There was a time - and I'm talking not too long ago - when watching a hunting show on television required waking up early on a Saturday morning and tuning to a single cable channel. Today, you can just about find one on 24 hours a day! And if you can't find one on TV, you've probably got a few recorded on your DVR that you've only watched three or four times. Heck, there are now entire cable networks dedicated solely to hunting, fishing and the outdoor pursuits. All of this exposure has lead to an exploding interest in people videoing their own hunts.
Since I started producing the Poor Boys Outdoors television show last year, it has really opened my eyes to the number of hunters who now pack a video camera into the woods with them, hoping to catch that moment of truth on video. Unfortunately, even for many of those who do manage to capture a successful hunt on video, the results are often disappointing; due to either a lack of proper equipment, improper settings on the camera, or poor technique. That's not to say you have to have the best equipment or a degree in broadcasting to video a quality hunt that your friends and family will enjoy...it just means you need to know how to use your camera and accessories to get the best footage possible.
In this first part of a two-part series on videoing your hunts, we are going to look at some of the different camera options on the market today, as well as what accessories you will need in order to get the most from your camera. In part 2, we will discuss how to use the equipment, along with your knowledge of hunting, to create an entertaining video of your hunt.
While just about any video camera can be used for filming hunts, some models will obviously do a much better job than others. Which camera you choose will depend heavily on what your budget is and what you intend to do with the footage after you've captured it. If you're strictly filming hunts for your own enjoyment, then your options are much greater than if you are shooting for broadcast television. In fact, there is no way I can cover them all in the scope of this article. Instead, we'll look at some of the key features to look for when shopping for a new camera, and you can narrow down the list on your own.
HD vs SD
Video technology is changing fast, and High Definition (HD) is quickly becoming the standard for television viewing, movie watching (Blu Ray), and producing video. In fact, if you are in the market to buy a new camera, considering a Standard Definition (SD) camera is almost a moot point, as most SD models have been phased out. That's not to say that you need an HD camera to produce DVD-quality hunting footage, but if you are ready to purchase something new, then by all means, go ahead and make the leap to HD.
Regardless of what you plan to use your footage for, the next thing I would look for in a good HD camera is the ability to add an external microphone. We'll talk a little more about why that's important later in the article, but the short of it is this - factory "on-board" microphones typically do a lousy job. And bad audio makes for bad video. All but the cheapest of cameras today come with a 1/8" microphone port that will handle the task, so just make sure you check before buying.
IMAGE SENSOR SIZE
As hunters, we all know that a lot of successful hunts happen during the first and last 30 minutes of daylight, which is why it is extremely important that a camera used to video hunts performs as well as possible under those types of low-light conditions. Video camera manufacturers often use "Lux ratings" to describe how well their cameras perform in low light, with a lower rating meaning better low-light performance. However, these ratings vary from manufacturer to manufacturer and are unreliable at best. It's comparable to trusting the advertised speeds on today's new bows. So, if you can't trust Lux ratings, just how are you supposed to compare how different cameras will perform in low light? The answer lies in the camera's image sensor.
The image sensor of a video camera is what transforms the light captured by the camera's lens and turns it into a digital signal. The most common types of image sensors you will encounter are CCD (charge coupled device) and CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor). The technical difference between the two is not so much as important as the sensor's size. In general, the larger the sensor, the more light it can capture, resulting in a better quality image and better low light performance. That can be the difference between a great hunt on video or a dark, grainy image the you can barely make out.
The next feature to look for in a new video camera, is the availability to manually control many of the camera's settings. While today's cameras do a pretty good job in "Auto" mode, there are times that you will need to adjust certain settings on the camera to produce the best quality footage possible.
First and foremost, you HAVE to be able to manually focus the camera. This is extremely important in wooded situations, where trees, branches and leaves can cause the camera to lose focus of the animal (or person) you are videoing. Not only do you need to be able to manually focus, but you need to be able to do it quickly and easily without a lot of movement. Things often happen fast when a deer or turkey shows up in camera range, and the last thing you need is to have to fumble through multiple buttons or a complicated menu just to get your subject in focus.
