Field technology: the gear for out there

Maybe you dream of recording the showy antics of a rare South African black wildebeest herd? Perhaps you'd rather follow the American toucan, as it dexterously picks berries with its impossibly large beak? Then again, it could be the action-packed seal...
August 1, 1999

Maybe you dream of recording the showy antics of a rare South African black wildebeest herd? Perhaps you’d rather follow the American toucan, as it dexterously picks berries with its impossibly large beak? Then again, it could be the action-packed seal hunt of the Arctic polar bear that motors your lens. Whichever animals and locales you choose, there’s a lot to consider before slinging a camera over your shoulder and heading out into the wild.


The first thing to decide is the kind of camera you want to use, although for most it is predetermined by economics. Many professionals prefer one video format or another, although most shows are shot in 16mm film, and very few go up to 35mm. The smaller Super 8 format, the standard for home movies a quarter century ago, is inexpensive but has almost disappeared with the rise of video camcorders – as difficult as it is just to find Super 8 film stock, it is harder still to find a place to get it developed. While some programs still insist on the film look, these formats present several impracticalities in the wild.

Rob Garrard, a Toronto-based cinematographer, shoots only 16mm and Super 16 film for Arctic Bear, a prodco which supplies footage for National Geographic and pbs Nature programs. Some programs favor Super 16 because of its compatibility with HDTV, but Garrard finds it awkward to transport film cameras and peripherals, especially in this era of shrinking budgets and smaller crews. ‘I’ve gone [into the field] without assistants,’ he explains. ‘So, I’m loading the camera myself. I’m taking care of all the gear.’ A compact camera such as an Aaton 35-III, weighing only 15-20 lb. (or 7-9 kg), is a manageable option.

Mobile digital video cameras have improved dramatically in terms of image quality, but Garrard still gives the edge to film. ‘If you’ve got good lenses with Super 16, digital video probably isn’t going to match it, but it’s going to come very close.’

Lugging canisters of film around can also be a nuisance, especially in light of tiny new 6mm digital tapes. Also, unless you’re independently wealthy or shooting for a production company with deep pockets, the expense of getting film stock developed will limit the amount you feel you can use, and in nature shooting you often have to leave the camera running to get the action you want. The use of tape also means no lab processing fees.

Film, with its 400′ and 1000′ magazines, only gives you 11 or 25 minutes of shooting time before you must go through the process of changing mags (which will inevitably happen right in the middle of that cheetah/antelope takedown you’ve been waiting for). In comparison, BetaCam tapes offer up to 30 minutes, Digital BetaCam up to 62 minutes, and Hi-8 and 6mm mini DV up to 120 minutes. The pop-a-tape-in-and-go simplicity of video is also an advantage.

As there are no film labs in the middle of the African Savannah, you won’t be able to get your film processed and assess what you’ve shot until you get home, at which point you may discover you had the dreaded ‘hair in the gate’ the whole time and your footage is unusable. While not a grave concern to the seasoned cameraman, the immediate playback capability of video would help most sleep better. For these reasons Garrard admits he ‘would totally love to be shooting nature stuff on digital video,’ and cites the Sony dvw 700wsp Digital BetaCam as ‘a camera you could work with nicely in the field.’

For low and medium-budget television programs, video is proving more desirable. Kratts’ Creatures, the popular pbs children’s nature show, is shot with Hi-8 camcorders. One problem encountered with Hi-8, however, was a lot of tape dropouts, which proved costly and labor-intensive to eliminate. It got to the point where they instructed one of their cameramen, Brian Rundle, to not check his rushes at the end of the shooting day, as the more you play Hi-8, the more dropouts you get.

A shooter from Cobourg, Ontario, Rundle pointed his lens at the birds, moose, and other wildlife in Algonquin Provincial Park, and ended up establishing a part-time career as a wildlife cameraman. A BetaCam enthusiast, he admits to being swayed by advances in the pixel chip technology and superior resolution of digital video, in addition to the lack of dropouts.

The videographer had some hands-on experience with digital video when camera manufacturer Canon loaned him their new XL1 mini DV digital camera. He was impressed with the results. ‘The wide shots aren’t as crisp and sharp as with the BetaCam, but on the close-ups you can’t see any difference,’ he explains. ‘It’s so close to the BetaCam [in quality], it’s unbelievable. And it’s one third the cost, and one third the weight.’ High-end digital cameras, such as the Sony dvw 700wsp Digital BetaCam, allow a high degree of image control, both during shooting and in post-production, in terms of image speed, grain, color and black levels, hue, and overall saturation. The XL1, intended for the high-end hobbyist and the budget-conscious professional, costs in the area of US$6,000, including batteries, adapters, and other accessories. However, Rundle adds, ‘even low-end digital cameras are good for `casual’ users.’

