I’m not a professional videographer. In fact, I take some issue with even referring to myself as an amatuer. I am a hobbyist, at best. If you’re like me, you enjoy the outdoors and may be searching for a way to preserve your memories, or share them with those close to you. In addition, you may have already found the value of videoing your outdoor endeavors for the information you are able to review later. I toyed around with the idea of videoing my hunts for a couple years but I always assumed that it would cost me opportunities at deer. I finally convinced myself to give it a try and once I started I found a new area addiction within my broader Whitetail passion, and I was happy to find that filming doesn’t have to cost you a chance at a deer unless you let it. Furthermore, having the proper equipment can go a long way toward successfully capturing a memory that will last a lifetime.
A lot of Youtube videos show a particular hunter’s camera set up, or how they pack their gear into the field. I may demonstrate this at some point, but I think it is important to talk about the basics: What is the necessary gear and specs for the self filmer and how I arrived at the equipment choices I have made.
The most important component in any set-up is the camera you choose. The quality footage produced by popular hunting shows is, by and large, attributable to the quality (and expensive) camera equipment they employ. That being said, don’t get discouraged. To start, I am going to break out a list of the important features for a self filmer to consider when selecting a camera. In the section following, I will go through different camera types and highlight the pros and cons of each to make it easier to determine what camera is right for your situation and budget.
Important Features for Self Filming Cameras:
- Manual Focus Option
- Zoom Capability
- External Mic Port- Shotgun Mics/Wireless Lapel Mics
- LANC Remote Port
Cameras: The DSLR Option
Shows like Heartland Bowhunter utilize DSLR cameras for much of their footage and while the DSLR’s that they use run a price tag of a couple grand, a great quality high end consumer grade camera can do wonders. Models like a Cannon Rebel T5i can be picked up in bundles with extra lenses, memory cards, batteries, filters, etc. for around $800.
DSLR Cameras provide the option of interchanging lenses for different situations. Lenses vary in cost and zoom capability.
DSLR cameras can provide crystal clear video footage and have many customizable settings for varying light conditions. The biggest consideration with a DSLR is the glass your shooting through. A high quality lens is a must, and you are going to need to consider the zoom capacity. A higher zoom will restrict the light that is gathered by the lens, making certain DSLR lenses less than optimal for low light situations. The cost of good glass can be much more than the cost of the camera base itself. Lenses offering a wide range of zoom, such as a 28mm-300mm lens can carry salty price tags and switching lenses from a high powered zoom lens to a wider aperture lens is unrealistic when a shooter buck is approaching.
Furthermore, a DSLR’s zoom function is operated by manually rotating the lens, which can be a challenge for a self filmer. One of the great features of a DSLR for bowhunting is the optional Manual Focus, which is adjusted by the focus ring on the front of the lens. Admittedly this can also create a challenge for the self filmer.
High end consumer grade DSLR cameras can produce great video quality at an affordable price. They also give the user the option to take stunning still imagery during slow times in the treestand.
DSLR cameras like the Canon Rebel T5i have the capability for the operator to employ the use of an external microphone. One of the downsides of a DSLR camera is that the built in mic is good, but not great. If you are looking for high quality sound, you will need to consider using an external mic of some sort. The important thing to check for when purchasing a DSLR is a mic port. Be sure you verify this before purchase. Sometimes it can be confusing as to whether or not the camera you are selecting has this option. For example, a Canon Rebel T5 does not have a mic port but a Canon Rebel T5i does. The T5i is going to be a bit more expensive but there are enough features you gain by stepping up to this model to justify the price increase.
The downside of using a DSLR to self film is that they can not be used with a LANC Remote. A LANC Remote is a remote control that typically attaches to the arm of a fluid head. This remote puts the controls for camera Power, Record, Zoom, and Focus all at your fingertips. This eliminates a high percentage of the movement otherwise associated with zooming in and out or focusing the camera. A LANC remote is a valuable addition to a self filming camera setup and the fact that you cannot use a DSLR camera in conjunction with them is a definite downside. Another negative about a DSLR is that they are less compact than many camcorders. Their zoom capability, as mentioned, is limited to the lens you use with the camera, and this must be operated by turning the lens, as does the manual focus option. Another important consideration is that DSLR cameras are not sold as video cameras and therefore they have recording limitations. They may only record for 15 minute intervals before you must manually press record again. If you start recording when a mature buck is approaching, your DSLR could presumably reach its maximum video length and stop recording. If you fail to check on this, you might miss capturing the moment of truth on video. It may not be a deal breaker when considering a DSLR, but it requires the hunter to keep one more thing in mind when trying to focus on the shot of a lifetime. These limitations can lead to increased movement in the stand as well as making it more challenging to line up the deer to capture a shot on film.
