Behind the Camera with Chris Johnson of


Monday, February 18, 2008

Endless Editing - The Making of Whales of the Mediterranean Sea Part 2

It has been three months since my last post! So, what has been happening with the Mediterranean films since then? Editing, editing and more editing - I have been glued to my mac with HDV, Final Cut Pro, Motion and ProRes issues. 

A couple of days ago we posted the final episode in the five-part series "Whales of the Mediterranean Sea". While planning the project in April 2007, we decided to produce a 50-minute documentary that would be delivered primarily online. We would split up the film into short programs for free distribution online as an experiment in what many feel is the future for broadcasting.

When one begins any project, you hope there are going to be things or issues that you can capture on film through interviews or documenting in the wild. We hoped to find three to five themes in our journey into the Mediterranean Sea, which would be the foundation of the documentary. The goal was to create short programs that teacher's could use in classrooms, and target a new group of viewers on the web.

We totally underestimated the diversity of people and their stories encompassing science and conservation issues documented during filming. In many ways, we only scratched the surface. As we reviewed we 40-50 tapes, and countless hours of interviews, we realized in September that this was going to take a lot more time (and money) then we had the budgeted for (and had in the bank). We needed more time to properly tell a complex story and time to explain some of the scientific concepts in a way that people would take some time out of their day to watch, and hopefully care about it.

Apart from the technical side of making a series of films like these, there is also the human side. Creating films are a fragile collaborative effort. Making documentary films is challenging because it's passion that fuels you during the process as there is no real commercial reward at the end. Rather, it is an expedition to gain knowledge and understanding, while communicating stories you feel need to be heard. Making environmental films involves working with people from diverse backgrounds and cultures, whose strong passion is a common trait.

Trying to share stories from the sea is the ultimate challenge, as many people who are watching your film do not have any connection to the ocean in their daily lives. It is your job to get them interested!

How does this relate to our project "Whales of the Mediterranean Sea"?
Our overall goal was to attempt to share stories of whales while exploring the whole marine ecosystem. Doing this required a lot of people to believe in what we were trying to achieve, and that it was worthy of their time. Before one frame of film (or 1 minute of HD tape) was shot, a common idea had to be accepted by a lot of people in a diverse region of cultures and conservation perspectives.

What was unexpected in the entire process was the commitment by many scientists and local community members we filmed. A lot of people invested time and money into making this work in diverse ways.

In the first part of our trip around the Mediterranean, we joined the Oceana Ranger in Sardinia, Italy for a few days. We met Xavier Pastor and the incredibly dedicated and professional crew of the Ranger. Bad weather kept us in port for a few days, but this allowed us to talk to Xavier in depth about the illegal driftnet fishery and its impact on the biodiversity of the Med. Oceana allowed us to use footage shot on the Ranger during their 2007 driftnetting campaign, including underwater footage shot in key habitats showing the effects of human activities.

Without the help of a lot of people at Oceana, including Xavier, Marta Madina and of course JJ Candan's wonderful underwater imagery, we could not have told an important part of the story.

Of course, there is always a degree of luck involved, and this happened for us while attempting to film sperm whales. This was due in part to Alexandros Frantzis and Pelagos. In August 2004, Gen and I spent time in Greece on the Voyage of the Odyssey studying sperm whales. Alexandros was a guest scientist, and since then, we kept in touch and have been eager to return to film these animals in a place where many people do not even know they are present.

The entire Mediterranean project started with arranging to film with Alexandros for three weeks. We joined his research boat and eco-volunteers that were keen on encountering sperm whales. Traveling from Athens to Crete on the RV Nereis was an epic journey over waters Gen and I had traveled a few years earlier. However, this time, we encountered an incredible social group of sperm whales with a newborn calf only hours old.

When we reached our final destination in Paleochora, it was time to travel north. We dragged 7 bags onto a bus for three hours, took an overnight ferry to Athens, jumped in a car and drove 6 hours to the small town of Vonitsa. Giovanni Beazi, Joan Gonzalvo and Silvia Bonizzoni of Tethys took us under their wing for a week. We learned about the complex issues surrounding the decline of the short beaked common dolphin around Kalamos and in the Mediterranean over recent years.

Backed by irrefutable data, Giovanni trusted us to tell a story that had taken him years to piece together. Many people think that dolphin, or any marine mammal research for that matter is an easy job. On the contrary, it takes years of dedication and passion, long hours usually accompanied by a lack of funding, and meticulously attention to every detail to document a subject. In Giovanni's case, the hardest part is that he has had to watch those animals disappear in front of his eyes. Giovanni has worked in the eastern Med for years, and now Joan is leading the way in sharing the science and conservation posibilities with local communities and fishermen. If you want to get involved and help them, you can. They run a fantastic Earthwatch program, which is a great opportunity to see bottlenose dolphins in the wild - a population that continues to thrive, unlike most in the Med.

There are a lot of people to thank for the incredible journey throughout the Mediterranean. Ana Canadas and Ric Sagiminara of Alnitak graciously let us film on the Toftvaag with an earthwatch program in progress. It is a fantastic boat to spend time on in one of the richest areas for cetaceans and sea turtles in the basin. We highly recommend anyone wanting to see a diverse range of whales and dolphins to sign up for this Earthwatch program.

Among others we worked with were Cristina Fossi and the staff in her toxicolgy lab in the Univ. of Siena, Simone Panigada, Barbara Mussi, Antonio Di Natale, Albert Sturlese, Wendy Elliot, and Amanda Nickson of WWF.

While producing these films, we received enormous amounts of help and advice from author Erich Hoyt. As soon as we arranged to film in Greece with Alexandros, we had long discussions with Erich about other issues and researchers we could also document. These exchanges ultimately led to an expansion of the scope of the project and its numerous collaborations.

What's Next for the films?

1.) Translate the short films on earthOCEAN.

The plan is to translate these films into Spanish, French German, Greek, Italian and Arabic.

To do this we are going to work with a number of NGOs in the region. We feel this is incredibly important for the success of the project online.

One obstacle many people in marine conservation face is to get people to care about, at least for a moment, the topic you are sharing. Often news about the oceans is bad news, and people are faced with viewing bad news every day. It is so easy to turn off when talking about whales and the oceans because the problems can seem so enormous.

We cannot even begin to claim this project was successful until we get it to people via the web (and DVDs) in their language. Over the next 6 weeks, earthOCEAN will implement a design change so videos are metatagged and indexed in a way that allows people to find what they are looking for in different languages. It will be a lot of work, but we cannot wait to see what the long-term effect will be.

2.) To try and reach another audience, I will create an hour long edit combining all five documentaries for submission to a number of film festivals. The 5 short films totaled 82 minutes in duration. I am hoping to get it down to 60 minutes without losing a lot of the key messages and interviews.

The deadline for Wildscreen is in late March. You never know if your film will be accepted, or shown at one of these things- but it doesn't hurt to try. I will submit it to this and other environmental film festivals in the coming year.

Since we posted the first epsiode in the Whales of the Mediterranean Sea online, over 10,000 people from 110 countries have watched it. Over the next few months we will be producing more episodes in the Cetacean Investigation series and will be launching a new series. We will keep you updated over weeks to come. There are some exciting stories coming!


Monday, November 12, 2007

The Making of "Whales of the Mediterranean Sea" - Production Notes.

What an epic project this has been. From May - August 2007, we filmed a number of scientists studying cetaceans in Spain, Italy, Greece and the UK for our series Cetacean Investigation - uncovering the science of whales, dolphins and porpoises. It has been an amazing journey documenting some of the exciting research and tireless conservation work that goes on in the region, an area of the world not known for its cetacean populations.

As soon as we got back to Melbourne in early September, we spent hours reviewing tapes, writing scripts and editing footage. As we finish each documentary short,
we post it online with education materials for students and teachers.

We have posted two videos so far and will be producing another three episodes over the next 6 weeks. After that, I will be reviewing all of the edits once again to produce an hour-long documentary film.

I thought I would write about the entire editing process and go behind the scenes, discussing how we actually made these documentaries. We aim to make a freely accessible environmental channel featuring the science and conservation efforts of people around the world.