Going the video route comes with some caveats, however. Rundle advises carrying a roll of masking tape to place over the seam of the camera door in order to keep out dust, which is so prevalent in many exotic locales. Otherwise, when Rundle sees things go awry for fellow cameramen, it is usually due to basic improper camera care. Head cleaners proved one particular videographer’s downfall. ‘I guess he thought the more you cleaned the heads, the better they would be, but he ended up sawing the finish right off them, and didn’t get any footage. He had to have the camera shipped out. Head cleaners are only for when you see [picture] problems – use them for 15 seconds and get rid of them.’


Carrying multiple lenses of varying focal length is also a consideration. Rundle’s Hi-8 package includes a wide-angle lens in addition to the standard 15x lens (with 2x converter, effectively taking his power up to 30x). High-end video cameras accommodate interchangeable lenses, whereas consumer camcorders limit you to the lens the unit comes with. If you are using only one lens, make sure it has a wide focal range, as it is often impossible or unsafe to get too close to certain animals. Rundle carries only one lens with this BetaCam (since they cost US$7,000 each), but his Fujinon 17x lens with 2x converter offers a lot of power, moving rapidly from wide-angle to super-telephoto, almost like several lenses in one. The Canon XL1 comes with a high-resolution interchangeable 16x optical lens, also good for shooting in the wild.

Additional lenses are more problematic in the film world. For a trip up to Coats Island at the northern end of Hudson’s Bay to film walruses, Garrard brought a 10-100mm lens ‘to work with in a short range, but you’ve got to be a fair distance away from animals to record their behavior well. So, we had a 150-600mm zoom as well, which then requires a hefty tripod and head. So you’re carrying around quite a bit of weight, and up in the Arctic there are some long hikes.’


On a trip to Australia for Kratts’ Creatures, Rundle had to shoot footage of Tasmanian devils (which are night predators), so artificial light sources were required. For very precise lighting control, Dedolights, from German manufacturer Dedo Weigert Film, form a perfect kit. Dedolights are relatively lightweight (a 12V kit with all accessories weighs about 45 lb., or 20 kg), and are renowned for durability as well as a wide range of spot-to-flood focus with no ‘hot spots.’ They plug into car cigarette lighter adapters and run off a transformer adjustable in 5V increments, and so adapt to power supplies anywhere in the world. The kits, which include four lights plus accessories, cost about US$3,500, and so are intended for high-level professional productions, although sophisticated lighting kits are not always necessary for good results. Case in point, Rundle lit his Tasmanian devils with two big round marine lights, which also plug into car cigarette lighters. If the illumination from the marine lights seemed too sharp and powerful, he diffused them with wax paper. Instead of hauling light stands around, he taped or clamped the lights to a branch or whatever was handy.

Neither Rundle nor Garrard complement natural light with artificial sources in daytime shooting – they can change the direction of light simply by moving around an animal and shooting from different vantage points, which first requires establishing trust with their subjects. Rundle’s advice stems from an experience shooting ‘Moose of Algonquin’ for Canadian Wilderness Journal: ‘If you stand there and watch the moose eat for awhile, and then you take one or two steps and stop, they’ll look at you for a bit then go back to their business. If the shot is back-lit and I want it side-lit, I’ll start moving around. It will take an hour to go a few steps and get around to the side, but you can do it if you take your time.’

Gotta have the power

Next you have to decide on alternative power sources for your camera and lights. Rundle had Toronto’s Precision Camera Inc. construct an extra-long cable that plugged into his van lighter, allowing him to shoot his BetaCam outside on a tripod in provincial parks, where animals are accustomed to vehicles and will not scurry away at the sight of them. Video cameras can also be powered by so-called `chocolate bar’ camera batteries (which last one to two hours), as well as by battery belts. Rundle prefers the latter, as he has seen colleagues get into trouble carrying around several of the bar batteries, not knowing which is still charged. He maintains, on a normal summer day, he can get six hours of power out of the belts, but learned from shooting polar bears in Churchill, Manitoba, that batteries will die quickly in extremely cold weather. His best defense is to wear the belt under his one-piece camouflage suit for extra warmth. `Chocolate bar’ batteries, on the other hand, are in the camera and freeze in a few minutes.

Garrard uses disposable lithium batteries (which attach to the side of the camera), to power his 16mm camera. He explains that to keep the camera and batteries from freezing in the Arctic, ‘one of the cameras had a special bag made with warmers in it that totally engulfed the camera and lens, so your hands could be in there, too.’ He estimates the lithium batteries will give you 18 mags of filming time in warm temperatures, and about half that in cold. Garrard had to rely on disposable batteries when camping in the Arctic, whereas on his Australian adventure, Rundle always had a room with electricity to return to at the end of the day, where he could plug in and recharge his battery belt. (He recommends the car battery adapter if you’re spending a lot of time on the road.) It is important to remember power supplies are of varying voltage all over the world, so if your belt doesn’t automatically adjust to these discrepancies and you don’t have the proper adapter, you could find yourself holed up in a remote area with a camera that’s down. Rundle remembers a fellow shooter ‘who didn’t have the right adapter, and he plugged in and just fried everything.’


