By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter
If it’s true that we learn from our mistakes, then I learned a lot about video last weekend while on a day boat trip out of Seward into Kenai Fjords National Park.
We’ve taken Kenai Fjords trips before and usually saw whales, orcas, sea lions and other wildlife, so I expected I’d be making a lot of video from the deck of a pitching boat. Even though the Gulf of Alaska was unusually calm that day, even the most effective image-stabilization system can’t fully compensate for a heaving deck.
I chose an Olympus E-M5 Mark II camera because its five-axis, image-stabilization system is renowned as particularly effective with video. Many professional videographers are using an E-M5 Mark II system for effective handheld video in circumstances that previously required far more expensive gyro-stabilized rigs.
That wasn’t sufficient for a calm day on the Gulf of Alaska. To gain additional stability, I’d typically use a monopod or brace myself against a building, tree or fence — basically anything firmly anchored to the ground. When your “ground” is a heaving boat, though, using it to brace your camera is a mistake, as every sharp motion of the boat is then transferred to the camera, producing even more shake. In the end, I steadied myself as best as I could and hoped that my body would absorb some of the shock. That wasn’t a completely satisfactory solution, of course.
In bright sunshine, the boat’s motion is a problem only with video, causing the horizon to sway, jump and tilt in a jerky way that’s not pleasant. Still images made with fast shutter speeds on that bright day were not affected by the motion.
Although the E-M5 camera body is weather-resistant, not all of my lenses have that protection, so I had to guard the camera and lens from spray throughout the day, mostly by stowing it in a weather-resistant camera bag when not in use. Even if your camera body is weather-resistant, the overall system is at risk if the attached lens is not likewise sealed.
I expected that most of my photos would be made with an Olympus 75- to 300-mm, supertelephoto zoom lens, a light and well-made, but unsealed, lens with standard 35-mm film magnification equivalents between 150 mm and 600 mm. Although I used that supertelephoto a lot, I found I used it mostly at the lower magnification settings when photographing pods of humpback whales feeding nearby. Higher magnifications were rarely needed because the boat was able to maneuver fairly near the wildlife. If I was photographing brown bear sows and cubs in the open tundra, though, I would certainly use as much distance and magnification as possible.
High-magnification telephoto lenses tend to be noticeably less sharp optically at higher magnifications and more prone to blurring due to camera shake, both good reasons to avoid using those longer focal lengths unless truly needed. Wherever possible, use a camera body that includes an eye-level viewfinder with supertelephoto lenses. That eye-level viewfinder provides a third point of contact with your body that helps reduce shake and blur.
Most often, I used my Olympus 12- to 40-mm zoom lens, a very sharp, weather-sealed, wide-angle to normal-magnification zoom lens. It’s my favorite zoom lens of all time, the only I’ve found whose image quality is comparable to a good, single-focal-length prime lens. Its range of magnifications was generally suitable for nearby wildlife and recording both the expansiveness and the detail of the tidewater glaciers.
For some photos, especially those of massively large glacier faces, even the 12-mm, wide-angle setting wasn’t enough. Although I brought along a 9- to 18-mm, extreme wide-angle zoom lens, I didn’t use it nearly as often as I should have for best effect among the towering fjord walls and glacier faces. It’s helpful to have a very wide optical magnification range available, more than I realized when packing my camera bag for the trip. That extreme wide-angle zoom lens was a lucky afterthought.
I was reminded of a few other tips and tricks. When changing lenses, do so out of the wind, moisture and blowing dust. Otherwise, you’ll end up with small debris on your sensor sooner or later, resulting in annoying spots on photos and a trip to the repair shop for an expert cleaning.
When photographing fast-moving wildlife in bright sunshine, particularly on bright salt water, you’ll usually have plenty of light to optimally tailor your exposure. Where possible, use both a very fast shutter speed to stop action as well as the lens’ optimally sharp aperture setting at base ISO sensitivity, where image quality is always best.
I found that 1/1000 second or faster resulted in very sharp images of fast-moving wildlife, even humpback whales jumping clear of the surface. A modern, higher-end camera, like the Olympus E-M5 Mark II, usually includes a shutter capable of 1/4000 second or faster mechanical shutter speeds. That’s fast enough for nearly all circumstances.
If your light is bright enough, set your camera to its fastest frame rate. Some cameras, like my Olympus E-M5, can take as many as 10 frames per second, a feature that’s really handy when photographing wildlife. When I saw some humpback whales jumping clear of the surface, I was able to capture 10 still images of a breaching humpback whale from initial ripple at the surface through aerobatics and the final splashdown.
Where feasible, use the camera’s “A” aperture-priority mode and set the lens to its optimum aperture. For example, the 12- to 40-mm zoom lens is sharpest in the f/5 range, while the 75- to 300-mm Mark II Olympus supertelephoto zoom is sharpest around f/8 at lower magnifications and f/11 at higher magnifications beyond 200 mm. Remember to change your lens aperture settings when you change lenses, though. I overlooked this too often on the trip.
Many cameras include a built-in level visible in the electronic viewfinder. Display that level while shooting video and use it to avoid making videos whose horizons are tilted. Unlike merely cropping and straightening a crooked still photo, a tilted video is very difficult to fix in post-processing.
Use exposure compensation to slightly underexpose both still images and videos made in very bright sunlight on salt water and among bright glaciers. Doing so will make your images look richer, with stronger, deeper color while avoiding overly bright, washed-out highlights.
Many modern cameras capture their video in Apple’s .MOV format. That’s a handy and efficient format easily edited in the inexpensive Pro version of Apple’s QuickTime video software for Apple and Windows computers. Use QuickTime Pro to trim and tighten up your wildlife video segments and then combine those segments. This is particularly useful with wildlife videos that have a few moments of quick action amid a lot of dead air time.
Finally, remember that still images, especially those saved in RAW format, can be easily corrected in post-processing, but that any late video post-processing is far more tedious and less effective at correcting mistakes like tilted horizons and overexposed, washed-out images. For best results, be mindful and careful when making videos.
Oh, and remember that although video shot with your camera turned vertically looks fine when replayed on the camera’s rear LCD screen, neither your computer nor your TV set has an orientation sensor. Any vertically shot video will not display properly upright on those devices. I was again reminded of that, as well, last weekend.
Local attorney Joe Kashi received degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.