Making this series of films was a case of traveling by any means necessary to the right locations during various field projects.
It took months of emails and phone calls to co-ordinate meeting people and filming in one single trip. Somehow things worked out where we traveled for
three months thousands of kilometers by planes, trains, boats, and automobiles.

First, I have to thank many people who let us film their research, and spend time with us sharing their science and their stories. Many people were part of making these films, without the efforts and patience, none of this would have come together. I would like to personally thank Xavier Pastor, Marta Madina, JJ Candan, the crew of the Oceana Ranger and staff of the Oceana European office in Madrid; Alexandros Frantzis, Voula Alexiadou of the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute, and the entire crew of the RV Nereis; Giovanni Bearzi, Simone Panigada, Joan Gonzalvo, Silvia Bonizzoni of the Tethys Research Institute; Tanya Peterson and Wendy Elliot of WWF, Barbara Mussi and the staff of Delphis MDC; Ricardo Sagaminda, Ana Canadas of Anitak and the crew of the Toftevaag, and especially Erich Hoyt of WDCS.

The aim of traveling through the Mediterranean to document so many research programs was to communicate local issues related to cetaceans, and help paint a picture on a regional level. After spending three months in the Mediterranan in 2007 and on previous research programs in 2005, I am convinced the lack of public awareness is a major hurdle in the effort to help protect and conserve the cetaceans in this region.

Although the films are produced in English, over the coming months, we will be translating the online versions into Spanish, Italian, Greek, French and Arabic with the intent of getting them distributed to schools in local communities.


To document the stories, I shot everything in HD (High Definition) and edited in HD. On previous projects, I have filmed in HD, downcoverting the signal to DV to press onto DVD or export for web use. About 7 months ago, I purchased a new MacBook Pro with 2 gigs of RAM, so this project, I was going to do all of the editing in HD.

It was a similar kit used in filming the documentary - Southern Right Whales of Argentina, but I changed the workflow to edit the project. Also we added a few tools to help in the process.

What did cameras I use?

I brought two HDV cameras with me. One was for shooting interviews and 'topside' footage from boats; the other was primarily used for underwater. I had
this camera set up all of the time for opportunities that arose to film cetaceans underwater very quickly.

  • Canon XL H1 - Format, 25p (progressive) HDV
  • Sony Z1 - Format 50i (interlaced) HDV

    Filming with various research groups, we offered to give some of our footage for press and education purposes. By shooting 25p, that can be easily used in Europe where PAL (50i) is the television format. But, part of the reason I shot in the 25p format was to experiment. I have always shot interlaced in the past, and finished in an interlaced format.

    I own a Canon XL H1 and feel comfortable shooting with it on larger boats and on small zodiacs, where there can be a potential for disaster.
    Also, the built in image stabilizer helps smooth out the image on a rolling sea. When it is calm enough, it is possible to zoom in to get close up images of cetaceans too. Focusing subjects with the viewfinder is my main criticism of the camera, so I turned on the 'peaking' feature to run all of the time.

    For underwater, I used a Sony HDV z1 with an Amphibico Phemon housing and wide angle optic. I used an amphibico LCD screen which proved absolutely invaluable.
    All of this footage was shot 50i (interlaced).

    Why 25fps not 24? Well, this was a decision that I struggled with (and struggle with now on most projects).
    We were sourcing additional footage from researchers who shot primarily PAL DV. Oceana Europe is the only group we worked with that were shooting 50i HDV on a Sony Z1. They were incredibly generous in letting us use a number of underwater sequences in the first episode and imagery of the illegal drifitnet fisheries shot in HDV, that will feature in the next episode.

    Additional Equipment -
    1 x Litepanel Mini LED camera light
    1 x Lowel Caselite (works using 110v and 220v power!)
    2 x Sennheiser K6 microphones (ME66), boom pole, windscreens.
    1 x Wireless Mics (Azden) -
    1 x Manfrotto tripod (with a 501 Video head)

    Writing -
    Originally Gen wrote a rough outline of story ideas, and themes we wanted to document in the Mediterranean. This helped while we were filming, but the
    final scripts were written when we returned to Melbourne after looking at all of the interviews and footage shot. In the end, I shot 45 hours of footage,
    with an additional 20 tapes from Oceana, Tethys, and Alnitak

    After each script was finalized (and we are still working on the last two scripts right now!) we recorded voice-overs. I did the voice-over in first episode, and will most likely do the voice over for the last piece. I filmed Gen talking to camera on various boats and locations, so she was the obvious choice to do the voice-overs for the films that involved documenting more of the experience in the field.

    Animations -
    After the voice-overs were done, I pulled together some shots in short sequences to do short rough edits. Some things we could not film and had to produce a number of animations and maps. In explaining some scientific concepts, animations are key in communicating with the viewer.

    I wanted to experiment with a more 3D look for the Mediterranean. I was originally going to use Google Maps, but I do not like the 3D look of them. I do used
    Google Maps embedded in our webpage, and they are fantastic for this application.

    I did some research into NASA World Wind, and found these were the maps that I wanted to use. They were based on NASA satellite imagery and are free to use. The only problem was the MAC version is very limited, and I needed a PC. Luckily, I own an intel based MacBook Pro, so I backed up my hard drive, re-formatted it, installed Apple's BootCamp, created a 20 gig partition, installed Windows XP, and now I have a system that can run both Mac and PC programs! Although I have to re-boot between operating systems, I can easily transfer my PC files when running in Mac OS X.

    NASA World Wind is absolute amazing. There are a number of free plugins and datasets that are available to use. When you zoom into some areas the detail is not
    quite as good as Google Maps, but I love it. Google Maps is much easier to use to create a video sequence, and I would recommend this for scientists who need maps for presentations. To animate maps with Worldwind, you have to do it one frame at a time, and then import these frames into a motion graphics programs to build a video. Because I was producing a number of animations in this manner, using World Wind was perfect for me.

    The Editing Workflow - putting it all together

    The prime delivery platform is for the web, and progressive HD downloads on iTunes, which are coming soon - currently we are posting SD iTunes download, and
    later for DVD distribution. I will produce a 30-minute film to be shown at the IUCN World Congress 2008 in Barcelona and 60 minute version of the program for broadcast.
    These will be edited early in the new year from the 5 short programs.

    Software - Final Cut Pro Studio 2
    (Note- I use ALL of the programs in the suite, Final Cut Pro for editing, Soundtrack for audio editing and enhancing, Motion for motion graphics,
    Compressor for encoding, Color for color-correction, LiveType for titles and DVD Studio pro for DVD output.)

    Hardware - Macbook Pro 2.33 Ghz Intel Core 2 Duo, 2 gig RAM, 160gig HD and a 1tb Lacie Extreme Disk. Because I am traveling a lot, I like using notebook computers to do my editing, because I can take work with me wherever I go.

    I upgraded my Final Cut Pro studio in July for the purpose of doing some tests in the field, while filming. There were a few main features I wanted to test.

    • The ability to use mixed formats in one timeline - interlaced and progressive, as well as NTSC and PAL formats.
    • Using the new “Smoothcam” feature to tweak some shaky imagery shot underwater or shot on small zodiacs
    • Finish in Apple's new ProRes format (4:2:2).

    Workflow -

    • Log and Capture all of the clips I wanted to use (Captured 25p/ 50i / DV PAL). Because I shot everything on tape (and hope this is one the LAST projects that I do this), it took weeks. I was hoping to do this as I was traveling, but did not have time to do so in the field.
    • Make a rough HDV timeline of cuts (no dissolves or text). Any animation sequences I would put blank placeholders in the timeline.
    • Using the Media Manager tool, convert the entire timeline and media in it to ProRes HQ format.
    • Output all of the animations produced in Motion, to ProRes HQ Quicktime files
    • Color correct the final timeline in ProRes, add dissolves, animation exported from Motion as ProRes Quicktime files, add titles from LiveType, 'Smoothcam' selected shots.
    • For color-correction, I tweaked various shots in FCP timeline with the 3-wheel color tool. In the future, I will bring this timeline into Color, and re-correct it. I wanted to experiment with this, but have to wait until I produce the long documentary versions.
    • Export the finished timeline to a single ProRes HQ QuickTime file
    • Bring this file into Compressor to output to various formats for the web and DVD. Note, to make the FLASH videos that are distributed using the Brightcove Player, I use the On2 Flix Pro encoder. It outputs amazing FLASH video.

