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Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Wildlife Videography

HDSLRs give you the ability to create professional-level wildlife films, shorts and even simple multimedia clips. If you haven’t tried, here’s a primer on how to get it done.

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The sunrise ballet as sandhill cranes jockey for takeoff position has always fascinated me. When you watch it enough, the telltale signs when a pair will take flight become apparent. To help other photographers recognize these signs, I shot HD video of the process, and I narrate when teaching. At the same time, as the cranes move about and the snow geese get out of their way, it's a beautiful dance, and when I get better at editing, I'll put it to music for a simple five-minute piece. This was shot with the Nikon D3S and Nikon 600mm lens with a RØDE DSLR mic. It was a calm night, so wind noise wasn't an issue. The calls of the cranes ring loud and true!

The light level was in the basement, and the wolves were very active. While the D3S was connected to the 600mm, raising the ISO to make a click in horrible light never made sense to me, so I just enjoyed the show. Then I remembered the D3S shoots video! I had been shooting video for a while by this time, but never with my DSLR, so I thought I would push the button to see what would happen. The popularity of that simple two-minute clip was so overwhelming that it caused me to think more about creating videos with my DSLR when I was out shooting stills.

My primary mission as a wildlife photographer are stills; it's how I create the content I use to tell visual stories in books and magazines. During that mission, though, there are times when video is just a natural extension of my still shooting, bringing to life a whole new aspect in storytelling. In wanting to create the best possible video, just like wanting the best still, it took my skills down a path that has been interesting, to say the least. You'd think you'd just keep pointing your lens like you always have and just push a different button. Nothing could be further from the truth! Here's some of what I've learned so far.

Moose Peterson's primary DSLRs and lenses for wildlife video are the Nikon D3S and D4, and AF-S Nikkor 600mm ƒ/4G ED VR prime and AF-S Nikkor 200-400mm ƒ/4G ED VR II zoom.
What You Need In A Camera Body
While the body is important in this process, the good thing is, nearly all bodies for the last few years are great video cameras out of the box. That's why, of course, I'm encouraging you to push the button. The basic standard is what's called 1080p, also called by some full HD, a term that assumes a widescreen aspect ratio of 16:9 or a resolution of 1920x1080; 1080p is an HDTV high-definition video mode. Like a number of technical aspects of digital capture, the bottom line is that you can scale the file down, but you can't rez it up. Start at 1080p to capture the most, knowing you can rez it down.

Most HDSLR bodies have a Live View mode, which is how you see, focus, compose and shoot your video. This works great except when you're shooting stills primarily and video as an afterthought. The issue is how much you're moving your head about to see through the viewfinder or the LCD. I've found that some critters just can't tolerate it and move away. For that reason, I use the SmallHD DP6 monitor. It plugs into the HDMI slot, and it's so sharp, you can focus using it. This is important because, once you hit the Live View button, you can no longer see through the viewfinder.

How do you set that initial focus point? I often focus on the subject through the viewfinder, flip the switch going to video mode, depress the shutter release, and slowly raise my head to frame the action with the DP6. To make everything work as seamlessly as possible, I shoot the D4 using Custom Setting G4 so when Live View is set to Video, the shutter release starts and stops video filming. Flip the lever onto Camera/Stills, and the shutter release fires off stills.

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