10 Essential Equipment Items for Wildlife Documentary Film Making
Quick Equipment List:
- Camera Body
- Fluid-Head Tripod
- Telephoto Lens
- Wide angle Cine Prime Lens (10-14mm)
- Shotgun mic
- Field Headphones
- Lavaliere Mic System
- Macro Lens Extension Tubes
- Wildlife Blind
There is no shortage of great cameras on the market at the moment and with the cost of camera technology decreasing and the increase of interest in photography and film making, prices will continue to become more affordable. Most of the time people will tell you that camera technology is improving so fast that no matter what camera you buy, it will be outdated in no time. While it is true that future cameras will most probably offer more features for similar prices, your objective should never be to buy a camera because it is cheap or maybe even because it is expensive. It is imperative that you do as much research as you can about what kind of film making it is that you would like to specialize in. It is far better and far cheaper to buy a camera that will work well for you, than to try and buy all the gear you could possibly buy. When buying a body, pick one that will last you a good three years and will be compatible with a lens mount system that is likely to be used in the years to come. Pick a camera body that you are sure will give you the control and the tools you need to manipulate the medium of motion picture to the best of your ability. There is no perfect camera and they all have their limitations, so find a body that complements your film making as far as your budget allows you.
The cameras that I would recommend buying in 2017 for Wildlife Film making include:
The Panasonic GH5 is a great camera for professional filmmakers on a budget. This camera body costs $1995 US and is in my opinion the best option for filmmakers looking to buy a broadcast quality camera for a low price. The Panasonic GH5 one of the best prosumer video cameras to be made to date. Sure there are many cameras around $2000 that will give you great image quality and features but with 4K shooting at 60 fps, Slow-mo videos in 1080p at 180 fps, 3-axis in-body stabilization and an array for excellent Micro Four Thirds Cine and Zoom Lens to choose from, this camera makes for a very capable body to film with. The only negative I have with this camera is that it is well know by now that the auto-focus is not great on this camera and I would not consider using it under most circumstances. The auto-focus jumps around erratically and seems to get confused with even the slightest of movements. Even with this being said, for an avid wildlife filmmaker, this is an awesome camera to use, and although at $1995 it is not cheap, it is a reasonable price to pay for features that used to be only found on the most expensive broadcast camera models.
The Panasonic AG-DVX200 4K Handheld Camcorder is a broadcast camcorder that has all the necessary controls and features to record high-quality video files with great sounding audio. This camera is a complete package with everything you will need to go out and film. The biggest benefit of using camcorder-style cameras is that there is no changing of lenses, no hassles of making sure everything is plugged in or fastened on. This camera is ready to go from the moment it comes out the box.
Another similar camcorder that I have used is the Sony PXW-Z150 4K XDCAM Camcorder. The Z150 works brilliantly as well and the camera is well-weighted and easy to shoot run-and-gun with, but the Sony PXW-Z150 4K XDCAM Camcorder’s single 1″ Exmor RS CMOS Sensor doesnt deliver the camera image quality as the Panasonic AG-DVX200 4K Handheld Camcorder’s superior Single 4/3 MOS Sensor with 12 Stops of Dynamic Range. This camera also has a brilliant face detection auto-focus system that I love using and I have found it to work seamlessly when recording interviews and people in any situation or environment. It really makes worrying about pulling focus a thing of the past and a reliable feature to use when shooting run-and-gun documentaries.
Sony PXW-Z150 4K XDCAM Camcorder
Blackmagic Design URSA Mini 4K Digital Cinema Camera (EF-Mount)
The Blackmagic Design URSA Mini 4K Digital Cinema Camera (EF-Mount) is a big step up in price and features, although for Wildlife filmmakers that are starting up this might not be the best camera for the job due to the increased price of each necessary accessory that you will have to be make good use of this amazing camera. The Lens mount comes as both EF-Mount and PL-Mount, and if you are already have EF-Mount Lenses then this will make a great upgrade for you. For those that are just starting out in the world of wildlife film making this camera body will probably not be your best value for money option and it is a better plan to invest in a cheaper body or complete cameras like the ones mentioned above. In my opinion the benefits of having a light-weight camera rig that is cost-effective and will make you money in the medium term far out-weighs the benefits of investing in a high-end Cine Camera Rig that will take you a couple years or even more to pay off before you start making a profit. In the end the amount you choose to invest and the camera you choose to buy will be different for everyone and there is no perfect camera. Everyone has different needs and you should pick the camera which is best suited for your requirements.