    Phew! So how did it work? Well, I did not want to edit in the HDV format. I am using an Intel MacBook Pro to do all of the editing. I was hoping to purchase an Aja IO HD to do the project. However, because it was delayed, I had to use this minimal setup.

    Problems -

    ProRes HQ - This is a new format and I am sure that Apple will be working out some of the bugs soon. I sometimes had some problems with it on my MacBook Pro especially with smooth playback. More RAM would help this. Granted it is a format that should be used with faster processors on a desktop computer, sometimes my final rendered timeline would provide some interesting moments.

    Sometimes the audio files that Apple provided (most notably the stock music in 5.1 surround sound format) would increase in volume when I rendered the final ProRes file. This would stump me for hours and provided some frustrating afternoons.

    The best part of the editing process - Smoothcam!
    It is amazing! Because I make documentaries about cetaceans and marine issues, I do a lot of filming on boats. This can cause a viewer to be seasick depending on the environment I am filming! Depending on the shot, smoothcam really changed the final output of some of my shots. I used it on some underwater footage and various topside shots. I left some shake on various shots in the edit.

    I am currently awaiting a new high resolution 4K, Red camera and cannot wait to use this camera on a boat, with smoothcam filter.

    Labels: Cetacean Investigation, , Final Cut Pro Studio, NASA World Wind, Whales of the Mediterranean Sea,

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

How to Photograph Dolphins in the Wild.

Atlantic Spotted Dolphin - Chris Johnson
Dolphins are one of my favorite subjects to photograph. Their sheer pace, energy and vivacious attitude displayed while bowriding is a challenge to capture with a camera. At the interface where atmosphere meets ocean, they emerge to breathe with sheer athleticism. This can erupt into a spectacular display of color, light and motion in a brief instant.

I am very fortunate that my job allows me to spend time filming and photographing the lives of whales and dolphins. Today, I thought I would share some tips about photographing dolphins in the wild. This can be useful to people going whale or dolphin watching. It may also help researchers take better images through their photo-identification work.

Most of the time, one will encounter dolphins when a pod decides to ride the pressure wave of a generated by a boat. This is known as 'bowriding'. For someone who has never witnessed this, it is truly contagious. Depending on the species, the time of day and their mood, it is one of the most exciting things to witness in the natural world. I have photographed a wide range of species, from just a few animals, to enormous pods containing over 3500 animals. I am going to focus on how to take photographs while these animals bowride, how to capture some creative moments and also provide some simple tips to help obtain better images.

What kind equipment is needed?

I have taken tens of thousands of images of dolphins on both film and digital. When I purchased my first digital SLR (Canon 10D) and took it into the field, it was incredibly liberating. For the first time, I could get instant feedback on the images I was taking and I could make crucial adjustments in the field. It changed the way I took pictures, and made me a much better wildlife photographer. While you can get amazing results on film, I would highly recommend using a digital camera.

Also, I have used Canon equipment for many years only because it is a personal preference. Nikon make fantastic cameras but I do not have much experience with them in the field. Nikon makes equivalent lenses and camera bodies.

Camera Body:

The best piece of equipment is your camera body, and the type of lenses you have with you to photograph a subject. With some experimentation and lots of practice, you can achieve amazing results.

Dolphins travel at excessive speeds in the sea. To photograph them well, it is best to use a SLR type camera. When you take a shot, there should not be any delay when you press the shutter release, and when the shutter actually releases (also known as shutter lag). This means when you take a photo, there is a pause, and then a 'click' as the image is recorded. This is an issue with smaller point and shoot type cameras, and can be the cause of great frustration when photographing fast moving subjects. If you have spent a lot of money and time travelling to a remote location, or are on a vacation where you get the opportunity to witness some spectacular behavior on a whale watch, the last thing you want to worry about is 'if' you got a great shot.

Digital SLRs have gotten much better over recent years. If you read the technical specifications listed online or on your camera manual, have a look at the 'shutter lag'. I own a Canon EOS 20D, and the shutter lag is listed as 'less than 0.01 second'.
The latest updated version of this camera body is the Canon EOS 40D is 0.059 seconds. For photographing fast moving subjects like dolphins, this is very important.

  • Canon EOS 40D - 0.059 seconds
  • Canon EOS Rebel XTI (Also known as the 400D) - 0.01 Seconds
  • Canon EOS 5D - 0.075 seconds
  • Nikon N80 - 0.08 seconds
  • Nikon 2DXs - 0.037 seconds
  • Nikon D200 - 0.05 seconds

(Note- I researched SONY & FUJI DSLRs, but the shutter lagtime is not listed by the manufacturer - source:


Even though I have my favourites, it really doesn't matter what brand of camera equipment you use. Photographing wildlife from a boat, you really need a zoom lense. This gives you the flexibility to frame your shots very quickly, and is vital to getting the type of image you want on a boat at sea.

My favorite Canon lense to photograph dolphins is the Canon 100-400mm IS L lense. Due to the functionality of the zoom (it pulls in and out, rather than twists), people are mixed about this lense - they either love it or hate it. For photographing wildlife, I feel it is the most versatile around. I have used it for 7 years.

I love this lense because it allows me to get some very unique close-up shots of dolphins. The image stabilization truly helps on a rolling boat.

However, you can use a wide variety of lenses to capture images of dolphins. The Canon 70-200mm IS L lense is fast, sharp, and produces amazing results. For other types of shots, take out a wide-angle zoom to capture the entire pod of animals around a boat like the Canon 24-105mm f4. If pro lenses are not in the budget, then the Canon 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 is the best lense you can own. It is lightweight, really versatile, has image stabilization, and is very good value for the money.

On a boat, I use one digital body with the 100-400mm lense, and have a few batteries and memory cards with me. Sometimes I will use my 17-35mm 2.8 lense to photograph a group of dolphins. I sometimes photograph with two bodies, but I find that with the movement of the swell, that it can be difficult enough standing up with one camera! If the boat pitches the wrong way when you are least expecting it, then another camera body hanging at your side will most likely cushion a devastating blow.

If you can afford it, get large memory cards so you can store more images on it without having to switch out the card in a salt air environment. Believe me, taking pictures at sea, I seem to have the most slippery hands around and have dropped cards (and rolls of film) accidentally into the deep blue. I use lexar cards and they have never let me down. If you are purchasing new memory cards, make sure the write speed of the card is fast.

Other invaluable equipment to have is proper cleaning gear. Being exposed to a salty environment can be devastating to a camera. I usually clean my camera body and lenses at the end of the day. But, I am constantly on the lookout for salt spray on the lense. It is so important to keep your lense clean before you take a picture. It seems so simple, but on everything from a large whale watch boat to a small zodiac, a camera lense will always attract salt spray. So check it constantly.

So, have lense tissue and lense cleaner in your pocket at all times. At the end of the day I use rubbing alcohol to clean the body and lense. When I am travelling, I take a number of alcohol swabs in individual packets with me. These pack up well with my gear. I have a couple in my pocket in case the camera gets wet and I can clean the salt-water spray off it immediately.

So you have your equipment, and you are ready to photograph dolphins.

For people who have never seen dolphins in the wild, I would recommend reading about the animals before you go out. Learn about the species of marine mammals that you may encounter, and learn about some of the behaviours that you may witness in the wild.

  • Marine Mammals of the World: A Comprehensive Guide to Their Identification (Hardcover)
    by Thomas A. Jefferson, Marc A. Webber, & Robert Pitman.
    (note - this is being released in November, and I have a few photos in the guide, including the cover shot, so I am a bit biased!)

  • Whales, Dolphins & Porpoises (Nature Company Guides)
    by Erich Hoyt & Mark Cawardine

    Erich Hoyt & Mark Carardine are some of the world’s leading authorities on the natural history of cetaceans, and whale watching. I highly recommend any titles by either author.

  • Guide to Marine Mammals of the World
    by Brent S. Stewart, Phillip J. Clapham, James A. Powell, Randall R. Reeves

For people who have never seen these animals bowride, it is important to put the camera down, and just watch the animals first. Give yourself time to enjoy the moment but also observe how the animals are moving.

