I have just got back from my biggest filming adventure ever! I was shooting the ultra marathon race in one of the most remote parts of the USA – the Chihuahuan Desert. I want to share this valuable experience, lessons I learned, as well as useful tips and tricks for filming on the go.
You might think:
But I just want to make my family video from a trip, I am not going to shoot a professional documentary in the desert.
Don’t worry, I have a lot for you too. My tips might save you from a headache even if you plan just a family trip.
Maybe you want to shoot your vacation for several days but don’t want to bring a big laptop to backup your footage or make quick edits for your social media. How would you charge all your devices on the go? Do you want your shots nicely stabilized and cinematic even without expensive gear?
Some of these tips might serve also as gift ideas for upcoming Black Friday and Christmas.
Filming in Extreme Conditions
Before I get to the tips for casual family video maker, I want to outline what my filming experience was about.
Chihuahuan Desert is a huge and remote wilderness in the west Texas. It’s not just an arid wasteland but the beautiful diverse environment. Rocky mountains, canyons, rivers with plenty of wildlife, including rattlesnakes, tarantulas or even black bears and mountain lions, and various kinds of cacti. Everything here bites, scratches and pricks which makes it extremely difficult to run around with a ton of filming gear.
This place is very remote and accessible only on bumpy dirt roads. Far from any people and cities, it allows to observe and photograph beautiful night skies full of stars. It was just me and a few coyotes making noise in the distance and I was taking photos like this one, with Milky Way and thousands of stars. This was just amazing!
Well, I have to admit – it was freezing cold and windy during these nights! And then completely opposite in the middle of the day when we were struggling in the heat. Temperatures varied from 30 F during the night to 90 F during the day.
It’s just mind-blowing! I am glad I had an opportunity to film this event. Here is a short video made before the event showing my concerns during the preparation phase.
I was the only person filming this event which was very challenging.
I was up before 6 AM and then filming the whole day with multiple cameras and the drone. After each day, I did a 2-hour procedure of a proper backup to multiple storage devices and charging all the batteries to get ready for the next day. I often fell no earlier than at 10 PM onto my sleeping mattress in our tent. When I was making the night photography it was much later.
The last stage of the race was 90k run and most of the racers were running 24 hours. Runners and team members, we were all exhausted… At night, I went to the tent to sleep couple minutes. Immediately when I heard someone screaming: “Runnneeeers!” I jumped out off my sleeping bag into the freezing cold night and ran with the heavy gear to the finish line to make a shot.
Once, I got a little late notice and I literally ran a race with our runners. I saw their headlamps in the dark coming closer to the finish line, while I ran from the other side, trying to be there first to capture them. At the end, I made it in time, but it was difficult to hold my camera rock solid steady when still catching the breath 🙂
This experience was challenging but I learned a lot during this filming and I want to share it with you.
Think Before You Go
It doesn’t matter whether you go to film the event like I did or a trip with your family. It always pays off to think about every aspect before you actually go. Being well prepared moves your video to the next level.
Don’t Shoot Random Stuff
Think about the most important thing – your story. Random shots from vacation don’t create a story. But heroes going through some interesting experience are the cornerstone of your story. To build it up, try to answer these questions:
- Who are the heroes?
- How will you introduce them to the audience?
- How their story starts and where it is?
- What are the struggles on the way?
- How will it end up?
Maybe you don’t know the exact answers right now but it is good to have some scenarios in your head and then film according to that.
Before I went to film the Trans-Pecos Ultra race, I made a detailed shot list and wrote down the questions I wanted to ask my heroes:
- introduction of the locations and the heroes – preparation phase, landscape shots, wildlife, camp
- interviews (very important part of the story!) – what questions to ask and whom (different questions for racers, race director, medics and other team members)
- dramatic shots – really hard to plan, but at least I tried to be at the location of expected struggles
- shots from the finish line and event after the race, emotions of the racers and team members, overall conclusions
My list was actually much more detailed than this but you get the idea. This helped me to keep myself on track. I knew all the time which shots are done and which are still missing.
For a casual video making, you don’t have to have such detailed list but you should know what to shoot before you go.
Disclosure: some of the links here (like this one above) are affiliate links. Which means I will earn a tiny commission if you make a purchase through this link. However, I never recommend stuff only because of the commission. I always let you know if I there is something I don’t like about the product.
What Equipment to Take With You
This will vary depending on what you shoot and how much space you have while traveling.
Don’t take everything just because you have it. Too much stuff might cost you the best shot. For example, you might be choosing the right lens for too long while an interesting action is already gone. I took three lenses for the race filming and actually used only two of them. Taking the shot was always more important than changing the lenses.
