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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is the 3rd part of my mini-series on video for the unrepentant still photographer. The over-arching premise is that, no matter how in love with still photography you happen to be, there is always a enough time to add in a bit of videography. If you need real reasons to press that play button, check out Part I. For tips on things to watch out for when getting started, check out Part II.
Note that in order to watch the videos here you have to click the title at top left. That will take you to my Vimeo page, where you simply press play to watch them. There’s a full-screen option. By the way, they haven’t been edited, even for length. On my to-do list. Now let’s get into it!
Video & Focal Length
Last time I recommended starting out simple, by placing your camera on a tripod and recording without moving the camera. You can also keep things still while hand-holding the camera. But choose a fairly wide-angle lens for this. If you zoom in beyond, say, 70 mm., it will be next to impossible to hold the camera still enough. Even with focal lengths around 50 mm. it’s hard. Use a tripod.
There is another issue with focal length when recording video. When you use a medium focal length, on the order of 50 mm., you are replicating the approximate field of view for human vision. It means that the viewer will not be distracted by either an unusually wide angle, with its distortion, or by any unsteadiness and jittering of the frame that may happen when you zoom in to longer focal lengths. This doesn’t mean you should avoid those different focal lengths; that’s one big advantage of shooting video with a DSLR. It’s just that as a rule of thumb 35-60 mm. is a good baseline, or default, focal length.
Camera Movement: Panning
If you do follow my advice from last post and start out by locking the camera down on a tripod while recording (and in that case you’ll be choosing moving subjects that are interesting in some way), it won’t be long before you get bored and start moving the camera. The most basic kind of camera movement is panning. If you shoot a lot of landscapes like me, panning will show you the whole area. It’s sort of the video equivalent of an establishing shot in still photography.
You have two basic choices. You can just pan like most people do with their phones, pivoting around while pointing the lens at what you want to include. Or you can pan while on the tripod. An in-between option is a monopod set up for video. In the first case, just winging it by hand, you should realize that a camera phone has a very wide-angle lens. Any deviations from a smooth pan (short of tripping over your own feet!) are masked by the wide angle of view. Speaking of hand-holding for video, there are stabilizer rigs that you hold/wear that will make it much easier to keep things smooth while panning and otherwise moving the camera.
For the video below, I bushwacked to a very beautiful & secluded spot in Olympic National Park. I climbed onto a rock beside a lovely falls and panned through the scene by hand. Even though I used a wide-angle, you’ll see a couple small errors toward the end. If I had used a stabilizer rig it would have been smoother.
Panning on the Tripod ~ Which Head?
If you pan on a tripod, which is what I’d try first for longer focal lengths, you have another choice to make. Do you buy a so-called fluid panning head? And how nice/expensive? You can literally spend thousands on a super-smooth fluid head for video. You’re thinking why can’t I just use my regular ballhead? Sure. But if you go this route you will have to develop quite the steady technique. You’ll also need to limit how long a focal length you use and probably accept small hitches in the final product.
‘But’, I hear you saying, ‘my ballhead has separate panning movement.’ Yes it does. But it’s there for shooting a series of still shots on a plane (a panorama, for e.g.). It’s movement isn’t really smooth enough for video panning. That said, I have used my ballhead (not the panning base) to pan through shots. I use the ballhead itself though, not the pan. And I don’t do it with particularly long focal lengths.
Panning Heads: What to Buy
If you go for a panning head, and if you’re not yet a serious videographer, I would buy an intro. model. But intro. doesn’t mean cheapest. Cheap fluid heads are like cheap tripods. You’ll soon regret your purchase. Get one a bit further up the scale, one with some good reviews by practiced videographers on a budget. Figure on spending at least $100 and probably closer to $150 or even a bit more. Look at the Manfrotto fluid heads in that range.
EXTRA ~ FOR OWNERS OF LONG TELEPHOTO LENSES ONLY
If you have a long telephoto or zoom, and especially if you plan on shooting wildlife, you’ll probably want a Gimbal head. Wimberley is a popular brand but there are others just as good. Gimbals aren’t cheap. But when using big lenses they are more stable, balanced and move more easily than on a ballhead. As a bonus Gimbals allow smooth panning and other movement during video recording. So with big lenses it is your go-to head, whether you are doing still photography (following a bird in flight, for e.g.) or video. There are partial Gimbals that clamp onto your ballhead. Cheaper than a full Gimbal, these are better than using just the ballhead but not as good as the full version that replaces your ballhead.
