Blog Introduction

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.

Wildlife Cameraman Blog

practice makes perfect – but make it real

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 perfrct
Graham Horder – wildlife cameraman – another saggy hide.

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.

practice

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.

conclusion

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.

GTC IAWF Zerb magazine

The GTC IAWF Zerb magazine is a twice yearly journal. The magazine has been around since 1973, which was the year after the Guild was started. I have idly wondered about the name from time to time, but nobody seems to know why it is called Zerb. What’s in a name? In this instance it’s short and memorable and that’s probably all that matters. Whatever you may think of the name, members hold the GTC IAWF Zerb magazine in high regard. Whenever I open it I know I will always find cutting edge information relevant to working camera crew.

GTC IAWF magazine cover
Zerb magazine – packed with information

Zerb, GTC, IAWF and the wildlife cameraman

The IAWF is affiliated to the GTC and I wrote about the affiliation a while ago. Twice a year I receive a copy of Zerb in the post. I have to be honest, it takes me quite a long time to read. Usually I sandwich its reading between popular crime thrillers, classics and the weekly Lidl bargains of the week newsletter. Over the past couple of years I have written one article for Zerb and encourage IAWF members to write articles too. Zerb usually comprises ninety pages of detailed information and that’s why I take quite a long time to read it. In every edition I will find at least one article by a wildlife cameraman and I learn something from every article. Today I picked three random copies of Zerb off a shelf in my edit room and here is a summary of what they contain.

Zerb – 3 random copies

The first copy of Zerb that I picked up included, for instance, an article by Sinclair Stammers who joined IAWF some years ago. Sinclair’s speciality is filming the invisible, because he gets a kick out of filming what the naked eye cannot see. In the article Sinclair describes the fascination of filming minute insects, parasites and bacteria. If you like watching horror movies I think you will be impressed by some of the photographs! Because of problems with vibration Sinclair built a studio modelled on a nuclear bunker.

The second copy of Zerb featured articles by two IAWF members, Hector Skevington-Postles and Ryan Atkinson. Hector describes his experience of tracking and filming snow leopards in Himachal Pradesh. Snow leopard can be invisible too, but not because they are small. Hector talks about ‘getting your eye in’ to actually see the animal, and how satisfying the whole job was. Ryan Atkinson subtitled his article, “In, Under and On the Edge.” Some of Ryan’s work his metal strength to the limit, and the physical strength of both himself and the kit to the limit. To quote one part of the article, “Every location comes with unique challenges, but none more so than the humidity and heat of the jungle.”

The third copy hosted an article by Dick Harrewijn, and in picking it up I decided to read it again. Dick had just finished a big project in the Netherlands and talks about storytelling. He worked closely with another director, and the article looks in detail at how they went about filming the wildlife project. He talks about equipment choice, shooting styles, and how working on a whole project was a dream come true.

What’s in the rest of Zerb

I didn’t realise this until just now, but you can subscribe to Zerb. It’s really good value, and not just for the wildlife cameraman.

Sigma UK customer service

Very recently I had to make use of Sigma UK customer service and have to say that I was very impressed. This post concerns the 150-600mm Sports lens which I have written about before. Looking back I find I have written about it several times. I’m not the only wildlife cameraman that uses this lens. Lots of keen amateurs and professionals use it.

Sigma lens UK customer service
A hide with internet connection

Sigma 150-600mm lens

I’ve used the Sigma 150-600mm lens for video work for a couple of years or so believe it to be optically very good. You can’t compare it to a dedicated broadcast video lens, but for the price it is a good lens. On a tripod I find that the balance changes ridiculously when you zoom in or out. As a result that makes camera movements for television work difficult to accomplish smoothly. Neither is it a sequence building lens because the difference between the wide and telephoto ends of the lens is not great enough. Other than that I find it to be well designed apart from one small detail.

Lens Hood

While out in the field recently I had a reason to contact Sigma UK customer service. The lens hood of this Sigma is a substantial lump, and although it serves its purpose I don’t like it much. When you put it on in the reverse direction for storage I often get it jammed and that really gets on my nerves. There’s a tiny screw that holds on a lug that tightens into a groove on the lens barrel. Unfortunately with repeated use the screw can fall out, and it often does. I was setting up in a hide on a river the other day when the screw fell out and the lug fell off. Have you ever tried finding a screw the size of an ant in long grass? I found the lug but I didn’t find the screw.

Rapid Service from Sigma UK customer service

I knew I wasn’t going to fix the problem there and then. As luck would have it I had a faint data signal and did a bit of internet surfing. Quite quickly I found out that lots of people lose the screw out of their Sigma lens hood. Lots of blog posts suggested an Ebay site where I could buy a replacement. Other people had got by with using tape. One post mentioned that Sigma UK customer service had been very helpful. I found the email address for customer service and dropped them a line there and then from the hide. I was very impressed when a chap wrote back almost immediately. He said that he’d send a replacement as soon as he could, free of charge. Now that’s what I call service.

wildlife cameraman murder mystery

A few years ago I set about writing a wildlife cameraman murder mystery, a story based on the adventures of a maverick wildlife cameraman. That single novel started life as a screenplay, and that was mainly because I fancied the idea of making a movie. Before long I came up with a few more ideas… Continue Reading

Guild of Television Camera Professionals

The Guild of Television Camera Professionals is an independent craft organisation for professional TV, digital and film camera personnel. The GTC supports and facilitates excellence in moving image production. GTC members are predominantly professional camera people across all moving image disciplines. The International Association of Wildlife Filmmakers (IAWF) is affiliated to the GTC. This is… Continue Reading

The Spirit of the Kite

The Spirit of the Kite is first novel in ‘The Life and Times of Tudor Morgan‘ series. For some time I have wanted to write a novel that captured the essence of being a wildlife cameraman within the genre of murder mystery. In addition I wanted nature conservation to be key to the storyline. In┬áThe… Continue Reading

Wildlife Wood Sculpting

Wildlife Wood Sculpting For most of my working life I have travelled the world filming wildlife for TV programmes, capturing the natural behaviour of birds, mammals and insects. Back home in Chepstow I use sustainably sourced wood (often from our garden) to create fantasy sculptures of my filming experiences. I am very pleased to say… Continue Reading