Think also about your activity during filming. Do you have to carry your gear all the time? I held myself within one tight restriction – to fit everything in one big camera backpack. I hiked in rough terrain several miles, in the desert heat. It was hard even with one backpack (heavy though) and a big tripod in my hand. I am glad I didn’t take more stuff.
I recommend to make a list of equipment you might need. Prepare only a gear which you have tried before. Never take your brand new piece to a once-in-a-lifetime event right after it arrived from Amazon. You don’t want to spend your amazing vacation screaming:
Where the hell is the manual for this thing?
Always practice at least couple days with new gear before filming of important event.
How to Charge in the Middle of Nowhere
No power, no filming. Simple. That’s why it is so important to plan ahead.
Maybe this is not an issue if you go on one day trip. But multiple day event might be tricky. Think how long does it take to deplete one battery and then how long will you have no charging options. Carefully calculate how many spare batteries will you need for the whole trip and have more for unexpected events.
I couldn’t take enough spare batteries due to many filming days, many devices and limited space. I spent one week in the middle of the desert, with extreme power demand. I had to charge 5 different devices all the time:
- batteries for my 3 cameras
- drone batteries and remote controller
- smartphone – not for calling but for operating a drone
- laptop and small portable computer – both for backup only
Even though organizer of the event provided a limited charging option in the evening, it wasn’t enough for all my stuff. But it was critical for the filming of this race.
This gas-free portable generator Goal Zero Yeti 150 saved me already couple times. Not only at this event, but we take it on every family trip where car charger isn’t sufficient.
At first, I recharge the generator at home and then it charges my devices on the go – my laptop (2x) or my smartphone (15x) or our kids’ tablets or any of my camera and drone batteries. Goal Zero Yeti 150 can charge multiple devices at once too.
At the race filming, I took it with me every day on shooting locations and charged my batteries constantly during the day. This helped me save some time because I wouldn’t be able to charge all my stuff only in the evening. However, this generator is heavy – don’t expect you can easily hike with it. If so, you will definitely feel it!
You can recharge the generator in regular electric outlets, car chargers but also with these portable solar panels Goal Zero Nomad 20. These panels might be even clipped to the backpack and charge the generator during a hike. However, the charging works best if the panels are inclined at the right angle to the sunlight. Rather place them in a static position, supported by some object to achieve the desired angle.
This way you can survive multiple days filming in the wilderness completely without regular charging options. I love it!
The easiest and cheapest way how to store your footage is to keep it on memory cards. In case of multiple-day extraordinary filming, it might be quite difficult to correctly estimate the sufficient amount of spare memory cards.
But I had more reasons to use some backup alternatives:
- I needed to create multiple copies of the footage and keep them at several places, in case something bad happens with it.
- I planned to quickly edit some of my photos or videos and eventually share them on social media during my trip
I supposed that my laptop and memory cards don’t have enough space to store all the data. That’s why I took also two external 5TB hard drives which served as my two main backups for all the footage and photos.
I created these two backups EVERY single day because, in case of an accident, I would lose only one day of filming. Downloading data from all cameras to Gnarbox and then copying files to two external disks sometimes took more than 2 hours. Annoying, but better safe than sorry.
Using a laptop to backup bothered me. Why? Well, I was in the harsh wilderness. It was either too hot or too cold, windy, dusty and bright screen of my laptop dazzled other people around our campfire. I discovered a little trick how to backup without the laptop.
Gnarbox is a little black box which can read memory cards from my cameras and copy the data to its own storage space (128 GB or 256 GB). Then I connected my external hard drive to Gnarbox and copied the files from the computer to make an additional backup on the external disk.
The greatest advantage came when I didn’t have an option to use my laptop, for example, on a shoot location. But I easily made the backup to Gnarbox during the day and saved valuable time. Then I didn’t have to sit till late night to make a long-lasting backup of all the data.
Gnarbox doesn’t have its own display and is operated wirelessly using a smartphone. Once I entered the command, I put the display on my lap so it didn’t disturb like my big bright laptop screen.
Here is one thing I didn’t like while copying my files to the external disk. When I tapped the smartphone to start copying, nothing happened for several seconds. I wasn’t sure if it just didn’t recognize my tapping or it was already doing something. When I thought it was not performing the task, I tapped again. But it was already copying the files – it showed the message several seconds later! However, this repeated action confused the Gnarbox. It gave me several error messages 30 minutes later when the copying was done. I was confused if all the files are copied properly or not.
Another disadvantage is missing status bar when performing long-lasting tasks. When I started copying my files, I had no idea if it will be done in an hour or two. There is only a simple message that files are being copied. I would appreciate at least the information about how many files were already copied and how many still remain. UPDATE: it has status bar, I just couldn’t find it 🙂 More info below.