While you are doing that, take a look to see where the sun is. If you have a watch on, take a look at the time. In taking photographs of wildlife outdoors, the light is best the first hour of the morning, and the last couple of hours of the day. The end of the day is my favorite time to take photographs of dolphins because of the creative effects you can achieve.

However, you may not be with animals at these times of the day. If you are on a whale watch, you may be out for a couple of hours in the middle of the day. What is important is to use the sun as your main light. If you are on the bow of a boat, and you have bow riding animals on either side, keep the light at your back, and focus on the animals in the good light. This is a simple rule, but is very important to remember when caught up in the excitement of the moment.

Striped Dolphin - Chris Johnson

What this does it force you to focus on animals in areas where you have a better chance to get good photos. If there is a pod of dolphins, I always concentrate my efforts on the side where there is the best light. For me, this in not a rule, but I try to stick to it as much as possible. What is hard is when animals are jumping out of the water or doing acrobatic behaviors in the area where you are looking right at the sun.

If you are photographing for research, this is a different story and the priority is taking any photo of an animals that can be used to identify its dorsal fin, capturing any unique markings, or taking pictures of the flukes for some whale species)

What type of image do you want to take?

I believe there is no right or wrong way to photograph wildlife. However, there are correct ways of obtaining various types of shots. Everyone sees a potential image differently when it happens, and the art of photography is revealed in how you can capture that moment.

For photographing dolphins and whales, it is important to set up your camera for the type of shot you want.

  • Look at your watch, and check the time.
  • Look at where the sun is.
  • Set the ISO.
  • Double check the camera setting (Manual, Shutter Priority (TV), Aperture Priority (AV).
  • Turn on the preview with your histogram displayed (if you can – this is possible in a Canon and can be done on a Nikon).

I will focus on two types of shots that you may be interesting in taking – the "freeze frame", where you freeze all of the action in the image, and "painting with motion", where you capture the motion in the image to tell a story.

Freeze frame:
I love to "freeze" these acrobatic athletes in motion and blur out the background as much as I can. I love to document that slice of time where the motion is too fast to see the beauty of the moment, and freeze everything around it. I want to give this moment some depth and layer the subject in the picture. In order to do this, I use a high shutter speed with a shallow depth of field. It is risky because sometimes you can be totally out of focus. But, when you hit it just right, a dolphin will ‘pop’ out of the frame with a blurred background.

  • ISO - I set the ISO to 200 but this is a personal preference. I love this setting because it allows me to obtain higher shutter speeds with less grain. On the Canon EOS 20D, I do not like the digital grain exhibited at 400 ISO and above. Some scientists that take pictures of animals for photo-identification research need to have their image razor sharp. They will set the camera at 800 ISO. In the daylight, I feel this is too much, and you can get away with 400 ISO is you want to be safe.

  • Camera Setting - I always shoot in manual mode. I have my watch on my wrist, constantly checking what time of day it is, and where the sun is in relation to the animals. I find it difficult to be on automatic because depending on the time of day, the dark blue sea will trick the light meter. Because the light meters in cameras are known as 'reflective meters', they can be fooled depending on the surface (color) they are pointed at. This can cause you to overexpose your image in automatic mode.

    I get around this by pointing my camera at the sky to a color as close to grey as possible. Reflective light meters in cameras are set to record light off of what is known as 18% Grey or middle grey. So, it you take a picture of a white wall and shoot in automatic mode, it will look grey. If you take a picture of a black wall, it will look grey.

    BUT, you don’t have to shoot this way. If you want to shoot in an automatic mode, I would shoot in shutter priority. To freeze the action, choose a shutter speed of over 1250; even 1600 or higher. So if you are on a whale watch, set you ISO at 400 to be safe, and then you set your camera to shutter priority (Tv), at 1600.

    Next, underexpose your image a little by setting your light meter to compensate for the overexposure setting your light meter will trick your camera. Set your camera to 2/3 of one stop, under exposed. This way, when you point your camera at dark blue water, you have just tricked your camera into taking an image that will be better exposed.

    You can do this is Av mode (Aperture priority) too. If you want to try blurring out the background, set it on the lowest ‘f stop’ (e.g. 2.8 or 4.5). Since this setting will let in a lot of light, it will inherently give you a high shutter speed. With a high shutter speed, you will be able to freeze the action.

    Striped Dolphin - Chris Johnson

    Painting with motion:
    Wildlife photographer Franz Lanting is the master of this in documenting the natural world – painting with light and painting with motion. It takes commitment to attempt to use motion to tell a story in a photograph.

    I would NOT recommend this for researchers attempting to photograph animals for photo-id programs. This is an artistic way of looking at an animal interacting with its environment. Because all of the elements are moving – the sea, the animals, and the boat – it can be extremely difficult to use the camera to capture motion without it being an absolute mess.

    To capture this type of image, you want to shoot with a slow shutter speed. This is what I do.

  • Set the ISO to 100 (or 50 if you can).
  • Reduce the shutter speed. The setting depends on the lense that I am using. With a zoom lense (like the 100-400mm), try reducing the shutter to 250 or even 125. With a wide angle lense (like the 17-35mm), I bring it down to 30. Even though I will try to shoot manually, try shooting in Shutter priority (Tv) and remember to change the setting on the light meter reducing exposure to 2/3 of one stop.
  • While watching one dolphin moving, try to move with it as you are taking a photo. If you are on land, and you pan with an image, this is also called ‘panning’ – moving with your subject to blur out the background. This can give you some very artistic imagery, but it can be a mess as well. If you are shooting digital, it doesn’t really matter, because you can delete the images!

    I highly recommend trying new ways of taking images using a digital camera because this experimentation can make you a much better photographer, and sometimes see, and document, a subject in a fresh way.

    However, if you try to paint with motion, make sure you practice on a subject on land first before you try it at sea, because you will probably be cursing my name for many hours!
    Striped Dolphin - Chris Johnson

    Checking Exposure:

  • HISTOGRAM – On a canon, you can have a preview image display after you take a photograph. A fantastic tool to use is the histogram to view the level of exposure of the image. Just looking at the LCD screen especially on a bright day is the wrong way to check exposure. On a canon, you can set you camera to display it over the preview image.
    I have found this to be invaluable!

    To someone who has never seen a histogram, they are very simple to read. The left side of the meter is underexposed, the right side - overexposed, the center – properly exposed. If you take an image, you will see areas that are over, under and overall, properly exposed. Have a look at the following image.

    Before you go out into the field, take some photographs and learn how your histogram works. It is the most important tool you have to see whether you have proper exposure. When I am in the field, I will take test shots all of the time, to check everything is ok with my settings, exposure, lense, and even with the battery. With digital you can delete everything, so it is a great way to make sure that you are totally prepared to capture images of dolphins moving a extreme speeds.

    Common Problems and Questions:

  • "There are dolphins around, but when I take a picture, I just photograph their tails!"
    Well, sometimes the movement is so fast that you have to predict the shot as it is happening. For example, depending on the weather conditions, I will watch dolphins moving underwater. I often pick an animal I want to photograph, and wait until it comes to the surface to breathe. That way, I can time exactly when I take a shot. Also, even though it is helpful having a fast frame rate to get a number of shots of one sequence, I try to focus on taking one image. This way, I really focus on the animal, what it is doing, and time releasing the shutter just right.

  • "It is late in the day, and when a dolphin breaches out of the sea, it is totally overexposed…What do I do?"
    If you are shooting on automatic like Shutter Priority(Tv), try setting the camera to underexpose the image a bit.

  • "Do I shoot JPEG or RAW? format?"
    A JPEG is a compressed image, while RAW is a digital negative.

    Well, I always shoot raw, because it is a digital negative, thus providing future flexibility. The color can be manipulated in a software program like Photoshop. It can also be scaled up in resolution for printing better than a JPEG. In addition, photo festivals or competitions usually want to see you RAW image to check exposure and make sure that it was not digitally altered. Even though you can fit more JPEG images on a memory card, I love shooting RAW because you are future-proofing your images in so many ways, and you can export a 16 bit TIFF file from it, which allows you to color correct it in greater detail.

    JPEG is great because you can fit more images on a memory card, you can preview your images right away, and sometimes expose you image better then RAW right out of the camera. Most researchers I know shoot in JPEG for this reason. It really comes down to personal preference. However, if you want to color correct the image, it is only 8 bit.

