Wildlife Video Gear

This article/post is going to be a little different from others as it will not be a static post, it will evolve to share my ongoing transition to wildlife macro video, primarily arthropods. So each time you come back to the article there will be additional text added, revealing either my ramblings of frustation, hard lessons learned or a few eureka moments.

I have a few years of macro stills photography squeezed under my belt but in 2013, with the advent of better video on DSLRs, I decided I needed a new challenge. I wanted to push myself in a way that could help with further expanding my forays into wildlife awareness issues. After all, I already had a camera that the web pundits hailed as having great video capabilities (Nikon D800e), so it was going to be easy and not cost me anything more. Wrong and wrong again! 


Indeed I spent the latter half of 2013 just trying to understand the techniques required - and there is very little out there to help in the realms of macro video. I also had some initial forays into equipment and setups which, without a single exception, turned out to be mistakes.

What can be difficult about this I thought? Instead of pressing the shutter release, I just press the video release button. What is complicated about that? 

So let me share with you some of my ongoing and evolving thoughts on insect macro videography. Many of my mistakes. Most of my major misconceptions. My trials and my tribulations (hopefully). My frustrations with the laws of physics. And hopefully, some pointers that will save you time and money if you too decide to attempt the transition from insect macro photography to videography.


DSLR Macro. ...Where's the proof of concept?...

I cannot understand why I did not work this out earlier, perhaps my enthusiam, or maybe my ego (?), got the better of me. 

Try this. Go onto YouTube and Vimeo and search all the macro wildlife/insect videos you can. Watch each and every one. For a true close up macro shot (1:1 ratio) or even something a liitle further away for a small insect (say a bee or a fly), try and find one that remains in focus for more than a second or two if the insect is moving. I am not talking of large movements, just minor movements. Could you?

All macro wildlife photographers know the issues of depth of field (DOF) at macro ratios, and the little techniques and "cheats" we use to put our subjects in focus or to appear in focus. These same techniques will apply to videography as well but once movement is added the whole ball game is changed. It becomes an immense challenge.

This raises further areas for exploration. How far can one take cutting techniques to achieve a suitable sequence? Are there specialist techniques that professionals use to improve retention? Are some subjects just not suited for macro videography? Are DSLRs really suited to macro video with their relatively large sensors? Would this all be a lot easier with an alternative video capture tool? .......The journey begins.


The Tripod. ...My fluid head woes and expenses...

My initial experiments were based on my using my beloved velbon legs and markins ball head. It took approximately 30 minutes in the field to realise that this was not going to cut it.

Tripod legs are tripod legs! Sadly not, and my greatest problem was that my beloved velbons are mid weight, and every ground vibration was being transferred up them to the camera. Even my own small movements to get comfortable, move a leg or even adjust a camera setting were resulting in pronounced movements in the shot video. I needed something more substantial and my first major purchase was made, a set of Gitzo Series 5 legs. Expensive ($1000) but built like a rock.

Off I set again, this time to Kaeng Krachan to try and practice with wolf spiders. Sadly this time it was the realisation that filming moving arthropods using a static ball head was not the way either. So it was time to follow the advice of the internet pundits and buy a "fluid head". I noticed that in some of the more serious forums (DVinfo, etc) there was a lot of scepticism on cheap "fluid heads". Did I listen? No. I went out and bought a Manfrotto 701HDV. It was terrible!Sachtler-FSB8

One week later I was back in the shop looking at the next step up, manfrotto's bridging technology. Another week later I was back in the same shop again. Luckily they agreed to refund me as I had not used the Manfrotto 502 in the field. So what was the problem? The problem was that I should have listened to the serious forum scepticism, pans and tilts were still not smooth. Now I am not saying you cannot achieve a good pan/tilt with good technique with the 502 - I just do not want to be a slave to technique, in the field you may only get one chance at a shot. If you mess it up, you may never get that chance again.

If I was going to have smooth pans and tilts I was going to have to get a real fluid head. And the small adjustments to framing in macro video needed a very smooth transition. It had to be a real fluid head.

More internet scouring. Sachtler seemed to be the way but the price knocked me for six, too much for my pocketbook. Then I saw a full ENG Libec H70 appear on eBay, used, at a great price. When it finally arrived it was amazing, a true precision instrument, faultless tilts, perfection. But I had made another mistake in my transition to video, I had not understood how important "balance" is in matching a fluid head to a camera rig. I had a engineering marvel on my hands but my camera rig was too light for it to balance correctly on the Libec and the bounce back issues made the sequences unusable. I could pan and tilt smoothly but I could not stop the pan or tilt without a judder/kick back.

So, to cut a long story short, some four months later, I spotted a mint used Sachtler FSB-8 with sachtler sticks on eBay and I took the plunge. Everything the serious forum sceptics had said was true. With a true fluid head and correct balance, my pans and tilts and my reframing movements are a joy to my eye. I now feel that my tripod and head woes are over and the Sachtler FSB-8 matched with my Gitzo Series 5 legs will keep me happy. Time to move to the next step of my transition.


Focusing. ...A major downfall of DSLRs for macro video...