- Great Picture Quality
- Manual Focus Option
- Interchangeable lenses for different situations
- Customizable scene options, white balance, etc.
- Takes still pictures and video
- External Mic Port
- No LANC remote compatibility
- Zoom and manual focus must be controlled from front of camera (lens)
- Additional glass is expensive (lenses)
- Bulkier and heavier than camcorders
- Recording length is limited
Cameras: The “HandyCam” Option
It doesn’t matter what brand of consumer grade camcorders you look at, there are going to be an overwhelming number of options and features available. It can be difficult to discern what is necessary and what is fluff. I choose to refer to my own list, included at the top of this blog, to keep myself on track.
This Samsung handheld camcorder is a great option for the beginning self-filmer, however, it is important to consider the limitations of these types of cameras when using them to film your hunt.
The problem with many consumer grade “handycam” models is that they are geared toward a consumer who wants to video their child in sports, or take vacation footage, etc. Most people purchasing these cameras run them on Auto and never look back. They have little need for manual focus options, so it is not often an included feature. Consumer grade camcorders are constantly improving picture quality and most have HD options which provide good picture quality. The problem is that in a woods environment, sticks and leaves are almost almost between you and the subject (deer) you are trying to video. Often this creates a focus problem as the camera focuses on the closer leaves and the deer becomes a blurry blob in the background. Trying to get the deer into focus by moving the camera in order to video around the leaves, instead of preparing for a shot, can create a problem in situations that develop quickly; as they often do during the rut. I have missed out on good footage more than a time or two because I could not get an autofocus camera to focus on the deer due to the obstructions between us.
Consumer grade camcorders are easy to use right out of the box and they are relatively inexpensive. In most cases you can find a “handycam” type camcorder for around $400 that will have at least a few bells and whistles. They are also compact and light to carry. Keep in mind, though, that many consumer grade cameras don’t even have a eyepiece, making it necessary to film using the flip out LCD screen. Sometimes this small screen is hard to see in the glare of sunlight, or the deer is so small in the screen you are unable to tell if it is in the field of view or not. Some of these challenges you will face when using any video camera, however, higher end consumer cameras may have larger screens, or the option of using an eyepiece to video. Most low to medium grade consumer camcorders do not have LANC remote or external mic options. You can expect to find a few of the higher-end models to have the capability to use an external mic, however, I have found that it is far less common to find one with a LANC port. The built in microphone that these cameras use is not often very good and provides what I refer to as a “tin can” sound, leaving the end video production less than desireable from an audio standpoint. Finding a “handycam” camcorder with LANC port, mic port and a manual focus option proved to be impossible, at least for me, and I proceeded to look beyond this type of camera to meet my camera requirements.
- Cost- cheaper than DSLR and Professional Grade Camcorders
- Compact- Light and easy to carry
- Ease of Use
- Zoom capability
- Auto Focus (No Manual Focus option on MOST models)
- Compatibility with external mic (many models do not have Mic Port)
- Compatibility with LANC remote (even less common to find model with LANC port)
- Low quality built in Mic
- Less customizable settings
Cameras: The Professional Camcorder Option
A professional camcorder can provide you with a lot of options when filming wildlife. The downside? You are going to pay for these options. Expect to drop as much as a couple grand or more to go this route. Professional grade camcorders may have an accessory rail containing a proprietary hot shoe as well as a standard accessory shoe. Lights, shotgun mics, lapel mic receivers and other camera components can be attached to the camera in this way. If you plan on using a shotgun mic, it is almost a necessity to have an accessory shoe. Most cameras with a mic port will have a shoe, but be careful, some consumer grade cameras may have a shoe that only fits their own proprietary accessories. You shouldn’t run into this problem with a professional grade camera, but you should still consider how you will attach your external mic and other accessories so that the functionality of your camera set up is user friendly while in the stand. Depending on the location of the accessory shoe on the camera you choose, you may find that you need to buy an additional mic mount to position a shotgun mic so that the Dead Cat wind muff is not visible in the top of your cameras field of view.
