Wildlife photography & filmmaking
Just like my ‘current projects’ page, I’m afraid this page is probably getting a little out of date and I promise to update soon but in the meantime it might still be of interest (lets face it, the tech side of the industry is changing so fast that even if I tried it would still be out of date in 5 minutes):
Photography is the natural companion for the professional zoologist and amateur naturalist alike. Photography and film are, for me, the perfect melding of accurate note keeping and an artistic expression. Capturing subtle expressions of nature in a still or the choreography of the natural world in the way that animals move in an environment in which they are utterly aware and absolute masters is a wonderful reward in itself.
Camera-wise we use whatever is needed for the job but are pretty familiar with both Red and Sony cameras and have a special soft sport for the Sony FS7, it’s just such a versatile and ergonomic camera. It’s now our main kit camera. As such we have lenses ranging from 18mm to 2760mm (in 35mm equivalence) using largely Canon L series lenses. The camera is also able to use Zeiss ZE and CP cine lenses and we are adding the 4K camera as soon as it’s available. We also fly drones like everyone else. We’ve worked with big octacopters and are just as happy throwing familiar DJI drones about. Used with care and careful shot planning they can provide some remarkable results.
The stills equipment I use is all Canon EOS digital. I have a 5D and 6D body and my three primary stills lenses are a 17-40 mm f4 L series zoom, a 100 mm f2.8 macro, 70-300mm f2.8 L IS and a 300mm f4 L series IS lens. In reserve and for specific jobs I have a 400mm f5.6 L series lens, an MP-E65 macro lens, large variety of flashes and a macro twin flash. Our little speciality is working with a rigged 15mm T4 1:1 macro lens. It’s like a scope lens but without the resolution loss.
I also have a range of other lenses used for filming motion picture. I have experience shooting on the lovely Canon c300 and the remarkable Sony FS700 (now able to record 4K externally) which is stunningly handy for wildlife and my style of cinematography as it has wonderful over-cranking abilities. They both feel so light and flexible compared to the s16mm Arri HSR that was my original workhorse, but I do miss the whir of film passing through the gate whilst composing a shot through a graticule that was as old as me.
I’ve had a few messages asking how to go about making short wildlife films using some of the amazingly cheap HD DSLRs now available. If you want to make wildlife films, there has never been a time when it has been easier for anybody to do so than now. Every cell phone let alone digital camera shoots HD video these days, you can edit it with an ease that would have made an editor two decades ago weep, and you have an audience of millions waiting for your little film on vimeo or youtube. The basic principles of cinematography are the same as photography but with the added dimensions of shot and sequence choreography, and in most cases audio. The internet is a wonderful source of instruction and inspiration so read all you can, watch lots of good films and think about the narrative qualities that hold your attention, the sequence structure and choreography that you like and dislike and the audio. Audio can easily be overlooked but is as important to the finished film as the images and the editing. A good film is a joy to listen to as well as watch. Indeed, a good learning technique is to take a film you really like and then just listen to it. Then watch it with the sound off. Make notes, think about how the way it’s put together helps tell the story. Audio recording can often be the Achilles heel of modern video cameras so consider a little external recorder. Companies like Tascam do some high quality yet affordable units. Basic editing can now be done on any computer either mac or pc without any special software, imovie or windows movie maker are both excellent and extremely simple to master. Once you find their limits perhaps you’ll look to other packages such as Adobe Premier Pro, there are many others. Most importantly, conceive a story, consider how you would tell that story visually and go film it. Set yourself targets, one short film a month. You’ll be amazed by how quickly your little films will go from looking clunky and loose to being really quite professional.
As for filming you’ll need to develop your own style but for natural history or documentary there are some simple guidelines to follow:
1. put your camera on a tripod or other steady surface (little beanbags can be great too for low-down work)
2. learn what ‘crossing the line’ is and don’t do it!
3. try and capture your subject entering the frame and leaving it in nice steady takes (try editing a sequence without that and you’ll find yourself challenged)
4. get your cutaway (often macro shots of the main subject or the immediate environment) and establishing shots (medium-wide landscape/environment shots) whilst the light matches your main sequence.
5. love filming! I love it and every take I shoot I find a creative challenge resulting in either a reward or a learning experience or if you’re lucky, both.
I was very lucky to get involved with wildlife film making at an early age. Some wonderful film makers and cinematographers like Paul and Gracie Atkins were incredibly generous with time and instruction, highly skilled specialist cinematographers like Doug Allen and Mike Potts made the time to help and encourage me and i remain very grateful. It all started with work as a science adviser to the BBC Natural History Unit whilst finishing off my PhD fieldwork in the West Indies. This led on to several filming contracts shooting wildlife sequences for natural history documentaries, it was the golden age, Sir David Attenborough in full stride, substantial budgets and an network appetite for natural history product, perfect conditions to grow a wildlife cameraman. I then had the good fortune to meet my natural history filmmaking fairy god-father Sean Morris of Oxford Scientific Films. Sean had a long history of mild-mannered lunacy and taking young and aspiring cinematographers under his wing. I followed John Brown as sadly the last of the OSF staff cinematographers, the world of documentary filmmaking was changing, the digital revolution had begun, celebrity survivor cooking tv was around the corner. It was a wonderful education in both the skills of film making and the quirky media industry. Whilst with OSF I worked on a number of productions culminating in two Panda Awards at the Wildscreen Film Festival and an Emmy nomination in 2004. I also became involved in commercial and music video productions, which provided a wonderful opportunity to learn new and innovative filming techniques. So stay open minded about what you film. It’s nice to have the luxury of being a creative purist but in the real world broad experience is a preferable route to polishing your craft.
The real joy of wildlife photography is the situations it guides you too. I’ve had sandpipers sit on my head as I drifted towards them neck-deep in a river in Dominica, humming birds have attacked their reflection, the list is long. Just this afternoon I found myself pinned in a tangle of vines amongst tree ferns covered in mud with a proud Fiordland crested penguin preening himself at his burrow entrance whilst others called around us and kaka, bell bird and tui dropped by to investigate my presence. The photographic outputs are adequate but the experience was real and superb.