Artist Spotlight, Pro Tips

Wildlife Pro Martin Harvey on Filming Animals in Their Natural Habitat


To classify Martin Harvey as purely a wildlife filmmaker would be a bit shortsighted. Filming wildlife is Harvey’s main passion, but his work also documents a variety of important environmental topics and issues, and has taken him to places as diverse as Morocco, Gabon, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Namibia, Botswana, the Middle East, Australia, and Asia. In addition, Harvey brings a unique perspective to his work, which is the reason that his talents are often called upon by international travel and tourism companies. His clients have included WWF International, Sky TV, National Geographic TV, Incredible India Tourism Board, Emirates Centre for Wildlife Propagation, and many others.

Harvey is equally gifted with his tools whether he’s camped in the bush waiting to film a pride of lions or piloting his drone over a herd of migrating buffalo. Finding Martin at home is rare, being that he’s usually on the road, where he can easily spend four to eight weeks gigging in some remote place in Africa. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to chat with him during one of those moments about his processes, the challenges he faces as a filmmaker, and the advice he has for others looking to shoot in the wild.

Group of Female Lions Head Rubbing and Socializing by martinharvey

Drone Restrictions

In order for a drone operator to submit commercial aerial footage to Pond5’s marketplace, the operator must be certified for the regions he or she is shooting in. Even with certification, however, drone operators often find restrictions and other obstacles pertaining to permissions that prevent them from getting their drones airborne. “Using the drone comes with a lot of restrictions,” Harvey confirms. “You’re not allowed to to use a drone in any of the national parks in most of Southern Africa. It’s against the law. In order to get access to these locations, I have to go to private parks — what they call concessions. So in order to shoot, I’ll work with the parks on their own marketing videos”.

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Filming Animals in the Wild

The key to creating an outstanding wildlife collection is to capture animals in their natural habitat, unaware of or undisturbed by human presence. “People don’t want to see animals running away from a camera,” says Harvey. “I spent quite a lot of time developing a technique that allows me to film animals so that they appear as natural and as comfortable as possible. Clients want footage of animals that look natural, not animals that are running in panic across the plains. Our strategy was basically to work with a group of animals and slowly get them used to the noise, even going as far as disguising the sound of the drone with the noise of a car’s engine. And then take it very, very slow. You’ve got 20 minutes for the drone battery, so you take it slow in order to get a bit of good footage, rather than lots of footage of animals fleeing in panic. At the same time, I don’t want to harass animals for ethical reasons.”

Aerial Flyover of a Large Herd of Cape Buffalo in the Okavango Delta, Botswana by martinharvey

“Animals are a bit difficult to predict,” Harvey continues. “For instance, I can see a herd of elephants moving toward a river, either to drink from it or cross it. Elephants have favorite spots, so it’s a matter of slowly bringing in the drone and trying to predict their next move. It’s really a matter of anticipating where they’re going to be, knowing the area and knowing what they’re going to do. I’m very aware about not leading these animals into a dangerous area because they’re running away from my drone, so you’ve got to be really careful as far as where they go and not leading them into a place that you don’t know.”

Aerial Panning View of a Breeding Herd of Elephants in the Okavango Delta, Botswana by martinharvey

Going Mobile

Producing great content without breaking the bank can be challenging. In addition, having too much gear and too many gadgets can slow you down tremendously and prevent you from achieving a high volume of sellable images. Unlike a filmmaker who focuses on lifestyle shoots and budgets for talent and locations, crew, and lighting, the filmmaker who finds a niche shooting landscapes, wildlife, and other categories absent of talent and crew faces equal but different challenges. “I’m a one man band,” Harvey confesses. “I’ve been creating footage that normally only outlets like the BBC or National Geographic would get with incredibly expensive equipment, such as big helicopters and gyro-stabilized cameras. I’ve been able to replicate that type of footage at a fraction of the cost. That’s been really rather fun and very satisfying. When I first looked at buying a 4K video camera, they were incredibly expensive; now the prices are more reasonable, and getting cheaper”.

High Aerial Straight Down View of a 4X4 Tourist Safari Vehicle by martinharvey

Capturing Unique Perspectives

Creating unique images takes a bit of inventiveness and imagination. Framing your shots with unique angles or positioning your camera in a place that wouldn’t be expected can definitely catch the eye of a potential buyer. Although buyers are always searching for the same popular themes, they are also always looking for fresh takes on a concept. The best way to have your images stand out from the millions of others in the marketplace is to add a fresh interpretation of the subject by using a variety of interesting angles and camera placements.

Unusual Angle Footage of Elephants Drinking Water, Okavango Delta, Botswana by martinharvey

“There are always opportunities to film animals in new ways,” agrees Harvey. “In Botswana, I placed a GoPro down in the bottom of a watering hole. When the elephants arrived, I just jumped out of my vehicle, put the camera down and reversed back, knowing that the elephants will begin drinking in roughly 30 seconds, because they’re usually very thirsty. I let the GoPro run for a bit, then picked it up.”

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African Water Crisis

Social issues are primary themes that are crucially important among our nonfiction producers who create documentaries and television series. Social issues cover a wide variety of subjects, which include themes pertaining to crime, pollution, politics, drug abuse, poverty, and many other current topics that effect our lives.

At the moment, Cape Town is facing a drought unlike anything it’s ever experienced. I had asked Martin a few months earlier to explore the impact of the drought in its rural villages.

Two African Women Collecting Water by martinharvey

“Cape Town is probably gonna be one of the furthest cities in the world to possibly run out of water this year, completely run dry. There are quite a few areas throughout South Africa that are running into a very similar experience. And of course it effects poor people the most,” says Harvey. “Just north of where I live, less than a two-hour drive, there is a huge area where people have no running water. The water in the taps has stopped. Fortunately, the government is bringing in water tanks. People collect water once a day. It’s a pretty desperate situation — the dams have dried up and the taps are bone dry.”

Explore more from Martin Harvey in his full Pond5 artist portfolio:

Top image: 4K Low Angle View of Curious Meerkats Investigating the Camera by martinharvey