I believe that any story worth telling is worth telling well. And that’s why I love filmmaking. Media posturing, video journaling, postcard producing, or politically acting, I like them all. We’re wired to share our experiences, and video is a megaphone.
Video capture is arguably the most powerful medium in modern history and we, like the well-known explorers who precede us, love to share our stories. Passing a smartphone full of photos around a campfire will certainly get the job done, but a properly produced video can mesmerize a substantially larger audience.
Video can engage, entertain, educate, and maybe even make the world a better place. If you apply your nose to the grindstone with sufficient pressure over adequate time, you too could become a master of the craft, and assuming the stars align, maybe even profit from the effort. Unlike with the storytelling medium of writing—something that can be just as effectively accomplished with either the nub of a dull pencil or the latest fully loaded laptop—filmmaking is a machine-based medium which benefits from the proper application of the appropriate tools. If you do decide to become a video storyteller, it’s important to identify your genre so that you can build a proper toolkit.
To begin, let’s figure out what best describes you as a budding filmmaker. There are subsets of each of these categories and subsets of the subsets but let’s focus on these four basic types.
THE ASPIRING INFLUENCER
Are you ready for your close-up? Ready to be an internet video star? Perhaps you’re not quite well-known enough to truly influence anybody, though you secretly have your sights set on being the next big social media superstar—the one the industry biggies actually want to sponsor, or even better, pay for adventure content production. We can dream, right?
If this sounds like you, you’ll need to produce a certain kind of video content to fulfill your destiny. You’ll need a proper kit and, of course, a plan.
SMARTPHONE And a social media account on YouTwitFace.
ONE LONGISH ARM Writers might benefit from shorthand, but social media requires videographers with long, selfie-ready arms.
MUCH-LOVED VEHICLE Preferably one bristling with aftermarket goodies procured through the outlay of your hard-earned dough.
SHOT LIST This must include you airing down tires, standing on your roof rack, gazing wistfully into the distance, dangling your feet over the abyss, prodding a campfire, considering coffee, grilling mysterious meats, clinging to a rock, fording an impressive puddle, and, most importantly, waking up in a tent. All while subtly praising the merits of the above-mentioned truck, tires, cooler, rack, katana, traction boards, and tactical spork. Tried-and-true photo reference abounds online so exercise your powers of Google-Fu promiscuously.
RAISON D’ÊTRE Something action-packed. Focus on climbing things, crossing things, catching things, shooting things, cooking things, and discovering things—anything will do as long as it’s crystal clear that you’re passionate about doing something to something.
ON-CAMERA UNIFORM See above. This can range from tactical chic to lumber allure; from bikini and waders to sombrero and shants—depending upon your passion, gender, and/or self-identification. Going the furies-frolicking-in-the-forest route might be ill-advised, but who am I to judge?
BUDDY, SPOUSE, OR SIGNIFICANT OTHER You need this person to record your awesomeness from distances greater than arm’s length. This person must never be acknowledged or appear onscreen lest your availability be thrown into doubt and in the process, goon your brand.
OPTIONAL (STRONGLY SUGGESTED)
GORILLA POD A clingy little plastic tripod thingie, the Gorilla Pod is very useful.
SELFIE STICK Rumored to have been invented by T. Rex, the selfie stick is wildly popular in the arm-length-challenged community.
WATER-RESISTANT ACTION CAM For when the environment’s moist and the action’s hot. You heard me, I said moist. If a smartphone is your video camera of choice, there’s a motorized gimbal for that, too. This is a DJI Osmo Mobile. This little guy shoots 4K video or 12MP stills and can perform all manner of tricks. When the DJI Mavic Air’s rotors are deployed, your smartphone is docked, and communications are established, you’re ready to get some amazing aerial angles.
HANDHELD GYROSCOPIC STABILIZER To make smooth moves with your smartphone or action cam.
POCKET DRONE Be sure to get one with the narcissistic Follow mode.
LAVALIER MICROPHONE/RECORDER This will assure good sound even if you stray away from a close-up distance.
ACTION SIDEKICK Pooch, cat, squirrel, Lego character, or Barbie doll—it doesn’t matter as long as they never question your choices.
MANY GROOMING PRODUCTS We may be glorified car campers, but we’re not animals. We’re not! But we’re also not good enough. Like Dad always said.
