Veteran marine wildlife cinematographer’s tips,
that might help achieve a success

TC_Gates-techtipWhen David at DSC asked me to do an article on some shooting tips for budding or experienced photographers and cinematographers, my first thought was to write up an accumulation of technical tips that might be helpful. But as I pondered what to compose, I reflected on my own career over the years and how I got where I am, all the while thinking, “I’m one of the least tech savvy guys who ever picked up a camera! Why not concentrate on things that helped me achieve a level of success in my field and maybe that will help someone who reads this?” The answer to that question was much more in line with using a lot of common sense and practical experience, as well as understanding both the equipment I use and the people I work with.
First, let me briefly explain what my field is: I’m a “marine wildlife cinematographer,” meaning I specialize in shooting in, around and under the world’s oceans. I started as a still photographer nearly 50 years ago then switched to cinematography full time about five years before the digital era came along and changed the world. At that time, I felt that the quality of videotape was getting closer to 16 mm film, which was my first motion camera. When the first large format HD camera came on the scene (the Sony 700A), I was quick to invest my last nickel into the system because I felt that HD would be the future. I’ve since moved through the Sony F900 series before switching to the RED and now EPIC digital cinema cameras. I’m still very busy with my profession and expect to stay that way as long as I can strap on my closed circuit rebreather (CCR) or a scuba tank to dive and film.

My profession has allowed me to travel much of the planet and dive in many of the world’s oceans. I’ve been fortunate to make enough money to do pretty much what I want to do and when. But my career has not been about making money so much as it has been about providing a service to those for whom I worked and protecting the ocean environment, which, in no small part, makes my career so rewarding.

So here are some points I recommend in order to succeed in getting work as a cinematographer or photographer in this highly competitive and ever-changing marketplace in which we live.

1. Specialize: I’ve received very few calls over the years asking me to do a job that was not related to my specialty – underwater. I enjoy shooting North American wildlife and even small things like insects, but that’s not what I’m known for and my phone does not ring for those requests.

Normally, any requests from a production company or individual originate from someone who wants to have the best shooter for their specific requirements. Consequently they seek out those who have a reputation for specializing and excelling in a particular skill. It’s very rare for someone who says, “I can shoot anything. I’m a jack-of-all-trades,” to get assignments from advertising companies or referrals in the industry. Specializing also allows you to gain an even greater level of expertise in what you like doing most. So I think that’s rule number one if you expect to build a long lasting career in this business.

Decide what you want to do and think you can excel at. Shoot for something that will interest you the most while making it challenging at the same time. But make reasonable goals. If I wanted to be an astronaut, there simply wouldn’t be enough years in my life to ever make that possible, so that wouldn’t be a reasonable goal for me. I do believe that most people could achieve their goals if they would simply set them.

2. Set goals: That’s a very important step but it has to be organized in a proper fashion. You need to put pieces in place in a timely manner. For example, you don’t start advertising yourself as an underwater shooter until you become an expert diver. I think most people have the ability to do whatever they would like to do, but often don’t set proper or realistic goals. They are like a giant sailing ship with the potential to travel anywhere in the world, except they lack a rudder by which to steer. They sail around, blown aimlessly in every direction, never getting anywhere and wondering why. The why is because they never put a rudder in the water to steer their course towards their goal. If you don’t know where you want to go, you’ll never get there! It’s that simple.

3. Learn the market: No matter what field you choose to enter as a still photographer, or cinematographer, there are certain simple but very important skills you’ll need to master in order to compete in the market place. Learning something about the competitive market of the production world is important.

4. Find a mentor: There are several ways of getting started, but certainly setting the objective or goal is a necessity. I think more often than not a mentor has something to do with these choices. Someone you respect or know personally who has impressed you and is already in the business might be able to provide you with guidance in getting to the starting point and beyond. I can’t tell you how often I hear from young people wanting to get into this business who write to me with letters stating, “I want to come work for you to learn everything I can from you so I can be a success and do what you do.” Their letters are all about “me, me, and me.” Nowhere in their letter is anything about what they can do for my business, or how they can help me as they learn from my experience. When you are sitting at the bargaining table always think about what the people across from you want to hear. They want to hear how you can be an asset to their business or their production.

5. Luck: I was somewhat lucky when back in the early 70’s I was hired on a BBC project as an underwater camera support person and guide to California’s Northern Channel Islands for a documentary they were shooting. I was a very experienced diver and knowledgeable about the best diving areas of the Channel Islands. I had been shooting video, but mostly stills, for several years but that didn’t really interest the BBC as they had their own experienced cameramen.
Tom-Campbell_Manta-TTAs luck would have it, at least for me, one of the cameramen had a bad cold and the other maxed out on bottom time on one of the days we were shooting. This was about the time we ran into some of the wildlife on their dream list. The next step was to ask Tom if he could shoot. Tom who? I was nobody! When asked if I thought I could shoot part of this sequence, of course I said yes. But I did have to confess I’d never shot that monster Betacam camera while dragging a huge battery pack behind it. I was so excited I could hardly stand it. Had I not had thousands of dives under my belt I’m sure I might have blown it. Once again as luck would have it, I got the shots they wanted and they were impressed with the results. Now I was somebody – small, but somebody. Eventually that led to another job and another addition to my resume. The rest, as they say, is history. There are many such stories of how, when and where we all got our start. If you’re not already one of them you could be someday if you continue with your goals.

