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DSLR Bird Vids

I'm easing myself into a new realm of bird photography, dabbling with videos to supplement my core interest of shooting stills.  Three primary factors influenced my decision to try this.  First, I enviously watched my buddies Brian Sullivan and Chris Wood shooting video with their DSLR rigs and thought it would be fun to try it.  Second, I finally upgraded to a DSLR body capable of video (putting my trusty Nikon D300 into a backup role with my new D7100 stepping into its place.)  Finally, I've seen the power of video to tell stories though experiences like my PolarTREC expedition and I know the attentive way my middle school students engage in topics with short movie clips.  If a picture is worth a thousand words, how about a movie?? 

Anyway, I'm still figuring this game out but I'd like to share three short bird videos I've made this spring and a lesson or two I learned from each.  I hope experienced bird videographers will leave their best tips in the comments to help get me and anyone over the learning curve faster!

 

Case 1:  Wilson's Snipe, Weld County, Colorado, 1 April 2013.  

Scenario:  First serious bird video I attempted.  I was shooting from my car along a roadside ditch with the feeding snipe (& nearby vocalizing male.)  

Lessons learned:

  •  I shot this with the camera resting on my car's windowsill but still had trouble with shake and smooth panning.  I'm spoiled shooting stills with hand-holding teqnique, using high shutter speed and image-stabilization but with video it is important to use good support.  I resolve to have my bean bag on hand for windowsill work and my sturdy tripod & gimbal head for field work.
  • The audio here is from the built-in microphone, far from terrible, but any breath of wind really scours the mic and trashes the sound recording.  I resolve to get an external mic with a wind muff to dampen wind noise and get better bird vocalizations and ambient noises.

 

 

Case 2: Short-eared Owl, Boulder County, Colorado, 16 April 2013.

Scenario:  After a significant spring blizzard there was an amazing fallout of longspurs along the plowed edges of eastern Boulder County rural roads.  When swapping notes with some buddies about what we'd seen I got wind of a Short-eared Owl a few roads over.  I shot from my vehicle which worked great as a blind- once I stopped and shut down the owl dismissed me after an initial keen look-over.  Sparse traffic didn't seem to bother the owl, either, and the drivers didn't even notice the bird as they passed it mere feet away (in fact, I missed it on my first transit, looking out along fencelines instead of roadside where it was sheltering on the leeward side of the roadside ditch.)

Lessons learned:  

  • The beanbag on the window sill worked great for steadying the camera.  
  • The addition of a RODE VideoMic Pro with a wind muff really helped to un-harsh the effect of wind.  HOWEVER…
  • I left my image stabilizing on, and the mic picked up the sound of the gyros in the lens as a steady high-freqency whirring.   If you have a VR (Nikon) or IS (Canon) lens or similar system you can hear this if you put your ear next to the lens when the stabilizing feature is on, and the mic is right over the lens, ideally situated to capture this noise.  I resolved to turn off the VR when I'm shooting video.  For this vid I scrubbed most of the whirring out in post-production using the equalizer function in iMovie but if I had high-freqency bird vocalizations I would have lost them.

 

 

Case 3: Foraging Bonaparte's & Franklin's Gulls, Weld County, Colorado, 21 April 2013.

Scenario:  A midge hatch on a pond attracted a few dozen Bonies along with a Frankie or two.  I shot hundreds of stills, trying to capture some of the birds' amazing aerobatics and ability to nab midges without slowing down.

BOGU_dab


FRGU_dab1

Stills like this are neat but only capture 1/2000 sec. each of a bird's behavior.  Amongst my still shooting I tried to keep up with their flights to put a little clip together.

Lessons learned:

  • Here I felt like I was somewhat finally getting my act together- I set up my sturdy photo tripod rig (Gitzo 3541L+ Wimberly Gimbal Head), switched off my image stabilizing, mounted up my RODE mic with the wind muff, and let 'er rip.
  • Even with the gimbal mount, keeping up with these birds was tricky.  I put the lens into continuous focus mode so I could just worry about trying to keep the birds in frame.  I also backed off the zoom a bit to have a wider image and thus more easily track the birds and lessen the jerkiness factor.  It did pretty well, although a high percentage of the footage was crappy.  As with stills, I learned to shoot a lot of video and be willing to look for the good stuff among the throwaway footage.  

 

 

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Bill Schmoker

Bill Schmoker

Bill is known in the birding community as a leading digital photographer of birds. Since 2001 he has built a collection of digital bird photos documenting over 640 species of North American birds. His photography has appeared in international nature publications, books, newspapers, interpretive signs, web pages, advertisements, corporate logos, and as references for art works. Also a published writer, Bill wrote a chapter for Good Birders Don't Wear White, is a past Colorado/Wyoming regional editor for North American Birds and is proud to be on the Leica Birding Team. Bill is a Colorado eBird reviewer and is especially fond of his involvement with the ABA's Institute for Field Ornithology and Young Birder Programs. Bill is a popular birding guide, speaker, and workshop instructor, and teaches middle school science in Boulder, Colorado. When he isn’t birding he enjoys family time with his wife and son.
Bill Schmoker

Latest posts by Bill Schmoker (see all)

  • Thanks for the informative and helpful post! It’s certainly a bit of a pain, but I’ve found that the best way to record audio without picking up the various noises of the SLR body and lens (autofocus, image stabilization, etc.) is to record the audio entirely separately. I record my video with my SLR, but I record the audio separately with a shotgun mic attached to a dedicated digital audio recorder (Olympus LS-10), and then I synchronize them after-the-fact on the computer. Here are three examples:

    Singing Brown-headed Cowbird:


    Parakeet Auklets with a Least Auklet:


    Least Auklet:


  • Thanks, Ryan- I can see that for professional results an off-body mic is the way to go.  Great examples, most inspirational!  May I ask what shotgun mic you are using?

    If the audio is crappy another way to go is to just scub it for silent footage, but with birds making so many neat sounds I'd rather have audio, even with a bit of ambient noise from wind, focus motors, etc.

    Best- Bill

  • Very helpful tips, Bill, and your results look good to me. BTW, what software program do you use to edit your video? How do you post the final product to this blog–copy and paste the video file?
    Thanks!

  • Hey Tom- thanks for the comment!

    I use iMovie to edit the movies.  When I'm ready I upload the movie to YouTube.  Our blog hosting service, TypePad, has a video button that lets me pop in a video where I want by copying the YouTube URL, so it's pretty slick.

    -Bill

  • Thanks, Bill. I use an Audio Technica AT835b.

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