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Adventure Filmmaking

How To Effectively Film Your Journey, Adventure Or Expedition

I’ve began filming my adventures in 2007, when I’d barely picked up a video camera before. In 2011, I found myself presenting my first feature-length documentary at the Royal Geographical Society in London. I’ve since released two more feature docs (and numerous shorts), won film festival awards for my work, host workshops on travel filmmaking for newcomers, and make a significant portion of my living as an adventure filmmaker.

This article is an introduction to how I think as a filmmaker, and how you should too. I’ll share some of the dos and don’ts I’ve learnt in relation to self-shot travel films, whether they’re destined for Youtube or next year’s festival circuit.

(All of the pictures in this article are frame-grabs – apologies for the repeated appearances of my ugly mug!)

Telling The Story

As a newcomer or home-video maker, it’s tempting to just point the camera at everything that looks interesting. If you have a good eye for composition, good camerawork skills, and the equipment to follow it though, this can produce a wonderful piece of film – just look at Baraka or Home for examples of compilations of mind-blowing imagery from around the world.

But when you get to the edit, you’ll realise that your footage is missing something – human interest, narrative, and overall a main character and story arc with whom your audience can identify and empathise. In my experience, this is the downfall of a huge majority of amateur online travel video. Guess what – cringe-worthy as it might be (and it is horrible to watch yourself on camera to begin with!) that main character is YOU, and the story is YOUR STORY.

Video diary in Omani desert

Uncomfortable as it might be to begin with, you need to start telling your own story, and the quicker you get used to pointing the camera at yourself and delivering natural narrative, the better. You don’t have a cameraman in tow, so swing that camera round. The camera is your friend. It is your best friend in the world. You will confide in it at every opportunity.

Don’t try to be a breakfast show TV presenter, public speaker or flamboyant celebrity diva. Just be you – a normal person on an less-than-normal journey. People detect, respect and engage with honesty. Don’t try to cover your vulnerabilities during difficult moments. Oh – and look at the lens, not at your LCD screen!

Break It Down

A character-led expedition film will usually be made up of a large number of interconnected stories, chosen and ordered in a dynamic way over the course of the film, and you need to identify those sub-stories as they happen, and make sure you shoot the beginning, middle and end of each.

Variety is key – get the camera out when things go wrong as well as when you’re as high as a kite. Also, identify what becomes mundane and shoot a short story about it – you might not find the process of cooking noodles at your wild camp-site particularly enthralling, but a good example of it will add great depth and intimacy to your overall narrative from your audience’s point-of-view.

Whenever you identify a story in progress, try and capture everything you need to set the story up – maybe you’re invited into a yurt in Kyrgyzstan, for example. What happens inside might be very interesting, but it’s difficult to make it work in the edit without the shot of the yurt from the outside, maybe the surrounding landscape and a herd of goats, and a quick piece-to-camera (PTC) about how you ended up there. You can fill in these gaps after the fact if you need to. Make sure the viewer knows where you are.

Camping near Salalah, Oman

During the action, make sure you continue talking the viewer through what’s happening. Describe your situation, the environment and the events that are happening, as well as filming them. Try and film close-ups of small details – ornaments, faces and hands for example – as well as wide shots of the action from a number of angles. This will help immensely when editing the story together.

Likewise, try to do a short video diary about your reactions to each event you’ve filmed, and about how you feel in general. Talk not only about what’s happening and what you’re feeling now, but also about what you’ve done in the wider scheme of things, what your current objective is, and how things compare to back home and what came before. Make a flash-card with these questions on it if it helps.

Finally, travelling shots are what you need to link these stories together. Quality over quantity is best, and again variety is key. Stunning shots can be achieved if you’re willing to take the time to get them. Set up the tripod, zoom in to 400mm and ride off over the ridge with the blue mountains in the background. Put the camera on the road on a downhill and fly past it with five centimetres to spare. Ride one-handed and use the other hand to hold the camera next to the front wheel. Set up shots of your face, hands, legs and tyres. Strap the camera to your handlebars, panniers, head. Be creative.

Camera Techniques

It’s difficult to juggle all of these aspects, undoubtedly – especially while you’re also trying to interact or get things done – but you can make it easier by getting familiar with good camerawork practice. Getting into good habits early will pay its dividends in the long run, and will help other aspects of filmmaking become second nature.

There are a few classic beginners’ mistakes, so let’s deal with them. First and foremost: Sound. When you’re confronted with action, try to stop thinking in terms of shooting a video with some audio in the background, and start thinking in terms of recording a soundtrack with some visuals as an added bonus. Bad sound is difficult to fix and even more difficult for the viewer to make sense of, whereas bad video is much more easily interpreted by the brain. Good audio is also incredibly important when editing for continuity.

