This is an exciting time to be alive. That’s true for a lot of reasons, but especially so if you are interested in making adventure films. Technology is improving so quickly, with the result that quality is getting better and gear-size smaller. When I cycled from New York to Hong Kong (my first big adventure) I was amazed at how small cameras had gotten in the time since I’d left university. I filmed that journey on a Sony A1 – an impressively small camera for the time (and even by today's standards it was dinky.) Unfortunately I had to cart around pannier bags full of mini DV tapes (remember those?) plus a 5kg tripod (that may have been my mistake.) Overall, my camera gear made up nearly half of my total gear for the trip.
Now, the options for the aspiring adventure filmmaker are almost unlimited. It is possible for any of us to go and film something in HD with very little money or effort. Telling a story is much harder, but that’s a topic for another post (try this one for starters, or come along to the filmmaking weekends that Tom and I are running in May!) The point of this post is to try and bring a little clarity to the complicated world of Filmmaking Equipment, so that you feel more confident heading out to shoot your own movie.
I use four types of camera (not all at the same time.) The first is a dedicated video camera – the Canon XF100. The second is a digital SLR (initially a Canon 600D, now a Canon 5D Mkii). Third is a sports camera – usually a GoPro. Finally I film on my smartphone – an iPhone 5s that I bought specifically because it has such a great camera (nothing to do with the Angry Birds, honestly.)
I am, and probably always will be, a fan of camcorders. They are designed for video. They are intuitive (mostly). They are quick and easy to learn, and they record high spec audio. They’re perfect for ‘run ‘n gun’ style shooting, and although I’m not a fan of regularly using automatic features on a camera, it’s useful to have them for when things get crazy. The Canon XF100 has been my camera of choice for 4 years now, and I really enjoy using it.
So why do so many people use DSLRs? Well, partly it’s because they got popular, and everybody wants to be popular, right? Also it’s because the size of the sensor inside the cameras produces a really beautiful image. It allows for that lovely shallow-depth-of-field look, and, when done well (and not overused) it undoubtedly produces a ‘nicer’ image than a camcorder in the same price range. On top of all that, you can use it to take stills without having to worry about using a second camera. The downside to all of this is that these cameras aren’t specifically designed for video use and can be a little clunky. The autofocus is poor and the sound recording ability is lacking. DSLRs are much more useful in a controlled situation, unless you are extremely experienced and know your camera inside out.
GoPro cameras are almost ubiquitous among the outdoor fraternity (and with good reason, too.) They produce a great HD image, and with each new model they’re getting more and more flexible. For anything involving action, they’re unparalleled. The limitations, however, are obvious. They have just one field of view (mostly) and it’s extremely wide. These days you do have a little LCD screen on back of the newer versions, but it’s still not great for composition. The sound is atrocious, and in reality these camera should only ever be used for what they’re designed to do – action and sports shots.
Smartphones are the new dark horse in adventure filmmaking. Obviously they’re not as good as a proper video camera or a DSLR. However, the image is pretty darn nice and if you can figure out a way of steadying the shaky, flimsy camera body (using a smartphone-specific tripod head, for example) you’ll get some lovely stuff. In my last expedition to Patagonia I carried my iPhone 5s in a easily accessible pocket, and on occasion it was the handiest camera to use when something dramatic happened. You probably could shoot an entire adventure film on one of these – it’s something I plan to do soon (anyone going to beat me to it?) –but it works much better as a secondary camera. Sound, again, is the major issue, but there are a variety of solutions for that (independent sound recorders, smartphone clip mics etc.) This is possibly the most exciting and accessible of all the options for making adventure films.
When I first started going on adventures, I filmed them because I thought it might be fun. It wasn’t, really, because I wasn’t doing it properly. It was stressful and exhausting and I had nothing to show for it except a bunch of shaky, out-of-focus footage that wouldn't even impress my mum. So I stopped for a while, and had more fun on the journeys. Then I came back to it and took it more seriously. Now, a few years down the line, I make a living from it. Below, then, is the kit list of what Tom and I took to Patagonia. I want you to bear in mind that:
a) this was a ‘professional’ endeavour (in that we wanted to make a broadcast quality film);
b) we were travelling on horses so had a little more room to carry extra bits and pieces;
c) the gear was all ours, the trips self-funded and our skills self taught. We’re definitely on the home-made, amateur end of the professional spectrum!
