Here are my Top Ten Tips for filming wildlife, whether as part of a documentary, for stock footage, or even as a hobby. They are loosely arranged in terms of importance, with tip #1 being the most important. Of course others may differ
- Use a Tripod! Okay this could be tips through 1-10, but I’ll simply list it as tip #1. If you do nothing else use a tripod to steady the shot. Better yet, use a good tripod with a fluid head as such a head will give better pans and tilts.
- Shoot Tight, Mid, and Wide. When it comes time to editing you (or whoever the editor is) will want as much footage as possible to tell the story. Picture this; you are trying to show a bison herd migrating. Shoot a tight shot of the hooves stirring up the dust; a medium shot of the herd or a portion thereof, and a wide shot of the herd on the prairie.
- Don’t forget the habitat. This is really a continuation of the preceeding tip. However, it needs to be stressed. Many beginners focus on capturing the animal with a nice tight shot (this may be tied to our primitive hunting instinct). While useful, don’t forget to get the habitat as that really tells the story.
- Keep the Camera Running. This is tough, especially if you are starting out on a limited budget and you’re using a tape medium. But nowadays with memory cards its less painful to keep the camera running. That way when that animal suddenly and unexpectedly calls out you’ve got it captured. Another way to make sure you don’t miss shots is to buy a camera with a pre-record cache that will always keep 6-10 seconds of footage in a buffer. Once the animal does something noteworthy hit the Rec button and you will have the preview 6-10 seconds of material.
- Try and get the Animals Point-of-View. A shot looking down at a prairie dog, grouse, or snake is ho-hum. But a shot from ground-level is much, much more interesting. In fact, this tip could be broadened to say “try and get interesting angles.” A tripod that can get you low to the ground is very helpful in this regard. If you don’t have such a tripod a beanbag will suffice for static shots.
- Use a Blind (a.k.a. Hide). The use of a blind (or hide as they are referred to in many areas) will increase the quality footage you get. In many cases a car may even suffice as a hide (but be aware that if the engine is or was just running you may get some heat distortion from the engine and/or from the sun hitting the vehicle exterior).
- Telephoto is Good But … Of course an extreme telephoto lens comes in very handy when filming wildlife. It allows you to get tight shots of the critters, lessens the chance that you will disrupt their normal behaviors, and may keep you out of a unsafe situation. A telephoto can also help with getting a dramatic perspective. However, there are some serious drawbacks with using a telephoto lens. For one, every camera movement will be magnified giving you shaky and sometimes unusable footage. This can be especially problematic on windy days. Another problem is that the greater the distance you are shooting the more atmospheric haze and distortion you will have degrading your image quality. Somewhat paradoxically, a telephoto often works best on close shots (e.g., a tight shot of a songbird in a tree) than it does on faraway shots (e.g., the pronghorn antelope on the distant ridge).
- Shoot Progressive. If you can afford it, get a camcorder that can shoot progressive, preferably at 30 frames-per-second as a minimum (60fps is even better as it allows for quality slow motion playback). Progressive camcorders will usually say they can film in “24p”, “30p”, or “60p” in the NTSC (North American) format (versus “interlaced”, which is often designated with an “i” such as “60i”). For those that don’t know, filming in “progressive” essentially captures the entire image at once whereas “interlace” captures every other line then comes back a fraction of a second later to fill in the gaps. The shortcomings of interlaced are especially noticeable in fast pans, tilts, or when the subject is moving quickly. Another advantage of the progressive format is that it will allow you to extract a reasonably useful image or snapshot from your video whereas interlace will not (unless the items in the frame are not moving).
- Think Lighting. For the non-wildlife videographer lighting may be at the top of the list of things to consider. For the wildlife videographer you can’t always stage events so you often have to accept the cards you are dealt. Nevertheless, work with lighting as much as you can. Morning and evening sunlight is best for a warm feel, although it may sometimes give too much of a yellowish cast. Having the sunlight to your back is generally preferred as it can really bring out the colors on an animal (e.g., the feathers on a male duck or the spots on a cat). However, backlighting can be used for dramatic effects (e.g., for showing porcupine hairs). Overcast days tend to be less desired as they give everything a drab look. However, there are times when overcast is better. For example, if you are shooting greater distances you are less likely to have heat distortion on a overcast day.
- Ethics. Okay, not really a tip, but its got to be listed if for no reason than its the right thing to do. And good ethics makes things easier for the wildlife/nature film-maker in the long run. Bad apples will ultimately result in more rules and regulations in places such as national parks and preserves. They also give the entire profession a bad reputation. So use good ethics when you are outdoors (proceed as if your mother is watching you!). Perhaps this tip should be number #1.