Another item you would probably want to bring is a tripod, regardless of the level at which you’re shooting. Garrard’s heavy film camera means that almost all his shooting would be on a tripod, with some exceptions. ‘Sometimes I would shoot off my knee or something like that,’ he elaborates. ‘When I’m on a boat, shooting polar bears swimming in the water – that would all be hand-held.’ Rundle’s video cameras never leave the tripod. ‘I’m fussy,’ he concedes. `I don’t like any footage that’s jittery, and production companies don’t either.’ Cameramen can get away with some hand-held work when shooting at a wide angle, where movement is barely noticeable, but in close-ups any shifts are distracting. The lens of the new Canon XL1 digital camera has built-in stabilization, allowing for steady hand-held shooting if you would rather leave your tripod at home. Rundle experimented shooting with the XL1 in a moving jeep, and liked what he saw.


Once you have your gear assembled, sit down and do your homework. First, you have to see whether or not filming permits are required, as is the case in certain parts of the world when shooting commercially in national parks. Also, learning as much as you can about the land and its creatures is essential in terms of both tracking the desired animals and your own personal safety. In this regard, local inhabitants and park rangers can be invaluable. Rundle, who had never been to Australia before, was warned about fatal snake attacks and poisonous spiders, and made sure to heed the advice of not leaving his shoes outside or his bags unzipped.

Garrard considers filming polar bears to have been his most dangerous assignment, but he felt safe accompanied by an Inuit guide. ‘He would have a gun as a last resort,’ the cinematographer explains. ‘We would use them only as `bangers’ to scare the bears. We’ve never had to shoot an animal. We never came that close. It’s all about knowing how far you can push it.’

Rundle’s Tasmanian devil shoot was aided by a guide who illustrated the animals’ behavioral traits and explained how to attract them. ‘They’re meat-eaters,’ Rundle recounts. ‘Every morning there’s so much road kill over there. The little wallabies are dead all over the place, so I would just go grab a few first thing in the morning and put them in the woods. That night [the Tasmanian devils] would come feed there, so I’d set up lights and wait. They would come in and I could hear them crunching the bones, so I would plug in the lights. Sometimes they would move off, but they’d come right back, and I’d plug in the lights again. After two or three times they would just settle down and didn’t care.’ Safety is always paramount, and Rundle knew to position himself behind the lights so the animals couldn’t see him. A barrier of a camouflage netting strung through the trees offered further security.


Garrard emphasizes resourcefulness and being prepared for the unexpected. On a two-camera shoot employing 16mm Arri SR’s in the Arctic, the crew’s first camera blew a fuse, and not realizing a short in the hand grip was to blame, they switched the hand grip over to the second camera and blew a fuse in it as well. Down two cameras in that isolated locale, the crew overcame the problem by using a piece of copper wire to bypass the fuse – an extremely delicate, and under normal circumstances, inadvisable, procedure, but they had little choice, as it would have taken five days for new fuses to arrive. ‘Up there, you’ve got to do whatever you can to keep shooting.’

Veteran nature shooters like Rundle and Garrard approach each shoot the hard way, with elaborate measures that achieve the footage asked of them while keeping themselves out of harm’s way. The proof is in the material they have shot, and in the fact that both are repeat contributors to various television programs.



by Susan Rayman

Whether it’s poisonous sea snakes or unexpected sand storms, natural history producers, and their crews, have to be prepared for it all.

Producer Neil Harraway of Natural History New Zealand stresses the importance of an advance hazard assessment meeting with an occupational nurse and other experts. ‘We run through a checklist of procedures and hazards. That might range from cold for Antarctica or the mountain tops, to heat for the deserts, to diving. These folks identify the hazards and they identify how they’re going to meet them.’

The following are specific safety tips from producers Andrew Jackson (Bristol, U.K.-based Tigress Productions), Ross Douglas* (Dallas, Texas-based Zambezi Productions), and Harraway, on working in the desert and in the water.


Remoteness and heat are the two biggest problems to contend with when working in the desert, says Jackson. More specifically, the traditional problems are dehydration, lack of clean water and inaccessibility to someplace cool for both crew and equipment. He offers this advice:

-carry satellite beacons and satellite phones

-never go into the desert without two cars

-ensure you have enough water per person per day

-equipment must be checked over and greased (oil evaporates in the heat)

-insulate equipment from the sand using dry bags and pelican cases

-use tents that open at both ends to allow air to flow through

-take hundreds of ‘space’ (aluminum) blankets to throw over the tents and gear, as they reflect the heat away


If you choose to abandon scuba gear and cages when filming sharks (as seems to be the trend), don’t go down alone. Douglas, who has found a spear fisherman who free-swims with sharks, always sends down one person with a speargun to accompany the cameraperson.

Keep the wetsuits on when approaching poisonous sea snakes. According to Harraway, the snakes have small mouths and can’t bite through the thick material. This is an additional precaution, as some people are allergic to the anti-venom which the crews keep on hand.

Other tips from Douglas and Harraway:

-know the location of the nearest hyperbaric chamber and how to get there

-appoint a diving officer who’s responsible for efficiency and safety

-train crews to administer morphine, oxygen and intravenous drips

*For more with Ross Douglas, check for this month’s feature interview

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.