DSLRs have many ergonomic reasons why they are not suited to video capture. They are designed solely for taking stills and therefore do not not incorporate any of the design lessons learnt through the evolution of professional video, camcorders and filming. Only canon has really addressed these issues so far with its C100/C300 design. But they are too expensive for the amateur like me.

I do get the feeling that 2014 is going to be a game changer year for amateur video though and we are going to see many surprises. This is the reason I have not bought a better body than the D800 so far. I think some exciting new stuff is just around the corner.varavon

One of the major failings of DSLRs for video is focusing. In a DSLR you cannot focus through the eyepiece once you have pressed the video capture button. You are reliant on the screen on the back of the camera for everything. In macro video this is a disaster because focus can be lost so easily. Autofocus does not cut it in macro photography and similary not in macro video. It is good you can zoom on the screen on the back of the camera to fine tune focus BUT in field conditions the problem is you cannot see the screen on the back of the camera because of reflections. Its a similar disaster area when trying to get exposure correct also.

A quick look around the internet will give you 3 options to overcome this a) a manual loupe that fits onto the screen to cut out reflections b) an external monitor that is larger than the screen (6 to 7 inches diagonally) and c) a Electronic View Finder (EVF) which is a small screen that mirrors your camera screen but has a loupe attached and can be moved to any position for better ergonomics. Options a) and b) also have the major advantage of integrated focus peaking, which visually shows you which part of your macro scene/animal is actually in focus.

After a lot of reading I decided option c) was the best option but very expensive, and its my belief that we will see camera design changes in 2014 as well as focus peaking being bundled into new DSLRs/variants. I did not want to fork out a $1000 to overcome something that a $1000 camera body may correct this year.

Option b) was the second best BUT as I am interested solely in field work, this would be quite a bulk and a hindrance for me traipsing around in the wet conditions of the tropical forest. So, as a make do, I plumped for the worst of the 3 BUT the cheapest, a manual loupe.

Similar to my fluid head experiences I wasted money ($85) starting with a cheaper unit that fixed to the camera's screen protector by adhesive. It worked quite well but was no match for field conditions and just constantly fell off. After three outings it was unusable. I now have a Varavon Multi Finder Uni ($230) which attaches firmly by a base plate and am quite happy with for the moment. Its plastic but works well and should fare well in the forest. It does not guarantee your shot will be in focus, but greatly helps by cutting out all reflections on the screen. Indeed without it I simply would not be able to take any macro video in the field with my DSLR.


A Beginners checklist. ...the enemies of beginners like me...

I now have a few field sessions under my belt and have learnt a lot, not necessarily how to make a great video shot but more of what not to do - its has been a learning experience for me. I write this section of the article not as someone offering sage advise after years of experience but as someone like you. Someone who is attempting to transition to macro DLSR video and is learning the pitfalls, and wants to share those pitfalls with others in the same situation. Time in the field is hard enough to come by, why waste it by all making the same mistakes?

So here is a list of my current "lessons learnt", a list of things I must remember to imprint on myself. A list built from my own time in the field and countless hours scouring the internet for pointers to help me overcome my probelms as well.

1) Frame rate and shutter speed - 30/60 and 25/50. Video is not like stills when it comes to shutter speed. In wildlife photography it is simple - the highest shutter speed possible to work with the required aperture. In video its much more complex. There are two frame rates (frames per second or FPS) generally used dependent on geographical TV systems, 25 FPS and 30 FPS. Choose one and STICK TO IT! Its not really important which one you choose but just stick to it! I am using 30 FPS. 

When you decide which one you are going to use, you need to know that the BEST shutter speed to use is 2X your FPS, so if you chose 25 FPS in your camera setting then use a shutter speed of 1/50. If you chose 30 FPS then use a shutter speed of 1/60 second. 

Keep to this shutter speed as much as you can! It will give you the best results. You can go higher if you have too much light available but be aware that it may cause your final footage to look "off". Working with the D800 I have seen that when I need to use a shuuter speed higher than 1/60 and I do not necessarily want to change my ISO settings then the following problems are usually apparant in the final footage a) high contrast - i.e. blacks are too black making the footage look unrealistic and b) micro jitters - you will become used to this term - making the footage look as though its rough, it jitters, especially when panning or tilting. Micro jitters are a problem you are going to see elsewhere too. 

2) Focus and depth of field (DOF) are critical. These two issues are going to cause you a mountain of problems. Sadly the monitor on a DSLR will only be able to give you 80% of the view/info you need in terms of focus and DOF. This is a failing of the DSLR for video to date. It does not have additional information like focus peaking or DOF visibility. Get used to it. You will not see what went wrong until you have the footage back home on a big screen. I will go into depth of field (DOF) at length later in this article - its a major issue with current technology and the laws of physics.


3)  Sensor Dust. If you thought sensor dust was something you can readily ignore and do away with a quick swipe of the healin

g brush tool in Photoshop or Lightroom or Aperture, then think again when it comes to video, especially if you are using panning or tilting. 