Gnarbox is made by US start-up small company and so far they do frequent updates according to customers needs. I hope they will add these features in the future too.
Preview And Editing With Gnarbox
What I love about Gnarbox is that it is not only smart backup hard drive. This small computer also allowed me to preview and even edit my photos and videos while I was sitting on the rock ridge. No, I wouldn’t climb up there with my laptop 🙂
Gnarbox has internal application for basic editing like adjusting exposure, contrast, colors etc. It is sufficient for overall adjustments changing the whole photo. But if I needed to edit locally only parts of my image, I had to copy the file to my smartphone storage space first and then edit in a different program. I use Adobe Lightroom app (they offer 20% discount till Black Friday).
Playback of some video files on Gnarbox wasn’t as smooth. My 4k footage from a drone was choppy (first attempt) which bothered me a lot. The second attempt to playback was better though. My cheap smartphone might be also the cause of the choppy playback.
Editing video on Gnarbox almost made me crazy. I tried to do a 20 seconds video consisted of 5 short cuts. It took me almost an hour to go through the footage, make edits, add music and export the final short video. The response of the app was so slow that I had a hard time to make precise cuts. The slow workflow might be caused by the fact that I was editing 4k video and used my cheap smartphone. I added music to the video by choosing from the files I had in my Gnarbox. But why there is no fade in / out effect? The video was shorter than the song so the music suddenly stopped in the middle. Isn’t it weird?
Anyway, this is the way how to do short edits if there is no other option. But if I could edit the video on my laptop, I would definitely prefer it!
UPDATE [11/29/2017]: a representative from Gnarbox actually clarified a few things:
Definitely be sure to check out our Task Manager and Adobe Lightroom Mobile CC integration (iOS 11) as that may help answer some of the missing elements you were looking for! The Task Manager provides you with an updated status bar so that you know how long your transfer will take. And our new Adobe Lightroom Mobile CC integration allows you to directly import photos to the Adobe software without needing to transfer files to your phone.
We are always open to feedback to be sure to email us if you have any questions or feedback!
Make It Look More Professional
A natural thing most people do when filming heroes during activity is following them with the camera. I don’t recommend to do that!
When I look at my old videos where I followed my kids with a handheld camera, I can immediately tell that the video is filmed by an amateur. Why? Because the whole video is shaky. The viewer might be confused what is happening. In addition, it is uncomfortable to watch shaky video for a longer time.
You might remind that you saw unstable shots even in Hollywood movies. It is fine to include an occasional wobbly shot to induce chaotic atmosphere. But it is hard to make a high-quality video if all the shots are shaky.
How to avoid this? Do the static shots whenever possible. Carefully prepare the camera and let the heroes come into the frame if they are moving.
For the race filming, I placed my camera on a tripod which allowed me to film static shots as well as smooth panning shots (great for moving objects).
When choosing a tripod, think about how heavy and durable it should be. I needed to walk with it so I would prefer lightweight tripod but at the end, I took the heavier one. I was going to film in windy conditions, on rough rocks, with people running around. My tripod with the camera could be potentially flipped over anytime. That’s why I chose the heavier and more durable tripod.
If you don’t have a budget or don’t want to bother with additional gear, don’t worry. Be creative and use the objects around you. Place the camera on a rock (carefully though), on your car, on the chair or anywhere else. If there is no object around, handheld the camera and focus to stay rock solid while doing the shot.
Later, you might also try to stabilize the shot in post-processing. More advanced programs like Adobe Premiere Pro allow to do that – look for warp stabilizer effect. Be aware that you cannot fix a major shakiness in any program.
Sometimes we want that attractive camera movement. We might want to follow the hero while he is moving.
I needed close-up shots of the runner’s face to capture his or her emotions during the run. It is almost impossible to run with a handheld camera and make the shot nice and stable. The solution is an external stabilizer. In these days, you can choose from plenty of gear which I would divide into two main groups:
- motorized gimbals
- mechanical steadicams
Gimbals are super expensive – they can cost more than your camera (hundreds of dollars for small cameras and smartphones, hundreds to thousands for bigger DSLRs). Gimbals are fragile and shouldn’t be handled roughly. That’s why they are usually carried in large hard-shell cases. With fragility comes also the bigger chance of malfunction. In addition, these devices need to be charged. What? Additional spare batteries and charging headache? No, thank you!
I found appropriate gear in the second group and it was surprisingly cheap. My steadicam Imorden S-60c costs under $100! It seems perfect, right? OK, it’s time to reveal the cons. These mechanical steadicams require a certain skill to prepare them and then use to make a perfect shot. When it came from Amazon, I spent almost two hours before I figured out how to properly balance the device. My husband said right away:
What the hell? Look how wobbly it is… It is broken!
