Sonntag, 8. September 2013

production diary: Madagascar , shooting nature on a budget with a DSLR , part 1

Teaser: Paradise Lost from Marc Hofer on Vimeo.

Last month I traveled to the island of Madagascar in the Indian ocean filming Lemur populations in the Ranomafana national forest for a climate change story commissioned by Global Post.

Madgascar lost most of its natural forest over the last couple of centuries through human expansion and as the trees went, so did quite a big junk of the natural wildlife. Many species on the island are unique to this place and developed on its own over a long period of time when the Island broke away from the Indian sub continent, drifting all the way to the African east coast.

Especially the Lemurs, a species of primates, struggle with the fast slash and burn process that happens on the island. Now this already endangered species is coming under more pressure as effects of climate change are more and more visible on the weather patterns on the island. Increasing strength of cyclones, extended dry periods and raising temperature has profound impact on the fragile environment. I visited US scientist who take a closer look at the impacts, fallouts and reasons for changing climate patterns and its influence on the Lemur population.

frame of a lemur at Ramonafana national park

Before I went out there to shoot, I collected some infos about the Lemurs, their habits and the terrain to shoot in.
First of all, the Ranomafana national forest, is a generally wet, dense subtropical forest that expands of a hilly region in the center-south of the island. I had to be prepared for some hikes under not always favorable circumstances. I didnt really have a lot of budget to hire carriers, so I had to prepare to shoulder all the equipment myself. Luckily I could stay with the scientist in the research station, so I figured that I had a fairly stable homebase where I could dumb most of my equipment that I would not need on a day to day shooting situation.

I took a photo tripod that I modified for video use with me. It needed to be compact, having the possibility to have 3 legs that can be adjusted separately to help with the uneven terrain. It also needed to be light and compact to make it easier to carry over 1 or 2 hours on a walk. Being stable of course is a much more important feature when you do continuous shooting, then just snapping away stills. So it needed also to be heavy and stable enough.

I generally opt for fewer gear then most people would use. The last thing I want to do is to miss a shot or not able to access certain areas because I get hold back by heavy backpacks and cumbersome pouches and bags.

I have had worked in dense sub-tropical forests before and the thing that I remembered is the need for having a light sensitive lens ( or a image sensor that can handle low light well ). At times the canopy gets so thick that almost no direct sunlight is hitting the ground. I hoped that my 5D Mark III would be able to deal with it. But I also took my 7D with me, cause I figured I might would use the crop-factor. The only tele lens that I own and that I use is the 70-200mm and that tends to be too less for animals I figured. I was planning to use a teleconverter to get some extra zoom in the worst cases, but after it turned out that the equipment wont arrive in time, I knew I had to make do with what I had.

Lemurs live mainly in the upper parts of the trees, so to get close to them I had to be very patient and/or climbing a lot higher grounds.

frame of a lemur in Ramonofana national park
Ranomfana is a also a main tourist spot. So the access to the animals in general I heard was quite easy. At least for tourist purposes. I couldnt be sure about how close I could get with a camera (with limited zoom ). It also raised the issue tourist interference and therefore longer walks outside the "tourist zone".

Another element is mobility. Animals tend to move quickly without notice. If they do so in a flat area it might be not such much of a issue, but in hilly, thick forests they can vanish out of view very quickly.It also needed to be fixed tight, by using mainly long lenses, reducing camera shake was very important. DSLRs have the big advantage of being relatively compact. They are quite easy to carry and if you refrain of adding a lot of extra gear on the side ( EVF, rods and focus wheels ) it stays that way, though it makes the operation of the camera a little bit uncomfortable at times.

I opted of taking in a utility belt, where I could stash extra batteries, my 7D body, an extra lens and microphones. A utility belt as it is provided by i.e. Newswear has the advantage of keeping everything on you, even when you have to climb some trees, without being overall in the way.
And you need the extra possibilities. Shooting with DSLRs require a lot of extra batteries. To go into the field I took at least 6 spare batteries with me. I knew I would return in the evening to a place where I could recharge, that helped keeping my load reduced. Otherwise I would have had to carry all that extra equipment on me.

It also is a good idea to have a small towel with you to clean the camera and lenses from moisture which in this subtropical environments arise.

In Part 2 I will talk about the active filming.

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