Equipment Follow-up - Lessons from the Field

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I recently wrote an article for PRNDI about recording and photographing in the field. If things would have gone as anticipated, it would have been a stellar article. Things did not go as planned.

The assignment was to do a piece about the centennial of the reintroduction of elk to Michigan. I was determined to do the story AND get great audio of bull elk “bugling” for mates and photographs of elk. Sometimes the best of plans go awry.

First, the serendipitous part of the story. After driving four hours, I arrived at the site early in the morning and ran into an elk hunting guide. Clem was very helpful. He informed me the observation site was fine for tourists, but at this time of year if I really wanted to see elk, I’d have to hike into the forest until I came to a little rise between two open clearings, doubling my chance of seeing elk. 

So, I took my 25 pounds of cameras, recorders, microphones and accessories to the appointed site. Now, there were things to record and things to photograph (deer, turkey, cranes, etc.), but no elk. What I learned on my first day is that I had brought way too much equipment to monitor. Plus, the shotgun microphone, while useful in recording distant crane calls, was not helpful in this fluid situation. I had no idea from which direction the elk might appear.

Day number one was a bust. No elk.

Oh, also, the elk were not yet in mating season. The weather had not been cool enough to prompt that cycle. So, the elk were not ‘bugling,’ the haunting mating call of randy bulls trying to attract cows. That shotgun microphone would have been critical for that. Now, not so much.

Day two, just before dawn I ran into some septuagenarians whose hobby was elk viewing. More good audio. Serendipity is often my friend. They also had a bunch of cameras with long lenses in the Toyota Land Cruiser they were driving. They encouraged me by saying I’d likely see an elk soon. Just three weeks ago they had seen 14 bull elks in one place!

This day, I took just the one small Sony recorder and relied on the stereo onboard mics. I’d experimented with it the day before. The results of ambient sound (chiefly crickets) added an aural depth in stereo. That meant one less tripod, one less bag of camera accessories, and a lot lighter load.

During dawn, I saw no elk. I decided to spend the midday searching the forests. I took only one camera and the Sony recorder with a “rabbit” fur cover to reduce wind noise and popping consonants. Still, no luck.

Dusk, I was back at the rise overlooking the clearings. One recorder. One camera with a long lens and a remote trigger. A second camera with a lens with a lesser focal length.

No elk.

After the sunset, I started packing up gear and saw something out of the corner of my eye. I thought it was probably another deer. Looking through the long lens, I realized that at the very last moment of my time in the field, I finally had an elk in view. While focusing and shooting, I grabbed the handheld Sony and started whispering into it about the moment. Video didn’t even enter my mind, because it was simply a mammal grazing, not all that thrilling. However, the still shot was important to satisfy the listener/reader’s curiosity. What did I finally see?

Finally - an elk!

In production, I decided to leave the handling noise as turned on the recorder to talk into it at the moment of spotting the elk. The handling noise was an interesting device to use as a transition. I’d never used it before because radio people don’t use microphone handling noise, right?

I’m including the final piece to show you what I did with all of that.

It’s certainly not a stellar piece. But, when you’re dealing with wildlife, you’re literally at the mercy of nature.

For some perspective - these deer are about the same distance away as the elk was.

Here are my conclusions. If you are recording and shooting something fairly predictable, such as bears at a small waterfall fishing for salmon, all that gear would be useful. You’re aware of where things are going to happen. There’s more certainty. It would be worth packing it in, setting it up, and capturing everything you could.

When you have no idea whether you’re going to see wildlife and you don’t know where it might appear, travel light. In the end, all I needed was a small audio recorder and one camera with a long lens, a remote trigger, and a tripod. Everything else, as it turns out, was superfluous.

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