That should do it. Go forth, wander, and shoot concise 20- to 60-second clips. We’ll see you on the Interwebs. Wait, what? You say that pimping parts and endorsing action- wear isn’t your style? You don’t care one nanoparticle about InstaFame, but you do want a killer chronicle of your bucket list bustin’ adventures? Then read on.
THE VIDEO DIARIST
As an independent producer of Technicolor memories, you choose to share your adventures through the modern equivalent of a 16mm documentary film or a Kodak Carousel tray full of Kodachrome slides. You seek to share a cinematic recollection of your experiences through a series of well-edited shorts accompanied by appropriate music and insightful narration.
COMPACT MIRRORLESS OR HDSLR CAMERA Because image quality matters.
INTERCHANGEABLE LENSES Lenses are the filmmaker’s paintbrushes, so go ahead, indulge.
DIGITAL AUDIO RECORDER Useful for high-quality atmospheric sound and voiceovers.
VIDEO TRIPOD An essential tool for smooth action tracking and time-lapse work.
CAMERA SLIDER A compact solution to approximate languid and leisurely dolly shots.
CAMERA STABILIZER The best solution for smooth camera movement on rough terrain.
GOOD TRAVEL BUDGET You can’t buy time, but you can rent it.
HIGHER-SPEC DRONE Perfect for capturing epic aerials. Be sure to get one with first-person view capability so you can safely navigate the skies.
THE TREASURE HUNTER
Viewing nature and wildlife through a selective lens, the treasure hunter usually frames out evidence of human intrusion into the lives and habitats of charismatic wildlife.
Show lions, and tigers, and bears? Oh my, yes. Show eight zillion safari cars clustered around said characters? Not so much. Whether captured on a canned safari or discovered through your own self-guided trek, the Treasure Hunter celebrates the gems of the wild. And why not? Seeing great imagery of wild things in wonderful places can inspire people to care about the planet’s well-being.
While you aren’t likely to receive an offer to become an explorer-in-residence with National Geographic or the Explorers Club, you could capture a once-in-a-lifetime moment. I recall that a few years ago, in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, a cheap camcorder-toting tourist captured a blurry clip of a Cape buffalo calf caught in an epic three-way tug of war between a lion, a crocodile, and the calf ’s protective herd. It was touch-and-go there for a while, but the calf eventually got away. The grainy, lo-fi footage was almost unwatchable, yet the clip still went viral. National Geographic subsequently acquired the rights and expanded the story into a one-hour special.
While the story of this life-and-death struggle was not diminished by being recorded on a crappy standard definition camcorder, the image would have been much better had it been captured on a better camera, preferably one with 4K ultra-high definition capability. If you’re working hard to put yourself in position to be blessed with such a spectacular natural event, why not be prepared to make it cinematically glorious? Quality matters.
Full disclosure: I’m a dedicated Canon shooter (and proud to have been a Canon Explorer of Light for 14 years), so this list of suggestions is entirely brand-specific. I’m not familiar with the offerings from other brands, but I imagine you can search out something similar if you wish.
VIDEO TRIPOD As stated above, this is an essential tool for action tracking.
MECHANICAL GIMBAL If swinging on swifts or panning with predators is your thing, consider a nodal-pivot lens gimbal from tripod accessory manufacturers such as Really Right Stuff and Wimberley. These specialized telephoto lens supports allow the smooth and accurate tracking of all manner of fast-moving critters.
WEATHER-SEALED PRO-LEVEL CAMCORDER, CINEMA CAMERA, HDSLR, OR COMPACT MIRRORLESS CAMERA There are many options, and I choose, according to need, between the compact Cinema EOS XC15 4K camcorder, the EOS C200 video camera, the 4K EOS-1D X Mark II HDSLR, and the new generation EOS R mirrorless body. This last one features 4K and a pivoting rear LCD control screen. The Cinema EOS cameras use smaller sensors—1 inch and APS-C (18x24mm)—while the 1D X Mark II and EOS R offer full frame (24x36mm). That’s a pretty broad spectrum of choices and price points. Given a choice, I’ll always take two inexpensive and lower-spec bodies over one expensive and higher-spec body for the simple reason of redundancy.
