Video techniques to produce great hunting footage.
Having the best video equipment that money can buy won't result in great hunting footage, if you don't know how to properly use it. On the flip side, even low budget equipment can produce great footage in the hands of a knowledgeable videographer. In the last article, we covered the basic equipment needed to successfully video hunts, and how to best choose that video equipment based on your available budget. In this article, we will discuss some tips and techniques to get the most out of whatever equipment you have - regardless of whether it is a $6,000 professional HD camera, or one you picked up for $100 at the local flea market.
READ THE MANUAL
As your typical male, it almost pains me to say it, but getting the most out of your video camera begins by taking the time to read the owner's manual. The average video camera owner will never use even a fraction of the available options on their camera. That's because they turn the camera on - in full auto mode - press record and that's it. Sure, they may occasionally zoom in and out, as needed, but they never bother to dive any deeper into their camera's functions.
If all you ever film are family functions and events that will only be enjoyed by yourself and immediate family, then running the camera in full auto mode really isn't an issue. However, if you want to shoot good outdoor video - stuff you would be proud to show to your buddies in deer camp - then learn to operate your camera to its full ability. The main functions you want to master are the ability to manually focus the camera, to manually set the white balance of the camera, and the ability to manipulate the aperture (iris), shutter speed, and gain of the camera - which will allow you to maximize the camera's performance in low light.
There is not a whole lot to discuss about manual focus other than you want to be able to do so quickly and easily. While autofocus may work fine if you are hunting in a wide open area, where nothing will get between the camera and whatever you are videoing, it is a nightmare if you are hunting in the woods or in thick brush. Every time a tree, branch, leaves, weeds or anything else gets between you and the animal (or person) you are videoing, the camera is going to go in and out of focus. That is extremely distracting to the viewer and can ruin an otherwise fabulous hunt, so know how to quickly and smoothly access your camera's manual focus.
Even with guys that claim to be "old pros," manually setting the white balance is probably one of the most overlooked - yet most important - details for insuring good color in your footage. Every camera is different, so I can't tell you exactly how to set your white balance, but it typically consists of focusing the camera on something white (piece of paper, notecard, etc), and then pressing the appropriate white balance button on the camera. This tells your camera exactly what true white should look like, and as a result, the camera can reproduce all the other colors accurately. If you've ever watched footage where the color seemed off - having a green, blue or reddish tint to everything - then you've witnessed the results of improper white balance.
It's also important to know that white balance isn't something you can just set and forget. It needs to be re-set any time there is a change in lighting. That means you should be adjusting hourly when shooting in the field, and anytime you change locations.
When it comes to controlling the exposure (lightness or darkness) of your footage, auto mode will do fine under most good lighting conditions. As hunters, though, we all know that "prime time" is typically the first and last 30 minutes of daylight, far from what can be considered "good lighting conditions." That is why it is so important to be able to manually control the exposure of your camera.
The three most common camera settings for this are the iris, shutter speed, and gain. The iris is an adjustable opening (aperture) that controls the amount of light that passes through the camera lens, and iris levels are usually labeled in "f-stops" on your camera. High end cameras usually have an adjustable iris ring on the camera's lens, while many consumer camcorders will require you to scroll through an electronic menu to find iris settings. The main thing to know here is that a high f-stop results in a darker image, and a low f-stop results in a brighter image.
The shutter speed is the length of time (measured in fractions of a second) that your camera's sensor is allowed to build a charge. While it isn't necessary to understand the science behind shutter speeds, it is important to know that higher speeds do a better job of capturing action without blurring, but require more light. Any setting slower than 1/60th of a second may result in blurring; however, I often drop down to 1/30th of a second to get those last 15 minutes of legal shooting light. It's not ideal, but it could mean the difference between filling a tag on camera or having to let a nice buck walk by because you're out of camera light.
Gain is the cameras way of electronically "boosting" the image signal, making your footage seem brighter in low light conditions. Sounds great, huh? Well, it would be, except for the fact that the more gain you use, the "grainier" your footage gets. You can get by with using a little gain to get in an extra few minutes of camera light, but anything more than a little is going to really hurt the quality of your footage.
THE SHOT LIST
Once you have a firm understanding of all the functions of your camera and how to adjust them as needed, it's time to start laying down some footage! The biggest mistake most newcomers make in this department is that they only focus on getting footage of the animal coming in and getting shot, and then a "hero shot" of the hunter with his kill talking about the hunt. While these are certainly key parts of any good hunting video, they aren't the ONLY parts. Just watch your favorite hunting show on TV and you will see what I mean.
Every hunt is a story, and as a cameraman, it is your job to create the story by capturing all aspects of the hunt - from the preparation, to the trip there, getting to the stand (or wherever you are hunting), watching and waiting, making the shot, recovering the animal, etc (see the sidebar for a full shot list). Realistically, you aren't going to be able to get everything from the shot list every time you go, but strive to get as many as possible. It will all work to build the story and make your hunts much more interesting to watch.
Important aspects of the hunt often happen off camera, because the cameraman must stay on the animal as it comes in. Things such as the hunter watching the animal, ranging the animal, drawing his/her bow back or getting his/her gun ready. But just because you can't capture them as they happen, don't mean you can't capture them at all. Take a few minutes after a successful hunt to recreate these key parts of the hunt. The resulting footage will help to break up long blocks of watching the animal coming in, and will make for a much more interesting hunt.
MONITOR YOUR AUDIO
If you read last month's article, you know how I feel about good audio. It is just as important as good video and can make or break an otherwise great hunt. The only way to truly know what sound your camera is picking up is by monitoring the audio with headphones, and most of today's cameras come with a standard headphone jack. Otherwise, your microphone could be picking up interference, or not picking up anything at all and you would never know it until you got home to watch what you captured. Unfortunately, I learned this the hard way! While a good, quality pair of noise cancelling headphones are nice, any type of headphone will suffice, including the same pair of ear buds you use for your favorite iPod or MP3 player.
WRAPPING IT UP
There's no better way to learn how to film your hunts, then to simply get out there and do it. Experience is always the best teacher. Just know going in, that once you start filming hunts, it gets in your blood and pretty soon you won't be able to go afield without your camera! Also know that sooner or later, trying to capture the hunt on video is going to cost you a good deer, turkey, or whatever you're chasing. It's inevitable. However, when it all comes together, and you capture that moment of truth on video - to be enjoyed over and over again - there is nothing like it.
With video cameras getting smaller and technology making it easier than ever to share your footage with the world, it is a safe bet that more and more hunters will be packing cameras into the woods with them each and every season. For those of you that do, I hope these tips will make you a better videographer.
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 .