listen, listen. If you can become part of the conversation, your natural shooter’s intuition will take over and you’ll get some good shots.


5. Use a Deep Depth of Field

Now the last tip that I’ll give you for shooting verite will also help you when you’re shooting conversations and it’ll also help you to get a greater amount of action in your frame in focus. And that’s to shoot with a deeper depth of field.

The most obvious way to do this is to shoot with a wider angle lens. My go-to – and I’ve heard a lot of my more seasoned #doclifers like to do the same – is to use a 17-55mm lens when I’m going to be shooting verite. This gives me some decent focal range and also allows me to go wide when I need to get more in my frame and I’m having a little trouble getting all that I want in focus.

And remember, the more you stop down – that is, the smaller your aperture – the deeper your depth of field. So you do always have that in your bag of tricks as well, if you’re struggling to keep things in focus. Just keep in mind, the more you stop down the less light on your subjects, so you may need to get some direct light on them or you may need to increase your ISOs.

And, of course, the more you do that, the more risk of a grainier shot you have. Of course, it you’re outdoors in broad daylight, you’ll have no issues at all.

Are you shooting a film verite? How has the experience been so far? Any tips or lessons learned along the way? Share them in the comments below.


Host and TDL Founder, Chris G Parkhurst

Chris is a documentary filmmaker and the founder and host of The Documentary Life, a platform which aims to inform and inspire documentary filmmakers from around the globe.

Leave a Comment