Wild for glass: Nature documentary and lenses

Austin Freshwater
July 12th 2016 at 5:41PM : By

Director Austin Freshwater, director, professional Imaging at Canon UK, discusses why choosing the right lenses is key to wildlife filmmaking?

Capturing the natural world presents filmmakers with a host of challenges, the vast majority of which are way beyond their control. Because of this unpredictability, selecting the right kit for a shoot is imperative; the equipment they take has to be up to the job.

At Canon, we speak to many amazing natural and wildlife filmmakers to learn how they operate in the field. One of the overriding pieces of feedback we get, for a variety of reasons that I’ll go into, is just how important it is to select the right lens.

Better image quality

Wildlife filmmaking has been an early adopter of 4K cameras and glass. Nature documentaries have to rely on the quality of the image they capture because there is such strong competition from other productions. On top of this, today’s audiences have become accustomed to increasingly ambitious sequences, delivered in greater clarity than ever before. The most recent programmes from the likes of Silverback Films – such as The Hunt - boast incredible pictures. That is, in large part, down to the adoption of 4K equipment in the acquisition workflow.

For a section of the BBC’s Planet Earth II series, documentary filmmaker John Aitchison travelled to New York City to document peregrine falcons as they hunted pigeons. For the shoot, John, a long-time user of Canon lenses, chose the Canon CN-E30-300mm T2.95-3.7 L S to capture the urban environment.

He said: “The footage we captured in NYC was spectacular – the 4K / UHD lenses that are now available to filmmakers make a huge difference. Even though audiences at home are seeing these images in 1080 resolution, the images shot in UHD are just lifted – anyone can tell the difference.”

Using a 4K lens – even when the programme is being broadcast in HD – is really rewarding visually as it produces such high quality images. From a commercial viewpoint, it also means that the production company can future-proof the rushes for the inevitable switch to UHD broadcasts.

Image quality isn’t just limited to the resolution of a lens either. The higher number of blades in the iris of a high-end lens gives wildlife filmmakers the ability to capture more natural looking images. Having more - like the 11 in the Canon CN20x50 and the CN30-300mm – lets users produce an image with a far more pleasing bokeh that’s smoother and less distracting to audiences.

Extended focal length

Secondly, the type of subjects typically featured in wildlife filmmaking mean long lenses play a big role. Tracking an animal hundreds of metres away means the lens must be able to perform right at the top of its focal length as there may not be a second chance to capture it.

Canon glass is widely used across this kind of filmmaking, and respected documentary duo Vicky Stone and Mark Deeble are long-time fans. The award-winning team recently produced a segment with Silverback Films on giant crocodiles hunting on the Grumeti River in Tanzania for The Hunt (BBC One). To ensure they could capture the crocodiles in their habitat without needing to get too close, the duo used a Canon CN20x50 IAS H cine lens from the banks of the river.

Talking about filming in the wild Vicky said: “We need lenses that have absolutely stellar range and performance. The crocodiles we were shooting were timid. The beauty of the CN20x50 is that we could stay far enough away that we didn’t need disturb them while maintaining a really beautiful image.”

Ultra-telephoto lenses are the only option for this kind of application. The Canon CN20x50, for example, boasts a 20x zoom – a focal length of 50-1000mm. When using the 1.5x built-in extender, this increases to 75-1500mm.

Canon wildlife documentary

Flexibility and reliability

Being able to rely on your lens is so important. Knowing it will produce the quality of image you expect means you can concentrate on the task at hand - capturing something engaging from the beauty of nature. 
The CN20x50 was also part of John Aitchison’s kit bag when he shot a segment of BBC’s Planet Earth II series about birds of paradise in the low light environment of a West Papuan rainforest. 

“To combat the lack of available light, we replaced our camera so we could keep using the lens. We wanted to stick with the CN20x50 because it was just so good,” said John as he explained the setup of the shoot. 
When shooting on the Grumeti River, Deeble and Stone were in a similar position. They needed a lens that could capture outstanding images, no matter what happened. 

Vicky Stone added: “When working with wildlife, you have to be able to create a whole sequence from a piece of action that might be over in minutes and might never happen again. There’s rarely enough time for lens changes so versatility is absolutely key. If I had to take a single lens with me on a wildlife shoot, the CN20x50 would be my lens of choice.”

Hunting down the right glass

We continue to invest in R&D at Canon and our latest lenses are designed with this usability in mind, particularly with the larger sensor cameras being used for wildlife production. 

But don’t take my word for it, as John Aitchison concludes: “Even when many cameras featured 3/4 inch sensors or when I used to shoot on film, I’d always use Canon. The quality and the ergonomics are just great, and I don’t think I’ve ever had anything go wrong with one. Ultimately they’re the best for the job.”