  • "Does it matter how many megapixels my camera has?"
    Well, one of the most frustrating parts of digital photography is that camera get better each year in resolution. If you are a professional who does print work, then yes, keeping up with technology to get the most amount of resolution in a picture is very important. If you are limited by a budget, get a camera body that has at least 8 megapixel resolution. This is good enough to print an A4 (8.5" by 11" image) and if you are shooting raw, can be printed even larger.

    Most digital cameras, including the affordable Canon Rebel XTI are now 10 megapixels in resolution. If you are purchasing a new camera, I would highly recommend obtaining the highest resolution you can, with the least amount of shutter lag. For photographing wildlife, I would recommend getting a body that can shoot at least 5 frames per second. This should last you for years to come.

    The following is a list of recommendations if you want to take better photographs of dolphins:

    • If you have never seen dolphins, read more about the species you are hoping to photograph before heading out on a whale watch or into the field.
    • If you can, use a Digital SLR with a zoom lense.
    • Have a big memory card to store lots of images with an extra battery, or two.
    • Set the ISO to 200 or 400. Probably 400 to be safe.
    • Decide if you want to shoot JPEG or RAW.
    • If this is your first time seeing dolphins in the wild, take a moment to watch the animals.
    • Make sure to be aware of where the sun is, and if possible, use it to your advantage.
    • Decide what type of image you want before you take a photo.

      • Freeze frame - use a high shutter speed (over 1/1250 second).
      • Paint with motion - use a slow shutter speed (1/60 second).

    • Make sure to check the images using your histogram while you are on a whale watch or in the field so you can make proper adjustments as you go. Take a couple of test shots of the sky or people around you to make sure everything is right BEFORE you see any animals.
    • From time to time, check that your lense is clean.

    Don't forget to enjoy being on the ocean, and if you are lucky, documenting some incredible wildlife encounters. The following image is one of my favorites, which break the rules a bit, shooting into the sun. Enjoy!

    Striped Dolphin - Chris Johnson

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Back in the Studio

What an epic journey the past few months have been. After travelling thousands of kilometers by plane, bus, car, train and by boat filming in Spain, Italy, France, Greece and Denmark, I am back in Melbourne, reviewing tapes, writing and beginning to edit the first components of 'Whales of the Mediteranean Sea'.

We will produce and post 5, 10 minute documentary films on over the coming weeks with educational materials for students and teachers. You will be able download new episodes in our Cetacean Investigation series examing the science of whales, dolphins and porpoises around the world.

These online shorts will be the beginning of a longer documentary film project to be completed in the coming year. From May to the end of August, I was fortunate to film on various research boats and interview some of the top cetacean scientists in the region. We were able to capture some stunning footage of whales and dolphins, including a social group of 13 sperm whales in the Ionian Sea in Greece. In addition, we documented some of the conservation threats these species face.

Many people spent time with us over the months, discussing the complex issues surrounding cetaceans in the Meditereanean. While travelling and filming in various places, I wrote numerous stories for the 'behind the camera' blog. When each episode is uploaded, I will post these accompanying behind the scene stories from the field.

Right now, I am working at our home studio, reviewing the 45 hours of footage. I am editing the programs using the new version of Final Cut Studio and will use new features in the editing process including the ProRes format, and the Smoothcam feature that reduces the amount of 'shake' in a shot. I have done some tests, and for filming on boats, it is an exciting new tool to help smooth out certain shots. I will post notes about the process using minimal equipment on a limited budget to produce HD material. I will write about some of the new exciting developments including the new RED camera which was released a couple of weeks ago. I reserved one a year ago (#825), and from some of the initial footage posted online, is going to change everything for independent filmmakers!

The first video will go up in the next two weeks, with additonal videos being posted approxiamately every 10 days. Subscribe to the earthOCEAN newsletter to be alerted to when these are posted on our website.


Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Whales of the Mediterranean Sea - An Introduction

Over the next 3 months, earthOCEAN will be producing a series of documentary films about the state of whales in the Mediterranean Sea, highlighting some of the scientists and conservation groups working to learn more about the species, while exploring some of the threats whales face in the region.

As part of our new online series called Cetacean Investigation, we will produce a number of 10-minute films and broadcast them on

You can view video clips online in a various formats or subscribe to our new PODCAST on iTunes to download high-resolution videos. To help further examine various environmental issues, we will create fact sheets to download and guides for teachers providing ideas on how our films may be implemented in the classroom.

It is very much a work in progress. We have been coordinating the project, planning, writing, making phone calls, creating contracts, and writing ideas for scripts over the past four months. In Behind the Camera, I will be writing about some of our the experiences behind the scenes to help give some insight into the world of independent wildlife and science documentary filmmaking ranging from technical issues faced producing digital media, to the mundane tasks involved in project management. Every project is a learning experience, and that is what attracts me to this type of exploration of the environment. The combination of images, sounds, motion, experience, surprise and wonder can be absolutely intoxicating diving into the topics that surround whales.
The challenges are immense, the risk can be great at times, and the line between something that is successful or an absolute failure is extremely fine. It is a craft done not to obtain riches, rather a quest for the wealth of experiences.

Luckily, we will be working with some great researchers who are doing vital work for the conservation of the species. It is in Cetacean Investigation, we will tell their stories and provide a platform to explore solutions these experts see are critical and that may not be delivered in mainstream media.

So, all of the intrigue and discovery that goes into making independent documentary films, and all of the challenges and mystique that goes hand in hand working on a tight budget will be revealed in Behind the Camera.

How did all this start?

It all started with an idea stemming from an invitation to come document a very good friends work. Dr. Alexandros Frantzis is a scientist running his own non-profit research group - Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute. Every year, he documents sperm whales throughout the Greek Islands by taking photographs of them to build a catalogue of their distribution in order to understand their ecology in the region.

Alexandros is passionate about his work and the whales he encounters. Sperm whales in the Mediterranean Sea are genetically distinct. The population Alexandros studies looks like they inhabit the eastern Mediterranean Sea all year round. What is unique is that one finds both family groups and lone males in the region in this almost entirely enclosed sea.

For months we discussed ideas to come film his work, and document the sperm whales of Greece. He told us of the great need to help spread the word about these whales in the Greek media to raise awareness about the threats they face.
In July 2007, we are joining Alexandros and his team of researchers for 3.5 weeks to journey through the Greek islands, and will post dispatches from the field in Behind the Camera. From this we will produce a film about the journey and Alexandros’ unique story.

So, we made phone calls and wrote emails to other scientists in the region to help paint a true picture of the current state of cetaceans in various countries. Our Mediterranean film expedition will take us on the Oceana boat, Ranger, to Southern Spain documenting the work of Ana Canadas and Ricardo Sagarminaga, Barbara Mussi of Delphis MDC in Ischia, Italy, Giovanni Bearzi of Tethys Research Institute, Toxicologist Christina Fossi at the University of Siena and Alexandros Frantzis of the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute in Greece.

We will interview author Erich Hoyt a senior research fellow at the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society will about the importance of marine protected areas (MPAs) for cetaceans in the Mediterranean sea. Because cetaceans are highly migratory, their needs range over a vast amount of marine area. He views MPAs as critical in the long-term management and survival of the species but also benefits the marine ecosystem as a whole.
Our first episodes from the Mediterranean will be posted in late June.

Next week, I take a side trip to visit some old friends in the Canary Islands - Natacha Aguilar de Soto and Mark Johnson. Natacha is a biologist who studies beaked whale ecology on the island of El Hierro. Mark is an engineer from the Wood's Hole Oceanographic institute who designed an innovative device called the DTAG which is uncovering more about the ecology of the elusive species with each survey.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Production Notes - Southern Right Whales of Argentina

The Making of Southern Right Whales of Argentina - Part 3

From the start we wanted to film this project in high definition (HD). Researching what type of HD, was the most time consuming part of planning. For months, I have been following a lot of websites to keep up with latest trends - like HDforIndies and StudioDaily. In 2006, I attended NAB in Las Vegas to get a better feel for the affordable technology out there and to get my hands on the latest technology that might be available…
Chris Johnson cleans film and photography equipment
The past couple of years have seen the development of some new exciting technologies in HD and the reduction in price of cameras whereby high-quality could be obtained with minimal cost. But there is a big difference between what is defined as HD as HDV. The choice between the two would prove to be very costly in the end in many ways (but that is for the next post!).

