Recently, I’ve been going back through some old footage I have backed up on a hard-drive, and was instantly transported back to the moments of those hunts. This is the raw, unedited, at times boring scenes…the stuff that never makes the YouTube channel. But as I scrolled through these clips and let some of them play, I was remembering specific details that had already slipped my mind about these hunts. Call me sentimental, but I loved it!
I started filming my hunts almost two years ago now, and I did so purely with the hope of inspiring and educating others. Hunting has brought me more joy than I ever imagined it would, and I want to help other people experience that as well. But, what I didn’t expect as I began this was the extreme personal benefit that would come from having footage of all these adventures. Sometimes I’ll get lost in the file-paths of old hunts remembering certain animals, mornings I thought I’d lose my toes to frostbite, close calls and cool encounters…it’s like watching home movies of your most favorite activity (and without your weird uncle who makes everything uncomfortable).
This got me thinking: in our extremely digital age, everyone seems to want video and pictures of everything significant that happens (and, if what we see on social media indicates, a whole lot of insignificant things as well…I mean honestly, I don’t need to see the quinoa salad you’re having for lunch!) This means that for hunters, we have a growing desire to capture these wonderful moments we get to spend in the field, the animals we encounter, and – if possible – the moments when it all comes together and we harvest an animal.
But, hunting is hard enough without adding cameras to the mix, and most of us aren’t going to recruit or hire a guy to come with us simply to film the whole thing (I mean, if you have those kinds of connections, go for it). But, can a cell-phone pic here or there really capture all the memories you’re hoping to preserve? Probably not. So, what can you do if you’re not a photographer, don’t want to mess up your hunt dinking around with cameras all day, and may even be hunting on your own a lot?
Here are some thoughts on what you may or may not need, depending on your goals for the video. I’ve tried a handful of different setups over the last two years, and I’ll outline what I use and strategies I’ve implemented for those wanting the best possible video without taking on a second mortgage. But first…
…What do you want to do with this?
What are your goals for filming this in the first place? Do you simply want to capture some memories of your hunt to share with friends and family, or even just to reflect on years down the road? That’s a terrific goal, but it will affect how you approach filming your hunt. On the other hand, if your goal is to produce more of a hunting film, to become the next YouTube sensation, or to submit something to a festival and break into “the industry”…well, you’re going to have a larger list of gear (and you’ll probably need a drone). That’s also a terrific goal, but my point is that you need to be honest with yourself about your goals before you start buying gear or re-planning this year’s hunt for a place with more scenic vistas.
The Home Movie Camp
If you’re in the first group and you just want to preserve some memories for you and your buddies, this will be simple. Honestly, you could probably get most of what you need with a decent smartphone and a buddy to run the camera for you. With you and a hunting partner, you could film each other talking to the camera, chilling at the campfire, and even setting up and taking a shot. If you’re hunting out West and glassing up animals that are way out there, a simple PhoneSkope adapter can capture great footage of that animal through your spotting scope or binoculars. Now you have options for up close footage of you, as well as long distance footage of the animal. But, you’ll need a second camera if you want to capture you taking the shot and the animal going down at the same time.
PRO-TIP: When filming on a phone, always turn the phone sideways (landscape). This will allow you to post it to YouTube or show it on a TV without half the screen on either side being blacked out.
PRO-TIP #2: You can pick up a clamp that will hold your phone onto a tripod for just a few bucks. This can be worth its weight in gold if you don’t want to get sea sick when watching your old footage as your excited buddy starts shaking wildly (and is a necessity if you’re self-filming the thing).
If you want to take one step up in the video process, I’d recommend a GoPro. This will not capture long distance footage at all…that’s not what it’s designed for. What the GoPro does better than anything else is capture a super wide-angle of everything going on in front of it. You can attach a GoPro to a small, adjustable tripod, set that thing anywhere, point it in the general direction of what you want to capture, hit record, and never think about it again…they are the ultimate user-friendly camera. If you were taking a 300-yard shot at an animal on the next ridge, had your phone set up on the PhoneSkope watching the animal and set the GoPro on the tripod behind you, you’d have perfectly useable footage you could splice together of you shooting and the animal dropping. Boom…memory captured.
