The background image on my computer is a still I grabbed from a home video–or maybe it’s an away video. It shows my wife knee-deep in a mountain brook up at 9,000 feet above sea level, presenting a dry fly to a three-pound trout that doesn’t yet know it’s an entree. The water chuckles around her boots, and a thousand rim-lit aspens behind her pulse with autumn gold. When the city casts a shadow on my soul, I escape it through this window to a greener, fairer place–a window that I captured with my camcorder.
If you’re like most Getting Starters, you too had vacations in mind (along with family events) when you considered buying a camcorder. And if you’re one of us disgruntled urbanites, vacations often mean forays into that unspoiled country where a person can “regruntle.”
Now if you’ve already hauled your video gear through the boonies and returned to screen the tale, you know that:
- As you hiked, your lightweight equipment somehow morphed into 15-pigiron sash weights, and
- Sights whose real-world beauty left you gasping produced mere yawns back home when clamped within the borders of a TV frame.
We’re here today to tackle both of these problems. We’ll see how to reduce equipment weight and complexity and how to maximize video’s visual strengths and minimize its weaknesses. So let’s take a low-tech look at back-country hardware and shooting strategies.
The Right Stuff
Of course you want a small and lightweight camera, whether 8mm or VHS-C format, Hi8 or S-VHS-C for better picture quality, or DV if you want the best and your wallet agrees. And to optimize your rig for boondock shooting, look for three features too:
- Lens focal length. To minimize handheld image shake and to capture panoramic views, choose a camera whose zoom is biased toward wide angle. In the 8mm format, for example, one zoom might range from 6 to 72mm while a rival covers 4 to 48. Since the lower the number the broader the view, go with the 4mm wide angle.
- Filter thread. Some compact camcorders lack provision for screwing a filter onto the front of the lens. Bad camera, bad! At least one filter is a back country essential.
- Battery capacity. The tradeoff between weight and power is also a big consideration, so look for a camcorder with a long-lived juice supply. Nickel-metal hydride or lithium-ion batteries are desirable for this reason.
As it happens, each of these camera features has broader implications, so let’s look at them just a bit more closely.
No matter how smooth your personal moves may be, you can use some help in steadying the camera. Camcorders with image stabilization (electronic or optical) work very well, and camera-support systems are just as effective and much cheaper.
If you use a hiking staff, buy one equipped with a camera tripod bolt (often concealed in a screw-on palm knob) that turns the stick into a monopod. I’ve seen these hybrid staffs for sale in national-park supply stores, and Bogen makes a model specifically for backpacking videographers.
Alternatively, try a micropod: a tripod so small it’ll fit in a pocket. To use it, attach your camera and brace the rig against a rock or tree trunk or whatever’s handy. I’ve done this for years with an ingenious German model that I’ll probably will to my as-yet virtual grandchildren.
Don’t leave home without a polarizing filter because it performs four, yes, four, valuable services:
- It punches up the contrast between blue sky and white clouds, often with spectacular results.
- It controls water reflections so you can dial a stream surface down from fairy sparkles to so clear that it finks on lurking fish.
- It reduces the amount of light hitting the image sensor, to prevent problems with flaring and color smearing.
- It keeps your grubby fingers off the delicate front element of the camera lens.
Note that a polarizer requires attachment threads that don’t rotate as you zoom and/or focus because turning this particular filter changes its effect. If you can’t fit a polarizer for this reason, at least install a clear "skylight" filter to protect your lens from dirt and moisture.
Though possibly useful in weighting down tents, batteries in the boonies are otherwise a literal drag–to say nothing of their chargers. If you’re day hiking, just put up with the weight of one spare in your kit. After all, it’s no heavier than a trail ax, and you really do need a minimum of two camcorder batteries.
But if you’re hiking from a base camp, consider investing in a solar-charger system. Many batteries can drink 12-volt DC power via cigarette-lighter chargers, and many small solar panels deliver current at 12 volts. Just be sure to obtain enough output amperage to do the job.
With this system, you can run three batteries, leaving one back in camp to charge. (You must charge while you’re off during the day because the evening sun has the inconsiderate habit of setting.) Incidentally, because a solar rig may require some impromptu engineering, Videomaker would like to hear about readers’ experiences with this technology.
On a final note, don’t discard or lose batteries in the wild as they are lethal to the environment.
Tips for Super Videos
Now that you’ve got your kit together, you’re ready to use it effectively by capturing high-quality images, shots, and sequences. Let’s look at each one in turn.
Bringing home good images requires compensating for the two big limitations of video pictures: low resolution and lack of true depth. Though you may not normally notice it, the great outdoors is unusually rich in details, some of them as tiny as those bighorn sheep a mile up that mountain and others as complex as the millions of leaves in that sun-spattered grove.
Resolution means an image system’s ability to capture and reproduce these fine details. And standard video is, frankly, dismal in this respect, especially compared to the 35mm film images you’re probably used to. Sheep? You mean those unidentifiable zits on the face of that lump that resembles a mountain? Leaves? Do you refer, perchance, to that featureless green blotch?
To compensate for low resolution, get up close and personal. Establish the grove and then get a closeup of one glorious, backlit branch to represent those millions of leaves. As for the sheep, just write them off and concentrate instead on things you can record more clearly.
Video’s relentless two dimensionality is especially frustrating outdoors, where half the beauty lies in the great open spaces, and space, by definition, means depth. On the small, flat screen, yawning canyons coalesce into vague brown and ochre patterns; subtly receding trees flatten into repetitive vertical bands.
To restore a sense of depth, use the tricks of visual perspective. Show how big spaces are by including humans in the shot for scale. Look for converging lines like roads, trails, power lines to add a sense of volume to the image.
Images, of course, are the building blocks of shots, so here are two tips for quality control in this department. First, keep it steady. Operating on the trail, you’ll naturally hand-hold a lot, so avoid walking while shooting when you can. When you need to move, flex your knees and elbows so they act as shock absorbers.
Another trick is to work with your zoom in wide-angle position. This will minimize camera shake and, not incidentally, use the wide-angle focal length’s perspective to exaggerate apparent depth.
If a jiggle’s an irritating small move, firehosing is an inept big one. Firehosing means aiming the camera at one thing after another, without framing anything cleanly or looking at it steadily. To avoid the sin of firehosing, pre-identify the compositions within a scene, then frame the first one, pan smoothly and decisively to frame the second, and so-on. You’ll be amazed at how professional the results appear on screen.
Just as shots are composed of images, so programs are made up of shots, and the key to creating shots that cut together well is to plan them as you tape by "shooting to edit."
Step one is to decide whether you’re building your program in the camera as you go or whether you’re creating raw material for editing later. If cutting on the fly, you need to imagine each shot as it will appear in the program and gauge 1) how long it must last in order to be understandable to the viewer and 2) how long it will remain interesting to look at. (Hint: almost never as long as it does in the actual world.)
On the other hand, if you’re building raw material for a later edit, shoot everything long, to give yourself leeway in setting start and end points. As a rule of thumb, roll at least five seconds before and after what you think is the essential action. In the cutting room, pieces of those five-second bookends will save your skin again and again.
And with either approach to editing, get as much variety as you can: inserts to reveal close details, and cutaways to show reactions and establish context.
Once past these details, you’re on your own. Wear a hat and comfortable boots, take lots of water and trail mix, and don’t forget…,
Ah, but you know all that already.