Video Like A Pro

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Capturing quality footage is tougher than it looks, but cover the bases and you’ll be on the fast track to videoing like a pro

I first began recording my own hunting and fishing trips almost two decades ago. My buddy and I would use his camcorder to document as many of our outdoor experiences as possible. Then, with the introduction of digital cameras, I stepped into the semi-pro world and picked up a Sony VX 2000. While it was state of the art back in the early 1990s, that technology is now obsolete. Today, I shoot a semi-pro Canon XF100 digital HD camera.

Over the past few years, I have had the privilege of filming for, or working with, several different television productions, including Adventures North, Steve’s Outdoor Adventures, Ducks Unlimited Television, and most recently The Hunting Chronicles. I have worked with cameramen using everything from camcorders to full-sized professional cameras. Through all of this, and in keeping with the amazing technological advancements we’ve seen over the past decade, I’ve gleaned a lot of tips and tricks from the pros.

Documenting our hunting and fishing forays is a common practice. In fact, advancements in video cameras, not to mention editing software, literally bring professional possibilities right to our fingertips. The truth is, hunters and anglers have been doing this since the advent of reel-to-reel cameras, but with the evolution of handycams and the myriad of portable, high definition, professional cameras and even point of view (POV) cameras, more of us than ever before are toting this equipment in the field and on the water.

 

Choosing a camera

Before choosing a camera, consider your intended outcome. For example, is your goal to video for personal enjoyment or for public consumption – to diarize your adventures for your own viewing, or to air on television or the Internet? It is equally important to think about the activities you intend to video and under what lighting conditions. Today, when I buy a new camera, I look for something that offers the highest quality HD image, with the best zoom, in the smallest package, at an affordable price. For the most part, my own video cameras have to fit in a backpack.

Brand selection is a personal choice; I’m partial to Canon video cameras and with the current trends, everything is going digital. Second, but also important, is the digital file format that the camera records in, such as MXF, MPEG, AVI or any number of other formats. Some formats are more difficult than others to translate, upload and edit. Be sure to research this thoroughly before deciding on a camera. Believe it or not, some formats can only be read by high end editing software, so there are cost implications there as well. Tapes are generally viewed as old technology.

Many of the micro-sized camcorders and POV cams, like the popular Go Pros for instance, are delivering amazing image quality, and a lot of professionals are even shooting with DSLR cameras as well. While these products are limited in terms of functions, they are small and adaptable, which means they can be mounted on equipment like rifles, rods, boats, trees, under water and other places to provide unique video angles. Watch any well-produced outdoor television show today and a majority of them incorporate clips that can only be captured by a POV camera.

 

Understand the settings

Full manuals are written explaining each and every individual camera, its functions and settings. I would never profess to understand all cameras and in fact even the most astute professional videographers I know fully acknowledge that they continue to learn more and more each and every time they have a camera in their hands.

The most important thing you can do as a videographer is start with the basics, study the owner’s manual for your camera and experiment to understand why certain settings are required and others are optional. Most of today’s cameras can be operated in a full auto mode. In many instances this will deliver good image quality. Problems arise with extraordinary conditions like low light, harsh light or fluorescent light, for instance. ND filters help soften harsh light and zebra lines can be set to assist with setting iris and shutter exposures.

As far as focus is concerned, skilled videographers will sometimes use autofocus, but more often than not they will use the manual focus to ensure that the camera lens captures the desired subject as opposed to something else that comes into the frame. A great example of this is a tree branch that may be less than a metre away from the lens, but the subject is a moving deer over 20 metres away. Skilled videographers learn to switch back and forth between auto and manual focus and or simply work in one mode or the other to avoid undesirable, out-of-focus images. In a similar manner, pros will also capture shots for effect, such as dialing in to, and out of, focus during a given clip.

One of the first and most important settings to consider is white balance. Generally speaking, by manually white balancing your camera to the light conditions you effectively colour correct how your camera is reading the conditions and the colours of the image it is capturing.

Gain is another important setting. In full auto mode, video cameras will open the iris to allow as much light in as necessary to capture the video. Experienced videographers know that good filming light is usually not available until sunrise and continues only until sunset. This creates a never-ending problem for hunters, especially in that much of the activity we see with big game and even with duck hunting often takes place during extreme low-light conditions during that magical window a half hour before sunrise and after sunset. On my own camera for instance, I manually set my gain so that it shows me when it is too dark to film, simply by looking on the monitor. You can indeed override this, but what you benefit in light gathering, you will usually lose in image quality. In the end, the image becomes more pixilated as darkness falls. In situations where you want to interview someone or video a subject within a couple metres of the camera, a fill light can be mounted on the camera to accommodate close range shooting in low-light and even dark situations.

