I was all set. I had the vision, I had some new gear, and I was determined to make a solid start on my road to becoming a videographer. Then, I got here, and it all went a bit pear-shaped.
How Many Ways Can I Screw This Up?
I was full of beans on the flight from Dublin to South Africa. Turns out that opting for the vegetarian meal on Ethiopian Airlines doesn't necessarily mean that you get served before the meat-eaters or that your dinner will be hotter. What it did mean, however, is that the poor dude next to me was treated to a windy symphony, and my excitement at becoming the next Roger Deakins didn't help matters.
Nah-imastay In Bed
To get back to the matter at hand, though: my imagination was running away with itself. I was so busy previsualizing (read: dreaming) that I lulled myself into a false sense of security. The reality is that I was wholly unprepared for what I came out here to do. As well as taking photos for three different groups of people, I needed to create two videos: one for a yoga retreat, the other for a personal project. But before I flew out, time got away from me, and I didn't even attempt to storyboard anything. All I did was watch some reference videos. I tried to get the yoga people on board by asking them to watch a few videos and tell me what they liked, but their ideas were more in the line of Instagram clips with overlaid text — just shoot some footage and smash it together later type of thing. I was a bit frustrated, but luckily, they're friends of mine and are really chill about everything. They just wanted some marketing content, while I wanted to reinvent the wheel.
Regardless of how easy-going they are, I could have been a lot more prepared. Having at least a shot list would have made things a lot more efficient, which could have saved me from some frustration. On top of all this lack of preparation, when I arrived here, there were three disparate groups of people in the reserve's camp. It was fantastic to see a lot of them partaking in the yoga sessions, but while some were comfortable in front of the camera, others didn't want to be filmed at all. I don't blame them; I wouldn't want to be filmed doing a dodgy downward dog either. It did mess with my plans, but thankfully, I was still able to get some usable material.
6D Mark D'oh?
If I was to be filming commercial style videos, I needed something that could shoot 1080p at 60 fps. I'm personally not a fan of slo-mo footage, as I feel it's an overused, shallow form of storytelling, but you've got to give people what they want, and apparently, people want slow footage of coffee being brewed. My main predicament here was a tight budget; the other was that I'm fully invested in the Canon system — a dated Canon system at that. I had a 750D and a 6D Mark I. They work perfectly well for shooting my bread and butter — static subjects — but apart from stills, neither were suitable for my needs on this trip. The most cost-efficient way for me to get to 60 fps was to buy a 6D Mark II. I could sell my 750D with an EF-S lens, and then, I would have two full frame bodies without having to invest in new glass. What made the decision for me was a great deal on the Mark II.
I'm not too impressed with the image quality from it. It's not a major improvement from the Mark I, especially in low light situations, and the video options are, in part, worse than its predecessor! With the All-I codec taken away and a low bit rate, there isn't a whole pile of wiggle room for grading. What I do appreciate is the 6.5 fps for stills and the dual-pixel autofocus. I'm sure that all you Sony a7 III and Nikon Z 7 users are scoffing at the screen right now, but it's all relative. I'm working within my means, and gear isn't everything... right?
Always Use Protection
My next little oversight was my method of packing. In order to save space, I decided to pack my steadicam, sans protective case, in my checked luggage, and ended up with a two-piece stabilizer that isn't supposed to be in two pieces. So, I had to rely on a pair of steady hands while tracking dangerous game through the bush. Not so easy, especially when the trackers go quiet and tell me to run to a sturdy tree if I hear something charging.
Practice What You Preach
Which brings me to the last, but by no means the least, of my screw-ups: I didn't practice shooting video with my new camera. There is no way I could have fully prepared myself for the conditions of the bush, nor did I even know just how long we would be tracking these animals, but still, I should have nailed down some custom functions before I left. It turned out to be a tough 40 km hike through the bush over two days, in (sometimes) blistering heat. Luckily, we were able to retreat back to camp for a night's rest, but it was still one of the most intense experiences I've had in the bush. Not only was I acting as a fleshy marker for the trackers, but I was doing my best not to get in their way while documenting the operation with stills and video.
So, how exactly did I mess up? I often forgot turn on the shotgun mic while recording. Oh, and overall, the sound is just bad. The 6D Mark II has no headphone jack, so I had no idea what kind of quality I was getting (when I was getting audio). To save weight, I took only an old 24-105mm f/4 L with a stabilizer so noisy that it could wake up a drunken elephant. It wasn't until half-way through the first day when I realized that I should have turned it off. Needless to say, the mic picked up quite a bit of motor noise from it. And, speaking of drunken elephants... just kidding, they were perfectly sober and thankfully, nowhere near the Black Rhinos we were actively looking for.
Yeah, did I mention we were tracking one of the most dangerous animals in Africa? There were a few squeaky-bum moments for sure, but overall, despite my relative ineptitude, it was an exhilarating little adventure and one that I will never forget. I don't feel like I've failed, because I did get some useful footage, and most importantly, I gained a huge amount of experience. There's no doubt that I will be out here again: I'll be conducting photography workshops in September, and I'll certainly be more prepared for this kind of situation in the future.
If I was to offer some advice to readers, I would say: storyboard, practice with new gear, and for God's sake, don't eat beans on a long flight.
Do any of our readers have any advice for aspiring videographers?