Archive for January 2017

Friday Foto Talk: Video & Wildlife   8 comments

My blog series on video for still photographers continues.  It’s not been too popular, something I figured would happen because of the the nature of blogging.  The blogosphere is quite biased toward still photography.  Videos are very popular overall, but tend to be concentrated in other places on the web.  It’s sad to say but most serious photographers still don’t think video is worth doing, I believe because they think the learning curve is too steep.  But when you’re out shooting photos you’re also carrying a very good video camera around with you.  So why not add movement and sound, even if the results aren’t likely to measure up to those of a pro videographer?

Last time we looked at landscape videos.  Today let’s talk about critters, or animals.  Specifically wildlife.  Domestic animals have their own challenges.  Video of wildlife is not easy.  But it’s one of the few subjects that even non-video people think of shooting.  The reason is that wildlife often do interesting things that are very hard to capture with still pictures.  They also make fascinating sounds.

To view the videos don’t click the play button right away.  First click the title at top left, then the play button.

Shy Shy

Wild animals are generally shy and not easy to find.  In modern times there is a two-edged sword.  Plenty of roads and easy access make it a snap to go looking for wildlife.  But the same development and population growth that gave us those roads also causes most species to decline in numbers.  And the survivors normally become very shy and elusive.

A general truism is that the easiest critters to find also tend to have the fastest and most unpredictable movements.  On the flip side, leaving aside rarity, if they’re very difficult to find they tend to be slow and easy to follow.  Sloths come to mind.  But it’s not always true that the slow ones are hard to find.  It could be the animal is simply not afraid and instead looks on you as lunch, like the Komodo dragons below.

STRATEGIES

Location, Location.  There are just a few main strategies that will make it easier to find wildlife.  One is heading to protected areas.  Parks and preserves concentrate the wildlife that we have chased out of most parts of the world.  Some African parks even fence them in, which is actually to prevent them leaving the park where they can be poached.  Of course the poachers just go into the park to kill, so the fences are relatively ineffective in that way.  The fences do cut down on human-wildlife conflict, as well as reduce road-kill.

The Right Time.  Another strategy is to go out looking when animals are most active.  And I’m not just talking about dawn and dusk, when most (not all) animals are likely to be moving about.  I’m also talking season.  Fall is when many animals become active, and spring (or the start of wet season in Africa) is also good because many have their young and are thus forced to go out hunting, foraging or browsing to feed them.  Also, the babies are irresistible.

‘Tis the Season.  Seasonality also affects the ease with which you’ll be able to spot critters because of vegetation.  For example going on safari in Africa during the dry season is popular because the general lack of green leafy growth on shrubs and trees of the savannah makes it easier to spot wildlife.

Some wildlife during a specific season will ignore their natural instinct to avoid humans and come right down into our towns.  In late fall, the elk of several western U.S. National Parks (Rocky Mountain and Grand Tetons for e.g.) descend from higher country and congregate in gateway towns like Estes Park, Colorado.

Showing their Moves

Animals move (I know, duh).  And they move apparently without warning and in unpredictable ways.  But really not so unpredictable once you observe and learn about them.

STRATEGIES

Ready & Steady.  Be ever ready to move the camera instantly.  It’s a mindset that is applicable to still photos of critters as well.  Your positioning and stance needs to be such that you can swivel or pivot easily.  I liken it to when I was a kid being coached on how to take a lead in baseball.  You also need a way to smooth out your motions, covered in a previous post: Video on the Move.

Observe.  The most important thing in this regard is careful observation.  The more you learn about a species, the better you’ll be able to predict its movements.  But avoid the trap even experienced people fall into.  You can know the species but not the individual.  Like us, each one is different and unique, in ways that seem quite subtle to us (but presumably not them).  So even if you know the species well, a little pre-shooting observation goes a long way.

Chatty Critters

If you record the voices of animals (and why wouldn’t you have sound recording turned on?), you can be sure that even the chattiest of them will choose the time after you press the record button to give you the silent treatment.

STRATEGIES

Observe some More.  Same goes for sound as for video: if you have the opportunity, observe the animal for awhile before you press record.  You’ll gain a sense of the periodicity or patterns inherent in the animal’s vocalizations.  The keys, as it is in general nature observation and photography, is patience and timing.

Examples.  At Yellowstone Park I went out in the very early morning to film the buffalo above.  On a previous morning I’d seen them crossing the Lamar River and figured they were sleeping on one side and eating breakfast on the other, with a bath in between.  Also the early hour meant only one other tourist, and he stayed up by the road.  A shotgun mic helped to capture their voices.  Below, on the Kafue River in Africa, I couldn’t get close enough to these hippos but their voices carry so well across the water that I didn’t need the shotgun mic.

That’s it for this Friday, thanks for looking.  Have an excellent weekend and don’t forget to press that record button!

Addendum:  Dry Run

Try is a dry run from time to time.  For example you could walk out into a forest in the wee hours to hear the dawn chorus of birdsong.  Try leaving your camera in the bag, at least at first.  The goal is to find the best locations and to simply listen.  Note when certain bird species begin and end (it’s strictly regimented), along with how long the singing lasts.  If you go out several times you’ll begin to learn how the weather affects timing along with other features of bird vocalization and behaviour.