There are are many great males and models to choose from, some very well known and some hardly heard of, the truth is that the technology used in tripods today hasn’t changed much over the past 20 years and breakthroughs and advancements in tripods are rare. The technological revolution in image stabilization is presently underway in 3 axis image stabilization systems such as gimbals and even more so, those build into the camera bodies themselves. Camera technology is progressing so rapidly that it is very possible that tripods and gimbals will relied upon less. There are many ways to film effectively without the use of a tripod but even with in-body image stabilization the quality of your footage will be miles ahead when using a good quality fluid head tripod. When choosing a tripod the most important thing to check is that it will support the weight of your camera rig. The heavier the camera, the better support you will need. It is for this reason you might want to consider a more compact camera rig and tripod system if you are a one man operation or work in a run-and-gun manner. Fluid-Head Video Monopods are also great for film making on the move but of Wildlife Film making I would rather stick to using Tripods as I have found that in most situations the presence of wind and awkward flooring e.g.: Sand, Mud, Grass, and Rocks that make achieving pleasing results with a steady Tripod far most consistent with a good strong tripod than with a video monopod.
Here are some of the Fluid-Head Tripods that I would recommend for small to medium sized camera rigs:
Wide Angle Prime Lenses:
There are a number of great lenses to start of with in wildlife film making and picking the right lenses can be a very tough decision. We all want a lens that will work phenomenally in any given condition but with more versatility comes higher pricing. However higher prices does not necessarily correlate to better image quality. There are horses for courses and sometimes you want a lens with imperfections, while at other times you want to get images as realistically as possible. This often comes down to personal preference and the style of the final product that you are aiming to deliver. When it comes to wide angle lenses, prime lenses are great for consistently creating great looking establishing shots, interviews, and time lapses of landscapes and changes in weather patterns that need to be viewed in their entire entity. For wide angle prime lenses, Rokinon makes a number of great Wide angle Cine Prime lenses from Fish-eye lenses to high quality 10mm, 12mm, and 14mm wide angle lenses that will create consistent image quality under many conditions. The other way to go about this would be to buy a good quality zoom lens with from about 10mm-60mm for Micro Four Thirds Sensors or 20mm-120mm for 35mm sensors so that you have a lens that will be useful in more situations that a prime lens could handle. However the Image quality of prime lenses is far more superior to that of zoom lenses and you might want to consider using better quality lenses in a more slower, more methodical approach if quality is more important to you than setup time. You will have to be the judge of this, and if your time is limited it is often better to opt for a complete camcorder where no lenses have to be swapped in between various shots as you would need to do with a camera like the Panasonic Lumix DC-GH5 Mirrorless Micro Four Thirds Digital Camera or the Blackmagic Design URSA Mini 4K Digital Cinema Camera.
A dead give away to an amateur video production is poor audio quality. I would argue that good quality audio is just as important as the quality of the video footage. Some filmmakers would say this is not the case as we tend to put more time and energy into the video part of film making during both production and post production. The truth is that there is no way to fake good quality audio nor is there any substitute to a quality microphone. If you are going to be filming animals that typically produce interesting sounds and film in dynamic environments like where weather conditions and the sounds of nature help to strengthen the narrative of your film, then you will most likely not achieve the results want without a good quality microphone.
These microphones are exceptionally good at recording sounds when pointed directly at the subject. This is useful for when recording quality audio in environments where wind and other unwanted sounds are present. When animals are far away from the microphone, a shotgun mic will do an excellent job of recording those sounds even from a great distance away. For outdoor shooting it is imperative that you use a windsock (windshield) to diminish the the effect of wind interference in the audio recordings.
ENG Wireless Systems are the best way to record quality audio when performing interviews or having the host of the show talk into the camera. There are a few cheap models on the market and prices start at about $120 for the most economical Lavaliere Microphones. Although the quality or these models is good enough in most situations, they are normally limited to one or two channels and can be prone to interference in urban environments or interference from other devices being used in close proximity to to the Lavaliere Microphone System. It is for this reason I would recommend investing in a Lavaliere Microphone System that uses a higher quality UHF or digital connection that is less likely to encounter interference during use. Sony, Sennheiser and Saramonic all make good quality Lavaliere Microphone Systems that are both reliable and produce good quality audio with very little chance of interference.
Here are three Lavaliere Microphone Systems that I would recommend for Wildlife Documentary Film making. I have personally used all three of these Lavaliere Microphone Systems and even while shooting in the howling desert winds or trekking through the jungle, all three have produced good clean audio with little wind noise or interference.
Recording good quality audio is only possible being able to monitor it with a good-quality pair of field headphones. Field headphones will give you a well balanced audio quality unlike headphones like those sold for listening to music. Music headphones tend to exaggerate bass levels in the audio recording and therefore must never be used to record audio. Likewise earphones should never be used to record professional audio and there is no substitute for a reliable pair of Field Headphones. The technology in Field headphones is very much well established and if you buy a good pair of headphones they will last you easily 3 to 5 years if looked after well.
Here are three pairs of Field Headphones that I would recommend:
Senal SMH-1000 Professional Field and Studio Monitor Headphones
Audio-Technica ATH-M50x Monitor Headphones (Black)
Macro Lens Extension Tubes
This is an invaluable piece of equipment that will bring to life the smallest scenes in your wildlife documentary without breaking your bank balance. Macro Lens Extension Tubes place to lens 10mm-25mm further away from the sensor, allowing the lens to focus a lot closer than it would be possible without. This can effectively turn almost any lens into a macro lens. The other option is to buy a macro prime lens that will produce great results but Macro Lens Extension Tubes produce great results for just a fraction of the price.
