In this blog I intend to share my personal experiences of being a wildlife cameraman. I'll also write about nature conservation, and anything related that I want to have a rant about. It's said that the novel is the last bastion of free speech, so I'll also be featuring my work on 'The Life and Times of Tudor Morgan' series. In between times I like chopping wood, in a microscopic way: it's like a therapy, so I'll be writing about wood sculpture too.
Practice make perfect – but make it real. This is something that I suggest to people who email me from time to time. Hardly a week goes by without somoeone contacting me for advice and tips about becoming a wildlife cameraman. Usually I suggest people read this link because reading is often the first step to anything, especially when the advice is good. The second thing I suggest, because it’s important, is to practice.
practice makes perfect in the Olympics too
Being a wildlife cameraman can be like a sports person waiting for the Olympics to come around. BTW, I’m not a top athlete and I’ve never been in the Olympics, but I think this is a fair comparison. Every four years you have the chance to make your wildest dreams come true, if you’re good enough. For all the time in between you train, practice, put yourself through hell and dream about victory. Filming wildlife can be a little like this because most of the time you’re preparing. Okay, that is almost certainly a pretentious comparison but please stay with me.
not much real filming – but practice will help to make perfect
This might sound ridiculous, but as a percentage of time spent, filming is a very small part of being a wildlife cameraman. By that I mean the actual time that you spend recording video of wildlife is relatively little. Most of the time you plan, travel, eat, rest, set up and wait. With all the background work that goes into wildlife shoots, getting the filming part right is quite important; the pressure is on. So how do you get the filming part right if it comes around so infrequently, especially as much of it is never that easy. You cannot expect to be competent naturally without work and application.
practice what you preach
So how do you go about practicing? Ask a wildlife cameraman that question and some will say, ‘Practice – you must be joking!’ If you receive that answer you will almost certainly be talking to a wildlife cameraman who is always on the road, or in the air, and always working. For the rest of us I think it makes sense to ‘keep your hand in’, even if it’s not a real job. There is a by product of practice: you’ll be adding to your personal film archive, which is worth real money.
Consider this morsel of wisdom that I dish out to people who contact me and want to be a wildlife cameraman. “Film what is local to you and try to film it in a different way.” I’ll say, “Why don’t you try to film a blackbird pulling up a worm from the worm’s point of view.” I have to be honest, I have not yet tried to do that shot at home, but I know exactly how I’ll go about it when I do. And it is a good challenge for someone who wants to be a wildlife cameraman. What I can claim to do though is film birds in the garden from time to time. I also go out locally, making each year interesting by selecting an aspect of wildlife behaviour to film. This for example was my project a couple of years ago great spotted woodpeckers.
perfection is an unrealistic goal – but practice will help
Why did I write this? Lockdown and Covid 19 was the main reason because it gave me a chance to film a few things in our garden. We don’t have a large garden and we’re kind of isolated from proper habitats. Chemicals are banned from our garden, and this year we’ve has several species of bird breeding right here. Blackbirds feed on the lawns, and they, in their way, are a challenge to film nicely. I’ve been filming them with a Panasonic GH5, Sigma 150-660 (1.4x) on a Sactler 20. It’s an unwieldy combination to be honest, and as I wasn’t using the camera with a loupe, even looking through the viewfinder is a challenge.
Have a look at the shot above. This is a random shot that I took from a batch I filmed while wedged against our conservatory. Take a common or garden species (in the UK) and a common behaviour. The more I filmed this blackbird the better the shots became, as instinctively you can’t help but tune in to the jerky movements of the bird. This shot isn’t particularly great, and I’ll explain why. But I’ll also explain how later efforts got better.
Talk to a wildlife cameraman about filming any subject. They’ll often say, ‘I like to get on the subject’s wavelength’. That’s not pretentious bullshit, it’s a real part of getting the job done. Let’s just say that the brief for this blackbird was to film the bird pulling up and eating a worm. Simply, you need to keep the bird nicely in frame, in focus, and follow it until is does what you want. Sounds simple doesn’t it, but it’s a great exercise. After a while the subtle nuances of the bird’s body language help you to follow it. You’ll know when it’s going to move and where. Also, with a depth of field of just a couple of centimetres at most, you’ll be pulling focus constantly and critically. Get that wrong and the shot will be useless.
You have to bear in mind that a Sigma 150-600 with a 1.4 on it is not the crispest combination on a video camera. That said, it’s pretty good, and any focus issues are down to me. I know I have a tendency, when a bird has it’s back to me, to focus the near side of the bird’s head. It’s the eye that needs to be in focus most of the time – but not always. As I say, practice makes perfect, but let’s get real about this. When a subject this size is moving as it does, pulling focus becomes more instinctive than responsive. By that I mean that you’re actually tweaking the lens focus in response to how much the bird has moved closer or further away. You’re not focusing on the bird itself. I hope that makes sense.
This particular take confirms that maybe my instinct was not that great…but I was just warming up. Here and there the shot is just off crisp, but, although the worms were tiny, I fulfilled my own brief! Practice did in the end make as perfect as was possible under the circumstances. Anyone can practice like this – make it real. Filming near to home is immensely satisfying and if you really want to be a wildlife cameraman you’ll relish these local challenges.