No, it wasn’t. We were just inexperienced newbies 🙂 Before you can start to use the steadicam you must learn how to balance it. You need to figure out:
- how much weight to put at the bottom
- how to adjust the height of the steadicam
- how much to the left / right and forward / backward to move the upper part where the camera sits
Seems complicated? At first yes, but once you do it you will always know how. Any other attempt will be pretty similar. Now, I am able to balance my gear in two minutes, ready to roll.
Another skill you need to gain is making a perfect shot with the steadicam. The gear is turning around and moving to the directions where you don’t want it. The key is a firm hold with one hand on the handle and only very light adjustment of the direction by the other hand if necessary.
If you don’t understand what the hell I am talking about, don’t worry, you will figure it out during your practice. It takes a few days to master it but then that feeling… When I am watching moving shots I made with steadicam during filming the race, they look so… Professional! I would never be able to film them with a handheld camera only.
I have to mention one more thing – prepare your muscles, seriously! I remember one situation during the race. It was very important shot but the critical moment lasted almost 30 minutes and it didn’t seem to end. I was DYING holding my steadicam with big DSLR camera. It was so heavy after a while! Better than any gym, I can tell you…
If you decide to film with tripod and steadicam, use the same quick release plate compatible with both devices. The key is to quickly detach your camera from the tripod and attach to steadicam and vice versa. This way you can alternate static shots with moving shots and you need only seconds to do this change. Without quick release plate, this would take several minutes and your shot might be already gone.
My Gear For Filming the Race In the Wilderness
To make this behind the scenes post complete, here I provide a list of the gear I had with me when filming this race.
I don’t want to scare you away. You really don’t need that much for the casual family trip. This is only an inspiration or potentially ideas for Christmas gifts? 😉
- DSLR – main camera
- Backup DSLR
- Action camera
- Telephoto zoom lens (compatible with both DSLR cameras) – for capturing heroes in greater distance
- Macro lens (compatible with both DSLR cameras)
- Shotgun mic – all in-camera microphones are terrible, external mic is a must if you record interviews
- Deadcat for mic – blocks the wind noise
- ND filter for DSLR – for long exposure photos
- Step-up rings – used for ND filter to fit all DSRL lenses
- DSLR strap – might be quickly attached or detached
- Tripod – heavy and durable
- Case for the tripod
- Steadicam stabilizer – for smooth moving shots
- Quick release plate – compatible with tripod and stabilizer
- Drone – for epic establishing shots
- Case for the drone – protects against impacts (we were on rough roads all the time)
- Helipad for the drone – protects when landing on rough surface in dusty environment
- Camera backpack – this accommodates all my gear
- Mini waterproof light / flash
- Gas-free portable generator – saving me from “charging headache”
- External hard drive (2x) – for backup
- Palm-size computer – for backup, preview and editing
- Bunch of spare batteries, chargers and memory cards for all my devices
Please, don’t freak out that you don’t have this and that.
Improvise if you don’t have “the right gear”. There is no such thing like the right gear anyway.
Do you remember how I said I ran to capture the racers at the finish line in the middle of the night? I didn’t even have a proper light. We solved low light conditions by directing the car to the area where runners ended their run and switched on the head lights for that short moment.
The key is to think ahead and improvise if necessary. In the end, nobody cares what fancy gear you used if your movie doesn’t entertain or educate.
This project is huge. I have more than 10 hours of raw footage which is almost 200 GB of data. In this case, I wouldn’t recommend to work in low-end editing programs because it would be probably very frustrating.
Currently, they have Black Friday deals and offer 20 % off if you are interested (offer ends November 24, 2017).
How was it all? Pretty big filming experience and epic adventure! I would recommend this to anyone who loves camping, wilderness, hiking or running, adventure, filming and friendship. I love everything and this is what brought me there.
Do you want to gain this experience too? It is closer than you think. Every year the organizer of Trans-Pecos Ultra race look for the team members and they recruit most of them as volunteers. You will spend a week in the beautiful remote wilderness, having fun and gaining filming experience of a lifetime.
It is still a lot of work in front of me, sitting many days and nights editing this movie. But I already know there were unforgettable heroes, their stories and beautiful nature all around. Isn’t this a good predisposition for a great movie? Well, let’s see…
UPDATE [2017/12/20] – I have just finished the trailer for the movie!
Don’t forget to subscribe to my YouTube channel if you want to see the final movie.
What do you think? Do you have some similar experience? Or would you like to go filming something like this? Any other questions? Please comment below this blog post.
Thanks for reading and happy holidays!