With Taking Flight Outdoors, the Bentonville production company he co-owns, producer and editor Lance Nations records a variety of hunts in a variety of settings, from deer season through turkey season. But he doesn’t hesitate to name the sport that’s most challenging to document visually.
“Waterfowl’s definitely, by far, the hardest game you’ll ever film,” Nations says. “The movement is so quick and you’re filming in the sky.”
In fact, the challenges to shooting a duck hunt with a camera surpass even those of shooting a duck with a shotgun. Temperature, moisture, standing water, timber underfoot — all of these will work to complicate a video shoot.
But as with many difficult things, the challenges are often worth the trouble. “When you run multiple cameras from multiple angles,” Nations says, “you can make a mediocre hunt look like a really good hunt.” For instance, if you’re wearing waders, you might follow the retriever partway into the water, to get the low shot of the dog returning — or, if birds approach at that moment, the angle of the hunters blowing calls, readying their guns and firing. Put the camera on the stake when someone stakes a decoy. Get high up on an embankment and capture the entire spread. Get a camera arm that attaches to a tree by your stand. “Waterfowl is definitely the hardest to film,” Nations says. “But you do have the most leeway to do creative stuff with it.”
That impulse can go too far, of course. In an email, Zac Stephens, a camera operator with the video production crew on the Duck Commander series of DVDs, says it’s easy to get carried away. “Safety is the most important part,” Stephens says. “No good piece of footage is worth your life. Don’t get shot. I’ve come close a couple of times and it’s no fun.”
No matter where you’re (safely! prudently!) setting up to shoot your footage, you will need a camera. The adage says the best camera is the one you have with you, and you could do worse these days than to let your iPhone roll. “Not everybody’s a golfer, not everybody likes to play golf, so there’s no reason to run out there and buy yourself a set of Pings,” says Freddy King, a 16-year veteran outdoors videographer and producer out of Searcy whose work appears regularly on BloodBrothersTV.com. “Start out with some WalMarts.”
Once you elect to drop a little coin on a proper rig, the pros recommend checking out either B&H or eBay for the best deals, and they all are keen on Sonys. King and Nations suggest the Sony Handycam HDR-FX7; separately, Stephens recommends the HDR-FX1 for the budding amateur, in part because it has a decent internal microphone. “Audio is a different animal,” he says. For a cheaper, all-weather camera suitable to mount as a second camera, Nations likes the Kodak Playsport line.
From a purely technical standpoint, the trickiest part of getting proper images of birds in flight will be adjusting your camera’s light sensitivity such that it doesn’t allow the light of the sky to overwhelm the birds in the frame. The colors of the sky and clouds should remain steady both when you shoot a sky-only shot and when you capture land and sky together.
That adjustment will mean the difference between seeing the colors of an approaching bird and seeing only a dark shape against a blown-out background. As for positioning, the cameraman should be at least 10 to 15 feet away from your subjects, Nations says, for the best framing.
Weatherwise, remember that moisture in all forms is the enemy. Rain is the obvious. But Nations also recommends keeping the camera as close to the outdoor elements as possible before a shoot. If it’s going to be 25 degrees the morning of the shoot, you run the risk of having a foggy lens if you bring the camera in the house the night before. His solution: “Keep your cameras in your truck. Bring your batteries in.”
If a novice videographer will make one mistake when first going out to shoot, it will be to pan and zoom too much. King’s suggestion is that if a duck is so far away you have to zoom and focus, it’s too far away to be worth your time. And as for pans, they ought to be slow, methodical and purposeful. “No herky-jerky movement,” he says. “Don’t just jump from here to there. Have a reason. Hold the shot for at least eight to 10 seconds before you move anything else.”
Stephens said shaky footage afflicts beginners. Use a tripod, he says, especially for any dialogue. But he echoes King when he says, “No one wants to watch a bunch of sporadic camera movements.”
Once you’ve got the very basics covered, then you can begin to shoot with editing in mind. Get shots of what are commonly called “cutaways” or “B-roll,” basically supporting images that will allow the editor (that might be you) to transition cleanly between two shots. On a hunt, this might be shots of a hunter blowing a duck call, of shell casings bobbing in the water, or of decoys floating. They will include close-ups, too, like water dripping from a dog’s whiskers or a hunter reloading his shotgun.
Quick cutaways help an editor tell the story briskly, efficiently. “One of the most boring things to watch is somebody else’s home video,” King says. “From an editor’s standpoint, however long your video is, if it’s a duck hunt, no matter how good a duck hunt it is, it should never be longer than about 10 or 12 minutes.” Nations recommends the hunting-specific editing suites from Campbell Cameras for anyone just getting started in editing hunting video.
The other quality of an engaging hunt film, King says, is banter. He admits he can seem pushy on a hunt, even rude, but he bosses his hunters around, he says, in order to get them engaged with one another, and to talk. If you later watch a finished video with a friend and have to explain anything to him, King says, you haven’t done your job in the field. “The video that only has awesome looking footage, it goes dormant, it loses its flavor,” he says. “Those little pieces of audio are what will save it.” His message: Don’t sell the sound short and don’t forget that the final video, however you decide to shoot it, should tell a story.
“When it comes to actually filming, practice makes perfect,” Stephens says. “Don’t be afraid to experiment. If you miss your shot, don’t worry, because there will be another set of ducks coming soon enough.”
A Two-Minute Guide to Shooting a Decent Hunt Video
Don’t shoot just one type of shot. There’s only so long you can stare up at the sky, or scan the inside of the blind.
Don’t get zoom-happy. Don’t pan unless you have to. Frame a shot and allow the action to unfold inside that frame. Hold each shot for at least 10 seconds. Swinging the camera around just makes for confused, disorienting footage.
Get an external mic to mount on your camera. The sounds of the hunt’s bird calls, shotguns crackling and dogs splashing in the marsh are too much a part of it to skimp.
Watch your light metering. It would be easy to begin a morning in utter darkness and continue to shoot video in 10 a.m. sunlight. Don’t assume the light settings for one hour will suit the next.
Tripods are your friends. At the very least, stabilize your shots. Zooming will also make any shaking all the worse in the final video.
Video on the Web isn’t TV. There are plenty of ways to explain the when, where and who of a hunt without having to narrate it to the camera. Save any dull facts for a written description and use the video and audio to capture the moment itself.
Follow Freddy King’s three-step checklist:
1 Push record.
2 Double-check your focus.
3 Always check the audio.
Sam Eifling is a freelance writer and a former assistant editor at Arkansas Business.