KIT LIST FOR PATAGONIA
* Cameras in bold
It's worth mentioning at this point that I think camera equipment is very boring. I don't get excited by it. I get excited by the idea of sharing my journeys, and although I often wish I was more of a tech geek...I'm not. Ultimately, it's not that big a deal. There are camera that will be better or worse suited to the job you need them for, but mostly these days all cameras will do a great job if you use them right. So my overall message is 'Don't worry about it!' Research, yes. Practice, definitely. But don't let a lack of expensive kit put you off. One of my favourite adventure films is The Road From Karakol, which was all shot on a point and shoot camera. It breaks all the rules, and is awesome.
I know though that you're here for more than just generalisations and platitudes, so here are my other key thoughts on adventure filmmaking gear. Alongside a decent camera, there are certain things you MUST have. 'Must' is in capitals for a reason. If you don't have these things, your film will not be as good as it could have been. Simple!
There are two rules regarding tripods. Firstly, bring one. Secondly, use it!
The more expensive, the better (as with most gear.) For the purposes of adventure filmmaking however, you want something compact and light. If you can afford it, go for carbon-fibre tripod legs, and a fluid head for smooth tilts and pans. Manfrotto and Velbon are favourite brands of mine. If you are on a budget, even a £15 tripod from Jessops will do the job of getting you a steady shot. Unless you have a hell of a good reason, don't just try and get a steady shot by holding the camera really still. It will never be as good as you think it is. Trust me - I've done it enough times!
Some of the best advice I ever received was to stop thinking of my films as video with sound attached, but instead to see them as an audio story with some images over the top. Sound is at least 50% of your finished film. As a viewer we can abide all sort of crappy, shaky footage is the audio is clear (think of investigative documentaries, Blair Witch Project etc.) If the sound is poor - voices too low, too much wind, hiss etc) - we quickly get very frustrated, even if the visuals are stunning.
Don't scrimp on sound. Invest in a decent microphone (or even two.) There are three main options:
1) Shotgun microphone that attached to the top of your camera (look up 'Rode' options on Amazon.)
2) A wired or wireless tie-clip mic (also called lavalier or 'lav' mic) to capture one main character's audio
3) A separate audio recorder that you can then sync up with video.
All have pros and cons, and ideally you want to capture sound via at least two methods at all times. Do some research (ask me if you want more ideas.) Get what fits your budget and style of shooting, but please do get something. Finally, get a wind gag for your microphone too - adventures have a habit of being outside, and wind can really mess up an otherwise awesome scene.
If you have a camera, a tripod and a microphone you can make an award-winning film. You don't need anything else. The following items are useful though if you have the space/budget for them. Think of them as things to slowly add in to your filming kit:
•Headphones to monitor sound
•Case for the kit – waterproof, shockproof, Pelicase, Aquapac etc
•Extra memory cards – CF, SD, other
•Batteries and chargers (in-car chargers, models compatible with solar panels)
•Lens cloth/dust cap
I don't want this to be intimidating, so I'll stop there. Adventure filmmaking should be, and can be, fun! Go out, shoot, enjoy. Come back and see what you've got. Repeat until you win awards!
If you'd like to ask any questions, then please do so in the comments section below. I'm happy to answer anything and everything.
When I first set off on my big cycling trip, I didn’t know anything about travelling long distances by bike. I didn’t know, for example, that the panniers (saddlebags) versus trailer debate was an ‘either/or’ one. Instead I took both, massively overloading my bicycle to the extent that I could barely go downhill, let alone up.
I knew nothing about bicycle maintenance either. Derailleurs, crank sets, cassettes – all were merely words bandied around by other people. They made me feel uncomfortable. As far as I was concerned my bike was two wheels connected to a bunch of metal. Beyond mending punctures, I was clueless.
