Whenever possible, shoot on a tripod. (Photo by Dwight Schuh)
The bull's tan body, white rump, and shaggy brown mane were impressive in the morning sunlight, and his white-tipped antlers were so large they seemed out of place. As the elk thrust his antlers into a tree and jerked upward, his brow tines shredded bark and his long top points flung branches skyward. As he continued to attack the tree, my stomach began to churn. I felt sick.
You see, I was not in the field but was sitting at my editing desk, watching video-tape submitted by a freelance cameraman for use on Bowhunter Magazine TV, and it made me sick because this beautiful and exciting scene was unusable. It looked as if the cameraman had shot it from a boat bobbing on a wind-blown lake. The tape would end up in the scrap bin -- along with so much other.
Over the years, while editing and producing dozens of hunting videos, and now while serving as Producer for Bowhunter Magazine TV, I have evaluated thousands of hours of tape, and the single biggest problem that disqualifies footage from use is a shaky camera. Most shaky footage results from a hand-held camera that is bobbing around like, well, like a camera in a boat bobbing on a wind-blown lake.
If you have ever watched shaky video footage, you know the problem -- it almost makes you feel as if you're in the bobbing boat yourself, and you start feeling seasick! Who wants to watch video like that, especially on a commercial video, DVD, or TV program?
IF YOU WANT TO ACQUIRE video footage that makes you proud -- and makes other people want to watch it -- learn to hold your camera rock solid.
How do you do that? First, you use a tripod. Now, that seems too obvious and simplistic to warrant mention here, but you would be surprised at how many videographers -- including professionals -- do not use a tripod, even when they easily could. Any tripod is better than no tripod, but cheap models with plastic heads are good only for static shots of people under good conditions. If the wind is blowing, or you try to pan with such a head, the results will be mediocre, especially if you are shooting at high magnification. The best way to use a cheap tripod is to arrange your subjects, push record, and remove your hands from the camera.
For wildlife and shots of moving people, particularly in windy weather, a heavier tripod with a fluid head assures the best results, because the weight of the tripod alone, coupled with solid legs, minimizes the effects of wind and hand movement, and the fluid head allows you to pan and tilt the camera smoothly without the jumps and jerks you'll get with a cheap friction head. One of my large, professional tripods cost $3,500. Such a tripod guarantees professional results, but you don't have to spend that kind of money. Bowhunter just bought a Manfratto tripod with the Bogen 501 fluid head for just over $500, and it works great. Tripods like these weigh 10 pounds or more, so they add to your load, but in terms of quality results, they are well worth the cost and effort required to use them.
Use a tripod for all static shots such as of people, camp, scenery, and trophies. And whenever possible, set up so you can shoot action footage of wildlife and hunting on a tripod.
If hand-held is the only option, make yourself into a tripod to support the camera. (Photo by Dwight Schuh)
In a treestand, a treepod, or swingarm, often is the answer. This device consists of a bracket that straps onto or screws into the tree; an arm made of hinged tubing that pivots in all directions; and a smooth camera-mounting head on the end of the arm. Once attached and level, the arm allows you to shoot video nearly 360 degrees around the tree. With quality swingarms, which cost $600 or more, you can pan with moving animals to get quality, steady footage. With cheaper, lighter swingarms, which cost as little as $50, you will get some jiggle. If time allows, position the camera on the animal, push record, and get your hands off the camera.
A swingarm not only helps you get steady footage but allows you to videotape yourself. Bowhunter Contributor Pat Lefemine uses a HunterCam Cradle (1-888-486-8226; www.huntercamcradle.com) to videotape himself hunting whitetails and other game. You can view some of the results in his DVD, Beyond Adrenaline (order the DVD online at www.bowsite.com/adrenaline or by phone at (860) 974-3668. Price is $14.99 plus S&H).
If you are caught without a tripod or treepod, or you're shooting in a situation where you cannot use these aids, say when stalking an animal, you still can get steady footage. With small, compact cameras like the Canon GL1 and the Sony PD170, place one hand in the handle strap (adjust the strap so your hand is snug), and the other hand under the front of the camera where you can easily adjust focus. Then, as a third point of support, press the viewfinder eyepiece snuggly against your eyebrow. Many larger cameras like Canon's XL1 and XL2 have shoulder pads to support the camera and give you a fourth stabilization point.
Whenever possible, use a solid object -- tree trunk, building, fence post -- to stabilize yourself and your camera. In a tree, set your camera on a large limb, or lean against the trunk of the tree to support your body. Your camera is only as steady as your body.
You can even use the ground at times. To tape a mule deer bedded across a canyon, I built a platform with rocks to level and stabilize my camera, and I got some rock-solid footage of that buck -- pun intended.
You also can stabilize your camera the same as you would binoculars, by making yourself into a tripod. Sit on the ground with your legs drawn toward you, so your knees are chest high. Rest your elbows on your knees and hold the camera as stated above. To take the concept one step further, sit with your back against a tree or boulder. This is about as steady as you'll get for hand-holding a camera.
And it works. While taping me hunting Roosevelt elk, my son, Steve, crawled behind me as we stalked within 50 yards of a herd. He could not use a tripod in this situation, so he made himself into a tripod as described and shot excellent hand-held footage as I arrowed a 6x6 bull with my Martin Hatfield recurve.
Finally, when hand-holding a camera, do not zoom-in ultra tight. High magnification not only enlarges the image but magnifies camera movement, so the closer you zoom-in, the greater the perceive
d movement on tape. Either try to get closer to your subject, brace your camera on something more solid, or settle for a wider-angle view.
In summary, if you want good video footage, use a tripod or treepod, or learn to hand-hold your camera for maximum stability. The value of these efforts will be pleasingly evident as you review and edit your footage. Instead of a sick feeling, you'll enjoy videotape you're excited to watch -- and proud to show to others.
To view Larry's elk footage and other great hunts, stay tuned for Bowhunter Magazine TV, beginning in July 2005 on The Outdoor Channel.