Shooting great wildlife footage can be quite challenging as you’re dealing with animals that can be unpredictable and cannot take model direction. The best wildlife videographers are the best because they have the right gear, they study their subjects with extreme patience, they put themselves and the animals in the best position to get the most epic shot. Here are some tips for shooting great wildlife footage.
Step 1: Make a (Flexible) Plan
The moment you decide to go outside and brave the elements is the moment you need to realize you have less control over your shooting situation. You can of course know the predictable elements like the sunset, sunrise, or the approximate temperature of the location. But you may find that animals may only be on the north end of a pasture, or that a tree has fallen and obscured the view of or block the path to the animals you saw earlier that week.
You should set out with a basic plan, but keep it flexible so you can adjust on the fly and not get too disappointed if things don’t go your way. Observe your surroundings so you can find other vantage points if your first choice isn’t working out. If one entire location isn’t getting you any results, plan out some other places you could pick up and go to as long as you aren’t sacrificing too much time and light.
Having a basic plan can help narrow your initial focus, but allow you to make adjustments based on what the actual reality of your shooting location ends up being.
Step 2: Choose the Right Gear For the Job
The right gear isn’t always the most expensive or the most cutting-edge piece of technology available (although it can certainly help in many cases), but the best for your shooting situation. You may not be able to lug a high-end cinema camera and its tripod or gimbal 10 miles through the swamp. Similarly, having only one prime lens could severely limit the amount of footage you can capture.
Think about where you’re going, and what type of footage you’re planning on shooting, then choose the gear best suits the situation. You’ll almost always need a tripod, a stabilizer, or some other mount to keep the shots steady, which is crucial for great footage. As contributor Shannon__Wild says, “A quality, sturdy tripod is essential for this line of work. Nothing ruins a potentially amazing shot than bad panning or tilting.” You’ll likely also need a telephoto lens in order to get close to animals without having to encroach on their space.
Accessories like lens hoods can block flares, glares, and protect your lens; lens extenders can give you a longer focal range (at the expense of a couple stops of light); ND filters can allow you to shoot with a larger aperture/more shallow depth of field in brighter environments.
Additionally, be mindful of the non-camera gear you need to bring along, because having the right clothing and bags can go a long way in ensuring a better shoot. Sun block, bug repellant, snacks, and plenty of water (1 liter every 1-2 hours, typically) allow you to settle in and be patient to get the shot, but more on that later.
Step 3: Shoot With Purpose, & Tell A Story
You should always follow the basics for shooting high quality video, meaning using the rule of thirds, avoiding mid-day shooting when possible, and minimizing shakiness (among other things), but there are also additional aspects to consider when you get in position and start to hit record.
The camera settings are incredibly important to the type of shot you want to get, so if you’re going for cinematic footage, open your aperture as much as you can to shrink your depth of field and really emphasize your subject. Remember the basic 180 rule and double your frame rate for the shutter speed to give some nice motion blur, which adds a natural look to the footage. You can lower the shutter speed to experiment with more blur, and raise it if you’re filming a fast moving object like a hummingbird or an animal running to give it a more jittery and energetic look. The same goes for frame rate. For fast-moving action, increase your frame rate to get some beautiful slow motion footage.
Since you can’t force wild animals to do what you want, you can do your best to anticipate their movements with your camera. Lead them as they move across the frame if necessary, but also don’t be afraid to let an animal pass through the frame fully. This gives you a natural starting and stopping point to work with. Wild adds, “when it comes to wildlife filming, understanding and interpreting your subjects body language is our most important skill. This allows us to predict the animals next move and therefore frame accordingly. It also helps us to decide whether to hold a shot or track with the animal, important in telling a visual story.”
Using manual settings whenever possible, because it gives you the most flexibility as animals move around and light changes during a shoot. Manual focus is typically faster and more precise than auto focus as long as you practice it, but camera technology is rapidly improving autofocus so that it’s nearly perfect, so use whatever works best for you and gets you the sharpest video.
