Wildlife Cameraman Blog

Category Archives: Advanced filming techniques

Some tips for filming wildlife

Hide usage – don’ts and does

Just when I was saying that I didn’t do much wildlife cameraman hide work these days something cropped up.  This is more about putting your hide up than the subject matter, suffice to say that it was a male cuckoo calling from the top of a pine tree.

old hide in use
A smile or a grimace

There are many different types of hide that can be used for filming: everyone has their favourite, but this one isn’t mine.  It’s a sacrificial hide, one that could be left where it was erected until it rotted away and became part of nature.  Except of course all of it wouldn’t.  At some point in the future a bemused forester would wonder why there were four aluminium poles sticking out of the ground in a vague square shape.

This isn’t rocket science, just some anecdotal thoughts about putting your hide up as well as you can. Here, I had no idea how long I would be in the hide, but with a short break in the middle it turned out to be from 7.30 a.m. until roughly 5.00 p.m.  That’s quite a long time with plenty of potential for discomfort.  From a wildlife cameraperson point of view this is normal, and although discomfort is par for the course it is true that your concentration will be reduced if you are constantly uncomfortable.  I didn’t do a great job on this occasion, making the mistake that I wouldn’t be in the hide for very long. Chance would have been a fine thing.  Because of that presumption I put it up quickly with a very saggy roof (see photo).  When you have the roof of a hide constantly chafing the top of your head it is so bloody irritating.  No wonder water boarding is used to extract information from people, as anything constantly annoying the top of your head is ****ing torture.   It’s one of those hides without cross members between the tops of the poles, so I was relying on getting the poles in a pretty good approximation of a square, then using guy ropes to pull the whole thing as tight as possible.  Failed.  Once in the hide it is pretty bad form to come out, so I scrabbled around for any handy sticks to prop up the middle of the roof to no avail.  That was the first problem.  The second was the viewing porthole.  It was always possible that a cuckoo was going to land in a tree in front of me without calling, so I had to constantly visually monitor what was going in.  This is very difficult when you’re bending forward and looking up steeply.  One result of cocking this up was a very stiff neck for several days – luckily my wife is good at massage!  Another error: it might be a dead calm day when you get into a hide (it often is in the UK at dawn) but always expect the wind to get up.  Where I had the camera in relation to the filming port was wrong.  You have to be able to cover all of the likely filming spots with minimal pressure on the lens from the hide’s canvas.  I could get the lens on all the possible perches, but the extreme angles necessitated some pressure on the lens from the lens port.  It’s not so bad if there is no wind, but the moment the wind starts to blow the hide canvas moves, if only a little, and it WILL vibrate the lens camera combination, and that is not good.

If you were to look at the picture in isolation I would forgive you for thinking I was working on a documentary about washing lines.

The cuckoo didn’t turn up but called tantalisingly from miles away.  Who said being a wildlife cameraman was easy?


Tripod Heads – essential reading

using a BolexThe picture here shows an old Miller fluid head on wooden legs.  Used and abused by students at Newport Film School, the head leaked grey grease and the legs jammed when they were wet.  For wildlife cameraman work with long lenses it was rubbish, but when all you have is rubbish you make do.  Tripod heads have moved on somewhat.

This link to Tripod Heads will open a pdf of an excellent document by wildlife cameraman Steve Phillipps.  Steve is well known for not only being an excellent cameraman, but for his extensive knowledge of filming equipment, particularly when it relates to filming wildlife.  There is no substitute for testing equipment yourself, and when your own particular usage is as demanding as following small, erratically moving creatures on a 600mm (or more) lens, you need to know you have the best kit for the job.  Steve has field tested just about all of the practical long lens heads and shares his experiences of using them here.

For any wildlife cameraperson (camera person), this is essential reading whether you’re hiring or buying.

Tripods – the great compromise

This is the top end of a set of Sachtler carbon fibre tripod legs.  In this case the picture is of my own set, which has a 100mm bowl.  For wildlife cameraman work this is too small, a 150mm bowl being essential.  The 100mm bowl cannot take a head large enough to handle long lens work, and the whole set up is inherently more prone to twist and other movement.

sachtler legs
Top of Sachtler carbon fibre legs

Why this picture?  Well, a lot of the wildlife cameraman work that I do necessitates the use of long lenses, and for the past few weeks I’ve been using a Canon HJ 18 x 28.  Anything with a focal length this long is a challenge to keep steady, especially in field conditions.  Soft ground is one problem, but wind is the killer.  A substantial tripod head is essential, but when you’re hiking miles to the tops of mountains there is a point when the ‘tripod carrier’ says enough is enough.  We have been using a Sachtler 25 head, and in reality it is on the light side, but most of the time it is OK.

Often forgotten are the tripod legs.  I show this picture because I have come across a problem on the 150mm bowl set I have been using where the top of the legs meet the bowl on the Sachtler carbon fibre legs, and it’s not the first time I’ve encountered this.  There can be a certain amount of play in the joint where the allen key screws hold the legs onto the bowl.  It could be wear, but I doubt it, as this set is brand new.  More likely it is a bad component inside the fitting.  When I get a minute I’ll take it to bits and have a look (it will not tighten up any more).  The slackness manifests itself as a slight clunk when starting to pan, or most other tripod head movements, and it is particularly noticeable when the head is loaded with a heavy set up.  Maybe this is being picky, but wildlife camera people need all the help we can get!

Small video cameras

My old physics teacher used to say “How small is small?”  Domestic video cameras have become smaller – the early ones were about as ergonomic as loaves of bread and similar in size.  Domestic cameras are not much good for professional wildlife filming work, though there are situations in which a wildlife cameraman can use… Continue Reading

Canon 50-1000mm

Here we see a new Canon 50-1000mm lens rigged on a Red Dragon. It was interesting to play with this new lens in the confines of the large OB warehouse at BBC Bristol.  OK, it is obviously a hefty package, but you would expect no less from a wildlife long lens combination these days, at… Continue Reading