Second, ALWAYS roll the camera for at least 5 seconds before and after the shot you want, whether it’s actuality or a nice static general view. If you can make it 10 seconds at the end, so much the better. This applies especially when shooting a person talking to the camera – often the most interesting things will come out during those few seconds after they think they’ve finished. Your editor will kill you if you send beautiful images of only two or three seconds each.

Third – use a tripod whenever possible. It transforms an image and can make all the difference between a distinctly amateur end result and a polished professional piece. Use it creatively – pick it up and carry it around as a kind of cheapo steadicam. I often use it whilst riding or walking to get a wider perspective of myself, in the absence of a film crew following me around, even though might be a bit wobbly.

Pakistani wrestling in Dubai

Fourth, while the auto settings on your camera might do the job, there will come many times when they won’t. Overall your results will be much better if you learn to use manual focus, exposure and white balance from the outset. The skills to quickly set these up will come in very useful when you’re rushing to get a good shot under difficult circumstances. There’s not much worse than the auto-exposure ruining a perfectly good sequence by over-compensating for a sudden change of angle in the light, or the auto-focus deciding to go and do it’s own thing. For wide shots of action, set the focus to 1 metre and go from there.

Last but definitely not least, remember that every second of footage you shoot is for the sole purpose of being edited later. Remember this at all times. There are no prizes for getting everything in the right order, cutting at the right time, or making the raw footage remotely watchable, while you’re holding the camera. You’re just gathering video and audio for later assembly.

Think Like An Artist

Like photography, composing good film is an adventure with light. With film, you also have the time factor, but spend a little of that time on composition and your results will stand out.

Classic rules-of-thumb are much the same as for photography. The rule of thirds divides the frame into nine equal imaginary segments – two divisions from left to right, and two from top to bottom. Put the subject of the shot – the part you want the viewer’s eye drawn to – on one of these lines, or at an intersection. This could be the horizon, a church in a landscape, the eyes of someone talking – try not to centralise the subject, unless it’s a shot of particular symmetrical beauty.

Coptic Christians in Egypt

Look at the available light, and use it. Full on front lighting makes for a flat image, and back-lighting creates silhouettes. Light coming from the front and side picks out definition, so move around until you’ve got the best angle. You’ll get this lovely light during the ‘Hollywood hour’ just before sunset and just after sunrise. Get your beautiful landscape and travelling shots in at this time. Shoot in the middle of the day, by all means, if you have no choice, but avoid harsh shadows in the eyes and under the nose of people if you can. I usually wore a sun-hat at midday and exposed for my whole face in shadow.

Less Is More

Don’t try to film everything, or you’ll end up living through a lens. Put the camera away for a few days and enjoy life. Remember that variety is key – if you get invited into the second Kyrgyz yurt, you don’t need to film it again.

The same goes while shooting individual stories. You need a strong storyline, narrative, characters, an establishing shot, the action, a few cut-aways, and the finalé and post-story video diary. Try to be conservative with the camera but without missing anything important.

Well-armed escort in Yemen

Finally, remember that it’s not always going to be appropriate to film. Some cultures will demand greater sensitivity with the camera. If in doubt, ask someone and respect the advice you’re given.

People Like People

If you meet a strong character with whom you can communicate well, consider approaching the subject of an informal interview. It’s always interesting to hear another point-of-view. Ask him or her about things you’ve seen in their country; questions you have about their culture. Ask them what they think about your journey.

Tribesgirls in the Afar Desert, Ethiopia

Get Good Equipment

If you’re making videos for Youtube, any half-decent HD consumer camera will do; in fact the quality of these cameras keeps getting better, the package smaller, and the memory capacity higher, to the point where a smartphone is a genuine option for amateur filmmakers. All of these cameras will benefit from the addition of an external microphone (check out the SmartLav for iPhones).

For broadcast, however, it’s worth getting something that meets TV specifications for pictures and sound if you really want to make the most of the stories you’ll be able to capture, as well as keeping the techies happy. The Canon XF100 is the A-camera I’ve used on recent projects, which produces reliable broadcast-quality footage.

Ruined Omani village

If you’re serious about making a professional-quality documentary, you might also consider getting a dedicated sound recorder for recording ‘atmos’ (background noise). A fluid head on your tripod will improve your panning shots no end, and they can now be found sub-2kg thanks to the advent of carbon-fibre tripods. If your camera’s focal lengths aren’t quite short enough, a wide-angle lens adapter will help out indoors and when you’re filming yourself hand-held.

