Freitag, 15. November 2013

Retrospective: Shooting wildlife with a DSLR

So, as promised here is a retrospective look on how it was to shoot wildlife with a 5D Mark III.

First of all, I'm not an accomplished wildlife shooter with 1000+ hours of wildlife videography. Before going out I got some advice from friends who did more often wildlife photo- and videography. Shooting Lemurs I was told, wasn't that difficult, cause they usually are busy either eating or sleeping.

For very fast moving objects, DSLR's are in general no good. The low encoding rate of the video ( even with an external recorder ) plus the rolling shutter problem is definitely in the way.
But in exchange you get a lightweight kit, great shallow field ( which can help separate the animal form the twigs and bush you find them in ) and awesome low light conditions.
That I was mainly shooting in dense subtropical forest, I knew form experience that light will be an issue. Under the dense leaf cover sometimes its as dark as night.

For Sound I did mainly on camera recording, which is not so ideal, but I also brought a separate ZOOM and tried to record natural sound on it by positioning it somewhere far away from where I was shooting and operating. I used that sound mainly to "repair" sequences, but it was very valuable to have.

Lemur's in Ranomafana are generally easy to shoot. The fact that hordes of tourists run through the the most accessible area of the park most of the days, leads to the circumstance that most of the animals are used to humans. They even don't bolt if a 30 man strong tourist group rampages through the forest underneath them. 
So if you positions yourself close to them and wait for some time, it is quiet easy to catch them close up, cause one human is no distraction to them at all.

It also shows that the extensive tourism industry has converted Ranomfana national park ( at least the easy to access areas close to the main road ) have deteriorated a little bit to some kind of "petting zoo". Animals have adapted to it to a certain extend but of course their behavior in this areas can't be really considered "natural".

But on the other hand it allows to get pretty close up shots of the animals, if you stay calm, take your time and not try to rush it ( I guess which counts for every form of wildlife visual production ). In general I would have to loved to spent much more time and to get some real unique shots,  but the production timeline was around 5-6 days, including travel.

Getting so close to the animals, I could shoot mainly with the 24-105 and occasionally brought out the 70-200. But to be honest, I would have loved to have a much longer lens.
Also with a smaller aperture number. The light conditions where at times very weak, so I had to crank up the Iso quite a lot. On the big chip as the 5D's that might be alright, but for other cameras with small sensors, it could create serious problems. I also would have brought an ATOMOS Ninja next time. Especially in the post, you can get so much out of it, when working n the images that have a lot of greens, trees and bushes in it. More detail, bigger colorspace ... makes at times the difference.

With DSLR it is almost mandatory to use manual focus. I generally don't mind, although for following unpredicted movements of animals, it can be sometimes a challenge. I didn't use a follow focus though, cause focus had to be set at times with different pace. A magnifier like the Z-Finder is definitely necessary to find the sweet spots. I also was very pleased with the focus assist that the EVF provided. I never really used it before that extensively, but it came in quite handy.
A EVF with different angles is a plus, especially in uneven terrain, when you have to crouch or tilt the camera to shoot between logs and bushes.

The biggest caveat with DSLR lenses is the zoom. Doing slow, non-jerky zooms with a big lens, need sometimes a lot of patience and separate zoom wheel if you want to make it easy. Traditional video cameras have very often a zoom-by-wire feature which kinda evens out the jerkiness that a human hand will come up with. That is something I was desperately missing. Although I decided in the end to not use such visual features, there was the occasional moment where I wish I had the option.

What is absolutely necessary is a tripod. I didn't use a traditional video tripod, but a phototripod with a video head ( this one ), cause the separate legs made it much easier to set it up between the twigs, stones and rubble that covers a forests ground. Also the fact that in Ramonfana most areas are quite steep and hilly you need at times extreme leg length differences. Shooting out of hand, which I do very often during normal assignments as a video journalist, was out of question. The standard for animal videography is set already very high, so you have to provide the most stable and professional image you can plan for.
Try to get also very fluid and easy to move head. You might have to actively pan around your cam on all three axis while following unpredictable movement patterns. So if your head is not playing along, you will end up with very jerky movement patterns of course.

Can you use a DSLR for wildlife filming ? Yes....and No.
Like an other camera, it is a tool that is always as good as the guy operating it. If you are a seasoned and experienced video operator, you will create some decent results. The lenses are genuinely sharp and the depth of field features provide you with a great possibility to do some more sophisticated framing.
Unfortunately a lot of the established broadcaster for wildlife don't accept DSLR material. Mainly it has to do with the low encoding rate compared to the 50Mbits that the EBU recommends. Also the rolling shutter issue, as pointed out already at the beginning, is generally a deal breaker.
Over the years wildlife photography and videography have been pushed to true amazing limits and the best is mostly just good enough. Its a highly competitive market and the material has to be fresh but also flawlessly shot and presented.
Although DSLR's are used to shoot feature films and can be found pretty much in any field of videoproduction today, for nature and wildlife its maybe still to early.
A Sony PMW300K1 might be a better choice on the long run. A complete package, with exchangeable lenses, full EBU certification and a lot of ressources from a the EX3 scene would make this my wildlife camera of choice right now ( for the price I'm willing to cash out ).   

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