Wildlife Videography Techniques

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.

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 1920×1080; 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.

It simply takes a lot of forage to keep the largest deer in North America fed. This bull moose at Sandy Pond, Baxter State Park, Maine, is walking the shallows, foraging on the underwater grasses on the edge. The single click gives you a sense of place, but not purpose. The moose, as you may imagine, isn’t a fast mover or eater, but rather very deliberate. Shooting with the Nikon D3S and Nikon 600mm lens, the camera was locked in place, and I shot so the moose slowly moved through the frame right to left to tell the foraging story.

Lens Settings
The lens is what really makes HDSLRs just so darn cool and the final results cinematic! The range of lenses we can easily use to shoot video is vast. This is key in wildlife videography since we can, with the switch of a lever, change back and forth. But there are a couple of “gotchas” in this process that you take for granted shooting stills that you can’t when shooting video.

Up until HDSLRs, controlling depth of field in video was the realm of very expensive cinematic cameras, but no longer. We can easily shoot at ƒ/1.4 or ƒ/2.8 or ƒ/4 and have a really shallow depth of field and dramatically throw the focus to and from our subject. Just keep in mind that when you do that, you not only have to have very smooth focusing, but also watch the shutter speed. If your subject is moving and you’re shooting faster than 1⁄160 sec., your subject will move in a very rigid, jumpy way.

With this in mind, you also have the ability to zoom as you shoot. When shooting stills, you set your focal length and then just focus and shoot. When looking at the same subject through the lens thinking video, though, you can zoom to that focal length. Telling the story using motion rather than stills, zooming brings another dimension to the story. Doing this smoothly, I find, is made easier using the plastic wrenches you use to remove filters. These can slip over the zoom or focus ring, and that extra leverage permits a smooth action.

One warning I want to pass along: Turn off the VR/IS! When the camera is attached to a lens and the lens to a tripod, when you have this turned on and shooting a long clip, you’ll see the image “shift” up and down in the frame. It’s subtle, yet annoying, just as the focus jumping in and out. Most use manual focus when shooting video because there’s nothing worse than a great clip being spoiled by the lens searching for focus.

More On Keeping It Steady
The tripod you use for shooting stills should work perfectly for your HD video. The same may not be true for your head. While not a game-killer when shooting stills, if the panning movements in your head aren’t smooth, you’ll see it in your video, and it’s a game-changer.

When shooting video, the moving subject tends to require a moving story. The movement comes from either the subject, the lens or the camera. Subject movement is pretty obvious. Movement from the lens can be depth of field, focus or zooming, or a combination thereof. The camera movement is either from panning or a rail (something we tend not to shoot on for stills). That panning comes from the tripod head, and it has to be smooth. To find out how good your head is, set up the camera and just pan with a dog walking by. You’ll soon discover how good your head and technique really are.

The moose of Sandy Pond is a subject I tend to gravitate to, you might imagine. I love photographing them, but with the introduction of HDSLRs, recording their biology with video just seems like a natural extension in telling their story. Working on a 15-minute segment for my presentations, this was shot with the Nikon D3S and 200-400mm zoom. This young bull, dealing with the stress of fall, came out in the wind because all the big boys were tucked away in the forest. One click can’t tell that story, so a video showing all the players is the only way I know to accomplish it. The bull was making a low moan, which the RØDE DSLR mic did a pretty good job of capturing. In post, I had to work to reduce the wind noise. If I could have positioned another mic out of the wind, the results would have been better, but that’s not always an option.

Sound Is So Important
Sound is really difficult to do well while photographing wildlife. Sound is everything, and capturing the sound we experience when watching a documentary requires an auxiliary mic. The one that’s built into your DSLR is useful, but for wildlife work, you’ll want an audio-recording system that gives you more range while eliminating a lot of the off-axis ambient noise. You could use a shotgun mic like the RØDE VideoMic Pro, but even that may not work for wildlife. Other options? I go with a handheld digital recorder like the Olympus LS-10S, Zoom H4n from Samson Technologies or Tascam DR-40 that records stereo. These recorders can do an incredible job, and many of them allow you to connect a separate mic, like a shotgun, for even greater control. You’ll find that experimenting with audio, while challenging, can make a big difference in the final clip or film.

Shooting Strategies
There are many, and it really comes down to you. I do have some suggestions that may help you get started. Unless you’re shooting a documentary, you don’t need long segments. Since we’re coming from the perspective of shooting stills, we only need short clips. I tend to start the video right after I’ve captured the stills I want. A minimum clip length of 90 seconds and a max of about five minutes is the norm. If you’re after producing just a three- to five-minute YouTube clip, this will serve you really well.

I would encourage you to use video to aid in your still storytelling, though. Shooting video clips that are segmented with your gorgeous stills is a great strategy. The one struggle I have is that sometimes when shooting stills, I think that would be a great video clip, and when shooting video, I think that would be a great still. With this “conflict” often going through my mind, I’m switching a lot. The one feature of the D4 I really appreciate is that the metering compensation is separate from the stills and video. For example, there may be only -2⁄3 exposure compensation dialed in for stills, but the same scene for video could be -11⁄3 exposure compensation. If you’re flipping back and forth between the two and exposure is linked, this can cause a little shooting stress.

Manfrotto Q5 055; RØDE VideoMic Pro; Zoom H4n

On this same note, one of the luxuries of shooting video is low light. While we’re often concerned with noise shooting stills, with video, not so much. I have a lot of video shot at ISO 25,000, and since the image is moving, the mind’s eye doesn’t take note, and that’s the best part of having video in our still cameras!

Wait, There’s More!
Oh, there’s really so much more, but I wanted to just get you started. All those things that are photography—ƒ-stop and shutter speed, composition and light—are still very much part of the video picture. There’s plenty of technical to suck in the biggest camera junkie. But for those who love photography to tell a story, the HDSLR is a grand vehicle for doing just that! You probably already have the tools; you just have to flip the switch and go. Keep in mind, like anything digital, if it doesn’t work, you can simply delete it. With a little bit of experimenting and time, though, you’ll gain the same satisfaction from your video captures as you do from your stills.

You can see Moose Peterson‘s wildlife videos and his photography on his website at www.moosepeterson.com.