One thing you need to research when looking into a professional grade camera is the camera’s zoom capability. For example, a Canon XA20 has a 20X zoom whereas the cheaper XA10 has a 10X zoom while still containing most of the other options available on the XA20. A 20X zoom, in my opinion, is a must in the woods. It is surprising, how quickly a 20X zoom can be maxed-out while filming wildlife. A 10X zoom is very limiting in the field and animals that are further away than 100 yards, or so, are going to appear very small in your video because you cannot zoom in close enough. Some people try to tweak this in post production editing, but in so doing, they sacrifice image quality and have a less desirable final production. If you are looking to save some dollars, but still want the audio options (multiple XLR ports, etc.), LANC remote port, and manual focus option of a professional grade camera, you might consider a camera with a 10X zoom; just be aware of the cameras limitations if you are hunting in an observation stand where you have long range visibility.
A downside of a professional camcorder is their size. Many models are bulky and some can weigh several pounds. Weight is an important consideration if you hunt remote areas. It is also necessary to consider what the weight capacity of your camera arm is. Higher end professional cameras may require more substantial camera arm models which are more expensive and themselves heavier, adding even more weight to your pack. A popular way around this problem is to go with smaller professional grade cameras like the aforementioned Canon XA20. Sony also makes smaller models that are popular with serious self filmers. For hunters who have the luxury of a filming partner, camera weight may not be an issue, as they are able to disperse equipment across two packs, thus opening up more options when selecting a professional grade camera.
Professional Grade Camcorder Pros:
- Multiple Mic Ports
- Crystal Clear, high quality video
- LANC Remote compatibility
- More Customizable Settings
- Manual focus option
- Multiple memory card slots for higher capacity recording
Professional Grade Camcorder Cons:
- Size and weight (select models)
If you are like me, a hobbyist hunter-videographer wanting to produce something with more quality than a home movie, but the expense of professional grade cameras exclude them from consideration, you may look at the all of the above information and become jaded about the camera options available for self filming your hunting adventures. The good new is that, for the vast majority of amateur videographers, there is a happy medium between the “handycam” type camcorder and professional grade models. Enter, the high end consumer grade camcorder.
Cameras: High End Consumer Grade Camcorders
High end consumer grade cameras like this Canon Vixia HF G30, shown here with an Azden Shotgun Mic with a dead cat wind muff, offer many of the same features as Professional grade camcorders at a significantly lower price. External mic port, LANC Remote port, Manual Focus Option, and a 20X zoom at half the price of a professional camera help the Vixia meet all five requirements for the serious self-filming enthusiast.
Many manufacturers produce what I’ll refer to as high end consumer grade camcorders. These cameras sit at the top of the consumer line up and provide many of the features one may find on a professional grade camcorder. Most of these models will come with a mic port, although it usually will not be an XLR port. Many will also be compatible with a LANC remote which is an invaluable feature and nearly a necessity in my opinion. Lastly, manual focus options are common with these high end consumer camcorders. Most of these cameras have a camera body and LCD screen that is slightly larger than basic handycam-type models, but not as bulky as some professional grade cameras, making them easier to pack and transport. Additionally, there are zoom options of 20X available with certain models. The Canon Vixia HF G30 is a good example of a high end consumer grade camera that provides many of the features of a professional camera for about a grand less out of your pocket. Because it is relatively compact, it is compatible with the same light-duty camera arms you would employ with a handycam-type camcorder. The G30 is similar to the previous models of the G10 and G20 except that Canon bumped the zoom capability to 20X when it introduced the G30 model. You will find the G30 will run approximately $500 more than the G20, however, I feel that zoom capability was not something I could sacrifice and ultimately decided on the Canon Vixia HF G30. Other models in the Vixia line may provide manual focus, 20X zoom, or external mic ports, but I was unable to find another model which included all these features and a LANC port. After spending time in the treestand trying to pan and zoom at the same time, without a LANC remote, I quickly realized the value of this feature. All these reasons led me to the Canon Vixia HF G30 Camcorder. A camcorder that provided the best of both worlds.
High end consumer grade camcorder pros:
- Professional grade features
- Customizable settings
- Two memory card slots for high capacity recording
- Excellent, clear HD video
- LANC Port
- External Mic Port
- Manual Focus Option
- Lighter weight and more compact than Professional Camcorders
- Larger LCD screen than handycam style camcorders
- Significantly cheaper than Professional Grade Camcorders
High end consumer grade camcorder cons:
- More expensive than handycam camcorders
- Usually do not have XLR mic port
Now that you have selected a camera based your needs and your budget it is time to determine what accessories you will use in conjunction with it. For the purpose of this blog, I am going to write with the assumption that the camera selected is a high end consumer grade camera with LANC and Mic ports. If you have selected a camera without these features, some of the below information will still help you in the selection of camera arms and fluid heads.