Believe it or not I did this for a job one summer.  I surveyed forests in the Pacific NW proposed for logging, looking for evidence of use by endangered bird species.  Since most of the areas lacked trails, I would go out during the day with some white surveyor’s tape.  I’d find a good spot to observe from and then, on the way back to the road, flag a route by every so often tying a piece of surveyor’s tape around a branch.

Then in the morning, at “zero dark thirty” I returned with my flashlights (I recommend two, a headlamp and a strong hand-held) and followed the trail in.  White shows up in the dark a lot better than orange.  On the hike out after sunrise I’d remove the surveyor’s tape.  This is, by the way, also a good way to find and shoot out-of-the-way places at dawn, your “secret” spots that are away from roads and trails.

 

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Friday Foto Talk: Video & Landscapes   2 comments

I took a break last week from Friday Foto Talk.  I hope everybody’s new year is starting off right.  I’m going to conclude the series on video for still photographers with two or three posts focusing on common subjects that you might want to film, with tips on how to make the most of those opportunities.  The first one is, you guessed it, landscapes.  By the way, there’s nothing wrong with using the verb ‘to film’ when you’re talking about digital video.  Is there?  To view the videos here, first click on the title at top left.  Then you can press the play button.

The Feel of a Landscape

Have you ever been out photographing a beautiful landscape, perhaps with a stream flowing through the scene or a breeze sighing through the trees, and wondered what it would be like for your viewers to hear and feel what you are hearing and feeling?  How do you shoot a video of a landscape and not bore people?  Nothing is really happening after all.  Or is it?  Although there is very little going on in the video at top, I think the intense dawn chorus of birdsong gives a strong feel of watching the sun rise over the Klamath wetlands of Oregon.

THE BASICS & BEYOND

It’s probably best to start out filming landscapes by putting the camera on a tripod and using a medium to narrow aperture focus about 1/3 of the way into the scene.  It’s easy to screw up a video by leaving important areas out of focus.  Now if you have close foreground in your video, you should not only focus closer, right on the foreground or slightly beyond it, you should also go with a wide angle lens and use a narrow aperture.

But if you’re trying to transmit the feel of the scene to your viewers, the procedure I just mentioned may not be the only thing you try.  For me the reason to do videos is to give viewers an idea of what it’s like to stand where I’m standing and see what I’m seeing.  It’s also one of my main goals in shooting stills, by the way.  First of all, don’t worry so much about the boredom factor.  For landscapes you’ll be trying to strike a balance between capturing the mood and boring your viewers, but don’t let that hamstring your creativity.  Definitely don’t limit your video to when there’s a lot of action.  My opinion is there are very few situations in still photography that cannot be successfully filmed.

COMPOSITION IS STILL KING (BUT AUDIO IS QUEEN)

Compose your video to take advantage of any movement in the scene, but make sure the movement is in keeping with the scene’s mood.  For example you could try getting low and close to a moving foreground element (waving grass or moving water, for e.g.).  Despite what I just said about focus, you could even leave your foreground out of focus if it doesn’t take up too much of the frame.  It’s not quite as distracting to see out of focus foreground in a video as it is in a still photo.  If it’s moving we don’t seem to mind as much if it’s blurry.  Experiment with this.

Don’t forget audio.  Sound is an important factor when trying to impart mood in your video.  For native audio, note what part of the soundscape you want to capture and use the appropriate mic, if you have one.  Or adjust position, recording short clips and listening back to them until you pick up the sound nicely.  In the video below, which was shot with a fisheye lens so you can see both up- and down-stream at Zion’s Subway slot canyon, it didn’t matter what mic I used.  Because of the closed-in canyon, the sound of moving water dominates everything.

We looked at wind already (check out this post), but it is part of nature so is a near constant concern.   Use a windsock but realize the wind will still cause issues.  Position and shelter the mic to minimize it.  If it’s whistling around some object, you could get close and deliberately record instead of avoiding it.  Or consider a video with audio turned off, and add separately recorded sound or music later.  Whatever it takes to create the mood.

GET A MOVE ON!

A lot of good video can be done while locked down on a tripod if you select your subjects and compositions carefully.  But moving the camera is inevitable.  If you want to pan through a scene, check out the tips in this post.  What I didn’t mention there is creating a sense of the scene with camera movement.  For example, panning horizontally on a tripod allows you to change the view by pivoting the camera.  But that can end up giving your viewers a vague sense of being disconnected from the scene.

By moving the camera itself you can give viewers a sense of moving through the scene.  Moving in an arc is good when you’ve got focus locked on an important subject and want to keep it in focus.  Just remember to either use a wide-angle lens with careful hand-held technique, or use some means of stabilizing & smoothing the movement (wearable stabilizer, rail, etc.).  Jumpiness distracts.

