It was the call that changed my life. “Hey man, do you want to come down the Amazon with us?” It was my brother Ross calling from South Africa. I had been living in San Francisco visiting my uncle, climbing, road tripping and generally aimlessly trying to find out what I was going to do with my life. At that point I was thinking about maybe going back to University and studying something else, since my first year as a freelancer in the documentary industry had been less than stellar. And then the call: “Hey man, do you want to come down the Amazon with us?”
Back then my brother was a pro kayaker. One of the best around. I had heard a few months previously that he had been invited on an expedition to paddle a previously un-run tributary of the Amazon, the Rio Maranon. I remember having been insanely jealous but had managed to turn that jealousy into being happy for my brother and his upcoming adventure.
The call changed everything. It turned out that the film crew they had invited could no longer make it and they wanted me to come along. The catch. You have to get yourself there and buy all your own filming gear. Little did I know that these kind of offers are what come along most of the time – people very keen for you to join them on their adventures so long as you pay your own way! Nice.
PUTTING TOGETHER A KIT
I now found myself trying to work out how on earth I was going to film this thing? At this stage my knowledge of filming was post-University and rudimentary at best. I knew I needed a light pro camera. Everything had to be light, durable and able to fit into a kayak. Weeks online doing research, emailing other camera people I had worked with and finally I had my kit together (with a very kind loan from my uncle I might add). Together everything weighed 4kg. Camera, tripod, microphones and a soft underwater housing. What exact gear I went with is probably not that interesting to most people but I’ll quickly outline. It was a PDX10 Sony which at the time was a cut down of the PD150 but still had XLR audio and recorded to DVCam, the other accessories were mostly very cheap. A crappy stills tripod, a mini reflector for interviews and an EWA Marine soft housing.
After all of that I managed to get it stolen 10 days after arriving in Peru, before we even got onto the river. It was a sad day, and a good lesson in never leaving your camera bag slung over the back of a chair(not to mention I also had my passport and travelers cheques in the same bag… I know I know alright! It was a hard way to learn a lesson.)
Luckily the expedition had also wanted a camera setup for filming on the more technical sections of the river where I would have to walk around. They had entrusted this to me and in my wisdom I had bought them an exact replica of my kit. Saved. Sort of.
2 months and almost 2000km we had completed the first full descent of the Rio Maranon. I had walked and hitch-hiked the first 1000km through some of the most isolated parts of South America, hiking into the canyon to film and resupply the team with food. I had then jumped in a longer sea kayak for the 1000km of ‘flat’ water through the jungle to our final destination in Iquitos.
To say the trip was life changing would be an understatement and I guess I should write it all down sometime soon before it starts to slip from my memory almost 10 years on. The 24minute film I produced “Maranon Dreams” was broadcast in South Africa on a satellite sports channel. Its not a great film, but I am more proud of it than anything else I have produced since. It was also the key that opened up the door for me as a freelance cameraperson because I now had something to show production companies which had some credibility.
LIGHT LIGHT LIGHT
When putting together a kit for an adventure – be it that multi-day hike you have always wanted to do or climbing one of the seven summits, the biggest consideration I would look at is weight. Its easy to feel all gung ho at the start of an expedition only to be cursing two hours later as your backpack straps bite into your shoulders. Remember that as an expedition member you don’t get a free ride and if anything, a lot of the time you have the most difficult job there. Not only surviving the trip, but also documenting.
I often get people asking me advice about what cameras to buy. Just go to the BnH website and I guarantee that paralysis will set in almost instantly as you start trying to work out that winning formula of price versus resolution versus lens versus brand etc etc etc. I would know as I have been through that process myself more than once. The answer is simple: There is no perfect camera out there and there never will be. They are all built to be very similar to each other and to have similar failings at similar price points – you’re comparing apples with apples.
I would give the following advice:
Firstly don’t worry about whether or not the camera you are buying is broadcast spec for National Geographic or BBC because merely by asking that question the answer is no. None of the cameras you can afford are broadcast spec. If you make a fantastic documentary it won’t matter anyway, people will buy it regardless. So stop counting megabits per second and comparing codecs hoping to find a magic combination that will make the camera better than the others.
Secondly: Read user reviews. Find out if people liked shooting on the camera. Very importantly find out if it is good in low light. Rather choose a camera that handles low light well over one that sucks in low light. On expeditions you can’t carry a lighting kit.
Thirdly: Choose something that fits well into your budget. The price of the camera is just the beginning. On an expedition you will have to factor in lots of extra long life batteries, rain covers, polarising filters if you are shooting in snow, tripod etc. With new HD cameras you have to factor in enough solid state media like CF or SD cards to get you through the whole expedition, and this can get expensive pretty quickly. Rather buy a slightly cheaper camera that you are going to able to afford all the bells and whistles for than to find yourself cursing on summit day that you only have a half a battery left.
I don’t go on an expedition if I don’t have a back-up camera. I have only once had a camera go down on me during an expedition. I was filming aboard a scientific research vessel in the Indian Ocean during a trawl. Despite almost being pulled overboard in a trawl net I also managed to get flung against a pole and smash the housing which protects the tape – the camera was finished and so was I. I spent the next 4 days pretty much being in everyone’s way and of no use to the trip. A horrible experience.
A back-up camera is great for a number of reasons. My back-up is a smallish DSLR which shoots great video. It means I can shoot stills, but also very importantly I can shoot time-lapses without tying up my A camera. A back up camera does not have to be elaborate or expensive but something that can do the job of documenting in an emergency. Light and small is key.
I also carry back-ups of everything else including chargers (if we are using solar for charging batteries) and cables if we are downloading rushes during the expedition. It may sounds paranoid, but I promise you rest a little easier knowing that you have a contingency plan if things turn to custard.
GOPRO: GETTING A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE
This is an example from our Kilimanjaro Paragliding expedition. I mounted the GoPro to Marianne’s walking stick. The results were great. Using the GoPro here was essential because it told a part of the story I had no access to since I was not flying off the summit.
It seems that everyone now has a GoPro camera and they are awesome pieces of kit. I have used them on everything from paraglider wings to attaching to the heads of Baka Pygmies collecting honey in the rainforest. However, they do have a very particular place in your arsenal and in my mind should be used sparingly. GoPros work best if they are mounted onto something which is fixed and will be moving in a predictable way. They are great for that hard to get to angle, the odd shot which jibs out of the water or for filming in conditions that are so bad that you worry about using your camera. Be prepared for as many successes as failures with a GoPro.
A couple of things I have learned is that a GoPro shot sucks if there is nothing to anchor it in the frame. For example, a point of view shot from someone’s head as they are walking is basically useless and looks horrible as there is nothing to anchor the shot. However a point of view shot looking straight down at the ground of someone walking will work much better as the body and legs will give the frame some reference and hold the shot together.
GoPros also work really well when attached to the end of a pole. This allows you to do cool things like track an overhead shot of someone riding on a bike from a car, it means you can stick them in the water to film whales or as a means to get some distance from the subjects. The question you should always ask yourself when filming with a GoPro is “Could I film this with my A camera?” if the answer is yes, then you should definitely film it with your A camera – only use a GoPro for shots you can’t pull off otherwise.
This is the best of GoPro 6 million views can’t be wrong. I’m not much into adrenaline sports montages, but this one is great.
DISCLAIMER: I have no vested interest in GoPro cameras over any other POV cameras there are other products that do a similar job to GoPros and can be used in the same way.