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  • Writer's pictureNicklas Karpaty, FSF

Beyond the Frame: How Documentaries Made Me a Stronger Fiction Cinematographer (and Storyteller)

Updated: Mar 19

For the past 20 years, I've traveled continents as a Director of Photography (DoP), starting my storytelling journey through documentaries. From serene landscapes to intimate emotional moments, this journey has immersed me in diverse cultures and honed my creative vision. Today, I want to share how this documentary experience has shaped me into a stronger fiction cinematographer, ready to tackle any narrative project.


Image by Cinematographer Nicklas Karpaty
Slumdog Dhaka

Adaptability: The Heart of Documentary Filmmaking

Documentaries thrive on authenticity and embrace the unexpected and vulnerability in the moment. A few years ago, we were filming a documentary about criminal minds at a juvenile prison in Latvia. You could feel and see the agony of the young boys, hardened by their circumstances, the horrors of prison life. In that instant, you need to adapt, capturing the honesty and vulnerability in their eyes with your camera. This constant unscripted sensitivity, the need to adapt on the fly, to capture beauty in fleeting moments, hones a unique set of skills invaluable for fiction cinematographers.



Thinking Fast on the Fly in New Places

Documentaries often take you to places you've never been before. This means you need to be flexible and figure things out quickly. For example, while filming "The Queen and I" about Farah Pahlavi, the former queen of Iran, I traveled to all sorts of new shooting locations like Paris, Washington D.C and Cairo. One morning in Cairo, I was filming from a hotel window and caught a plane flying by with my frame landing on an Egyptian flag on a nearby building. Big mistake! Turns out, it was a military base! We had some visitors we weren't expecting, and they took our camera! Luckily, I had already given the footage to the director in another room, so we were able to save it all. (Always have backups!) This story, along with many others, shows why being resourceful and adaptable is so important for documentary filmmakers. These same skills are super helpful when you're working on fiction films too, especially when things don't go according to plan or you have a tight budget.



Mastering the Art of Visual Storytelling

Documentaries are about weaving a narrative from real-life experiences. You learn to anticipate moments, capture raw emotions, and edit them together to guide the audience through a compelling story. This constant process of framing shots, composing visuals, and editing in your mind hones your storytelling instincts far beyond the technical aspects of cinematography. As a fiction DP, these skills allow me to collaborate effectively with directors to translate their vision into captivating visuals.


Emotional Storytelling: Capturing the Unsaid

Documentaries are about weaving narratives from real-life experiences. You learn to anticipate moments, capture raw emotions, and edit them together to guide the audience through a compelling story. This process of framing shots, composing visuals, and editing in your mind hones your storytelling instincts far beyond the technical aspects of cinematography.


Different documentary film shoots around the globe


Emotional Interview: During shooting of a documentary scene in Dhaka, our subject slowly became emotional. Unable to understand her language, Bangla, I relied on reading body language and cultural sensitivity. I adjusted my camera framing and movement to focus on her expressions, letting the visuals also be part of telling the story of emotions. This experience exemplifies how documentaries hone your ability to capture subtle emotional nuances, a skill directly applicable to fiction filmmaking. Documentaries train you to become a master of unspoken languages.

Through documentaries, you develop the ability to capture the emotional tapestry of a scene through subtle visual cues. This translates beautifully to fiction filmmaking, where you can use similar techniques to elicit powerful responses from your actors.

Image by cinematographer Nicklas Karpaty
Sabina in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Beyond the Technical: A Well-Rounded Filmmaker

Documentary filmmaking isn't just about capturing visuals; it's about connecting with people. It allows you to step outside your comfort zone, understand different cultures, and develop empathy for diverse perspectives. Each project has enriched my life, not only as a cinematographer but as a human being.


Let's Tell Your Story Together! Ready to create a visually stunning narrative that solves problems and elevates your next project? My extensive documentary and fiction experience has equipped me with the resourcefulness needed to navigate any challenge on set, while my passion for visual storytelling ensures your story resonates with your audience. Let's discuss how I, as your cinematographer, can bring your vision to life. Contact me today to chat about your next film!


Image by Cinematographer Nicklas Karpaty, FSF
Dhaka boys

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