Accessories: LANC remote
The Varizoom StealthZoom LANC remote, shown here in conjunction with a Vanguard PH 111V Fluid Head, is an economical option for the self filmer who has selected a camcorder with LANC Remote compatability. This Varizoom offers Power, Record, Zoom and Focus features.
It can be confusing trying to decide which LANC remote to purchase. Manfrotto offers a fluid head pan arm that has a LANC remote built into it. This is certainly an option, and Manfrotto is a quality brand, however it is pricey and a little bulky. I chose to go the cheaper route, and one that I think fits the needs of better than 90% of self filmers out there. The Varizoom StealthZoom is a more economical option and has a universal mount that fits just about any fluid head pan arm. There are some other Varizoom models that have additional features, but the StealthZoom has everything a hunter needs. I can turn the camcorder on and off, start and stop recording, zoom in and out, and focus (when the camera is set on manual) all by the slight movement of my thumb on the LANC remote. This significantly reduces movement and also decreases camera shake and “choppy” panning/zooming. The StealthZoom simply plugs into your camera’s LANC port and you are ready to go. Its that easy.
Accessories: Fluid Head
If you plan to use a tripod or tree arm you are going to need a fluid head to attach your camera to either of these devices. Some low end tripods or tree arms have built in, plastic fluid heads. These are ok for a starter, but don’t expect them to pan smoothly or be silent. Sometimes noise from a cheap plastic fluid head can be picked up on your video, especially if you aren’t using an external mic. Many of the hunting TV shows are using fluid heads that have price tags in the hundreds of dollars range, or more. Unless you are a professional videographer, or loaded, this is not necessary for the self filmer. I again contemplated Manfrotto for my fluid head choice, but upon conducting a little more research I settled on a less expensive option that is well made, silent to operate and has a great feel at an affordable price. The Vanguard PH 111V is a great fluid head available for well under $100. If you want to spend a few extra bucks, investing in a slightly longer pan arm may be a worthwhile upgrade to this fluid head, but other than that I have found that the Vanguard fluid head to be smooth, user friendly and possessing a feel of quality construction. My VariZoom LANC fits nicely on the pan arm for one handed operation of all camera functions.
Accessories: External Microphones
There are so many options in external microphones I feel that it probably warrants a blog of its own. And, admittedly, I am not the person to write the blog because so much of it I don’t fully understand. I know what sounds good to me and I investigated sound samples of different mics before choosing a shotgun mic and a wireless lapel mic. My initial findings revealed that Sennheiser wireless lapel mics are an extremely good option. I was worried about which frequency range to select and possible interference but upon further research I determined that in less urban areas the chance of interference is slim. I received other information that advised me to stay away from higher frequency ranges when purchasing wireless lapel mics because there is talk of the government restricting use of these wavelengths. I can’t speak to the accuracy of that anymore than to say this is what I was told so I began to research other options. What I settled on, for my purposes,
This Azden Wireless lapel mic is an economical option for a starting self filmer who wants superior sound quality in their videos. These mics are reliable and extremely easy to use.
was a lapel mic that provides two channel options, F1 or F2. Its incredibly simple and easy to use and I have never had a problem with interference and the sound quality is more than adequate. The wireless lapel mic I employ is a Azden and it was a fraction of the cost of a Sennheiser system. Likewise the Azden DSLR shotgun mic I use is compatible with my Vixia camcorder. I found that Rode shotgun mics are popular with many self filmers and professionals in the hunting industry. However, I found the Azden DSLR Shotgun mic for a great deal and decided that I would go with it after I was so satisfied with the Azden lapel mic. The Azden shotgun mic was also significantly cheaper than most of the Rode mics I found. Typically, the longer the shotgun mic the more it will pick up. Some shotgun mics have an omnidirectional feature which can be of benefit if you are speaking from behind the camera while filming. It is important to note that the Azden shotgun mic I use does not have as good of sound quality as the lapel mic, and I believe that unless you are going to spend a hefty sum for a shotgun mic you will find this to be true more often than not. The reason why I will use the shotgun mic is because, when I am self filming, I will more than likely be using only the Vixia and I will want to get the sounds of the deer walking, grunting, snorting, etc. as well as my own voice after the shot. A shotgun mic does all of this. If I was filming another hunter I would have a wireless lapel mic on the DSLR while I filmed with the Vixia as well. I would utilize both cameras for multiple shot angles, B-roll footage, etc. but that is not practical when hunting by one’s self. Azden does offer a receiver which allows you to plug in both a shotgun mic as well as a lapel mic before it routes it to the camera and this might be an option in the future if I want to invest more into my audio setup. Also be aware that winds in excess of approximately 8-9 MPH will cause unwanted noise in your video footage. It is important that during those windy days in the stand you cover your shotgun or lapel mic with a Dead Cat. These are cheap add-ons that can be found at any camera store or online for a few dollars.