A GOOD SELECTION OF WEATHERIZED ZOOM LENSES I prefer to carry two camera bodies, and usually put an EF 28-300mm f/4-5.6L IS zoom on one body and outfit a second body with something really long—almost always the EF 200-400mm f/4L IS with its built-in 1.4x extender. This lens gives me a range from 200- 560mm for versatility and reach. I also carry a short zoom for tighter work, something in the 11-24mm range for my APS-C sensor HD cameras and cropped full-frame 4K shooting. When the size and weight of my kit must be kept small and versatile, I’ll most likely opt for the new mirrorless EOS R with a twolens combo consisting of the RF 24-105mm f/4L IS or the EF 17-40mm f/4L IS mounted via the Control Ring Mount EFEOS R adapter. I’d use that same adapter for the EF 100- 400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS to have something long. I’d add the RF to EOS adapter that accepts drop-in ND filters; it is a tremendous money saver when you need to reduce light for a wide variety of lenses. If that last bit sounded like number and alphabet soup to your beginner’s ears, I’d suggest the simplicity of the fixed-lens XC15. This compact 4K cine camera features a fixed zoom with a focal length range equivalent of approximately 27- 273mm.
FIXED FOCAL LENGTH TELEPHOTO If you’re a fan of the compressed look that only a super-telephoto can deliver, take a look at fast glass in the 400-800mm range. My friend Coda and I recently beta-tested the EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III and EF 600mm f/4L III, and these featherweight bazookas are impressive. We weren’t impressed—we were blown away.
THE SOCIAL ACTIVIST
Documentary filmmaking can be used to fight for a cause and shape social policy. If the pen is mightier than the sword, and a picture is worth a thousand words, cranking out even a modest 24 well-conceived frames per second makes you a formidable champion indeed. Maybe you think it important to keep some places genuinely wild, or to be an advocate for threatened species. You can wield your sword for that.
Maybe you want to defend right-of-way for mechanized backcountry travel. You can fight for that too. The trick is to have something worthwhile to say and to say it with eloquence. The moving picture is a powerful tool. It can communicate with the intimacy of a whisper or the insistence of a bullhorn.
A social activist’s camera is only as powerful as its operator’s passion, and the camera’s bit rate isn’t nearly as important as the operator’s pulse rate when fighting the good fight. A social media activist’s video kit can be quite modest.
UNOBTRUSIVE, LOW-LIGHT CAMERA People react to cameras. That’s a fact. When I was a working photojournalist, I saw it firsthand. I did a story in the 1970s about the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in Middle America. At first, the Klansmen reacted with outright hostility to my cameras; over time, they adapted and began to work the camera coverage to their advantage. A fellow photojournalist, while casually questioning local fishermen about the decimation of their coral reefs through the unregulated collecting of aquarium fish, was physically threatened. A visible camera can be a wild card of unpredictable consequences, so a low-profile approach to documentary capture is a wise choice. I suggest a small, touristy-looking camera with a positionable rear LCD screen for waist-level shooting. Choose something with a large aperture and clean, high ISO performance. I like the Canon M series of pocket-sized cameras. They look like any point and shoot but have HD video capabilities and are all-around great performers. When coupled with Canon’s Camera Connect app, I can wirelessly move files from my camera to my smart device for instant uploading. The app also allows remote viewing and camera control through my smartphone, two features I find to be invaluable when a remotely-placed camera is the best solution.
ADOPT THE LOCAL COLOR Choose attire that helps you blend in and be aware of local customs and mannerisms.
SACRIFICIAL DATA CARD If threatened and faced with a demand to surrender the pictures, this can save your bacon.
DATA BACKUP DEVICE WITH CLOUD CONNECTIVITY If you choose to champion wild creatures or wild places, you are very likely to cross paths with hostile people who do not want you there. Back up your data. Using the cloud will help assure that your data survives all threats, both manmade and environmental. I rely on a WD 1TB My Passport Wireless SSD. The solid-state drive means it’s tough as nails, and a built-in SD card reader means I can back up my data cards without needing a computer. TALENT RELEASES You need a good release to legally use someone’s image for anything other than news.
POCKET DRONE For getting high angles unachievable through other means.
LOCAL “FIXER” Nothing trumps local knowledge when working outside of your comfort zone. A helper can watch gear, grease palms, and even “roll camera” when you need to appear oncamera while conducting interviews.
FRIEND WITH BAIL MONEY This should be self-explanatory.
So there you have it. Go forth, play, and, if you’re so inclined, make a difference at 24 frames per second.