Beginners guide to buying a video camera for wildlife filmmaking
One of the most common questions we get asked here at Wildeye is “what camera should I buy to film wildlife”. Sadly there is no easy answer. In this post, we will explain the pros and cons of different types of cameras and clear up some of the technical questions you may have.
Whether filming as a hobby or professionally I’m going to assume that you want to achieve the very best results within your budget. Budget is the first thing you want to think about. I doubt you’d walk into a car dealership to buy a car without really knowing what you want to spend, yet we often hear from first-time buyers that they don’t have a budget in mind. Whilst this article is about cameras there are other considerations that will quickly eat into your budget and those include a tripod, microphones, batteries and memory cards. We won’t go too in-depth here about the accessories as we’ll cover those in another post but do bear this in mind. It makes no sense to spend all your money on a super high-quality camera only to put it on a shaky old tripod that ruins your fabulous 4K shots.
Once you’ve decided what you can spend on a camera kit you can then start to decide upon what type of camera you’ll buy. I’ve split cameras into three main classes. They are a video DSLR, a typical stills style photography camera with removable lenses that also shoots video. Camcorder, a typical all in one camera designed for quick and easy operation. Finally, we have Professional video cameras – typically (but not always) owned by individuals who make their living from being a wildlife camera operator.
DSLR / Mirrorless
Video DSLRs and Mirrorless are hybrid stills cameras and are a very popular option with first-time camera buyers as not only do they shoot video but also take high resolution stills photographs. There is a wide range of cameras to choose from with some newer models being designed foremostly as video cameras. The compact form factor of these cameras often means that you can get away with smaller, lighter tripods, gimbals and other accessories. They are a joy to travel with and don’t appear at all conspicuous as larger cameras can do. DSLR cameras often have larger sensors than camcorders and due to this, they offer a look that closely resembles large Hollywood movies – think backgrounds out of focus (shallow depth of field). Another advantage of these larger sensors is dynamic range (where the camera can see more details in the black and white parts of the image at the same time) and also low light abilities. A notable camera from this category is the older sony A7S mark II which was used on Planet Earth 2 and Blue Planet 2. Whilst it was not used to film all the footage they were used on certain sequences and considered good enough to be included in the final program. DSLR cameras accept interchangeable lenses which means you can easily vary the angle of view. Buy a wide-angle lens for landscapes and establishing shots and a telephoto lens for close-ups of animals. You can buy most DSLR and mirrorless cameras in a kit with a “standard” lens, extra lenses can be expensive!
It’s fair to say that camcorders have fallen out of vogue over the past few years as more people own video-capable DSLR cameras and even use their smartphones to film social events where typically in the past a camcorder may have been used. This, however, may all be about to change with some recent new releases from camera manufacturers. If you find yourself asking what camera should I buy for wildlife filmmaking make sure you give the humble camcorder a chance! Recent models from offer a number of great features that truly make them the swiss-army knives of filmmaking. Infrared night-vision, timelapse, professional XLR audio and built-in neutral density filters are some of the features you might find that make camcorders a neat and easy to use option. Camcorders range from small consumer devices to mid-size and larger professional models. There really is something for everyone and every budget!
Professional Video Cameras
Although I’ve entitled this category professional you will, of course, find professional options in both the DSLR and camcorder sections above. More than anything by professional I mean these are typically the types of cameras that meet the requirements needed to film programmes for television – and subsequently, they are usually the more expensive options.
If you are a professional Wildlife camera operator you will probably find the production company you are working for will hire in cameras which meet the specifications of the network commissioning the production. There are a number of cameras that meet professional specifications, these cameras usually all meet minimum requirements for sensor size, recording data rate, compression and format.
There are a number of cameras that are hired more than others and whilst they may not be suitable for every production they are typically cameras that owner/operators will invest in rent back to the production wherever they can.
Certain broadcasters publish a list of cameras that meet their minimum requirements and offer a good starting point for those looking to purchase a camera capable of filming for broadcast. Netflix publishes a list of approved cameras here:
Conclusion & recommendations
I’ve compared cameras to hammers in the past, at the end of the day they are ultimately just a tool. Don’t get sucked in by the marketing, don’t end up buying a cool camera on the hope that you will get work as you own one. Think carefully about your application. If you are shooting a documentary run and gun style a camcorder may be a great choice. If you are filming animals from a distance a DSLR combined with a super-telephoto zoom lens may offer you the range you need to get the shot. Consider your budget and buy a camera that works for you and do consider joining us on a workshop or a one to one training weekend where we will explain all options and let you try a range of cameras in more depth.