The best way to find a video that captures the mood of a landscape is to try different things.  Mix things up.  Panning vertically in a forest is worth trying.  In the video below I was walking through a Colorado aspen grove on a breezy morning and, despite the fact I knew the sound would include some wind interference, wanted to capture the quaking part of quaking aspen.  It’s a lesson in not letting worries about the quality worry you too much.  The wind only messed up the sound for a brief moment.

One final example:  if you are lucky enough to have an interesting subject in the scene, you could try breaking a rule.  Normally videos require slow, steady camera movement.  But how about throwing in a sudden jump-over?  Swing quickly over to that moose, or even a friend caught in a compelling action.  You need to keep it steady once you’re there; that is unless it’s a dangerous critter, in which case viewers expect a little jumpiness.  The point is to avoid getting stuck into some imagined correct way to do things.

Next time we will take a beginner’s look at the wonderful world of wildlife videography.  And speaking of that, have a wonderful weekend!

Friday Foto Talk: Video ~ Sound, Part II   2 comments

The series on getting started in video is almost complete.  Last week’s post provided general tips on recording sound during video capture.  Let’s dive deeper into the subject of sound by looking at a few of the more subtle ways that it can mess up your video, and some solutions to help make sure that doesn’t happen.

The Ear vs. the Microphone

You’ll find that the way you process sound is different than what is recorded by a microphone.

  • Your ears are placed perfectly for detecting sound all about you.  But with those flaps they’re biased toward the front.  A mic. (or two for stereo) can be placed anywhere.  But if it’s a shotgun mic it will mostly pick up those sounds in the direction you point the mic.  Omnidirectional mics are the opposite (see below).  By the way, I saw a guy on the web who records sound using a stereo mic setup where the mics are worn like headphones and are even shaped somewhat like ears.  His goal is to record as close to what he hears as possible.  The rather funny-looking stereo mic setup was for sale, as long as you don’t mind some strange looks!
  • It’s not just your ears that cause microphones to record sounds differently than the way you hear them.  Your brain is involved too.  Thanks to evolution you can pick up distant sounds and magnify them.  And simultaneously in some cases, you have the ability to filter out loud, nearby sounds in order to better hear a faint, more important one.  These natural skills allowed our ancestors to hear the sounds of a predator while near a stream.  Of course mics don’t do any of this.  An omnidirectional mic, for example, captures everything around it without bias.  The louder the sound the more prominent it will be in the recording.
  • Why is there a significant difference between the way your eyes and your camera captures images?  The key difference maker is the brain.  Just as it does with your eyes, your brain works in concert with your ears to weight various sounds differently.  The brain also has the ability to make your head turn, like an antenna dish, to effectively corral those sounds you want to hear and at least partly block those you don’t.
  • Let’s take an example.  It took me awhile to realize that recording next to a stream is a mixed blessing.  If your goal is to record the sound of the water it’s usually fine.  But if you want ambient sound that includes birds, etc., the water can overwhelm everything else.  Even when you’re going for the sound of the water, being close can make it sound too loud and harsh.

Solutions

Just as you learned to pay attention to subtle features of the light, you should start tuning your ears to subtle differences in volume, tone, bass notes vs. treble, etc.  But at the same time you need to factor in the above:  your brain filters and evens things out while the microphone records actual sounds, without bias.  Here are a few tips:

  • Move closer to that interesting but not very loud sound even if you can hear it just fine.  The old piece of photography advice, “if your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” applies to sound as well.
  • But depending on what mic you’re using don’t get too close!  Using the example above, recording next to a loud stream (a waterfall perhaps), and if you’re using a shotgun mic, avoid pointing it right at the water.  Try pointing it an angle or even directly away from the sound.
  • Adjust position to minimize loud sounds when you’re seeking balance and want to pick up more subtle sounds in the background, even if your ear hears a good balance.  Simply putting a tree or rock outcrop between you and a sound source that is too loud can make all the difference.  You can also use landscape features, such as rock walls, curved hillsides, etc. to focus and magnify key parts of the soundscape.
  • If you get more involved with audio, field gear can help greatly with all of the above.  For distant &/or faint sounds, a high-quality shotgun mic, along with parabolic reflectors, can make a huge difference.
  • For the ability to adjust the balance of tones, bringing out the sounds you want and minimizing those you don’t, consider upgrading to a system that replaces your camera’s sound-recording.  Basically a portable soundboard that mounts beneath your camera, it will allow you to adjust and equalize tones.  These systems are often used along with headphones.  They allow you to monitor the way the sound is actually being recorded, as opposed to the way you hear it.
  • You could also choose separate sound recording using a portable digital recorder.  You’ll have to sync the sound to your video later, but it allows you to focus on video and audio separately, thus doing a good job on both.
  • Remember:  all of this extra gear will only add to, not replace, what you can do in the field by changing position and using natural features, along with choosing the appropriate mic to use.

That’s all for now.  I hope you are getting more comfortable with the idea of doing videos, even if you’re an unrepentant still photographer.  Don’t be shy about asking questions or giving your two cents.  Have a fantastic weekend and happy shooting!

 

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