The Hunting Film Guru
So, you don’t just want memories (though those are nice and all)…you want to make a full-on, high-quality, hunting film. That is great! It’s also really hard! I don’t say that to discourage anybody, because it’s also extremely rewarding…it’s just going to take some planning and some practice. Adding another layer of complexity is if you often find yourself hunting alone, you will now be both the hunter and the camera man. Again, it can be done, but it’s going to be tricky. If you have your sights set on being the next Spielberg of outdoors entertainment, then here are a few areas you’re going to need to think through…
This is your bread and butter – this is where you get the big shots and where you will probably spend most of your time (and money, for that matter). On the plus side, photography has become so commonplace that companies have scrambled to bring to the market a vast array of cameras for every style, budget, and experience level. You just need to determine what those are for you. Are you a tree-stand hunter in dense forest? Then you might be best served by a traditional camcorder (like the Sony Handycam). Its biggest downside is its inability to zoom in very far, but in this hunting scenario you won’t be seeing deer all that far away in the first place. On the other hand, you may be a western hunter using a lot of spot and stalk tactics in open country. Well, you’ll definitely need something with some serious zoom capabilities. This will probably lead you more towards a DSLR setup with a couple of lenses (one close, one telephoto…at least). If you have zero background in photography, these are the cameras that look like what you see wedding photographers carrying around…who knew they could shoot great video too, right?
Now, this article is designed to give you a starting point, so we aren’t going to get deep in the weeds on camera gear (believe me…it goes deeper than you’d ever want to go). But I will say one thing on this issue for the backcountry hunter in particular: you must find a happy medium between the perfect shot and the weight you’ll have to carry around to get that shot. You could easily pack 40 pounds of camera gear into the woods to make sure you had every possible angle covered, but you’d have no room (or energy) left for all the other gear you need to actually hunt. At the same time, you could head out with just a GoPro to save on weight, but you won’t come back with the kind of footage you want for your film.
This balancing act led me to switch from my moderate DSLR setup with two lenses (weighing in at 7 pounds), to what is called a “bridge camera” (weighing a mere 2 pounds). These look like a DSLR, but the lens is not removable…it has one built in lens that covers everything from close-up/wide angle stuff, to reaching way out and zooming in on a deer the next ridge over. Now, that’s a gross over-simplification, and there are plenty of things a nice DSLR can do that a bridge camera cannot. But, for the work that I do, it was worth the ease and 5 pounds of weight savings to make the change (plus, I found switching lenses to be a pain, and it drove me to get lazy and use the GoPro more than I should).
As eluded to earlier, a good hunting film will require a couple of different angles…particularly for those moments where it is all coming together and you want to capture what you and the animal are doing simultaneously. If you have your main camera dialed in capturing beautiful footage, you can often get away with a lot when it comes to close-up/supplemental shots. This is once again where the GoPro reigns supreme. Here are a couple of my favorite ways to employ the GoPro in my two-camera setup.
Mounted on the main tripod
If I’m filming an animal, 97% of the time my main camera is on a tripod. Especially since I do so much solo hunting/filming, it’s simply necessary for me to be able to get the shot dialed in and leave it. A little trick I rigged up one day was to take my clamp-on, adjustable arm for the GoPro, and mount that little sucker off the side of the tripod. Now, I can have the tripod next to me with the main camera focused on the animal, and moving my hand a mere 12-18 inches I can point the GoPro at myself (usually facing perpendicular to the direction of the main camera), hit record, and I’m now capturing all the action of the animal and the hunter in one unit. This also makes it extremely handy when I suddenly have to move to reposition on an animal…one hand moves the whole two-camera rig and I can be back in business within seconds of arriving at my next spot.
