“How do you get such smooth video?”, “What camera do you use?” and “How do you carry your drone on hikes?” are among the most frequent questions I receive about our videos and blog. It has taken a while but I finally put together a “Behind the Adventure” video covering many of the common questions I receive and this blog post will go into additional details on the gear not covered in the video. It also provides some more general tips and tricks I’ve learned over the past couple of years documenting our time in New Zealand.
Check out the Behind the Adventure for an inside look into how we film our adventures:
Choosing the right camera
The honest truth is that your ability to frame a shot in an interesting way far outweighs any amount of money you can spend on a camera. In “ideal conditions” (evenly illuminated scene with lots of light) most cameras will give you very similar results. However, there are a few situations where spending more means you can take great pictures and video where other cameras just can’t. The most common of these is low-light situations (usually dawn, dusk or in the woods). Full-frame cameras have larger sensors which collect more light and also allow you to get a shallower depth of field (blurring out the background).than point-and-shoots, entry and mid-level cameras.
I can’t tell you how often I find myself still taking pictures hand-held after sunset while other tourists struggle with their cameras or scramble to set up a tripod. I took the photo below photo handheld at 5:15am last weekend, 45 minutes before sunrise (iso 8000, f5.6, 1/100s). We were on our way to go fishing and I only bothered to snap it because I could do so easily on our way without taking the time to setup a tripod. I love taking pictures run-and-gun style because it doesn’t take up any precious adventure time.
Another critically important factor when I chose a camera was that it had to take great video as well as photos. I wanted everything in one package instead of lugging around a stills camera and video camera. At the time I bought my camera (mid-2013) there was really only one clear choice: The Canon 5D Mark III. While the $2,500 USD price tag was very expensive I decided to make the considerable jump from a cheap entry level DSLR (~$500) to a full-frame because it was really important to me to document our trip to New Zealand in as high a quality as possible and not be limited by a camera.
What I love about the Canon 5D Mark III:
- The camera is totally bomb-proof. I have frozen it, dropped it, had it out in the rain, subjected it to sandstorms and corrosive volcanic sulphur clouds. It just keeps working thanks to great design and weather proofing.
- Low-light performance. Even though there other cameras out there that are better for low-light it still holds its own for low-light performance, good enough for me to win Photographer of the Year using the 5D for our glowworm time-lapse video.
- Video quality. When I bought this camera it was pretty much the benchmark for quality DSLR video capabilities and even today it still stacks up well with new cameras except in resolution and frame-rate (see below)
- High dynamic range. The 5D has 11 stops of dynamic range. What this means is that a the 5D is good at capturing details in scenes with a lot of contrast between light and dark areas of the photo. This is a major problem for cheaper cameras. Many phones and lower-end cameras try to overcome this challenge by having a HDR mode where it takes multiple photos and combines them for you. You can also do this manually (and with better result) with the lastest version of Adobe Lightroom and a fun little program called Photomatix
What drives me crazy about the Canon 5D Mark III:
- Video resolution and frame rate. I curse my 5D all the time for not being able to shoot 4k video (or at least 2.7k). I get equally as mad that it can’t shoot 1080p at a frame rate greater than 30 frames-per-second. For most people this probably isn’t a big deal but I want my videos to be in as high a resolution as possible so it looks good on the big screen and slow motion enabled by higher frame rates gives me more editing options.
- Size and weight. The 5D is massive and heavy, mirrorless equivalents like the Sony A7s II help trim the fat off large full-frame bodies.
While I have three lenses for the 5D, I normally only ever take two with me. The Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L lens and Canon 70-200mm f/4 lens. It’s an incredible combination of wide-angle and telephotos that allows me to switch back and forth for totally different looks and also ensures I am covered for most of the scenes I would encounter. I use the 16-35mm 90% of the time for landscapes and most video and switch to the 70-200mm when I’m further away from the subject or want to get some nice people photos/video.
While everything about the 5D is pretty awesome if I had to purchase a new full-frame camera today I would go with the Sony A7s II ($3,000). While it has some drawbacks when it comes to lens selection it addresses my biggest pain-point with the 5D (video resolution and frame rate) and the fact that it’s mirrorless and tiny is great!
While the 5D and Sony A7s II are fantastic (but expensive) all around cameras/video cameras, there are also different cameras that are specialized for different purposes, one of the reasons we also carry two other cameras. The GoPro HERO4 Black is a must if you plan on capturing action up close and with little effort. We have a lot of mounts to put it on helmets, bike frames, car dashboards and even carry it in our mouth while surfing. While inside the waterproof case the camera is pretty indestructible which is a great feeling when you are putting it in harm’s way.
