One Camera and One Microphone: Filming a Conservation Project

by Jerry Monkman

When Canon introduced the 5D Mark II a few years ago, I decided to give shooting video a try. I
had long been shooting still photos for land conservation projects and it seemed to me that
turning some of those projects into short videos could be a great way to tell the story of the land
being protected. I had no experience shooting video or recording sound, but what the heck – I
now had a camera that shot video, so I was all set.

As usual, I may have overestimated what I was getting myself into, but after six months of
practice, I was able to pull of this video for a client who helped foster an easement that will keep
the Anderson Farm in agricultural use for future generations.

It’s not perfect, but it does show the potential of what can be done with just one camera and a
microphone. Before I shot this video, I was feeling woefully unprepared to produce a video like
this – I didn’t have any lights for video, or a steadicam, or one of those fancy Red-Rock rigs, etc.
Thankfully, I received some great advice from a friend who has been a video producer for 20
years. I’m paraphrasing, but her advice was to just shoot with the gear you have, feature the type
of imagery you are good at, and concentrate on the story.

Since then, I’ve shot more than a dozen short video projects, two to 10 minutes in length. Some
have fallen a little flat, and some are pretty good (I think so, anyway.) Both the good and the bad
have some beautiful landscape imagery in them – that has always been my strong suit – but the
ones that have succeeded have the best stories, driven primarily by the people doing the talking.
By focusing on the story, your videos will have a higher success rate, so look for subjects that
interest you and then find willing personalities that can hold your viewer’s interest over the course
of your video. And then edit ruthlessly – shorter is usually better in this world of YouTube attention
spans. Of course, when you get the right subject it can be hard to cut out too much, as
happened with this video that ended up being 6 ½ minutes long instead of the planned 3 minutes:

While your story will make or break the success of your video, there are some basic technical
considerations to be taken into account when shooting video with your DSLR for the first time.

1) Buy a fluid video head for your tripod. While you can do a lot by not moving the camera and
letting the motion in the scene do its thing, eventually you’ll want to add some pans and tilts to
your repertoire to add some variety to your shots. Trying to pan the camera by hand or on those
ball heads we all love is just about impossible to do well, so you’ll want to get a fluid video head.
Also, when panning, go VERY slowly. Fast pans are jarring and can introduce a stutter effect to
your shots. The longer the lens, the slower your pan needs to be. You’ll also need to make sure
your tripod is level before trying any pans. Doing this with traditional tripod gear is possible, but
it’s frustrating and time-consuming. If it’s in the budget, adding a leveling base between your
tripod legs and head will save you a lot of time.

2) Shoot in manual exposure mode and at a 1/50 or 1/60 second. First, you really should shoot in
manual exposure mode so that your exposure doesn’t vary during a shot or between similar
shots. Second, your shutter speed should be set to approximately half the inverse of your frame
rate. What’s that mean? Video is recorded at a frame rate – standard rates are 24 frames per
second (standard for cinema-bound films), 30 fps (standard for on-line and TV) and 60 fps. So if
you’re shooting at 24 fps, you should always be using a shutter speed of 1/50 second; for 30 fps,
shoot at 1/60 second. Faster shutter speeds will result in a strobe light effect that you probably
don’t want. Much slower and any movement starts to look blurry. 60 fps (or even the 120 fps that
are available on some DSLR’s now) can be used to shoot slow-motion sequences because the
extra frames allow you to cleanly lengthen the duration of a clip in post-production (and
effectively creating a slow-mo effect.)

Since you need to shoot at a fixed shutter speed, you’ll need to control exposure by varying your
aperture and ISO. I often shoot at big apertures like F4 and F2.8, which means sometimes I’ll
have too much light to get a proper exposure at 1/60 second. In these cases, I’ll use a neutral
density filter to cut down the amount of light reaching the sensor. I like Singh-Ray’s vari-ND filter
because it lets me dial in the strength of the ND effect until I get a proper exposure at my chosen
aperture and 1/50 second.

3) Sound has probably been the biggest challenge for me since I started shooting video. You will
quickly find that the on-camera mics on DSLR’s are less than adequate, so you’ll need to buy an
external mic. Something like the relatively affordable Rode Video mic will improve your sound
considerably. If you’re filming a lot of interviews or other types of conversations, you might need
some extra gear. Microphones work best when they are close to the sound source (like within a
couple of feet at most.) So instead of mounting your mic on the camera’s hot shoe, you will want
to get it as close to the source as possible, which may require a mic stand (I use a Manfrotto
Super Clamp with a mini ballhead attached to a second tripod or light stand) and a longer cable
to reach your camera. I could write several blog posts about sound, but I’m trying to keep it
simple here. This set-up, with the possible addition of an inexpensive fuzzy windshield like the
Rode Dead Kitten to block out windnoise, is a good place to start. For a good overview of how
mics work, check out this Basic Best Practices for Capturing Quality Audio post at Olivia Tech.

For all of the video projects I shot my first two years, I used this simple set of gear: Canon MarkII,
a few Canon lenses, A Rode Video Mic, Manfrotto Fluid Video Head on a Gitzo tripod, and a
Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter. I’m now undertaking a more ambitious 30-minute documentary, called
The Power of Place, that will require a more extensive gear kit, but I’m betting that the vast
majority of clips that make into the film will use the basics mentioned above.

Here’s the teaser for The Power of Place:

To produce this film, I must raise $35,000 by May 16th. To make a pledge, please visit my Kickstarter page.

To receive updates on this project visit this page on Jerry’s website.

Related posts: Interview With Outdoor Adventure Photographer Jerry Monkman, Sacred Headwaters, Sacred Journey: A Conservation Project by Paul ColangeloIf you have any thoughts please leave a comment.