For a long time on my trip this lack of knowledge stressed me out hugely. I pedalled along in constant fear of something breaking. The best thing that happened to me, in fact, was when something did actually break. The chain skipped, came off and got caught, and my rear derailleur took a knock. Suddenly faced with a worst-case scenario, it didn’t seem so bad any more. The world didn’t end, I just had a problem that needed solving. That’s what travel is (that’s what a lot of life is) - problems ('challenges', if you're a positive thinker...) that we must overcome. In perspective, it was all okay. I fiddled around (making it worse) and then thought through the other options. I flagged down a car. The driver didn’t know anything about bikes, but poked at it anyway just in case. It got worse yet again. Giving up on that scenario, we loaded my bike in his car, drove to the nearest town and found someone to did know what they were doing. Problem solved.
That scenario was replayed a few times on my adventure, with a slightly different cast of characters and source of issue each time. I know a lot more about how bikes work these days (though I’m still no expert.) The fact of the matter is though, being able to fix everything on your bicycle is not an integral part of being able to tour. Unless you’re going to extremely remote places, totally out of sight of other humans, there will always be someone around to help out. It boils down to this – if your bike breaks, then either you will fix it, or someone else will. So don’t worry about it.
Bike maintenance is one of the main reasons people have for not giving bike touring a go. There are other similarly scary obstacles, too, and as far as I’m convinced, none carry any real weight. My advice goes something like this: set your departure date, then do what preparation you have time and energy for inbetween. When the time comes, just set off. You will pick everything else up en route - I am living proof of that. Nice kit is nice. It's not essential. A bike (any bike) and a way to carry your gear is the baseline. Buy what else you can afford, and use that. Improvise. Try and relax into the notion that something will go wrong at some point (even if have all of the best gear and all of the right knowledge, things will still go wrong) BUT, it will be alright in the long run. You'll figure it out. It's part of the adventure.
When I wrote my book about cycling across America, I wanted to show just how clueless and naïve I was at the start. I think this comes through quite clearly in the story (it couldn’t fail to – I made every mistake possible, it seemed.) What I really wanted to show too though that this is something everyone can do. Everyone can. To re-enforce that notion, I’ve written a short ‘How-to’ of bicycle touring at the back of the book. I try and cover all the basics – to raise all the major issues one must consider, and then give my advice (learned the hard way) about how to minimize stress and maximise fun.
Below are a couple of pages from the book. If you’re new to bike touring, or are on the fence, then why not give it a read? I think you’ll find it ultimately encouraging – travel by bicycle can be such a joy, and it’s worth giving it a chance.
You can buy 'The Road Headed West' here, or via Amazon.
For this week only, you can also get a free copy of my film, 'Into The Empty Quarter.' Just email me your receipt once you've purchased and choose DVD or HD download.
Here is a rudimentary photo essay of my journey around the British Isles by folding bike (for your enjoyment...)
The real start and end of any journey is leaving and returning to home (however you interpret 'home'...)
I started this journey in Northern Ireland, where I grew up, and set off from the rugged North Coast with a folding bike, a backpack and 19 days until I had to be back in London; minimalism is a stalwart of good adventure. I was reminded of that great Leonard Bernstein quote: "To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time."
On Friday I safely returned from my joyous little adventure around the British Isles. In 19 days I cycled 750 miles on a folding bicycle, climbed the 'Six Peaks' (the highest mountain in each of the six major regions) and saw some of the most beautiful parts of our wonderful islands.
At the end of June I'll be riding around the British Isles on a folding bicycle, climbing the highest peak in each of the six major regions (want to know more? Check out this page!)
From this week onwards I'll be starting to update my website with progress (or lack of it) as I get ready for this fun summer adventure right here in the UK and Ireland!
You can follow me on Twitter and Facebook, and also via my Punkt interactive map - this will be where I post most of the photos and videos as I go, so check it out. Click on the map above to access the Punkt content.
Finally, if you'd like to meet me at any point along the way to climb a Peak or ride a few miles (or bring me presents) send me a message here!
Rucksacks: 2 x Osprey Argon 85 litre. Comfortable, large, and had a cool pouch on the back and side which we kept the video camera and tripod in. We also took the raincover for the summer which was excellent. The Osprey Hydraform Reservoir was great for keeping us hydrated, especially in the summer.
Tents: 2 x Hilleberg Soulo (we decided to carry one tent each to give ourselves personal space in the evenings.) These were superb in all weather. As the weather got warmer, we saved weight by switched to the Hillberg bivanorak which was just an incredible bit of kit – possibly our favourite of all!