How to Film Wildlife – part 3: Ponds

BBC cameraman John Aitchison shows you how fascinating filming freshwater creatures can be.

How to Film Wildlife in Ponds main spread.

BBC cameraman John Aitchison shows you how fascinating filming freshwater creatures can be. 


Avoid real ponds

There’s almost no point climbing into your garden pond or the one on the village green to film in it. The resident wildlife will quickly swim away, you’ll disturb loads of sediment and (just in case you are still thinking about it) you could end up making a hole in the fragile lining.

Get creative

What you should do instead is set up your own mini self-contained pond. By doing this, you are essentially creating an outdoor aquarium. The first thing you need is a tank, which you can buy from any good pet shop. It doesn’t have to be particularly big – the one pictured here is about 1m long by 0.5m wide. Bear in mind that glass sides won’t distort the images as much as plastic.

Select your camera

Amateur video cameras often focus very close and have greater depth of focus for a given magnification than larger models, especially if there’s plenty of light, so the one you currently own should be suitable. If you try to film by holding the camera in your hand, however, your footage could look very wobbly, so use a tripod or rest the camera on something.

Fight reflections

The simplest way to avoid seeing yourself and the camera in the glass is to fasten a black cloth to the front of the tank using crocodile clips (clothes pegs will probably do) and suspend it above you to put the camera in shade. You can also drop it vertically behind you to create a dark background.



1. Site the tank

Choose somewhere bright, because the sunlight coming from above will be your only light source and you’ll need as much as you can get. Before you fill the tank, raise it to the same height as your camera when on the tripod. Make sure you use pond, rather than tap, water.

© Mary-Lou Aitchison

2. Create the habitat

The bottom of the tank needs to be covered by natural pond materials, including sediment and rocks. This will make the water cloudy, so just let it sit for a while. You can create a natural backdrop by positioning some rocks or branches on a table behind the tank. 

© Mary-Lou Aitchison

3. Collect your wildlife

Use a net to go dipping in your nearest pond and empty the contents into a shallow tray (only collect from one pond to avoid spreading diseases). Sift out what you want with a paintbrush, then transfer your stars-to-be into the tank using a spoon.

© Mary-Lou Aitchison

4. Create extra realism

A breeze to ripple the surface and circulate the water will make the tank and its inhabitants seem less unnaturally still. If it’s a calm day, use a small battery-powered fan or an aquarium pump. Shadows cast by a leafy bramble branch on top of the tank may also help.

© Mary-Lou Aitchison

5. Get the action

Have a go at filming the pondlife and see what results you get. Dragonfly nymphs, diving beetles, water boatmen, leeches, tadpoles and even newts and frogs will make for entertaining footage. Don’t forget to return your subjects to their native pond when you’ve finished.



Dipping net: Available from most pet shops, which will also supply a range of different-sized tanks.

Bamboo canes: Easy to obtain from most garden centres.

Tripod: Many professionals use Manfrotto, though Velbon makes cheaper models. Visit your local camera shop and talk to an expert. 

Black cloth: Thick black cloth is sold by theatre suppliers. You will also need crocodile clips and supports.


Look out for How to film birds singing...coming soon!


Find out more about the work of John Aitchison and follow him on Twitter @johnaitchison1


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