We knew we were going to edit and deliver the program in 16x9 PAL DV and deliver it on DVD. However, we wanted to film in the highest resolution possible to archive the footage for future use. So the most inexpensive way forward was to film in HDV on a 'prosumer' camera, and edit the project in DV - downconverting the footage from within the camera.

Another limitation we had was our equipment for post-production. All of our editing would be done on my MAC G4 powerbook with an external 500gig Lacie drive. The post-production would take place in a variety of environments - in hotel rooms, in airport lounges, even in my brother's apartment in Brooklyn, NY.

Mobility was our constant theme in this project. We have had a lot of experience with producing short documentaries with limited equipment and resources using minimal field equipment.

So our post-production path was going to be a very simple one. We would log and capture clips in Final Cut Pro (FCP), organize the types of shots we were obtaining (while trying to capture behaviors of whales on our master list - much easier said than done!). We would then create an edit in PAL DV. We were writing the script, adapting parts of it to the images we were capturing, so it was a very loose process at times. It was important to us to capture the spontaneity of the life of researchers studying whales. Genevieve and I researching whales for 6 years previous, we knew that the best stuff captured on video would be the small surprises, where you just had to let the camera roll and let the chaotic scenes unfold before your eyes.

So, parts of the post-production process took place during the production. While in Argentina, I was trying to create simple scenes to help build a story around the script Genevieve was writing. Then, I would create a more detailed 'offline edit' in FCP. This was important because I could then create an 'online' and color correct at a later time (if that time ever comes!). Because of the budget and timeframe, we felt that this was the best way forward.


The terrain and the weather of Patagonia, were going to dictate what type of equipment that we brought with us to film southern right whales. In the end, I brought two cameras, a Canon XL H1 and the Sony Z1 with an Amphibico underwater housing.

Why two cameras on a limited budget? Well, we owned a Z1 already and we ended up purchasing the Canon XL H1. I am a big believer in owning your own gear (if you can afford it). We had a little money saved up, and I just loved filming on my old Canon XL-1. It was a great camera to film on the ocean, because of the image stabilizer built into the lense. For filming on the ocean, it is fantastic.

However, the XL H1 is a much different camera. Because you are filming in a higher resolution, I found the eyepiece very difficult to find focus. Even with the enhanced 'peaking' feature, which creates a grainy like image to help aid focusing, I would spend as much time as possible tweaking this. I ended up filming using the autofocus feature at times, when the action was important to capture. For example, when in a zodiac filming a mating group of southern right whales, I would sometimes set to autofocus, and worry more about balance, exposure and framing. When I was able to take my time to film, I would spend extra time with the focus. Unfortunately, because of the budget, I was not able to bring a portable monitor with me, which I learned over the weeks, even shooting HDV, is so vital.

Over the period of 6.5 weeks, there were four areas that we were permitted to film southern right whales. All of them had their own challenges as discussed in my previous post - filming from the cliffs, filming from the beach, filming from a zodiac and filming underwater.

  • Filming from the cliffs - The cliffs of Peninsula Valdes can be up to 60 meters high, and give you a great perspective of the animals below. Spectacular cliffs and a smaller remote field observation post called 'the cliff hut' surround the research camp that is used by ICB every year. This is where researchers can observe and take data on whales for hours at a time.
    Chris Johnson filming Southern Right Whales from the cliffs of Peninsula Valdes, Argentina
    So filming here would require the use of some telephoto lenses. Since all of my photography gear is Canon, I could use my Canon lenses (in theory) with the XL adaptor for the Canon XL-H1 camera, and get very close to the animals. I could use the long end of my Canon 100-400mm zoom lense and with the 7x extension, theoretically turn it into a 2700mm lense!

    Did it really work? Well, yes and no. Because Patagonia is known for its wild weather, it can be an extremely windy place. When the wind is blowing (often times at 20-25 knots), it would shake my zoom lense tremendously even on a steady tripod.

    However, this worked when the weather was calm. When there was the slightest amount of wind, there would be too much slight vibration, which would render the attached XL lense totally useless. However, I was rewarded by just on a number of occasions where I captured some nice footage of one of the major conservation issues southern right whales face in this area - attacks by kelp gulls.

    Kelp gulls attack southern right whales, and feed on the skin. This only happens in Argentina, and you can see circular wound with blubber exposed. Have a look at the film - it is terrible to watch it happen. The reaction of the whales can be very disturbing - especially in an area which is so important for resting. Some of the wounds that develop in the calves can be quite extensive.

    Another behavior I wanted to document with using a long lense was 'breaching' - when a whale launches itself clear out of the water. Usually southern right whales may breach when the weather is rough, or after kelp gulls attack them. Often, when it was calm, it was a period of rest for southern right whales. Of course when it is calm, it is the best time to film. So there was a lot of waiting, and patience involved in filming southern right whales.

  • Filming from the beach - At high tide, southern right whales get very very close to the shoreline with their calves, allowing you to put a tripod close to the ground and film. It is a very unusual to get this close to any species of cetacean. In the right light and weather conditions, it is possible to capture very stable imagery.

    Mother calf pairs often times will rollover each other, creating a wonderful display only 10-20 meters away! I was able to get some great shots from the beach. I do admit, these were my favorite times to film right whales. I would look around the camera, and take some time to enjoy being in the unique area surrounded by whales.

  • Filming from the Zodiac - ICB have a 14-foot inflatable zodiac that they use for the research. Unfortunately, it had some engine problems this year, which limited its use a bit. Also, it can only hold 4 people - usually 3 people if I was filming or someone was biopsying southern right whales.
    Chris Johnson films a southern right whale from a zodiac
    So it was challenging at times, when the weather was calm, to gain access to it. Often, I would tag along and try to document some behaviors of southern right whales from the boat and be in the background of the researchers doing their work. It was difficult this year, because the weather was terrible on a regular basis. So we could not get on the water as much as we could have liked.

    It is a fine line you trend when documenting scientific research, they have to get their data, and you have to get your shots, which help tell the story and raise awareness about the whales, conservation issues and the researchers. Along the way, there is always going to be compromise. But it is important, not to be in the way, be positive and enjoy it. I always find by trying to work this way, it is a much more enriching experience for everyone, and at the end of the day, everyone eventually gets what they need!

  • Filming underwater. This was the most challenging of environments to film southern right whales. First of all, I had to obtain a special permit to be in the water filming whales from the Argentine government. This took some time to do, and ICB did a great job of obtaining it for the project.

    Because of logistics with the research program, we started filming underwater during the final two weeks of filming. Honestly, I was a bit nervous about it, because over the 6.5 weeks we were in Peninsula Valdes, it would seem to work out that we would film 1 day in every 5.

    The weather really limited the use of the zodiac so much, at one point we were discussing hiring another larger boat to film. Also, the weather in Valdes changes rapidly, one moment it could be calm for a couple of hours, then you find yourself with the wind increasing to 20 knots, and would have to go back in to the research station.

    In Peninsula Valdes this time of year, the sea is very cold and the visibility is incredibly poor. The whales can be very, very curious, so they will approach you, but they can be difficult to see. Because of the visibility, I often was 'shooting from the hip', where I would not look through the viewfinder of the camera and the underwater housing. I would set the camera up for 'auto-everything' (exposure and focus) and just try to document anything in front of me, while attempting to maintain my balance (and cool) among aquatic mammals that can reach a size of 45 feet and weight over 20 tons…

    Most of the time while filming whales, I like to have an external viewfinder above the housing so I can watch what is happening around me, while getting a good view of what I am filming underwater. However, in the case, the camera could 'see' better than I could underwater.

    We planned to film 5 full days, and ended up doing three days of 2 to 3 hours sessions. In all cases, the weather and wind picked up where we would have to stop.

    So as with any experience, it is important to listen to the people who are the experts in an area, no matter how much you want to, again, patience is so important with 'getting a shot'. This is where Dr. Mariano Sironi was fantastic. He was the official observer and he is very experienced with divers in the water around whales.

