NEW SERIES How to Film Wildlife – part 1: Woodland

BBC cameraman John Aitchison shows you how to film wildlife in woodland, using just a hand-held camcorder. 

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How to film wildlife in woodland main spread

BBC cameraman John Aitchison shows you how to film wildlife in woodland, using just a hand-held camcorder. 

KEY WOODLAND SKILLS

 1. Plan ahead

First, get to know your location and subject. Remember, you’re looking for something more promising than a glimpse of a tail disappearing – perhaps a squirrel that’s unusually tame or a pile of husks it’s been opening on a stump.

These will offer the best opportunities for good footage.

 2. Be stealthy

Movement draws the eye, and in a wood it’s hard not to step on twigs. Make sure you are warm and comfortable, so you can sit still for hours at a time, and use natural cover to break up your shape. It’s surprising how close some animals will come.

Mammals have a keen sense of smell, so work out which way they usually approach and stay downwind. Luckily, there’s less wind in woods.

 3. Choose the right bait

I think putting down food is fine, but keep it natural. It’s better for the animals, and your shots will look more authentic if the squirrel’s cracking open a hazelnut rather than a peanut.

Better still, look for discarded husks or seedcases and collect some whole ones yourself, concentrating them where you’d like your squirrel to sit.

4. Leave the camera to it

If you can get a squirrel to feed in one spot, you can use one of my favourite techniques – leaving the camera to it (see below). Start a new tape and find somewhere solid to rest your camera.

Frame carefully and focus manually if you can, set it to record and retreat.

Don’t forget to note the time so you’ll know when the tape runs out. Camcorders score over broadcast cameras here, being small and non-threatening.

 

STEP-BY-STEP: HOW TO SET UP A REMOTE CAMERA

1. Put up a dummy

© Mary-Lou Aitchison

First, find a tree that a squirrel often climbs and scatter hazelnuts at its base. Then put up a dummy camera (here, two tins of corned beef taped together) in order to get your squirrel used to a strange object on its tree. This will save you time when you start filming.

 

2. Customise your camera

© Mary-Lou Aitchison

Once you’re confident the squirrel is taking your nuts on a regular basis, put up the real thing. My method is to make a hole in a strap and fix this to the camera with a 1/4in bolt that screws into the tripod fitting. Insert a piece of foam to cushion the camera against the tree. 

 

3. Fix it to the tree

© Mary-Lou Aitchison

Make sure you can get your arms around your chosen tree, and don’t overtighten the strap – you may damage your camera.

Think about whether you want the camera facing up or down – ie whether you want footage of squirrels ascending or descending the tree.

 

4. Set your camera

© Mary-Lou Aitchison

If the camera is pointing down, focus just above the ground and start recording. If nothing happens the first time, rewind and start again.

Try with the camera facing up the tree, too, to get another perspective – a variety of shots will edit into a more exciting sequence.

 

5. Review your footage

© Mary-Lou Aitchison

John Aitchison adds the final touches to his wild squirrel film set - a camcorder and a handful of hazelnuts

With luck, you will be rewarded with some close-up shots of natural squirrel behaviour that you couldn’t have got any other way.

Try filming other wildlife using a remote camera, such as roe deer, though they will prefer acorns or chestnuts to hazelnuts.  

 

ESSENTIAL EQUIPMENT 

Camera: For filming remotely, this needs to be small. You should be able to set focus and exposure manually.

Spare battery: For extending filming.

Strapping: Thule manufactures good load straps.

Bolts: Try short 1/4in bolts from shops selling Manfrotto tripods and hardware stores.

Hazelnuts

Tins: For dummy camera

Inflatable cushion: Useful if sitting still for a long time. 

 

Look out for how to film otters on rocky shores...coming soon 

 

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

 

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