Capture The Mood

Once you can self-direct, operate and narrate like a pro, as well as having the massive adventure you’ve set out to document, try to identify the mood and convey it through images and sound. Isolated and lonely in the desert? Walk half a mile away from the road, set up the camera and film yourself as a tiny speck crossing the horizon. Paranoid about police checkpoints? Go crazy with angles and shadows. Mellow and chilled? Get a few more of those long, beautiful landscape or sunset shots.

Night-time video diary

Try to convey more than just the here-and-now of where you are and what’s happening – let those creative juices flow.

Entertain

Remember that you’re the star, so let your hair down, say everything on your mind, act like a fool, cry, laugh and edit all the inappropriate stuff out later!

I hope that will help some budding adventure filmmakers get better results. There’s more than one way to make a film, of course, but this is what’s worked for me.

34 replies on “How To Effectively Film Your Journey, Adventure Or Expedition”

You just read my mind….

I was just looking at cameras to film with..

Although I was going to go for the Sony one you mentioned..

I am now thinking of getting the Canon 7d..

I was worried about space.. carrying the sony (although small) and a canon 400d with lenses would just be annoying! So am looking into getting the two in one.. camera and video camera, still have to do a lot of research but I need to trade my canon 400d in to get a camera with a higher ISO.

Good post! I would like to see more like this 🙂

Cheers Tom

Glad you found it useful. I wouldn't worry about space – you're going to be fully-loaded anyway, and if you're serious about the photo/film aspect of the trip, it's worth the extra weight.

I generally carry a Nikon DSLR with 3 lenses as well as the Sony with its lens adapter, external mic, spare batteries, chargers, ND and polarizing filters, fluid-head tripod and handlebar mount. That's about 7kg of extra stuff!

The Canon 7D looks cool, but I'd worry about a) audio quality and b) battery life. Could be good for the occasional special shot, with the right lens, I guess. Remember also that broadcasters and festival panels are very fussy about format – highly compressed MPG isn't ideal.

A subject I’ve been studying a lot in the past 8 months, although I do have a background in this sort of stuff I think you’ve written a coprehensive guide for people starting from scratch (and also a few tips in there for people like myself)

Yeah, I still have a lot of research to do really. Audio should be fine as there is an add on mic which I can attach..Battery life, I can going to get a battery grip so I can add more batteries to the camera and also carry more 1800mAh batteries which means I should be able to shot for about 10 hours (rough drunk work out last night 😉 )I have a solar charger which can charge these no probs..

Still a lot of things to research but it's nice to know that you carried all that.. eases my mind a little.

Still haven't even thought of film festivals anything..

Are entering one?

really, really good post. Thank you.

I think the Canon 7D or new 5D MkII has good potential for hybrid uses. True, you need an external mic, but with that you can then make some nice stuff, eg:

Thanks guys!

I'm planning on upgrading my DSLR body to a Nikon D90 which also has this video-shooting malarkey on it. I won't be ditching the Sony A1 because I need the DV format for the future doc, but it will be interesting to supplement it with some shots with the ultra-wide lens and the 50mm f1.8 prime, which produce fabulous images. Thanks Lee for making me think twice about it!

It'll also be nice to have a backup for when the Sony cops out – it's already full of sand…

As for film festivals, that's a very long way off, but the answer is Yes, Hopefully…

For what it's worth, I'm with Kev, and I wouldn't take a DSLR to make a doc any more than I'd use a camcorder to take stills for printing.

Anyway, regarding lenses, I'm a Nikon user so I can't recommend anything specific for Canon. However I will say that my 10-20mm ultrawide is by far my favourite lens. The 50mm f/1.8 is tiny, light and incredibly useful as well. If money were no object I'd have a fast 28mm or 35mm prime as well. I bought a 18-200mm superzoom in Dubai but hardly ever use it – thinking of selling it now.

One more thing – the ultrawide's trump card is that you can get really close to stuff. It's not so much for fitting massive landscapes in the frame. Have a look at this – the lens was about 10cm from the subject and my face was in the sand:

<img src="http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2474/3569558404_cd6981bd7d_m.jpg&quot; width="178" height="240" alt="The journey of a hermit crab" />

I've studied the tech side to video quite extensively and wouldn't really recommend the 7D for a large project like yours Lee. Only seems to be good for short clips. Yes, the video on vimeo was shot using it but that's a promo vid to show how good the camera is. Perfect conditions and slow movements. I you want to film yourself riding etc how will this camera handle it? It is a good camera to use for wildlife, scenery shots etc, but these are generally filler shots within the documentary. Just my thoughts.

Good to get a discussion going..

I think am missing something here though, it's probably down to my lack of experience and knowledge in this area though..