    Luckily, my first encounter with southern right whales was with a juvenile female, who seemed more curious about this large human floating around in a big black wetsuit and odd-looking yellow mask and snorkel!

    She moved by me very slowly, but because the visibility was only 3 meters at most (on a good day). When the whale was in sight, she would emerge from the cloudy water very, very quickly.

    This whale first approached me, close to my camera, and we were almost nose-to-nose. For about 45 seconds she floated like this, a meeting of two species - one its natural environment, the other an honored visitor, a new terrestrial friend.

    She would circle around and come back and just pause in front of me. I did not have to move much in the water. I just waited for her to approach me, and I never swam after her.

    After each pass, she approached me closer and closer.
    Often, I would see her enormous eye gazing back at me, watching me float by with this giant silver box tipped with a giant round glass on its periphery. I wonder if she was looking at her reflection in my lense?

    Filming right whales underwater was absolutely mesmerizing. A couple of times, I was so in awe, that the distant voice in my head would remind me to watch out for the rest of her body moving past. A few seconds after the head pass by, the flukes would emerge from the murky green abyss, and sweep past me like a giant fan. During one pass, she even raised her fluke over my head as she cruised by.

    At one point during filming, she turned belly up right in front of my camera with her pectoral fins gently sweeping past the lense. Nothing could describe this - it was on of the gentlest acts I have ever witnessed from a wild animal or a supposed tame species like a human.

    I was able to film a number of whales during those three days, but the first encounter was the most memorable and enjoyable. It was this day, the sea calmed for a brief window of time and I was just in the right place at the right time - a common theme for wildlife filmmakers in any environment.

    All the senses break down in encounters like these with wildlife. I feel truly honored to have spent 45 minutes face to face with a southern right whale in its environment, in its world, in its home.


  • 1 x Canon XL-H1 - Canon's latest HD version of the XL-1 - a great DV camera that many wildlife filmmakers used to produce material on a budget. We ended up purchasing an H1 in the end, because of a number of reasons. I wanted to film the documentary in HDV, I wanted to use the built-in image stabilization, which is very very important when filming on a zodiac. I always use a zoom lense when filming whales because often you have to frame what you are filming very very quickly.

  • 1 x Sony HVR Z1 -This was a good choice of camera to put underwater. It was great in the murky seas on Peninsula Valdes and I will use it again.

  • 1 x Amphibico Phenom Pro Digital Marine Housing for the Z1 with a wide angle lense. I orginally bought and old piece of stock, which had vignetting in the lense. I sent it back to Amphibico and they promptly fixed it. It is my understanding that this is not a problem now with this housing, but make sure to ask any UW housing dealer if there is vignetting in their lenses.

  • 1 x Lowel Caselite - A great light and fantastic for interviews.
    I really like fluorescent lights for interviews, But, the best thing about it is that it works on both 110v (US) and 220v (South America / European /Australian ) power sources! So, for traveling, it is a great light to have. However, when I was picking up my luggage in NY, the handle popped off somewhere between the plane and the baggage pickup!

  • 1 x Litepanels Mini with a built in battery.
    I use this as an 'on' camera light and love it. They have recently come out with a 1-foot by 1-foot light I would like to experiment with but is a bit expensive. This also runs on both 110/220-volt power.

  • 2 x Sennheiser K6 microphones (ME66), boom pole, windscreens. I have used these mics for years and love them.

  • 1 x Wireless Mics (Azden) - I have had a lot of problems with these mics and the particular brand I own. They are low cost wireless lapel mics, and I will not use them again.

  • 1 x Manfrotto tripod (with a 501 Video head) - I use it both for video and have another head for photography. It is a little light for the XL H1 but works fine on a budget.

  • 1 x Lacie 500gig hard drive (firewire 800) Big Disk Extreme with triple interface. I have had this drive for a couple of years, and it works well in the field. Pretty tough,and it has never failed me yet! I used to own a 250 gig lacie 'porche' drive, and had problem with it overheating. However, the big disk, has been wonderful in may different environments!

    Photo equipment -
    I did not bring alot of photo equipment with me on this trip; just a digital body with a couple lenses and some Fuji Provia slide film.

  • 1 x Canon 20D with 4 batteries. I had a 17-35mm 2.8 lense and a 100-400mm IS 4.5/5.6 lense. I love the 100-400 L IS lense, and it is my primary lense when photographing wildlife from a boat or zodiac. The 20D is a fantastic camera and has survived some big waves too.
  • 1 x Canon 580Ex flash and softbox
  • 3 x 1 gig cards
  • 1 x Canon EOS 1V - It is pretty battered from too much time on the ocean. But when I want to shoot really wide ( because I cannot afford a 5D or EOS 1D mark II right now) or shoot film this is just a fantastic camera body!
  • 1 x Nikonos Underwater Camera & 20mm lense - our tough 'old skool' camera with a Nikon strobe. It is probably going to be the last trip before we officially retire it to the bookcase. I love it, but it is time to invest in a digital underwater kit.


    So, did I have any regrets in the production of Southern Right Whales of Argentina?

    Well, there were two - filming in HDV and some audio issues.
    First the sound - I usually take a big 'blimp' with me, however it was boxed up in storage in Melbourne, Australia. I had no way of getting it sent over before the trip. With some last minute purchases I could not afford purchasing a new one and I ran out of time to search for a used one. Peninsula Valdes is a VERY windy place. Even with some protection of my canon microphone with Lightwave windsock (EQ102) you need a blimp to record sound with an external shotgun mic to really make it worthwhile especially if the wind is over 15-20 knots!

    Using HDV - Since coming returning from Argentina, I have looked at some of the footage on an HD monitor and the detail is incredible. However, the path to post-production to edit an HD version is a bit more time consuming and expensive.
    I have done some editing in final cut pro in native HDV. When you start to color correct it, well, it can just fall apart. In the future, I will most likely do an online edit of the clips and recapture clips uncompressed through a Miranda's HD-Bridge DEC - but first I'm going to have to upgrade my editing equipment.

    The XL H1 is a great all-round camera for the price because of the lense. For filming on the ocean, the image stabilizer is fantastic - just make sure to turn it off when it is mounted on a tripod. While I did learn how to use the canon viewfinder because of the 'peaking' feature, it took a lot of time to try to focus. Especially during the interviews, I wanted to blur the background with the shallow depth of field. Without taking the time, it could have been a disaster.

    Also, I learned that you must have a monitor with you in the field that can map every single pixel of an HD single. When you are looking at monitors, make sure to check the native resolution. Some models from Panasonic are below the native resolution of HD but have an 'HD zoom” feature which allow you to zoom into the signal and pan around the mapped pixels. A French cinematographer we met in Piramides, had one with him, and it looked fantastic!

    It is so important, and every article I have read stresses how important a monitor is when filming HD. This was so apparent when I filmed right whales underwater in very murky water. There were times that I could not position myself properly with the sun behind me in relation to filming a whale. When the sunlight hit the dome just right, it lit up every minute bubble. I could not see in the viewfinder - even after I wiped the dome with my hand. Luckily, this occurred only a few times, but on one important shot. It is still usable, but I still curse myself over it!

    Either way, every experience like this is a learning experience! Along the way, it was challenging, draining, enjoyable, and of course, a lot of fun.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Wildlife Filmmaking & Photography - Research your subject and talk to the scientists who study them...

The Making of Southern Right Whales of Argentina : Part 2

Before filming or taking pictures of wildlife, it is important to do your research thoroughly, know the right seasons to go, and talk to the right people who are the experts in the field.

In 2005, Genevieve and I went to Argentina for the first time as tourists to see southern right whales. After spending some time there, this gave us the idea of doing film. Luckily, we met the some of the researcher studying the whales in the area and spent time observing different types of behaviors we could document. Over the next few months, we spent time figuring out how we could actually do it. Many films have been made about the unique wildlife of Peninsula Valdes, but we wanted to do something different - focus on the next generation Argentine researchers working to make a difference.
Peninsula Valdes, Argentina is a unique place. Southern right whales return each year to give birth, mate and rest in Golfo San Jose and Golfo Nuevo, before making the long migration back to feeding areas in the Southern Ocean. This occurs between the months of July and November. We chose to return the following year from early September to the end of October - the peak season for whale abundance.

