How to get the best shots for your wildlife documentary

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It takes a lot of practise and experience to get the best shots for your wildlife documentary film. Being a wildlife filmmaker means getting the best possible footage that other filmmakers have not yet been able to capture. To get all of the shots you need for your documentary, here is what you need to keep in mind.

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Location

Location is everything. If you’re making a film about a specific animal or wildlife subject, make sure that the area, park or game reserve has the animals or plant life you are looking for. The more encounters you are likely to get with the animals you want to film, the more variety you’ll have for your documentary. Check the weather as well before going on a shoot. Though rainy weather might provide cool effects for some scenes, the best type of lighting for a wildlife documentary is daylight, with as little wind and rain as possible. 

Know your subject

Research the behaviour of the wildlife you want to film first. Know how they operate, what time they hunt, the type of bushes they’re likely to hide in… It will give you your best chance of finding your subject and filming them in action. Action is what makes a documentary interesting, so try and capture your subject doing something exciting. 

Vehicle or no vehicle?

Using a tripod on stable ground is always the best way to film. It immediately raises the stability and general quality of your footage, and also makes it easier to control your focus. However, when you’re filming lions or rhinos, it’s necessary that you shoot from a vehicle. If this happens, ask your guide to get as close to the animals as is safely possible, then shut the engine off. After this, everyone on the vehicle should resort to fellow-filmmaker etiquette: not moving. The slightest movement on the vehicle can make your footage shaky, even if you’re using a tripod on the seat next to you. Using a gimbal is a good option for shooting wildlife from a vehicle, as it helps to stabilise your footage when you’re filming handheld. 

The truth about telephoto lenses

While you can get great close-up footage of animals from a greater distance, a telephoto lens also picks up and magnifies small movements. This leads to shaky footage and ruined shots. This is something to keep in mind, especially when you’ll be filming from a vehicle and trying to get the best shots for your wildlife documentary. 

The waiting game

You might have to wait for a long, long time before anything exciting happens. Sometimes, you want to film a lion hunting, but the lioness you found just lies under a tree for five hours. Alternatively, you are planning on filming an aardvark, but they’re nocturnal and elusive and you haven’t seen one for days. You have to be willing to wait for the action to happen. Be patient, and don’t change positions too often as animals are also moving all the time and might surprise you in a spot where you haven’t seen anything before.

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Composition

Pay attention to your composition. Use the rule of thirds for framing your scene, and film the same subject from different angles. Make sure that there is enough space in front of the animal’s face if they’re moving while you’re filming. If the animal is standing still and not looking directly at you but to the side of the scene, then leave some space in front of their face as well. Get tight (close-ups), mid as well as wide shots, including the animal’s surroundings. Take some footage from the subject’s eye-level (if you can get close to the ground for this, it would be perfect). This all contributes to a more interesting and rounded variety of footage for your film. 

Use manual focus

On autofocus, your camera will be continuously searching for focus as your subject is moving which will ruin your shot. Rather master the art of adjusting your focus manually and smoothly onto the animal(s) in front of you.

Getting the light right

Golden hour – around sunrise and sunset – is the best time for shooting in a warm, softer light. However, it will also give your shot a yellow or orange glow. Bright afternoon daylight is good for capturing colour correctly, but make sure the sun is to your back while filming and that your exposure settings are adjusted according to the scene. This includes white balance, aperture and ISO, for instance. If there is too much light, your shots will be ‘burnt out’ and too white from overexposure.

B-roll is important

Part of getting the best shots for your wildlife documentary, is having enough b-roll. This is a  selection of shots taken at different angles and of different elements surrounding the subject. Rather than just using one clip of a zebra grazing, you can use wide shots of the zebra standing among the trees, a close-up shot of his nose in the grass, the leaves on the trees behind him, the bird sitting on his back… and so on. B-roll footage gives more dimension to your film, helps to illustrate your story better and makes it easier to edit your video afterwards. You have a wider variety of clips to choose from, so you can use the best parts of each clip. 

Keep rolling

Try and capture a scene for as long as possible. Don’t try and shift positions the whole time – wait for the action to happen while you’re still rolling, so that you can capture it from the start. It’s also important that you try to let your subject walk into the frame when they’re moving, and walk out the other side while you’re still filming. You can pan along with their movement for a while, but don’t just cut it off in the middle of the action. 

Keep your story in mind

One of the best ways to get the best shots for your wildlife documentary is to try and get the footage that will illustrate your story best. This needs to come into your planning beforehand. Plan your shots, and make sure you follow a schedule to look for certain wildlife and elements at certain times.

If you apply these principles every time you’re shooting wildlife film, you can make a professional documentary using all levels of equipment. 

Did you find these tips helpful? Let us know if you’ve tried them before. We’d love to hear your feedback in the comments below!

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Rouxne van der Westhuizen profile

Blogger Profile - Rouxne van der Westhuizen

Rouxne has an Honours degree in journalism and media studies. She is the course director for the Travel and Environmental Journalism and specialises in wildlife conservation writing, travel journalism and blogging.

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