Okay, this can be a bit of a cop-out and can lead to some lazy film-making if it’s the only shot you get, but it can also be a cool effect if you have other good angles. (Full disclosure: it’s also a great safety net ensuring you get something if your other angles don’t work out for some reason) If I’m heading into a mobile situation or a stalk of some sort, I’ll usually throw the GoPro on my head for a hunter POV (Point of View) shot. Put it on, hit record, and focus on the hunt.
PRO-TIP: When using the head-mount, don’t center the camera on your head. Have it lined up above your non-dominant eye, because when you settle in to make your shot (bow or rifle), the center of your head will actually be pointing a bit off to the side. Your non-dominant eye will actually be pointing directly at your target.
I mentioned the safety net aspect of this angle…that’s exactly what happened on my 2017 elk hunt. I had to belly crawl 40 yards across a meadow, and knew that trying to drag the main camera and tripod with me wasn’t going to work. I left the camera back at the blind to film me crawling, and relied on the head-mount to get the actual shot. It wasn’t a great shot of the elk (since GoPros aren’t designed to capture great detail at 53 yards), but it gave me something to work with, which is better than nothing.
PRO-TIP #2: If you start researching camera gear for hunting, you will inevitably come across products designed to mount your GoPro to the front of your rifle or bow. I DO NOT RECOMMEND THIS SOLUTION. First, there will always be an incredible amount of shaking in the camera at the precise moment of the shot. Second, once the shot has been taken, you now have to hold and point your weapon at whatever you are trying to film. So, if you just sent an arrow at a deer who is now running away, instead of watching him and trying to knock another arrow, you are holding out your bow pointing it at him to try and get the shot. I much prefer the head-mount for this type of POV shot in hunting.
Audio…Please don’t forget the audio
Every professional video producer I have ever worked with has echoed the same sentiment: “what separates an okay film from a great film is the audio.” It’s the part of a film you never notice unless it’s bad. The built-in microphone on your DSLR, bridge camera, or GoPro will not get you the quality of audio your hunting film deserves. Here are the two solutions I use in tandem to get the best audio possible while out in the field.
Personal Lavalier Microphone with a Portable Audio Device
This is on me virtually every second of a hunt, even if it is not physically on or recording audio. For a long time, I ran the microphone cord up my shirt and dropped the recording device into the cargo pocket of my pants. Whenever I was getting into some action or going to record some talking-head stuff, I’d hit record and go on about my business. Recently, I switched to using a Marsupial Gear bino harness on my chest, which has a pocket that I would swear was designed specifically for this little audio device…I love it!
However you carry it, this little gem gets terrific audio of whatever you are doing, and you can set the input level so that it’s still capturing loud enough even when you’re whispering (which should be most of the time if you’re actually hunting…little tip from me to you). The only downside is that you either have to hit record at the start of your day and let it run for 8-10 hours (which battery life doesn’t usually allow…and would be a major pain when you went into the editing phase), or you have to remember to turn it on/hit record before anything cool happens. Inevitably, at some point you’ll forget, and you won’t have this audio for some really important clip. Which brings me to the second piece of audio gear I use…
Camera-Mounted External Microphone
Most cameras you’ll be looking at will have what is often called a “hot shoe” on top – it’s a little bracket you can mount things like flashes or external microphones to. Never rely on your camera’s built-in microphone, but you can get really great results with a quality external mic. Simply mount it on the camera, plug it into the auxiliary microphone jack, and you’re in business. This will not only provide some backup audio if something goes wrong with your lavalier, but it will typically capture some ambient noises the other mic won’t (like an elk bugling). It also provides you with quality audio that you can synchronize with your audio files from your personal mic in post, making editing that much simpler.