Next time, more video on the move: tips for when you’re in the field and want to shoot a video or two to go along with your still shots. Have a fantastic weekend and happy shooting!
An alligator lizard basks in the warm spring sunshine of the eastern Columbia River Gorge in Oregon.
I used to be a bit of a sissy when it came to snakes, and by extension nearly all reptiles. A few of my childhood friends had pet snakes of course, but I never even got into going to the reptile house at the zoo truth be told. The only reptiles I liked were turtles, and they are so different as to be considered by most of us as a separate group, incorrect as that notion is. So turtles were the only reptiles we kept as kids. We even dug a nice little pond in the backyard and filled it with water for those box turtles who were “lucky” enough to be saved from predators in the nearby woods.
Boomslangs are highly venomous snakes native to southern Africa, here emerging from a tree in Kruger National park.
I taught science some years ago in an outdoor setting, a semi-desert chock-full of snakes and lizards. I simply had to overcome my distaste at touching snakes at that point, since the school-kids who I taught there would have never taken me seriously if they knew I was afraid of reptiles. I learned that handling a large gopher snake was not at all as unpleasant as I had believed. Like anything you just need to go slow and get used to it. It did not take me as long as I expected it would to get over my aversion to the slimy-muscular feel of their skin.
A deadly fer de lance (mapanale in the local language) hangs out near Angel Falls, Venezuela.
I encountered plenty of rattle snakes on this job as well, and there were a couple close calls. One dark evening I was approached by a young girl, just as I was packing up a telescope after an observing session. She said there was a rattle-snake in their cabin. I was skeptical but went up the hill to find all of them standing outside in their jammies, beyond excited (imagine a group of school girls on a camping trip and you have the picture). I scoured the cabin but found nothing. On the way out, smirking at yet another city-kid over-reaction to being in the outdoors, I heard the tell-tale rattle. I shone the flashlight around and heard it again, coming from underneath the eaves of the A-frame cabin. I crouched down and there he was, a big rattler coiled and glaring at me.
A close-up of an alligator lizard.
I moved the girls further away, getting their slightly less-panicky chaperone to keep watch on them while I fetched a snake stick. This is a pole with a sort of grabber on the end. It allows you to grasp a snake behind its head and capture it without getting too close. I then crouched down and while shining the flashlight with one hand reached under and slowly approached the snake with the snake stick. Just when I thought he was mine, he decided to make his move. He slithered right for me. Since I was laying on the ground, I couldn’t move out of the way quickly enough and had to make a capture attempt before I was ready. Luckily my coordination was with me that night and I got him. I don’t like to think about the alternative, with that big ugly snake wanting out of there with nothing in his way but my big ugly face.
A gopher snake shows off the tip of his tongue in eastern Oregon.
Since then, I have gotten close to some fairly impressive snakes and reptiles. There was one in southern Nepal, a rock python who had recently consumed a deer. This was the biggest snake I’ve ever seen. And my guide, who grew up around there, had never seen a bigger one. He estimated it was at least 7 meters long! I’ve been to the San Diego Zoo and this one was bigger than any they have.
My that’s a long tongue you have: a komodo dragon sniffs out a lunch option, the one holding the camera.
In Venezuela, I got pretty close to a fer de lance, the deadliest snake in the Americas (see image). I saw a black mamba crossing the road in South Africa, and got much closer to a boomslang (see image). And in Indonesia I visited the islands of the Komodo dragon, the world’s largest lizard. It is very disquieting watching these monsters watch you. The look they give you is unmistakable: they are waiting for you to make a mistake, just calmly waiting for you to become their dinner.
A small lizard perches on the back of the largest lizard in the world, the Komodo dragon in Indonesia .
On a hike recently in the eastern Columbia River Gorge near home in Oregon, I saw a couple snakes and an alligator lizard (see images above). It’s been a long winter and a long time since I’ve seen a reptile. I suppose I am completely over any lingering fear of snakes and lizards. Now all they do is make me smile, as I know they are harbingers of warm sunny afternoons ahead. In addition, they are fascinating creatures, real holdovers from Earth’s bygone days. All they want is a slow-paced lifestyle with plenty of sunbathing. What’s not to love?
Close-up view of a geometric tortoise’s shell, in the western Cape, South Africa.
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Might not want to leave your room just yet: a large komodo dragon prowls the grounds of my guest house on Rinca Island, Indonesia.