We’re back form Palpa Cocha, which was stunning. I’ve got some new timelapses and some other fun to share with you, but because the render’s going to take all night, for now I’ll do a Technical Update – Sam, this one’s for you.
As always I welcome comments, questions, discussion, and advice if you’ve had experience with this kind of shooting (or even if you haven’t).
While the Canon 7D has served me well through a variety of harsh environments – 5400m glacial passes in Nepal to the stinking hot rainforest of Honduras – Peru has presented its own set of entirely new challenges. Thanks to the excellent research my summer assistant Sam (hi Sam) has done into new gear, however, I also have a wider arsenal of equipment to tackle them.
Peru unquestionably has the harshest light I’ve ever encountered while shooting (I’ve never been to Egypt, though.) Because it’s the dry season, the mid-morning – late afternoon sun is intense and direct, with blinding highlights and impenetrable shadows.
I try not to shoot above f11 for best lens performance, so I’ve been testing out a set of ND filters for the first time this expedition, with excellent results. However, I went with a set of 77mm NDs, which fit my wide angle and my telephoto lens, but which require a step-up ring to work with my walkaround lens, the 72mm barrel Canon 15-85mm f2.5-5.6. There is NOTICEABLE vignetting when using a polarizer, the step-up ring, and a single ND; removing the polarizer helps but doesn’t completely solve. I think I’ll be investing in some 72mm ND filters in the near future.
For interviews, my simple reflector kit has gone a long way this time. Even so, it’s very easy to blow out your subject with the reflector, such is the strength of the sun – so care is needed. By contrast, the HDV-Z96 LED Light we got is totally useless against this tyrant of a sun – though it has been useful for me in the past, in the less blinding Appalachian mountains, for example.
For really harsh conditions, Sam has loaded my 7D with a couple new Picture Styles – Marvels and Cinestyles – both of which provide a much greater dynamic range than the built in options. After some testing, however, I’ve found I use these sparingly – only in situations with heavy shadows that occupy a substantial portion of the frame. Otherwise the contrasty but rich built-in presets have been looking good.
If you’ve ever climbed to the top of a mountain you know – it’s windy. Up at 5000+ meters, the wind is ferocious, especially in the afternoon (which, annoyingly enough, is when the light is best). In Nepal, we sometimes needed three porters dangling jackets haphazardly to try to block out the howling mountain gods – this time, I decided to try a new strategy.
The first line of defense was a Videomic Pro with a Rycote Mini Windjammer. Listen – do not take this mic into the wind. It is helpless as a babe, and the Rycote cover just an appetizer for the audio-devouring demons. Not to say it doesn’t have its uses – it just doesn’t have its uses on top of a mountain.
Much more doughty has been the Rode Blimp, which encases my shotgun mic completely. I run this through a boom pole to a Zoom H4N, and the performance is incredible. Filming Cesar at Yungay, the winds were gale-force, whipping hair, carrying off stray coats and anything not nailed down. While the wind is audible in the recording, it sounds like, well, wind, without interfering with the quality of the recorded voice (no popping or tearing or interference). The downside is – the Blimp is BIG, and FRAGILE. Carrying it into the field without breaking it has been a constant challenge – hell, just getting it to Peru was bad enough. As a one-man-show documentary filmmaker, I can’t bring six pelican cases with me, so I just packed the Blimp into the box it came in (with the styrofoam and everything), piled soft things around it and checked it with the rest of my luggage. So far – so good. My main concern at this point is whether my on-board sound picked up enough through the raging wind storm for PluralEyes to match the Zoom audio to the image. Here’s hoping.
The valleys and peaks of Peru are vast – a vastness that boggles one’s sense of distance and time. The right lens for the job might logically be the wide angle – but what about the condor swooping several hundred feet overhead, or the Vicunas watching warily from the top of the mountain? Here’s the lens kit I’m trying out to deal with this range of possibilities:
The Canon 15-85mm 3.5-5.6, while a slower lens than I would usually like (and the variable aperture is awful if you like to zoom mid-shot) – has actually served me incredibly well here. It’s rarely ever dark enough that the slower lens matters, and being able to drop to 15mm means you don’t always have to switch lenses to get a nice landscape. I still swap it out for my Tokina 11-16mm for anything sufficiently dramatic, but overall, it’s proven a good base. All the portraits I’ve shot have been on this lens.
The Tokina, by the way, is an awesome piece of work, and has made a huge difference in my landscape and timelapse shooting.
The Sigma 120-400mm is an incredibly fun lens to work with, and puts out a good image (better, I would say, than my other long lens, the Canon 70-200mm L series). However, it’s a damn bazooka, weighing quite a bit more than the camera, so it’s not exactly easy to swap in a pinch. Basically, you need to decide beforehand whether you’re shooting wildlife or shooting landscapes that day – and stick with it.
The hardest part about mountain photography isn’t necessarily the shooting itself – it’s the getting there, and dealing with the terrain once you have. It’s one thing to trek 8 hours over a 5000+ meter pass – it’s another entirely to do it lugging a tripod that weighs half what you do.
I’m trying out a new tripod this trip – the Sachtler FSB-4 – an upgrade from my previous 503HDV with 055XB legs. I have to say – the difference is like night and day. The Sachtler’s fluid drag is much, much nicer, and the leveling head makes for a much quicker setup. The downside – it’s heavy. The Sachtler weights in at 10.8lbs all told, while the 503HDV/055XB comes in at 9.4lbs… not a huge difference, but the Sachtler is also built a little bulkier, has a lot of jutting parts, and overall does not make a good throw-it-over-the-shoulder tripod. I carry it in its softcase (along with a few other long metal pieces of gear – boom pole for example), but for me this tripod means another body on the expedition – it’s too much to carry in addition to the rest of the gear. If I was just shooting stills I wouldn’t dream of dragging this thing out into the field, but for video, it’s well worth the bulk.
I’ve been getting a lot of mileage out of my Blackbird steadicam as well – chasing horses, doing flyovers of tall golden grass with mountains in the background. What I’ve gained in weight with the tripod I make up for here – the Blackbird weighs next to nothing, and collapses down small enough to fit in your day pack. Downside: no vest, so the shots aren’t as perfect as they would be with a more expensive system. Then again, for a field tool, I’d rather have something that’s fast, easy, and can take a beating.
And whatever you do – do not get the Magnum 200 AW Shoulder Bag for an expedition. For shooting on an easy set downtown I’m sure it would be fine, but it’s like trying to carry a television on a shoulder strap. I’m currently looking for something that splits the difference between it and my current camera bag, which is barely large enough to hold the camera and one lens.