When the tide is just right, in some places on the Peninsula, right whales come very close to shore with their calves.
This allows you to view, photograph and film whales sometimes only 10 meters away while standing on the beach. Also, filming and photographing from high above on the cliffs offers a truly spectacular view of the animals and their habitat, while spending time on the local whale watch boats affords its own brand of wonderfully diverse encounters - (see Genevieve's
account of whale watching in Peninsula Valdes).

However, there is a downside to filming outdoors. As there is in all environments, Patagonia is exceptionally windy, dry and dusty. Sometimes the wind picks up and will not let up for days on end. Then, without warning, there is a window of opportunity when the wind unexpectedly shifts, and drops. What is predictable about the weather in Peninsula Valdes is that it is unpredictable. You have to be prepared to wait and be ready for just the right moment to film.

When you are trying to film whales in such challenging conditions, you have to wait for the right weather, but also the right light - all of this while hoping that you will be in the right place at the right time. A lot of it is luck. But, I believe you make you own luck by being out with the animals in their environment for as much time as possible - all without disturbing them.

From our previous experiences in Patagonia, and many long conversations with researchers, we created a shot list of behaviors that we wanted to capture from different perspectives. Because we were producing an educational documentary film about the ecology of southern right whales, we wanted to try to film as many behaviors as possible while documenting the scientific research being conducted.

In our list, we identified four areas from where we could obtain footage of southern right whales.

  • film from the cliffs - where researchers would observe them from.
  • film from the beach - outside of the research camp.
  • film with the researchers from a zodiac
  • film underwater

From this we created a plan. We had many meetings with researchers to try to work with their schedule to film in these areas, and to talk about the shots we needed to put together a great documentary.

When working with scientists while they are researching, it can be difficult to achieve a balance. Scientist are funded for a different purpose than what you are funded for. They have to conduct their research, and get results. That is what they are 'in the field' to do and often they are working in very challenging conditions themselves.
So while being patient with the animals is important, communicating with researchers is key to making things work for everyone while sometimes just not getting in the way. Planning, is essential, and an acceptance that you may not get everything you need when you want it, and to be ready when the opportunity arises, is vital. Patience is the key to making wildlife documentaries. A sense of humor also helps make it enjoyable for everyone around!

When it actually came time to film, we spent many, many hours in our rental car, driving 45 minutes back and forth between the research camp and where we stayed in the tiny town of Puerto Piramides. Often we saw the weather change in an hour, dropping to an acceptable sea state that meant we could go out on a zodiac to film, but then the light would be wrong, or it would be overcast with gray clouds, or the whales would be lying inactive at the surface resting. Peninsula Valdes is an important place for southern right whales to rest, so we filmed hours and hours of footage of resting whales!

In the next 'behind the camera', I will write more about the tools we used to document and capture the whales from different perspectives and why.

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A little bit of history....

How did we do it? The Making of Southern Right Whales of Argentina : Part 1

Having finished the documentary, I often wonder that myself!

The most important issue, with producing wildlife and science productions, before any money is raised, before any plane tickets are booked, before any equipment is rented or purchased, and sometimes before a script is even written, is to gain access to the subject. In our case, it was gaining access to film southern right whales. Without the access to whales, we could not even begin to think about producing a film like this.

Because so many people are involved in the research, the conservation, obtaining the permits to do the research, and the administration and organization of specific geographical areas, filming whales requires the ability to create numerous partnerships. We were initially invited by an NGO, Instituto de Conservacion de Ballenas (, to film and produce a video for a new education initiative in Argentina. They received funding from the government of the province of Chubut – it was called “Bringing Whales to Your School” ("Trayendo las ballenas a tu escuela").

With the help of ICB, we obtained the necessary permits from the provincial government to film whales within the reserve, and underwater. ICB also acted our translators and 'fixers', arranging accommodation, a rental car, additional permits and generally helped out with other administrative tasks along the way. Since we are absolutely hopeless at speaking Spanish, this partnership was crucial in making the process work.

In exchange for all of their effort, we produced a 5-minute piece about their organization with the footage shot for the documentary program, which co-wrote. We also gave ICB footage and photographs for future press releases and educational initiatives. The lesson we learned through the years is that, it is always beneficial to form good partnerships with a local NGO.

From the beginning of the project, we all agreed that the documentary would be produced in both Spanish and English, as stipulated by the grant we received to make the film – and that it would be distributed for free to students in Argentina as part of the education program they were developing, while we would host the online versions.

When documenting local issues in another country, we feel it is crucial to share experiences, especially with students. So often people do not know about the issues surrounding whales that inhabit their coastal waters. Those who come in to film too often leave little for the local community in return. This was an occurrence we often witnessed in countries we worked in on a former project - the Voyage of the Odyssey.

The Voyage of the Odyssey was our epic project. For 5 and a half years, Genevieve and I were part of a team that traveled around the world on a whale research sailboat, documenting the work, the science, the research, local issues, the nature and wildlife, all while producing environmental stories for a web series hosted by PBS –

It was very unique, in that PBS funded a program that would only be on the internet. We produced stories on the boat, called Odyssey logs, that we published via satellite directly to the PBS website.

We had incredible power to publish 'live'- when we posted a story via our laptop connected to the marine satellite setup, it was up on the servers in Washington – from anywhere on the planet. It was a unique experience to create and upload stories while being at sea surrounded by hundreds of miles of ocean and no land in sight.

This was before the popularity of blogs took off, or even podcasting. We relied on creating audio reports in Real Audio format, but found that most people just read the transcripts of the stories - sometimes educational, sometimes anecdotal and people liked seeing the photos from the day. Periodically, we would upload short video documentaries anywhere from 3-5 minutes in length to bring people along on our journey.

While finding and producing these stories for the 5 and a half-year, we always had to do it on a tiny budget, with minimal equipment - most of which we had to purchase ourselves. We learned to be very creative using 'off the shelf' tools and equipment.

In 2001, one year into the expedition, we started earthOCEAN media as a way to manage our money and be creative with tools. We purchased cameras, film, developed the film, bought a video camera, laptops and even got the software to build everything with. The boat had a couple of computers, but they were used mostly for research. So while we had great access, and a pipeline directly to PBS, that was it - that was where we learned how to produce materials on a limited budget.

Part experiment, part groundbreaking, partly insane, the site is still online, even though our last report was published when the Voyage finished in August 2005. It has since turned into a unique education resource ( believe it or not, our most popular story is on the giant squid – more about that another day! )

When the Odyssey departed in March 2000 from San Diego, we had a DV camera (Canon XL-1), a G4 Mac desktop running final cut pro (version 1) with a 80 gig hard drive, notepad (to create HTML pages – I coded everything by hand, due to PBS online production policies), and Photoshop. We had a 1 megapixel Nikon coolpix that would only work for 10 minutes at a time (due to problems with the batteries). Often, I would take 'screen shots' from the video shot with the XL1 to help with imagery for the website. As time progressed, we purchased one of the first G4 notebooks to come out, a few external 60 gig hard drives (which would only last a few months in the hot, salty conditions of the boat), an external DVD burner and a copy of DVD studio pro version 1.

For the documentary, Southern Right Whales of Argentina, we applied a similar model. We would film with digital cameras, edit on a faster G4 notebook computer, an external hard drive (this time holding 500 gig), but bring lights, an underwater housing, and a few important audio tools for interviews.

Most important, we would bring two video cameras – one for only filming underwater (Sony HDV Z1), which we already owned, and another for filming interviews, and the majority of ‘topside’ footage (Canon XL H1). We purchased the Canon XL H1 before we left, after much research and much debate for a variety of reasons I will outline later.

Why two cameras with a limited budget? Well, I once flooded a Sony FX1 in a GATES housing while filming humpback whales in Western Australia. Luckily it happened on the second to last day filming, so all was not lost. From that point on, I did not want to spend so much money, time, and effort getting to a location without having a backup just in case the worst happened again. No matter how careful you can be, you are taking a huge risk by putting a camera in the water - especially if it the only one you have!

For us, we had to be creative with all of these factors in the production of this documentary. However, the biggest issue was budget. This type of project this was made on a very small budget - produced, written and filmed in Argentina and while traveling back to the USA, and doing all of the post-production in hotel rooms and sleeping on couches along the way.

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