It’s also a good practice to vary the shots between wide, medium, and long to get sufficient coverage. Being able to move between different focal lengths can add so much more to a video than 1 unbroken shot, or many shots at the same focal length (unless that unbroken shot is mind-blowingly good, of course). Switching focal lengths can also give you options for multiple subject types that may come into frame. Contributor underseaproductions camera operator Josh Jensen says “since any subject can show up unexpectedly underwater, especially the big stuff like mantas, sharks and whales, I always use a wide angle lens with full zoom through capability which give me the versatility to switch from filming a 1″ goby to a 40′ whale in the time it takes for the camera to pull wide.”
Get on the eye-level of your animals as well, because it also brings an added element to shots, by allowing viewers to feel like a part of the story and get in the perspective of the subjects.
Overall, telling a story should inform a lot of your decisions when it comes to shooting wildlife. The composition, the focal length, the frame rate, etc. all contribute to how the footage is interpreted. If your story is about how fast cheetahs are, that should come across in your footage. If your story is about how cold it is where some animals live, show them in their natural surroundings.
Capturing details is also one of the best ways to add depth and create a better story. Getting inserts like claws, eyes, or details of the animals’ environment can give context and bolster the narrative.
Step 4: Don’t Ignore the Sound
Sound can be a vital part of creating an immersive viewing experience, but it’s also hard to capture sound if you’re shooting from far away with telephoto lenses. If you’re close enough to your subject to capture the sound, bring along a directional microphone (or use your camera’s shotgun mic), a wind screen, and pick up some ambience of what you’re shooting. Get the microphone as close as you can or feel comfortable doing, and see how it works. If your location is a predictable spot for the animals to be, you can even try placing a microphone there before they arrive.
If, however, gathering sound isn’t feasible due to the extra weight or the distance you are from your subjects, don’t hesitate searching through the Pond5 Sound Effects collection to find something that works. Either that or try and foley some in yourself. After all, many sounds for wildlife films are a mixture of in-studio production, pre-recorded sounds, and sounds shot on-location.
Step 5: Wait. And Then Wait Some More
Patience is the name of the game when it comes to shooting wildlife. One reason is that animals need to get comfortable with you; another is that you may need to arrive well before they do and wait for them to show up; and another is the fact that you will be able to get better shots the more you study and spend time with the animals. You’ll be able to pick up on their habits, know where they’re going, and understand the bigger story. This advice works for the environment you’re filming as well. Observing the environment around you helps you to understand the terrain, the best shooting angles, and can lead to better footage all around.
As Gene Cornelius, Pond5 contributor “Mizamook” says, “luck is a factor, of course, but patience, I think, wins the day. You quickly discover that you are not patient enough as the event you’ve been waiting for happens always the moment you strike your tripod, decide to go for a break, or even turn away to fumble for a spare battery. Had you been a tad more patient, you might have had it.”
It takes shooters weeks, months, and even years sometimes to find the right situation for many of the amazing documentaries you’ve watched, so never underestimate just how important it is to spend time observing not only the animals, but the natural environment around you.
Step 6: Leave No Trace
One of the most important steps in this entire area of filmmaking is to not damage the environment around you, harass the animals, or cause any harm to the very thing you’re trying to capture, which is wildlife in their natural habitat. This includes not littering or leaving trash near your setup, not walking in sensitive/roped off areas and respecting barricades, and refraining from feeding wild animals and/or antagonizing them to get a reaction. Cornelius adds “a scared critter does not usually make for the best shot, and sometimes they eat you (bears) or stomp you (moose) if they are alarmed.”
Don’t be the person who ruins it for everyone, and leave it better than you found it.
Step 7: Be Smart & Stay Safe
In addition to not harming the environment and the animals. you should also practice safety first while out in the field. Make sure to bring enough food and water on long shoots. Bring a map and compass in case your phone dies, tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back, and make sure you have a way out or somewhere safe to go if the animals start coming your way. Plan for the worst, expect the best.
Shooting wildlife can be some of the most peaceful and rewarding work you can do. You not only learn more about animals and how to work in ever-changing conditions, you can learn the value of patience, which may be the best reward of all. And you don’t have to go far or film only exotic animals to get great footage. As Jensen says “Common critters filmed well is much more interesting than rare things shot poorly — remember, subjects that are common to you may be never-before-seen wildlife to audiences living in different parts of the world.”