Lastly we use a Canon G7 X . I purchased this after getting fed up with the giganticness of the 5D. On big hikes or mountaineering it was just too big, too heavy and unnecessary. At $599 USD the G7X is a more reasonable and takes great photos. More and more frequently we are leaving the 5D at home and taking the G7x just for convenience. It’s amazing what point and shoots can do these days.
What I love about the Canon G7 X:
- Size and weight. So small and so light, I can put it in my pocket!
- Video quality: This is very important for us and the G7x captures amazing video.
- Image quality. This little camera takes some great photos, more importantly it can shoot RAW images which means we can edit them as we would edit our 5D photos in Lightroom and recover lots of detail in dark areas. It even does pretty well in low-light!
- Articulating Screen. Ok, I never thought it really it would be that useful, but it is! Especially for video or when taking a selfie.
What drives me crazy about the Canon G7 X:
- The telescoping lens is prone to getting dust and dirt in behind it. I should have been more careful putting it in a lint filled pocket at the start, now I am stuck trying to vacuum it out all the time.
- No viewfinder. This takes some getting used to. There is only a screen to preview your photo and in bright light it’s really difficult to frame your shot properly. I find I end up taking extra photos just to be sure I got the angle right.
Our Camera Gear List:
- Canon 5D Mark III Camera
- Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 Lens
- Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L Lens
- HOYA PRO1 82mm UV Filter
- B+W 82mm XS-Pro Polarizer
- Hoya Variable Density 82mm Lens Filter
- Canon 70-200mm f/4 Lens
- Rode VideoMic PRO
- Benro Travel Angel II Tripod
- Peak Design CapturePRO Camera Clip
- LENSPEN DSLR Pro Cleaning Kit
- GoPro HERO4 Black
- Canon G7 X
- Joby GP8-BHEN GorillaPod
The aspect that helps differentiate our videos more than anything else is stabilization. Professional video is always filmed with cranes, dollies or fancy body mounting systems that take all add the same element of interest – motion!
As a hobby travel video maker it just doesn’t make any sense to use giant dollies or cranes, but there are ways to remove shake and add motion to videos which are getting easier and easier. I use a counterbalance contraption called a Glidecam to give our videos that smooth gliding feel. This means viewers aren’t distracted by slight shakes in the camera as I walk and are engaged by the smooth motion. Most cameras or lenses these days have some type of built in stabilization system which helps remove minor vibration and shakes but it can’t get rid of large movements, especially from walking. That’s where our Glidecam HD-2000 ($499USD) comes in.
What I love about the Glidecam:
- It just works. It takes a little practice but the glidecam produces great results and it’s easy to use once it’s set up.
- It is robust. The glidecam is mainly just a bunch to steel parts and bearings fastened to the each other so you can bang it around without damaging it.
- Perfect for ‘on-the-go’ video. I love to film as we go, particularly when hiking, the last thing I want to do is stop and setup a scene. The glidecam allows me to run around and try different options all in the flow of the activity. If I see something interesting I just turn on the camera and keep walking, I don’t have to waste time creating the perfect composition in a static frame.
What drives me crazy about the Glidecam:
- Size and weight. The glidecam is big and heavy. I’ve gotten used to it, but it is a lot like carrying a collapsed tripod around everywhere you go. However, you can’t easily tuck it away. The glidecam does disassemble into pieces, but re-assembly requires re-balancing so I often leave it together all day and carry it around over my shoulder or in my hands.
For a heavy camera like the 5D the glidecam is still the best option on the market for stabilized video but for smaller cameras electronic gimbals are making a strong push. Recently, I bought a Feiyu-Tech Wearable 3-axis gimbal ($285 USD) for the GoPro. It’s incredible what this little gimbal can do and the prospect of wearing it mountain biking or other sports where vibration is usually the main hazard is really exciting. If I didn’t already have a GoPro I don’t think I would have bought the Feiyu-Tech gimbal and instead would have gotten the DJI OSMO. It is a complete unit (camera + gimbal) for $650USD and it is getting great reviews. For anyone looking to improve the quality of their travel videos without getting big expensive and heavy gear the Osmo is calling your name.