PRO-TIP: Always use a wind-shield (often called a “dead cat” because…well…it looks like one…and because people don’t like cats) for recording audio when hunting. We battle the wind enough trying to keep our scent from blowing towards our prey…we don’t also need it ruining our audio. Even on your personal lavalier mic, run the tiny dead cat that often comes with it. Mixed in with your camo, it won’t even be that noticeable (and you can often conceal it a bit inside your collar/under your shirt).
If you are now planning to bring a bunch of battery powered electronics into the field with you, you’ll either need to devote half the space in your pack to spare batteries, or you’ll need some way to recharge them while you’re out there. If you hunt out of a cabin or an RV set-up with generators and electricity, this is much easier. As long as you have enough batteries to carry you through the day (probably 3-4 per camera for most situations), you can just recharge them all at night back at camp and be back in business the next morning. If, however, you prefer a backpack-style or more off-the-grid kind of hunt, how do you keep a steady supply of power for your much-needed cameras?
I use two different devices, and I’ve never found myself dead in the water with an unusable camera. My go-to is a portable solar charger. Granted, I am blessed to do most of my hunting in AZ, where I can pretty much count on sunshine most days, but this is still a great option as even one hour of sunlight can generate a bunch of charging power for your devices. Mine has 3 USB ports built in, so I can get all my devices back up and running in about an hour. If I find myself glassing on a hillside, or taking a power nap in the middle of the day, I’ll set this bad boy up and come away with a fully charged phone, 2 batteries for the main camera, and a topped-off GoPro. It even has several carabiners which allow me to attach it to my pack and keep things charging when I’m on the move (as long as I’m not in thick timber or somewhere without a lot of sunshine).
PRO-TIP: There are a lot of companies producing small, single panel solar units about the size of a phone. These are not often as helpful as they would seem. They work fine as a power bank if you charge it up first using a micro-USB, but they lack the surface area to generate a charge (or even refill themselves) simply from sunlight. I recommend the fold-out, multi-panel style…they take up a bit more space, but honestly aren’t much heavier than the little solar bricks that don’t work as well.
My backup device is a portable power bank. You can grab these just about anywhere for about $10, and they’re amazing. Simply charge them with a mini-USB, and you can get 2-3 full charges for a phone, a camera battery, or whatever you need before this device itself needs to be recharged. I’ll even use the solar charger to recharge this bad-boy when I’m out there! It’s a great backup on a cloudy day, or if you want to top off some batteries at night back at camp. Between these two devices, I’m always ready to capture whatever awesome hunting action is happening that day.
Go Film Something
Okay, that was a lot of information, and if you’ve made it this far, I assume you’re fairly serious about beginning to film your hunting expeditions. Let me just say that it can be really easy to start researching, looking at price tags, and convince yourself that you just can’t. The best thing you can do is get out there and film with whatever you can get your hands on. If that’s your cell phone and a cheap little tripod/clamp setup, it’s better than not filming at all. Add one piece of gear at a time as you find something used (or sell a kidney), and just keep practicing. Whenever you’re out in the field scouting, hiking, or actually hunting, film some stuff. Get to know your camera(s)…angles you like, angles you don’t like, and get to where maneuvering around your camera is second nature. You don’t want to be frantically trying to remember where your white balance controls are when an elk is charging in and you can hardly move your fingers.
You may have huge ambitions about the hunts you want to go on and the films you want to make, and I want you to chase those dreams down and slay them. But don’t wait until you’ve found an extra $5,000 lying around to buy everything you think you need. Just get out there and continue to love hunting, and figure out some way…any way…to document some of that journey. We tend to want everything right away, but I can tell you there is a lot of fun to be had in reviewing old footage from when you didn’t have good gear and didn’t know what you were doing, and just remembering how good those times actually were.
I cherish the memories of my first bull elk harvest, first archery kill, first hunting film…there are a lot of firsts wrapped up in this video. If you want to see some of this gear and the various 2-camera setups in action, watch the film below.