Wildlife films, as seen and experienced by people on television, are captured using extremely sophisticated and expensive equipment. These cool cameras and gadgets are operated by some of the best filmmakers in the world, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enter the amazing world of wildlife cinema. By making the right equipment choices and learning the right techniques, you too can capture incredible moments of natural history.
When your subjects are beyond your control, the cameraman and equipment must be always ready to capture the moments when they happen, so the equipment used to shoot wildlife films and the people who exploit them are a different breed. , compared to your usual “wildlife shooters.”
Equipment you can start with:
Cameras combined with lenses generally have the greatest impact on the image created, in the past Super 16 film cameras were the go-to for most professional wildlife film productions, followed by DV/ENG cameras (collecting electronic information). These cameras, combined with motorized zooms, offered the flexibility and financial advantage required for wildlife film productions.
Today, professional wildlife film productions use the same cameras used in successful feature film productions like the ARRI and RED cameras. Specific footage that requires smaller cameras opt for mirrorless video cameras, they also use specialized cameras like infrared, thermal and night vision technology.
Although it seems very expensive and out of reach for most people, good wildlife films ultimately tell stories and it can be done with most consumer digital cameras these days.
Here are some things to look out for in a decent mirrorless video/photo camera that most people can buy for wildlife filmmaking:
1. A fairly good “high ISO” range
Since most wildlife behavior occurs in the early morning or late evening, a camera with good low-light performance is a must, a camera that has the ability to shoot relatively clean, noise-free video at higher ISO sensitivity like ISO 800 to ISO 2500 or higher is a feature to look out for.
2. A high FPS setting
The behavior of wildlife in the field can change in seconds. Slow motion is an effect everyone understands, a camera capable of shooting 50 frames per second or more is a great feature to look for. This will allow you to slow down the action to see interesting behaviors that you may not have noticed in the field.
Remember seeing the cheetah slow motion footage on TV, these were most likely shot on specialized high speed cameras shooting between 1000 fps or higher. Professional high-speed cameras like the PHANTOM can shoot up to 12,500 fps in Full HD resolution (1920 x 1080 pixels).
You only need 50 frames per second to start.
Not all cameras can do everything, some can shoot high fps but have poor low light performance, others can be great in low light but not have good high fps options. Pick and choose based on the type of subjects you want to photograph.
Brands to watch out for:
Sony A7s (Mk1, Mk2, Mk3) or equivalents from other brands like Canon, Panasonic and Blackmagic.
Tip from Sripad: Don’t spend too much on cameras, there are other pieces of kit that are more important! Full HD resolution is more than enough to start with, don’t spend your money on extra resolution like 4K, 8K, 12K, etc. Look for other features like low light, high speed, reliability, battery life, and weather sealing. .
By far one of the most essential pieces of gear in a wildlife filmmaker’s kit, lenses really open up new worlds for you. Having the right lenses for the story you want to tell is crucial. To build a good sequence, you will need to get a whole range of shots like close-ups, establishment shots, reveal, focus on an animal or point of interest and many more shots. Having the right lenses will help you do that. There are two main aspects to consider when choosing lenses: focal length and aperture.
1. Focal length
Wildlife can be very dangerous and protecting yourself and not disturbing the animals is equally important. Lenses with focal ranges of 200mm or more are best to start with. You can get lenses up to around 800mm.
Remember, having a big goal doesn’t mean you’re a great filmmaker. You need variety, a macro lens is just as important as a long 800mm lens. Macro lenses range from 15mm to 200mm and mostly as single focal length lenses or block lenses, they allow you to get closer to your subjects and can reveal fascinating details that your eye cannot see.
Usually, lenses with large minimum apertures like f/2.8 are good for low-light scenarios and have great subject-background separation compared to lenses with smaller apertures like f/5.6 or f/6.3. However, given the improved low-light performance of sensors over the years, today you can shoot late at night even with small lenses at minimum apertures. At focal lengths of 500mm and above, having a smaller aperture like f/6.3 doesn’t matter as much because the characteristics of longer focal length lenses blur the background anyway.
Brands to watch out for:
Each camera manufacturer has its own set of lenses, other than them, major third-party wildlife lens manufacturers include Sigma (for large zoom ranges and modest prices) and Laowa (particularly for lenses wide angle macros).
Sripad’s advice: Lenses have a longer shelf life, they can be used on multiple generations of cameras and multiple brands using adapters. Always invest in lenses rather than cameras.
Zoom lenses are better for wildlife because you won’t have time in the field to change lenses when the action is happening in front of you.
Look for used lenses on OLX and other websites, there are some gems waiting to be picked up for very little money.
Tripods are the most underrated piece of equipment in a wildlife filmmaker’s kit, they are the foundation of a good camera. Wildlife filming occurs at the two extremes of focal length and magnification of a lens, either you are shooting a bird in the distance at 500mm or more, or you are shooting a small insect at 2x magnification on a macro lens , both of which require a rock-solid tripod support system.
Here are some things to consider when choosing a tripod:
1. Tripod head
The tripod has two parts – the head and the legs. Unlike camera tripods, the head can be detached and attached to other support systems. The two most common types of tripod heads are the fluid head and the friction head. Fluid head systems are made up of multiple gears inside that allow for smooth and weighted camera movements, they help eliminate small camera vibrations that can ruin a shot.
A friction head is a type of head that uses friction via a lock on each axis to help create a smooth head feel, these types of tripod heads are less expensive but don’t have the same “smoothness” as a professional fluid head.
Fluid heads are available in bowl head or flat head sizes of 75mm, 100mm and 150mm. Professional 75mm fluid heads can hold a camera up to approximately 8kg. 100mm can hold up to 15kg and 150mm can hold much heavier cameras. Weight capacity may vary by model or manufacturer.
2. Feet and other accessories
The tripod legs should be equally strong to support the camera mount and tripod head. You can choose a range of tripod legs depending on their height. They are usually called low feet, high feet, high hat, low base.
Brands to watch out for:
Popular brands include E-Image, Manfrotto, Benro, Sachtler and Miller. If you decide to sell your car and other possessions, you may also want to consider the premium OConnor fluid heads.
Sripad’s advice: Spending money on a tripod might seem like a waste at first, but remember that a good tripod will last you a lifetime or even two if properly maintained, so take your time and choose wisely.
Choose a system that works overall for the project you’re shooting, as these overall setups can weigh between 20kg and 50kg depending on the lens, camera and tripod you choose. If you must be mobile, opt for a lighter setup, your lower back will thank you.
These are just a few basic things to think about before jumping into wildlife filmmaking as far as equipment goes. There are hundreds of other things to consider in becoming an effective wildlife filmmaker in the field, including animal behavior, field crafting, and habitat mastery, but hopefully this list should help you. help you take your first steps into the incredible world of wildlife cinema.
Sripad is a Cinematographer/Director of Photography who has worked in the wildlife documentary and digital advertising space for over 8 years. He has filmed for brands such as National Geographic, Animal Planet and Netflix. Sripad enjoys exploring camera technology, new filmmaking mediums and storytelling.
For more questions and to interact with Sripad, you can visit his Instagram page @sripadsridhar. To check out his work, you can visit sripadsridhar.com or email him at [email protected]
This series is an initiative of the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), as part of their program “Nature Communication” encourage nature content in all Indian languages. To learn more about birds and nature, Join The Flock.