Other settings that you will want to be able to manually adjust are the white balance, aperture and gain. All of these we will discuss in more detail in part 2. For now, just know that they are important settings and that, ideally, your camera should allow you to adjust them as needed.
When budgeting for a new video camera, it is important that you allocate some of the money for important accessories. One of the biggest mistakes I see new guys make when getting into this hobby is that they spend every penny they can scrape up on the camera and then have nothing left to buy any of the "extras." If you truly want to produce good quality footage that your friends and family will want to watch, then the items discussed below are just as critical as buying a good quality camera.
As I mentioned earlier in the article, audio can make or break a good hunt, and factory "on-board" microphones typically do a poor job of capturing quality audio. Little things - like the sound of a big tom gobbling off in the distance or that same tom spitting and drumming just 20 yards away in the decoys - can make a huge difference in the overall sound of your footage. The best way to pick up on those subtle sounds is with the addition of a quality shotgun microphone. These mics can cost anywhere from $60 up to $2,000 depending on how serious you want to get, and for the most part, you get what you pay for. Some of the more reputable manufacturers include Audio Technica, Azden, Rode, Sennheiser, and Sony, and most make "economy" models for the budget minder videographer.
TRIPOD/CAMERA ARM/SHOULDER MOUNT
Ever watched a home video where the camera was shaking or bouncing around so bad that it was painful to watch? There is nothing worse than a great video hunt ruined by shaky camera work, and I have seen it way too many times. This is especially true when the solution is as simple as using a tripod (if hunting from the gound), tree arm (if hunting from a stand), or a shoulder mount (if you need to be more mobile). Never shoot anything freehand if you can avoid it.
Like shotgun mics, tripods can vary greatly in price, depending on their weight, quality of construction and how smoothly they operate. Any tripod is better than none, so just look for one that fits your budget and that operates as smoothly as possible. If you are going to be moving around a lot (like run-and-gun turkey hunting), then you may want to consider the weight factor as well.
With the increased popularity of videoing hunts, quite a few manufacturers have jumped into the camera tree arm business. Again, prices vary greatly depending on material used (steel vs aluminum), strength, and mounting system. Be sure to look for an arm that allows for leveling the arm both vertically and horizontally, as well as one that will easily support the weight of your camera and accessories.
If you need to keep your camera mobile, but still need something to keep the footage smooth, then consider a shoulder mount. With a shoulder mount, the rear of the mount rests on the cameraman's shoulder, and the front is typically held up by one or both of his/her hands, steadying the camera and distributing the weight more evenly to reduce fatigue. These are great for run-and-gun turkey hunting, waterfowl hunting, and upland bird hunting - situations where a standard tripod may not be practical.
The equipment described above is what I consider the bare minimum for producing good quality hunting footage. However, there are LOTS of other items that can make good footage even better. One of these items is what is commonly referred to as a LANC controller. The LANC controller mounts to the handle of your tripod head and plugs into the camera, allowing the user to adjust the zoom, focus, and to hit record all from the convenience of the handle, without having to touch the camera itself. That means one-handed operation and less potential to spook game with excess movement.
Other items that can come in handy are spare batteries, a wide angle lens, a camera rain cover, vinyl camo tape (to camouflage the camera), and a good padded camo bag to carry it all. The list of "extras" is endless - only limited by your checkbook!
There are few things more rewarding in the outdoor pursuits than capturing a successful hunt on video. That is especially true when the hunter happens to be your child, grandchild, niece or nephew. I mean, who of us doesn't wish we had our first deer or turkey kill on video to watch and relive? If you're considering giving videoing a try, or even if you've been at it for a while, I hope this information will help to make you a better cameraman. Be sure to check back soon as we look at some tips and techniques to make the most out of your video equipment.
Brian Grossman is a wildlife biologist, freelance writer and avid outdoorsman from Mt. Washington, Kentucky. You can visit his web site at www.PoorBoysOutdoors.com .