A renewed interest in wildlife preservation has increased the frequency of animal “shootings.” Fortunately, they’re happening with video cameras!
There’s no better way to capture the reality of the wilds than with the “aliveness” of video. However, taking a video camera outdoors to record animals in their natural habitats presents some unique challenges.
A recent trip through Montana’s Glacier National Park made me aware of the difficulties and joys of videotaping wildlife. Being prepared is the key to a successful wildlife video expedition.
What will the weather be like? Will you be camping out or staying in lodges? Will you be on a bus tour or on foot? Knowing what to expect can help you prepare.
What kind of wildlife can you expect to see? Guided tours through Yellowstone Park and Glacier Park reportedly have encountered bison, buffalo, elk, moose, big-horned sheep, mountain goats, black bears, and might grizzly bears. On safari in Kenya, expect to see elephants, giraffes, and-if you’re fortunate-maybe a lioness with her cubs.
If you want to see wildlife, expect to do a little hiking into their habitats.
Packing for the Outback
Once you know where your trip will take you, it will be easier to decide what kind of equipment to bring along.
You decision depends on convenience and what you plan to do with the finished tape. What is more important to you: weight and convenience or image quality? Consider that you probably will be carrying the equipment for extended periods of time.
On my trip to Glacier Park, I brought along an 8mm camcorder, two batteries, a charger, and three tapes. Everything fit snugly into a compact camera case.
Before embarking on a hike, I would leave the case at the mountain lodge where I was staying and pack the camera, one tape, and the two charged batteries into my knapsack. I eventually rigged up a strap for the camera and carried it on my shoulder for accessibility.
You have to be sensible when taking your camera into the backcountry. When out on the trails, it’s important to protect the equipment from the elements. Bumpy roads, dust, sand, rain, and salt water can do damage to the camera’s lens and delicate mechanisms.
Once, while out on a boat whale watching off the coast of Cape Cod, a whale came so close that water from its spout kept splashing my lens. Now I’m always prepared with lens cleaner and lens tissue. If you’re going to be near water, bring along a waterproof bag to protect the camera.
The more conveniences your camera has, the better. Automatic zoom is a great asset to have when taping moving objects.
If you’re loaded down with hiking equipment and are shooting a highly unpredictable subject, you want to be able to operate the camera as quickly and proficiently as possible.
Wind noise can become a problem, especially if you’re in a boat or other moving vehicle. All other sounds will be drowned out, what you’ll get on your recording are loud “earthquake” noises.
A wind-resistant cover might minimize the problem. Audio accessory outlets sell larger “muffs” to fit over the microphone and shield it from unwanted noise. Be aware that sounds behind the camera are not picked up too well.
Weather and temperature changes also can affect your video equipment. Severe cold could be detrimental to battery performance. At freezing temperature, chemicals can freeze and render the battery useless.
In humid weather, to prevent condensation from occurring inside the camcorder, keep silica gel packets (usually included with the manufacturer’s camcorder packaging) with your machine.
Take extra care to keep the camera covered when not in use. When you return home, take it to a camera shop and have it professionally cleaned if you feel it was exposed to a great amount of dust, sand, or water.
Don’t Take It Lightly!
When it comes to lighting, video requires the same consideration as still photography. Video Images are highly sensitive to dramatic changes in light.
It’s beneficial for your camera to have automatic white balance and a video tube with low-light capabilities. This will give you an advantage if the camera can adjust to any light situation automatically.
You will need a camera capable of correct color exposure in the deep shadows of a forest, with muted tones of dusk, with strong backlighting, and in bright sun on an open plain.
Natural lighting can be both an asset and a burden. You cannot rely on where the light is coming from in relation to your subject nor where it’s going to move next. These factors drastically limit the time you are allotted to capture your shots.
You must make critical decision on whether to wait for the light to change or take the shot before the animal flees. You must think quickly about your priorities. Depending on the animal and your proximity to it, it may not be bothered by you if your camera is quiet.
Minding Mother Nature
What makes videotaping unique is the fact that animals are moving objects. Video captures this movement and, at the same time, allows you to move with the animal and keep it in the frame.
But animals can be hard to follow; you cannot pose them or predict where they’ll move next.
When taping wildlife, you are merely a spectator. Having very little control over your subject, you must rely on spontaneity. Unless you want to carry around a myriad of lenses, filters, tripods, and flashes, you are basically at the disposal of Mother Nature.
There may be times when you’ll carry the equipment around for miles with no luck in seeing wildlife. It’s a chance you just have to take-and it eventually pays off.
In Montana, we spent an entire day searching for mountain goats and didn’t find any until after six miles of hiking, almost reaching the mountain summit.
There sat a nanny goat and her kid, contently chewing grass and soaking up the late afternoon sun. After awhile the pair moved on, the mother being very protective of her offspring. I stayed at a safe distance, zooming in for closeups and panning to follow their movement until they were no longer in view.
Another benefit of video is that it’s not “hit or miss.” By simply rewinding the tape, you can check what you’ve already shot and see if you’ve captured the desired image.
Unfortunately, with wildlife videography, you can’t go back and reshoot if your subject already has run away. Out in the wild, you rarely get a second chance.
Elizabeth Sweeney, a New York-based freelance writer, holds a B.A. In communications from Adelphi University. She is an avid videographer and naturalist.
Animals Are People, Too
In the last few years, park rangers have noticed an increase in the number of wildlife spectators with camcorders in hand.
National parks are set aside for people to enjoy, but that should not be taken for granted. There are no safety guarantees. Many variables come into the picture when wild animals are involved.
Most national parks list warnings of dangerous animals in the area and how to react should you encounter any. Heed the advice and follow the rules! When you spot an animal, respect its physical space. Don’t be overzealous trying to get the perfect shot. You may be jeopardizing the animal’s safety as well as your own.
When you make animals defensive, most of the time they retreat; sometimes they freeze; and sometimes they attack. Like anything else you videotape, it’s important to know your subject and how to approach it before you approach it.
We must realize that our presence can have a direct effect on wildlife and its environment. It’s our duty to act responsibly.
Call of the Wilds
It always helps to have a nature guide along who is knowledgeable of the wildlife in the area.
If you think the guide’s voiceover might be valuable to tape but the wind will create a distortion, have him or her speak directly into a separate, remote microphone.
You could even record the narration on a separate audio tape and dub it in later during post-production. This, of course, can be done only if you and the guide are in a stationary position and the mike isn’t an inconvenience.
Another way to eliminate undesirable sounds is to overdub music or sound effect, which surely will enhance your production.
Power by the Hour
Most trips won’t take you too far away from electricity, but be aware that the current is vital for recharging batteries. Bring along a sufficient supply of batteries and make sure you’re near an electricity source every 24 hours.
You’ll help prolong the life of your batteries if, at the end of the day, you run each battery out completely and then recharge them fully to be ready for the next day’s shooting.
Of course, the perfect shot usually will present itself just when the battery of tape runs out. Always try to save some power and tape supply for the return journey. You never know what might cross your path.