Another important setting is the actual format. For example, broadcast productions today, for most of today’s hunting and fishing television networks, are optimized in 1920×1080 and in a 30P frame rate.

 

Control and enhance sound

In terms of sound, automatic settings can work well, but checking and adjusting audio levels is important. Many videographers like to wear a headset so that they can monitor sound. We all speak at different volumes and it is important to set audio levels according to your subject. Set your sound too high or too low and in many instances it can render footage useless. A skilled editor can adjust sounds somewhat, but there are limitations.

An external shotgun mic is advantageous. Adding a noise dampening layer, or dead cat, as they are commonly called, will help minimize wind noise. For a truly professional sound, quality cordless lapel mics are the best option. Like anything, you usually get what you pay for. I have used inexpensive ones and the sound wasn’t great, but I now use high-end lapel mics and the sound is exceptional.

 

In the field

After you have a reasonable understanding of the technical settings on your video camera, the best way to learn is by getting into the field and experimenting. The more footage you capture and review, the more you will learn. Before hitting the record button, think again about your purpose for the footage. If it is for public viewing, think about how you’re going to introduce the video, the storyboard itself, including all of the key elements, and how you plan to conclude the video. Remember, most video sequences should either tell a story or provide some form of instruction.

Many of us focus solely on capturing the kill shot or catch and we forget to capture the essence of the experience. The extra footage that so many of us forget is referred to as B-roll. Ironically, it is this footage that really tells the story from start to finish and makes a video interesting. For instance, if you intend to video a deer hunt, consider capturing pre-hunt preparations, such as a hunter at the counter purchasing tags, perusing the regulations, looking at topographic maps, pre-season scouting forays, setting up tree stands, driving to the hunting destination, walking or riding a quad into the area and so on. During the hunt or fishing excursion itself, over the shoulder video shots are always appreciated as they allow the viewer to live the experience vicariously through the footage.

Regardless of what you are documenting on video, consider adding dimension and variety to your footage by panning scenery, zooming in and out, capturing time-lapses of scenes that morph over time and documenting aspects that we find interesting but are perhaps less front and centre when we are in the moment, such as fish swimming into our net, a lure being cast into the water, close ups of facial expressions when a hunter walks up to their animal and so on.

As you compose each video clip, think about what you want the end product to look like, the message you want to convey, who it is for and especially the details that most viewers would find interesting and can relate to. Many of today’s video cameras have an inherent image stabilizer, but this only helps a bit. Whenever possible, use a tripod or tree arm. A monopod may be a good option when you are mobile, but as a rule a quality tripod with a fluid video head will provide a stable platform with the ability to gently pan and move with mobile subjects. If handheld is the only option, then a shoulder mount can assist in keeping the camera as stable as possible.

Beyond the basics, it is up to the skilled and subtle hand and eye of the videographer to capture each moment.

The biggest problems we experience when filming outdoor activities usually relate to weather. Moisture is the enemy. Simply put, electronics and water don’t mix. From rain to extreme temperature variations and consequential humidity, moisture can wreak havoc with video equipment. It’s always smart to keep a dry lens cloth and a cleaning kit with you for removing accumulated moisture and dust from the surface of the lens and from the body of the camera itself. One of the best investments you can ever make is a protective weather case or slicker.

 

Editing

In the end, raw footage is just that – raw. Creating a captivating finished product is all about the editing. From simple programs like Windows Moviemaker to middle-of-the-road programs like Premier Elements and more complex software like Adobe Premier CS5.5, the sky is the limit. Significant barriers relate to cost and know-how. Adding music, special effects, smooth and appropriate transitions, text and titles and keeping each individual clip short can turn good raw footage into an exceptional finished product.

As western sportsmen, we live in a land of opportunity. Even traveling abroad to hunt and fish is a common occurrence. With vast wilderness and limitless opportunities, recording these experiences on video is no longer an anomaly, but rather something many of us do on a regular basis. If you haven’t yet begun to capture your adventures on video, give it some thought. It’s a great way to document memories that will last forever.

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