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A quick guide for mastering wildlife film making

Watching a BBC special is pretty awe inspiring right? For an aspiring wildlife film maker it can also be pretty intimidating! How can anybody compete with the iconic vistas, rare animal behaviours, and sheer beauty of nature that filters through the BBC’s million dollar cameras? Truth be told, you probably can’t, unless you’re hired by the BBC or have a really nice trust fund! For all of you with aspirations of training in wildlife film making, here are 10 quick techniques to get professional looking footage out of your current kit.   

Film making internship in Africa

“Slow down, slow down…I have a dung beetle perfectly framed!”

1. FOCUS, COMPOSE, EXPOSE. When filming incredible animal behaviour, it is easy to get caught up watching the action and forget the fundamentals of camera use. To ensure sharp, clear and pleasing images:

(a) start with a crash zoom to focus,

(b) pull out and compose your picture (rule of thirds is good starting point) and

(c) expose correctly on your subject.

Getting these three aspects right ensures that the images you are witnessing will be reflected on the TV screen later (as long as you press record that is…).

Film making courses train students in camera use“Everything’s set – up… now the wait for the appearance of the much endangered Black – Chested grape moth…”

2. USE A TRIPOD. Let’s face it, wild animals are not like domestic animals, they are cautious of humans. Thus you will likely need to zoom in to capture any ‘mid’ or ‘close up’ shots. For this always use a tripod with a good fluid tripod head. The shots will be stable, you can follow the action and your audience won’t be getting sea sick. 

3. GETTING (LOW) DOWN. Apart from a few key animals (elephants, giraffe etc.), most animals are significantly shorter than us. So get down to their eye level (or lower). It will make the animal look bigger (more epic BBC like), will allow an emotional connection with your audience and will give your footage stunning backdrops.

Documentary film making student films CheetahLower and closer than this and you will be Cheetah dung…stay safe people!  

4. REMEMBER AUDIO! Audio is not important.. until you forget it that is. The soundscape of a wildlife documentary is vital for immersing the audience into your film, and much of that comes from the ambient sounds of nature. Not recording this sound is a mortal sin, as is the unexpected appearance of your gushing voice drowning out a beautiful lion roar. So keep quiet and make sure your audio is plugged in and recording at all times.

Waiting for a soundWhat sounded like Justin Bieber having a bad hair day, actually turned out to be a bunch of vervet monkeys fighting over an apple… 

5. BE ONE WITH NATURE. Always remember that you are not a neutral player when filming wildlife, 9 times out of 10 your subject will be acutely aware of your presence and will be responding to it. Talking loudly, moving quickly, being generally unaware of your impact on an animal will always result in the animal moving away from you, thus making your job sooo much harder.

Wildlife Filmmaking Student in Camo! Latest Winter fashion trends from the catwalks of Milan

6. DONT BACKLIGHT (UNLESS ON PURPOSE). Backlighting is when you place the sun behind your subject, thus making it impossible to balance exposure between your subject and the background. Unless you are going for a specific silhouette shot, this is a no no. Ensure that the sun is behind you and the subject is in front, thereby putting light on the subject and making exposure a dream. 

7. SHOOT SEQUENCES. By this I mean shoot an entire sequence on each subject, wide, medium, close, reveals, relevant cutaways etc. By taking the time to capture the required diversity of shots, you will have the content to put together slick video sequences when you are back in the editing room. 

8. PUT IN THE HOURS. A famous response by a National Geographic Photographer when told how “lucky he is with capturing amazing rare images at just the right time” goes something like “Yes, it is amazing I get luckier the more hours I put in”. The point of this story? To capture that unbelievable animal behaviour, you have to be there and the camera has to be rolling. The more time you are waiting and ready, the more likely you will capture the incredible footage. 

9. TIME AND SPACE. There is, however, more than just sitting in a hide waiting. Understand your subjects, animal behaviour is intrinsically linked to season, time of day and location. If you understand how your subjects’ behaviour varies in time and space, then you can make informed decisions on how to successfully capture rare behaviour. No new-borns in the dead of winter… surprised? 

Wildlife Film making intern shoots Zebra“So Mr. Zebra – how do you feel about being black and white in a green and brown world?”

10. FORGET TAKE TWO. Filmmakers used to filming humans often struggle with the reality that animals do not take direction well. What this means is that when the action is going down, you had better be recording, because you may not have another chance! Become super competent with your camera’s functions, be prepared at all times and maximise your chance to capture the 5 seconds that it takes for a cheetah to mow down its prey. 

Ok, there it is – how to capture awesome wildlife video footage that will allow you to showcase your work with the confidence of a professional. Don’t worry about not having the best lens or camera, get out there and start shooting today and don’t stop. Good luck and enjoy the adventure! 

Blogger Profile – Ryan Johnson

Ryan Johnson

Ryan is founder of Africa Media. He is a frequent host on wildlife documentaries for broadcasters including National Geographic and Discovery Channel. Ryan also instructs the wildlife film-making course at Africa Media

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Need any advice on filming techniques? Drop me a note in the comment section below!