As Director of Photography for adventure content, I often get asked for tips or tricks from my experiences. So I thought I would share a few with you.
Here I will outline some key fundamentals of camerawork. I will be crunching down huge amounts of information into bite-sized pieces, having to omitt huge areas of technical information. So just use these tips and tricks as shortcuts to ensure that creativity and content will remain the focus of the photography.
TIP 1: The creative is as important as the technicality
I often read about kits, cameras, lenses, resolutions, bit-rates, what’s new, what’s good or bad, and what’s hot or not. It’s great to have a guilty pleasure of geeking out on kits, but the plethora of gear with multitudes of features can be mind boggling and can sometimes lead to a lack of conviction that can detract from the essence of shooting simple, great video and stills.
You don’t need the fanciest of kit, and with smart phones most people are capturing incredible content.
In my opinion, the important thing is to not let the technical process impede the creative. There’s nothing worse than someone having to wait while you fiddle with the camera settings or missing the moment because you weren’t quick enough.
When technicality and creativity collide filming in Tanzania
A pretty extreme example of this was when I was out in Tanzania, in the Serengeti. I was asked by the producer of the show to go out in the morning to film a Cheetah chasing and killing a wildebeest. I got in the car with my guide, who immediately cracked up laughing, wiping away his eyes as he explained that to ensure a shot like this we would need a few months, and even then, it would not be set in stone. Too many things need to fall into place, outside of our control. With nothing else to do that day apart from try, we set off in a cloud of dust in search for our shot.
Without question, the Serengeti delivers on its promise of being the best that Africa has to offer when it comes to wildlife and natural beauty. That morning alone I filmed Vultures fighting over a dead zebra, a Leopard in a tree and then Cheetahs eating a fresh kill. It only took 20 minutes to get the shot we were after.
On the way back, we stopped to film a pride of Lions on a copy. Beautiful stuff, the light, the surroundings, all just perfect. Mid-way through, the first thing I feel is the Vehicle being slammed into reverse. I then hear screaming “the kill, the kill!,” while I’m asking him what the heck he means. All I get from him is “it will happen, it will happen here!” ... Realising that he means we are about to witness a lion kill its prey, I proceed to try and change lenses to the super long lens I had for being a long way off, but trying to put it together whilst being thrown around in the back of the 4x4 wasn’t the easiest.
We stop abruptly and I’m thrown into the perfect spot, “here, it will happen right here” as he points in front of us.
With the camera just about operational, I get shots of the lion’s eyes through the grass, as it seeks the unsuspecting Wildebeest. In that spilt second it occurs to me that this really needs to be in slow motion. After a quick change of frame rate, I take the risk, switch to 180 frames per second-- about seven times slower-- and hit record. As I wait and glance at the camera, to check the amount of space I have left on the card, I pause. It shows me six minutes (!?!?) ... The card lasts barely any time at all when you film in slow motion!... but I’m set up now so I gamble and decide to stick with it. Four minutes in and the lion is still watching, but no attack, she’s waiting for the perfect moment, and if it happens whilst I’m resetting my camera I’m not getting this shot. I have never known time to move so slowly, sweat pouring off my face, heart racing well above a comfortable pace.
Four mins and twenty seconds in, with a mere one minute forty left in the card and she makes her move. Springing into action from her hiding place, we see is the wildebeest exploding into a sprint. But thirty seconds later and it’s all over.
Filming is often all about choices, riding your luck and trying to stay calm in the moments that are available to you. Ambivalence and a lack of conviction can genuinely cost you what you desire, so keep it as simple as you can, do the basics right and you can end up with some extraordinary results.
TIP 2: Get Good at the Basics
Like any profession, succeeding at the basics is imperative. My aim is to give you a general understanding of what is happening in the camera, and what effect that will have on the image.
Most often when you adjust any one element on the camera, it will have a knock-on effect and another adjustment will have to be made. You are always searching for the balance between functions to achieve the desired effect.
Follow the Physics or FIZSICS acronym
It’s all about the Physics or F I Z S I C S
Master these 7 things and you’ll really get somewhere.
I can’t remember any other time in my career when focus was more important than when I filmed a real 727 airplane crash. It was an experiment 3 years in the making. Iris and zoom come a little more naturally, but focus can trip up even the most experienced photographer. It’s called focus for a reason and in the moments that plane came down while I filmed from a helicopter in a 500ft hover off to one side, I felt like my heart had moved up to the back of my throat. It can be stressful at times, but when you get it right, its super rewarding.
An Overview of Focus
Bizarrely, it is not just the focus adjustment that determines sharpness of the image-- there are other factors to consider. Here is a shot where I’ve framed up the same shot, but one of them I’ve set the Iris setting of f2.8 and the other at f16.
Pic #1 (Shallow Depth) Pic #2 (Deep Depth)
(NB: I had to increase the shutter to compensate for the increased amount of light because of the wider aperture - more on this later)
Quite a bit different right? The 2nd photo everything is in focus, and the 1st photo gives you a much greater feeling of depth. The effect you use really depends on what you are trying to portray with your picture. For most of what I shoot, I am always looking for foreground to be soft so your eye is drawn towards the sharp, main subject of the image. But the beauty of all of this is that the power is in your hands. Interestingly, the second picture shows us what the lens is truly focused on and the position of your focus becomes much more critical when working with a wider aperture.
TIP 3: With Focus, Practice is Everything
When I was a trainee, I drew a picture on my hand like this.
Pic #3 (my hand)
I used to make a twisting motion for hours on end and say “nearer, further” in my head to try and make the motion second nature so whenever I picked up the camera I wouldn’t get it the wrong way round. It really worked for me, it might not for you, but what I’m pointing at is that it’s really good to get to know your camera and make it an extension of yourself.
How you operate it is key. I’ve explained about turning the camera the right way, which is helpful for speed and efficiency. When shooting a moving image, as a general rule you should use manual focus only; you could possibly use auto for a second to bring it in, but then straight onto manual and it’s a constant adjustment as you film.
I mostly set my own focus and it’s one of the main skills required to be able to properly photograph anything. The movement of the focus ring is very fine and barely noticeable when something is far away from you, as something moves closer to the lens the movement gets bigger.
Different cameras have different degrees of quality to how well these functions operate and how they are set up on the camera, so it is often a case of trial and error.
An overview of Iris (or aperture)
The Iris can make a major creative difference to the amount of what is in focus in front of the lens, or the depth of field.
That is a creative decision, but the primary use of the Iris is to adjust the amount of light that come through it to expose the image on the chip block within the camera.
This works exactly the same way as your eyes. When it is very bright, your eyes automatically make the Iris in your eyes smaller. It does this to reduce the amount of light coming through it so you can view the world in a normally exposed way. When it’s dark the opposite happens.
Pic - Human eye Iris closed Pic - Human eye Iris open
Pic - Lens Iris closed Pic - Lens Iris Open
The increments of the Iris are measured in f-stops. Different lenses will have the ability to go to lower f-stop values depending on quality and whether they zoom or not. We call lenses that can’t zoom prime lenses and theses are able to achieve lowers f-stops, let more light in (work better in the dark) and create an even greater exaggerated depth of field.