Another point I’d like to make, especially in my field and others as well, is that it’s all been done! The sharks, whales, dolphins, schools of fish and everything else in our oceans as all been done by professionals, tourists and others with a camera handy. So why bother? The answer is simple, or maybe not so simple.

Think outside the box. For example, when I was starting out as an avid amateur still photographer I tried shooting several things one of my stock agencies requested. I’ve always loved old collector cars and sports cars. So while at one of my many appearances at a car show with my trusty Nikon camera I saw this incredible old Lamborghini. I asked the owner if he’d be interested in having some professional pictures taken of his beautiful car. He replied, “No thanks, I’ve taken lots pictures as have my friends.” Would he mind if I took photos of the car for myself? Of course he replied nicely, “no problem.” I asked him for a business card and thought, “how can I do this differently.” I shot several different angles with a wide 15 mm lens with some soft fill flash, some close-ups of mirrors, reflections and polarized clouds in the backdrop as negative space. Later, I sent him a sample at no charge with some small prints of the pictures I’d shot. And guess what? He bought several hundred dollars worth of prints from me. All I did was focus on what I thought someone else wouldn’t do as a rule. I follow that tactic even today with my cinematography when shooting something that’s been done many times before. In most situations I concentrate on animal behavior, getting things tack sharp, lighting and great negative space when possible. More often than not the negative space can make or break the picture and may be as important as the main focus of the sequence being shot.

I think it’s worth saying something about focus here because there is a distinct difference between being tack sharp and in focus. I call it the area of confusion. If you watch many of the reality shows on TV these days you might wonder about this practice because there are so many simple rules of shooting violated, such as bad focus, fire hosing, zooming, auto focus and just plain out of focus that I some times wonder who and why that someone is behind the camera, and what were they thinking. I simply couldn’t bring myself to do it and I doubt that anyone who’s even close to being a perfectionist could either.

Here’s a rather practical approach I learned from being in a Special Forces unit in the US Marine Corps. During 6 years of training with the First Force Reconnaissance Company I was sent to many schools for specialized training. One particular school was special weapons training, which many Marines go through. In order to be a top-notch shooter they teach you 3 simple rules to follow at the basic level.

The rules are: sight alignment, trigger squeeze and breathing. I’ve always applied all three of these techniques to shooting my camera systems and it works for me! I believe it gives you a slight edge over someone who doesn’t follow these simple rules.

# 1. Sight alignment. Analyze the scene carefully that you want to shoot as you see it in your view finder, like you would a target, then frame it accordingly.

# 2. Trigger squeeze. This is important for a steady shot which you want spot-on focus. If it’s a still camera squeeze the shutter slowly so it surprises you when you trip the shutter. That’s exactly what should happen when you fire a weapon. Just that slight difference in shutter control will make a difference.

If it ‘s a motion camera, especially one that’s hand held this will start the record phase off to a very steady shot as apposed to a slight movement that might otherwise be seen at the beginning of your shot.

#3. Breathing. If you take 3 or 4 deep breaths (hyperventilating) before starting the trigger squeeze, your heartbeat will slow down just a tad due to over oxygenation and elimination of excess CO2. If you were looking through a long-range riflescope or metal sights, you’d notice the cross hairs bumping off the bulls eye on the target with each heartbeat. So as your heart rate slows, you slowly squeeze the shutter, or push the record button and start your pan, tilt or reveal as it might be in between the heartbeats. Seems a bit precise but if you want that slight edge, that’s it.

In closing I’d like to give one more example of a necessity in producing top-notch documentaries while saving money at the same time. I used to hear the statement fairly often while shooting for different producers, “shoot everything and lots of it, it’s tape and it’s cheap.” The next statement often said was, “Don’t worry about proper white balance, we’ll fix that in post.” Those statements, as a rule, rarely originated from the person paying the bills. Because once you get to the edit suite and start paying to scrap all the wasted footage that has to be edited out, as well as spending time to do proper color correction, post gets very expensive. It doesn’t have to be that way.

In nearly every trip we did to the edit suite and for color correction for our productions we heard the same comments from the colorist: “There’s not much we need to do here as the colors are spot on.” So we’d work on some transition coloration between some scenes and move on, which saved hours of color correction and lots of the producer’s money.

How did we accomplish that? Simple. We always use a ChromaDuMonde chart in pretty much every scene shoot, whether it’s topside or an underwater shot. The chart gives us a 100 IRE, which is very accurate. The IRE is a direct relationship to the color saturation; the higher the IRE the truer the color saturation. If you consider any other source of white balance, you are paying the price of manufactured materials, which most generally give an IRE reading of around 88 to 89, as compared to a proper ChromaDuMonde chart. Even if you’re shooting RAW it is recommended that you use this chart for accuracy. We even bring a chart underwater with us to ensure proper color balance under water. The smaller splash chart is easy to carry while diving and provides the same accuracy as it’s larger brother. In lectures that I’ve given at many film festivals around the world, I’ve always recommended the use of these charts for precise accuracy.

We use the ChromaDuMonde chart with a Fiddlehead pattern on the backside. It’s an amazing piece of kit for getting the perfect tack sharp focus point of any lens in any situation. The old days of pulling a white balance off white walls, a white card or T-Shirts are pretty much history now, or left to amateurs.

Tom Campbell