Equipment: Camera Arm
There are more camera arms today than there have ever been. Choosing which one is right for your setup is something that takes some careful consideration. First, you need to be aware of the weight limitations for your tree arm. Make sure it is rated at a high enough limit to account for your camera, fluid head, microphones and any other gear or accessories you may hang from it. Another important consideration is the tree attachment mechanism. Some low end camera arms utilize a tree lag, which may not be legal on public
This basic camera arm utilizes a tree lag which is not legal on public ground in many states. It also comes with a built in plastic fluid head.
land. A leveling system is also a necessity. A tree arm that is out of level will have a tendency to swing and move on its own, making it hard to set the camera on a shooting lane for a shot. Because most, if not all, trees are not perfectly plumb, some kind of leveling system is a must. Another consideration is the length of the camera arm. Some people gravitate toward Third Arm brand camera arms because they offer a three piece arm that allows the shooter to wrap the camera arm around themselves in order to more easily video shots behind them. Other arms may have two sections and vary in length. Consider that the longer the arm, the more metal used to manufacture it and the heavier it will be. Furthermore, you should consider how easily you are able to pack the tree arm into the woods. Longer arms have a tendency to stick out past a treestand or backpack and get caught on brush or low branches as you walk to your hunting location. The Hunting Beast camera arm features three shorter sections and a unique pistol grip fluid head that is designed for the solo hunter and is more “packable” than some other models. The attachment base is leveled with a screw lag you can turn by hand. Third Arm and Lone Wolf use their own attachment system that is somewhat similar to the Hunting Beast arm while Muddy offers a unique leveling base that fully adjusts after you get the tree arm based secured to the tree. The Muddy base is heavier than some of its competitors, but the leveling feature is, in my opinion, more intuitive.
The Muddy Camera Arm Base attaches to the tree with a silent cam buckle strap and levels using the cylinder to the center of the base. Lateral adjustment is done by loosening the clamps on the front plate of the base.
The Muddy Outfitter Camera Arm is the arm I use and I chose it for several reasons. First, the Outfitter arm can hold far more weight (10 lbs) than my camcorder or my DSLR. I could actually put both cameras on the arm and it could handle it, (provided I bought an attachment to do so). I chose this Muddy Arm because I felt it provided the best value for the price in the Muddy line up. It is not as big as some of their other higher end camera arms, but I sacrificed some arm extension for a lighter, more compact option to carry to my stand. Still, I wish the arm was even lighter, and some Third Arm models do weigh less. Most of the weight with the Muddy system comes from the substantial base; and one of the things I liked about the Muddy arm was the functionality and adjustment in its base. Therefore, I decided that at 4.5 lbs, I would pack the Outfitter arm to my stands and try to eliminate pack weight in other areas to make up for the difference.
The Muddy Outfitter Camera Arm and Base weighs 4.5 lbs and supports cameras up to 10 lbs. It is equipped with a leveling system for use on crooked trees. Notice this camera arm and base has been wrapped in hockey tape to eliminate metal on metal clanking in the field.
Don’t let this list, or all the other information available, overwhelm you if you are considering self filming your hunts. The most important thing is to get out and give it a try. Even if you start out with the equipment you have now, or buy a handycam to begin filming, you will find it can be a rewarding and thrilling experience. You may want to step into self filming cautiously, to see if you like it before committing to more expensive gear and additional purchases. One of the great things about filming is how it changes your attitude about your time in the stand. When a small buck comes by, you are able to enjoy “shooting” him with the camera and capturing his behaviors with your lens. If you are like me, you may find yourself feeling excited to get pre-rut chasing on camera, a buck making a scrape, a fox at daybreak, or a grouse drumming. Each new thing you capture is another success in the field and makes the days that you leave the woods with an unfilled tag still feel like an incredibly rewarding experience and successful endeavor. I have gained a much deeper appreciation for the nature I observe and the deer I pursue during the Fall because I am able to relive the magic of it all through my video footage.
Do you plan on trying to film your hunts this year? Leave a comment below or let me know your thoughts by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org