Camcorders like the Panasonic AG-DVX200 4K Handheld Camcorder with Four Thirds Sensor and Integrated Zoom Lens and Sony PXW-Z150 4K XDCAM Camcorder have intergrated zoom lenses that have suprisingly good macro capabilities. Here are some of the sceenshots from macro videos I have shot with the Sony PXW-Z150 4K XDCAM Camcorder:
Uroplectus Sp. Scorpion
African Giant Milipede
Here are three screenshots of macro videos I have shot with the Panasonic GH5 with the use of the Vello Macro Extension Tubes and the Panasonic Lumix G Vario 100-300mm f/4-5.6 II POWER O.I.S. Lens:
There are many new manufacturers that are raising the bar very quickly when it comes to drone technology. Drones are now more accessible than ever and I will mention below two models that I believe are your best value for money. All of the models are made by the same manufacturer DJI. This brand is the industry standard at the moment and they really do produce good quality products at reasonable prices. Not that I wouldn’t encourage you to buy other brand names, but in my opinion the quality of these drones, their extremely user-friendly controller software and the huge efforts this company has made to provide their customers with online tutorials to make your first drone experience a safe and enjoyable one, is what truly sets this brand above the rest. Even if you are nervous about flying drones, their tutorials make sure there is nothing you don’t know or aren’t prepared to deal with. I have had many a few “flyaways” and close calls and every time I was confident that my aircraft wouldn’t fail me and luckily so far they haven’t. I have flown the Phantom 3 Professional and Phantom 4 on almost a daily basis for the past year and a half now, what must be a few hundred flights, and not once have I had a flight where the drone caused some sort of danger to animals or people. They are great film making tools for wildlife film making and they allow you to get close to animals without interfering with them. Something that is almost impossible with a Camera and Tripod or with a 4×4 vehicle as the animals are almost always aware of your presence.
Drones I recommend for Wildlife and Natural History Filmmaking:
PHANTOM 4 PRO
Another model that I would like to mention is the Mavic Pro by DJI. This is a great little drone for those filmmakers that really don’t have the space to carry a big drone around with them when hiking up mountains, or walking hours through the jungle. For those instances it might be a better idea to take along a smaller drone like the Mavic Pro, which is a lot smaller and portable and can easily fit into your camera bag alongside your video camera. I personally haven’t used the Mavic Pro and I do prefer the larger drones because of their better performance in high wind conditions, but then again I often choose not to take my drone with when I know I will have to hike long distances and it is for those times I wish I did have more compact drone like the Mavic Pro to film establishing shots and landscapes without having to bring another heavy backpack.
Being able to get up and personal with wildlife is an extremely difficult ask when filming shy and skittish animals. Some animals are well accustomed to human contact and will carry on about their day with little to no cocern, while other animals will bolt the second they hear or see any unusual disturbance. For those instances, the only real way to get close enough to film them is to hide out patiently in a blind of some sort. There are ways to make natural blinds by cutting down branches and camouflaging yourself, your camera and tripod into the surrounds but there are perfectly good easy to carry wildlife blinds that allow you to sit and weight quite comfortably without any detection. This is a tool that every serious wildlife filmmaker will need at some time in their career and for that reason I would suggest buying one and keeping it with you at all times, just in case you ever need it. Before I got one of these, I never thought I would use it so much, but it has been a tremendous help and I can remember many times that I didn’t have a Wildlife Hide that I wish I had have. Below are three good quality Wildlife Hides currently available on the market.
Lastly, the secret of any good wildlife production is the art of patience and persistent. Great stories take time to develop and the only way to create amazing content is by getting out there everyday, even if its not what you really feel like doing in that moment in time. Focus on the results you hope to receive and remind yourself outweigh any adversity you might face during the filming process. Be goal orientated and film as much and as often as you can. Everyday when I go out to film, I have a clear cut plan of what it is I need to find and document. Sometimes I come back disappointed and sometimes I come back completely surprised how well things went. What I am sure of is that even with all the best equipment money can buy, the best asset a wildlife filmmaker can have is patience dedication and more than anything a profound passion and love for the natural world around us. If you film with passion you will undoubtedly discover and uncover things that no one else would have ever seen. Likewise if you can’t afford all the gear, don’t stress, the gear will come, I promise, Just focus on filming to the best of your abilities with the gear you have, even if it means using a cellphone. Prove to yourself and others that you are passionate about your craft and lack of gear will never prevent you from creating meaningful connections with your audience. Invest in the best gear you can afford and don’t beat yourself up about it if your camera isn’t the best. Just enjoy the film making process and do the best with what you have, but don’t wait for tomorrow. Start today!