Our stabilization gear list:
Taking to the sky – drone style
Drones are becoming more and more popular for photographers and video makers because they are so easy to use and allow you to get perspectives that used to be reserved for high budget movies with helicopters. And when I say easy to use, they are really almost dummy proof.
My drone will remember where it took off from and land itself where it started. If I want to take a drink of water while I’m flying the drone I can put the controller down and the drone just hovers there awaiting further instruction. There are a number of drones on the market but the most popular for a reason is the DJI Phantom series. They are relatively affordable, easy to use and produce great quality images and video. Personally I have the DJI Phantom 2 with 3-Axis Zenmuse H3-3D Gimbal ($710 USD) that we mount the GoPro HERO4 on. It works great which is why I haven’t bothered replacing it with a newer model. But if I was to buy a drone today I would buy the DJI Phantom 4 Professional ($1,158 USD). It has a great camera built in that shoots 4K video and RAW stills. Mind blowing!
The main thing to consider before buying a drone is that it’s difficult to take places if you aren’t driving. It is reasonably large, doesn’t pack well because of its square shape and the batteries don’t last long. On day walks Jenna carries a drone backpack and I carry a camera backpack with everything else. On big trips I have to ram it into my big pack and hope for the best. If you don’t have to walk very far from your car, having a drone is ideal for taking cool video.
Our Aerial gear list:
- DJI Phantom 2 with 3-Axis Zenmuse H3-3D Gimbal
- 2 Pairs Genuine DJI Props (don’t buy cheap knocks-offs, you will crash)
- GoPro HERO4 Black
- DJI Phantom 2 Extra Battery
- GoPro Sunshade Hood
- FlySight 7″ Monitor
- FlySight Black Mamba 5.8GHz Wireless Video Transmitter
- Cloverleaf Antenna Set
- DJI iOSD Mini On-Screen Display
- FPV System Controler Mount
I have always been fascinated by time-lapses. But my appreciation grew to whole new level when I first saw Horizons by Randy Halverson (Dakotalapse). I loved the camera motion incorporated in the time-lapse and midway through 2014 decided I wanted to introduce cool sliding and panning time-lapses into my videos.
I did a lot of research on the best (most compact and light) setup and decided to go with the a slider from Dynamic Perceptions – Stage One ($1150USD) and an Emotimo TB3 motion controller ($1199USD). The motion controller allows me to pan and tilt the camera between shots while the slider allows linear and vertical travel of the camera itself. The combination of the both systems produces stunning results.
While making these time-lapses is really fun and also what was used to make our glowworm video it is the heaviest, largest and most specialized piece of gear we carry. That’s why I often opt to leave it at home and just shoot normal (on a tripod) time-lapses on big adventures. It usually depends on how much space I have in my backpack and how many big hills there are that we will have to walk up. Hauling it all the to Mueller Hut for the single motion-controlled time-lapse I took was probably not worth it. On the other hand, if I had not taken it on the Cape Brett Track that video would have not turned out nearly as awesome.
Our Time-lapse gear list:
- Dynamic Perceptions – Stage One
- Emotimo TB3 motion controller
- Anker Astro Pro2 Mobile Battery Pack
- Satechi MTR-M Timer Remote Control
Bringing it all together
Some of you may be doing the math and thinking, “holy cow, all this gear ads up to a lot of money”, and you would be right. I didn’t set out to spend a lot of money on camera gear three years ago but once I got started, my passion grew and so did my aspirations of what I wanted to capture from our adventures. That being said, more than half of our videos don’t use a drone or have time-lapses, and I don’t need either to make great videos, they just add another dimension for incremental improvement. One of my favourite YouTube channels, Yeti Adventure Films makes great adventure videos with no fancy gear at all (a dslr <$1,000 and GoPro).
Fortunately, technology is advancing so fast that the tools needed to capture great video and pictures are becoming cheaper and easier for everyone. I don’t think it will be long before you see a package deal of a DJI Osmo and Phantom drone where the Osmo camera is interchangeable between the Osmo and drone. And you are already seeing great compact cameras like the G7x which delivers very high quality video and stills. You can even get reasonably priced panning heads for GoPros/phones that introduce motion into time-lapses.
I hope you found it useful to understand the equipment I use and why I choose to use it. The other dimension to making great videos, which is probably even more important is editing. But that’s a topic for another blog…
I’ve raced through a lot of topics and have also listed a lot of gear that I didn’t talk to so if you have any questions put them in the comments below and I will happily answer them 🙂
Full Disclosure: This post was not sponsored by any gear companies but does contain some affiliate links