How to Preserve a Subject’s Privacy While filming a Documentary

When shooting a scene in which you, or the subject wants to appear as anonymous source it is important to allow for privacy while preserving their credibility as a source. These techniques can be used in a variety of ways to create beautiful and interesting scene effects that meet both of these goals.

Experiment with these techniques to find the best method to capture the emotion of the subject while creating beautiful scenes using anonymous commentary. Remember: If the obscured subject’s commentary hides the personality of the subject or yourself becomes boring, the shot does not work…

Backlighting the Subject- This is the simplest method to obscure a users face and and preserve their privacy. This can be done in a variety of ways, from shooting the user in front of a window in bright daylight and using causing the automatic shutter on your smartphone or camera to close darkening the subject and lighting the window. When shooting indoors the filmmaker can use bright lights placed directly behind the user to create this effect.

Screening the subject- Placing a transparent screen or sheet between the camera and the subject while using a backlight. This technique is a bit more complex as the filmmaker must experiment more with lighting to compensate for screen density (opacity). A variety of artistic effects can be created by playing with stretched vs. draped sheets, screens, veils or backdrops when using this technique. Be sure to have a frame to hang your props from and be sure to have plenty of clothes pins or clamps to hold your screen. And strong enough lighting to create a highly defined silhouette or shadow that still can elicit emotion from your viewer. Best results will come with white or neutral colored screens but be sure to experiment with the kinds of interesting and beautiful effects can be created with different materials and different angles of the subject against them.

Shooting the Subject’s Shadow – This is the reverse of “Screening the Subject” instead of shooting the subject through a screen you are shooting the subjects shadow in front of a neutral screen or light, neutral colored wall.

Shooting a Subject from Behind- this method can be challenging because the subject is shot from what is called the “reverse angle”.

Shooting Close-ups of the Subject’s Body and hands- this is accomplished by shooting tight close-up of hands, feet and ideally alternating between them and the obscured shot of the subject.

Shooting medium shots of a partial profile (not showing the face but the profile), showing shoulders (a modified “Over-the-shoulder” shot), arms and hands from behind. The method preserves powerful emotion that can be elicited from hand gestures.

Use a POV Shot- shooting recreations of an event, while walking with the smartphone camera in front of you at face level and turning as the head turns to explore a important location, can have a powerful effect on the user. It is so interesting to experiment with having the subject try to create this shot while describing an event or emotional incident to illicit more vivid memories about places or event that are being described for the viewer.

Obscuring the face with digital tools or virtual objects- a variety of app tools or camera settings exist to allow a filmmaker to use digital tools to obscure a user’s face. There are camera effects like pixelization, racking the focus (playing with the focus), adjusting the aperture (when using cameras), to applying virtual digital objects that track the face as the head moves like masks, mustaches, wigs or even a black bar over part of the face (as used in “censored” videos) can be used.

Here are a few tool options to increase the quality and the production value of your scenes.

Optional Tools:
Smartphone Lenses
Smartphone Tripod
Smartphone Stabilizer (for POV)

Top 10 tips for shooting great video with a smartphone

Shooting video with a smartphone is easy. Shooting excellent video that look professional is tough. Here is a “How To” article with a few tips to help you shoot video like the pros no matter what camera you are filming with.

“Rule of Thirds”
A scene or shot should be imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two equally spa​ced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines.and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections. Aligning a subject with these points creates more tension, energy and interest in the composition than simply centering the subject.

“Tracking with a Dolly”
For a low tracking shot try using a wheelchair or skateboard as a cheap set of wheels.

“Slow and Steady”
Take your time and hold your smartphone with both hands, and keep your elbows against (or close to your body) so you can keep your camera steady. It’s super tough to edit shaky footage.

“Don’t forget to tap” (iOS)
The iPhone refocuses when you tap the screen. Tapping on the screen over the subject once before you start shooting will focus the shot on the key subject in your image (it also tweaks exposure and color balance).

“Tap to Adjust the Quality” (iOS)
A tap on the screen determines both the exposure and color balance (as well as focus) for your scene. If the shot is too dark, light, or it is dull colored try tapping and see if the image improves.

“Don’t film like you are using a phone”
Shooting with a smartphone while holding the handset vertically will mess up your film with ugly black bars on each side of the screen. Hold your phone horizontallyto fill the frame with a beautiful 16:9 HD footage. Never shoot video the way you use a phone when making calls or launching apps.

“Pan on an axis”
When shooting with a smartphone pan by keeping the camera horizontal and rotating your wrist, at the waist or spin slowly in place with your feet. Tripods are great, but if you rotate slow and steady, your body can give you a pretty smooth pan.

“Let there be Light!”
Always remember to turn on lights before you shoot to avoid grainy dark footage. Take the time to find a bright location and if outdoors stand between your subject and the sun. High quality video is well lit, but avoid using the LED light on your phone it can make your subjects eyes look creepy.

“You’ve been Framed”
It’s all about your framing, try to shoot your subjects at eye level rather than shooting down on them. Unless you’re making a monster movie, avoid shooting your subject from a low angle. That said, try to shoot female subjects from slightly above their eyeline rather than straight on, some pros feel it enhances their beauty.

“Don’t Shake it up”
The press of the button usually causes a shake at the start and stop of shooting. Remember, when you press the button to start filming and when you hit it again to stop, not to shake camera. Bracing your your elbows against your body can help stabilize your shot and protect against this issue.