4) Scene exposure. All I can say is trust your own judgement when reviewing your exposure whilst filming. If possible. take a sequence and then adjust your exposure settings so you take the same, or similar, sequence again with an alternative exposure. The failing once again is the lack of technical feedback as to exposure levels from the DSLR. Its worse than with a photographic shot as you also have the cameras CODEC trying to throw away information to reduce image size. If only they would give us a DSLR that will shoot video RAW at full frame size. I believe this will happen this year as part of a 4K "revolution".

5) Wind is your enemy. If its windy then find a area where you are shaded FULLY from the wind. Its not good video to be taking a shot of a spider on its web and then its starts to blow around in the wind, jumping around your frame. Even small amounts of wind will ruin your footage.

6) Sound. Forget it! Thats my simple advice. The sound system on the camera is affected by everything, every touch of the camera, every movement, every brush, every breath of wind. Ultimately you will be using an off camera mike with a wind sock and an isolator stand. I have decided that since macro subjects, normally, dont make sounds then I am going to forget about recording sound for the time being.

7) Movement. Its the point of video, if there is no movement in the subject you may as well take a photograph. One small thing I have learnt is that if you leave the camera rolling long enough you will see movement eventually, it may be the movement of a head or mouthparts but as long as it is movement, its video.

8) Press the record button first. This is something I recommend very strongly - do not set up the camera, focus, exposure, speed, ISO, framing, etc. and then press the record button. Press the record button first. You will learn so much when you are analysing your footage later, and see what issues you and your equipment have. Press that record button as soon as 'live view" is on, and make your adjustments then. Keep the camera rolling whilst you do retakes and adjust settings, do not not turn it off in between changes to camera settings. This will also get you additional footage, at least 1 second in a scene, and as most sequences are made by stitching together clips of just seconds, it could be a very important additional second of clip you capture.

9) Which way is focus? Quickly learn to assess if you are focused in front or behind the subject if it moves, and then imprint on yourself which way to turn the lens focus barrel to attain correct focus. There is nothing worse than seeing a shot going in and out of focus. But a single focus movement from Out of Focus (OOF) to in focus (IF) will save your footage/clip.


10) Long lens flexing. No matter how much you spend on your tripod/head, if you are using long lens then you will have to counter lens flexing. What is long lens flexing? Its the effect when you have a long lens on your camera and when you move the camera/lens on your tripod the whole assembly will flex and create a micro jitter wobble. Micro jitters make footage unusable. You will have to experiment with your rig to see when long lens flexing becomes an issue for you. I discovered it on my systen when trying to use a 500mm prime with a 1.4x extender on the D800. Panning/tilting and any camera movement caused a wobble in the system/footage. As I see it I have two options a) only to shoot this setup without camera movement and to avoid touching the rig during recording or b) to build a base plate for the whole assembly that will join the camera and lens together and therefore do away with the flexing.

11) Tripod balance. Tripod balance is imperitive if you are moving the camera whilst filming. Its the act of setting up the camera on the fluid head so that it is in perfect balance and the rig will naturally stop and hold positition where-ever you finish a pan or tilt. You need to always reset tripod/head/rig balance each and every time you change your lens! Never forget! If you do not do it you will be looking at footage of a beautiful insect mid frame and then wonder why is it slowly but steadily moving to another part of the frame even though the insect is not actually moving. 

12) Turn off Image Stablization. Image Stabilization/Vibration Reduction systems should be turned off. Shooting with IS/VR on whilst on a tripod will cause those horrible micro jitters in your footage again.


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onflipflops's Avatar
onflipflops replied the topic: #1614 13 Jan 2014 22:35
Fantastic post, even for somebody like me that is unlikely to get into macro videography.
I am interested to get into video, so far I have no DSLR with this option yet. But I'm afraid that even when I would have a camera with video mode, more equipment will be needed which probably exceeds the costs of just a camera.

I'll follow your experiences.
WT admin's Avatar
WT admin replied the topic: #1621 20 Jan 2014 06:05

I could just write and write on this subject, it has me fascinated. Its like discovering photography all over again. I am now ploughing through my trusty collection of BBC wildlife videos trying to see how they incorporate/get around some of the problems. DOF is by far the biggest issue so far. Am doing some experiments with sensor size at the moment.
onflipflops's Avatar
onflipflops replied the topic: #1622 20 Jan 2014 07:14
The smaller sensor does give you more working space/ depth of field. Though in that case you should not get tempted to get closer and
I would guess that to get more depth of field by using really small apertures would require video strobes or something. From what I remember I've definitely seen macro footage in wildife documentaries that had made use of artificial light sources, but I guess it makes getting around in the wild even harder.

Last option is to film several sequences, asking the insect to repeat its exact moves over and over again, and afterwards do some focus-stacking... :P

"Each species is a masterpiece, a creation assembled with extreme care and genius." > Edward O. Wilson

"An understanding of the Natural World and whats in it is a source of not only a great curiosity but great fulfillment." > Sir David Attenborough

“Climb up on some hill at sunrise.  Everybody needs perspective once in a while, and you’ll find it there.” > Robb Sagendorph


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