If the 7D looks great in short films then what is stopping it in longer films? I have seen videos of no setup or prep and just hitting the streets with it and getting amazing results..

Thanks for the lens info Tom.. Nice to know what other people like 🙂

Brilliant stuff! Really useful. Thanks.

I've always used SLR's + a pocketable compact for stills but am very very new to video. I just picked up a dead cheap Samsung camcorder just to get the feel for it and see how the whole process works. Steep learning curve.

On the SLR lens front I'm pretty much with Tom – I think a good quality ultra wide is great for both landscape and portrait.

Also for all round good quality and reasonableness ultra-fast 'normal' lenses – (speaking Nikon) the 50mm f.18 is around £100 and the newer 35mm f1.8 is around £170. I think these are almost the ultimate travel lens – great in low light and very unobtrusive. I'd guess Canon do something around this price too.

I think the superzoom has it's place but depends on your style, image quality needs and how many lenses you can afford to carry.

Not sure on the whole using still camera to video or vice versa – never really done it so can't comment but the combined video/still concept is a growing one which I imagine will become pretty much the norm over the next few years for consumer cameras.

Thanks for all the comments! Glad to be of some use…

I guess the main drawbacks of the current crop of DSLR video is the delay between action and 'live' view, lack of viewfinder, sub-optimal handling characteristics, no auto-focus, and no optical stabilization. You can get great stuff with these cameras, but only I am sure with a *lot* of practice operating them, and usually I've seen them mounted on big stabilizing rigs shooting stuff where there isn't much demanding focusing to do.

I would still only use one as a secondary video camera, until the technology starts maturing sufficiently.

Thanks for the great post. As an adventure traveler well versed in the art of shooting stills, the whole video game is completely overwhelming to me. With that said, I have added video to my next adventure leg and will use your tips to help me out.

Safe Travels,

Glenn

great read! I´m planning a biketrip and want to film it as well. Looking for a decent camera. But it´s hard since I have no clue what I should look for in a camera. external mic is obvious. Any thoughts?

And how is the practical part of filming when you´re solo?

Tom, this is just the thing. Next spring I’m planning to head out on a perimeter trip of the U.S. on my bike. I just bought Nikon’s new D600 and will be getting a 16-35mm and a 50mm prime for it. I’m also considering a GoPro for on-the-bike footage. Anyway, I took a documentary film class in college and loved it. Your guideline here has reminded me a lot of my final project for that class and will undoubtedly be something I return to again and again. Thank you so much!

Great web site Tom, I’ve been working my through it and have found it very useful resource. My partner and I are intending to start our first bike trip through Europe next year after backpacking Asia this year.

I’ve been a keen documentary camera man for some years now and intend to film as much of our travels as I can. Over the years I’ve owned many cameras and realised some time ago you can have the best equipment with you but if it doesn’t suit your situation you won’t use it as much as you’d like.

If this helps anyone I’d like to share my experience with using a DSLR for video as I can see a few people were very interested in one. I currently have a Canon 60d with a sigma 17-70 lens. Back home I loved this camera but whilst backpacking I’ve started to run into a few problems. My number one concern has been weight. To capture those fleeting moments (mother and baby kangaroo running across our path) you need to have your camera ready to go at a moments notice. I will try to have the camera on my neck strap but can’t manage this for long periods and need my hands free for a lot of scrambling. My second concern is a lack of autofocus. For the times when I might be pointing the camera at my self or filming one handed riding a bike I really miss this feature. There are a few ‘stills for video’ that have this now. I’ve also discovered when everything you own needs to squash down into one backpack every inch counts. Having a reasonably protective case for camera and lens does take up a good proportion of this space.

I appreciate having a great stills and video camera in one and whilst travelling have no intention of carrying two separate devices. So to continue my travels I have started to look around for a smaller more compact camera. I have been impressed with the Lumix FZ200. Very good quality stills, nice zoom range, very light (compared to what I have now) and it even has a mic input. I’ve tested the autofocus in store and again was impressed with the results. I might have found my perfect travelling camera.

My advice to anyone wanting to film their adventures. Make it as easy for yourself as you can. You’ll get so much more footage and most importantly enjoy doing it (and as Tom said, get a good microphone).

Hey Tom, planning my bike trip to Japan! Would love to capture this journey and tell a story.

Its 2013 now, what equipment would you recommend for light weight, great battery life and with all the other good stuff? I only got a GoPro hero 3. Thanks Tom and talk soon!

Brian

Hi Tom!

Thank you very much for sharing tips from your solo filmmaking experience.

I would like to learn more about this subject and I was wonder if there were any books, articles, etc that you found particularly helpful in shooting your first documentary?

Cheers,
Michael

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