In my last article, I had written about the various things to consider while choosing the core pieces of gear for a wildlife filmmaking kit. Now, I would like to introduce you to smaller yet equally important pieces of gear that will go a long way in ensuring you get the best quality footage on field.
Most professional mirrorless/DSLR cameras come with a tiny 3-inch or a 5-inch screen built into the camera or in the case of some box style video cameras they have no screen at all. This is not ideal for filmmaking, as you need to make sure your images are properly exposed, composed, and are in focus consistently when you are recording. The small monitors on the camera are just good enough to show you basic settings and an image preview, though this might do for some photography applications, it’s hardly a good tool compared to a dedicated monitor or viewfinder.
A dedicated monitor is usually a 5-inch or a 7-inch screen which can be mounted on the camera with the help of a camera cage or a hot shoe mount through an HDMI cable (micro, mini, for full size). Apart from giving a larger, unobstructed view of the image, most monitors come with a range of great monitoring tools such as focus peaking (highlights objects in your frame which are in focus), false colours (helps you judge exposure accurately), zebras (shows which part of the frame is being over exposed), and many more tools.
Sripad’s tip: External monitors come in various price ranges and even the cheapest ones have almost all the tools that you will ever need. The more expensive ones differ only in build quality, the colour accuracy of the LCD panel, and the brightness of the screen. If you are not doing any colour-critical work, like in product advertising or fashion, spend the money on the brightest monitor you can find, its usually measured in the unit called ‘nits’. Any monitor with 1,000 nits and above can be considered a bright monitor. View finders tend to be more expensive than external monitors but cheaper options are appearing on the market.
Brands to look out for: Feelworld, Lilliput, SmallHD, SWIT, OSEE, Blackmagic, Atomos. Check out Portkeys and Zacuto for viewfinder options.
When you are out shooting in nature, you will find yourself in places that have poor power options, or no power options at all, in some remote places. This means that you will run the risk of your batteries draining half way through your shoot.
Most mirrorless cameras and DSLRs, though they provide an excellent image, they still run on batteries designed for photography. While recording video in ‘full frame’ or ‘super 35mm’ mode on these cameras, the sensor stays on all the time, sucking up a lot of power in the process. The solution for this problem is to carry a lot of your camera’s batteries. This is not practical for most people, not to mention the amount of chargers and cables you need to bring along for them. The professional cameras solve this issue by using large powerful batteries called V-mount batteries or Gold-mount batteries, they are large boxy batteries that can power most professional cameras/lights and other film gear.
External power through these V-mount batteries will power you monitor, your camera, and other smaller electronics on your camera like video transmitter or receiver almost the entire day. You will end up carrying only two or three of these for your entire shoot. Even if you cant charge your batteries for a day or two, you will have enough power to last you.
Sripad’s tip: Over the years I have found a great midway between the power of a V-mount battery and the portability of small mirrorless camera batteries, in the Sony NPF style camcorder batteries. They provide large quantities of power but are still relatively portable and inexpensive. The V-mount batteries can be very expensive and bulky. NPF batteries also come in various sizes. The smaller batteries like the NPF 550 can be mounted on monitors, while the larger variant like the NPF 970 can be mounted on rails like a V-mount battery. Power can then be supplied to all every part of the camera rig. The latest cameras nowadays come with USB-C options as well, which means a phone power bank can also keep your cameras running throughout the day.
Brands to look out for: V-mounts (relatively inexpensive options): Neewer, Bebob, Newell, SWIT, Soonwell, Fxlion.
NPF batteries: Digitek, Wasabi Power, and most of the brands mentioned in the V-mount category.
SmallRig makes excellent Sony NPF 12v/7.4v battery plates which can be paired with any camera rig or accessories.
Why talk about cables? Because they are the information and power super-highways in your camera rig that provide consistent data and power enabling you to record all the amazing footage on field. External monitors and external batteries are connected to your camera using these cables. A humid rainforest, or a dusty desert, are places where you will find amazing animals to film. However, they are hostile environments for most electronic equipment including your camera. Having anything external on your camera’s body make them the most vulnerable part of your rig. A broken cable can be disastrous on a shoot as you loose a indispensable tool on field.
External monitors are connected to your camera via a HDMI cable (full-sized, mini, or micro HDMI connectors). They are usually placed on an articulated arm, which can be moved around depending on the needs of the camera person. HDMI cables need to move along with the monitors without stressing the connectors on the camera or monitor. These cables are usually thick. If you check your HDMI cable behind your TV or set top box you will understand how inflexible they are, especially near the connectors.
Dedicated cable manufacturers solve this issue by making hyper-thin, short HDMI cables that can bend very easily. Another great alternative is coiled HDMI cables, similar to the cables found on old landline phones. This is a great design as they enable the cable to bend and flex, they allow for accidental pulls without paying the penalty of a broken cable or connector.
Power from external batteries is supplied to your camera via a DC power connector, they come in multiple sizes which can be difficult to tell apart because of the minute differences, you should look out for the outer and inner diameters of the cables, the most common connector sizes are 5.5mm (outer diameter) and 2.5mm/ 2.1mm (inner diameter).
Sripad’s tip: The value of high quality cables cannot be overstated. They can really make or break your shoot. I have had multiple cables fail on me within an hour of shooting (it was one of those shoot days). Always carry multiple backups for cables. There is no point having the best external monitor on the planet if you cannot send your camera signal to it. Similarly, power cables can be tricky because of voltage issues, a poor cable can potentially fry your camera’s circuits. Look out for cable options that allow you to screw in/ lock/ clamp your cable to the connector. Many camera rigs have this option.
Brands to look out for: Camvate, Shape, Kondor Blue, Atomos, Wooden Camera. There are YouTubers who also sell their own brand of coiled/ braided cables. If you like whacky colours, check out Gerald Undone cables.
In my previous article and in the one you just read, I have covered in relative depth the many aspects you need to consider while choosing filmmaking gear for wildlife videography. In the age of instant gratification, blindly choosing a “recommend piece” of gear is becoming very common without truly understanding why one needs that particular piece of kit. It’s very important to understand your tools as much as possible, especially since every tool contributes greatly to your craft. This not only ensures that you are able to film those once-in-a-lifetime moments, but it also ensures that you have an enjoyable time in the process.
Sripad is a Director of Photography/ Cinematographer who has worked in the wildlife documentary and digital ad space for over eight years. He has shot for brands such as National Geographic, Animal Planet, and Netflix. Sripad loves exploring camera technology, new mediums of filmmaking, and storytelling.
This series is an initiative by the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), under their programme ‘Nature Communications’ to encourage nature content in all Indian languages. To know more about birds and nature, Join The Flock.