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So far, we've mostly discussed shooting up close and personal with small action cams and smartphones. However, another option that I also recommend you use, in conjunction with action cam footage, is shooting from shore with a more robust, traditional video camera. Sports cams are cool and the exact right tool to get unique perspectives in and on the water, but creatively, these little HD cameras are lacking in a few key traits that could really enhance a finished video. Most notably, action cameras don't have variable focal length lenses.
They don't allow you to control exposure. There goes that cool sunrise silhouette shot you wanted. And GoPro and other sports cameras don't generally offer control over focus, which means no cool, shallow depth of field shots. So, for all of these reasons and more, if you want to shoot a more professional looking and interesting water sports video, with a variety of shots, you're going to want to also break out a real deal camera. So, let's talk about how to capture water sports while keeping your feet in the sand. Speaking of sand, that's the first thing I want to discuss.
The most important thing when shooting at the beach, or any other sandy and windy environment, is that you protect your camera from the sand. Even though you may keep the camera up on a tripod the whole time, fine grains of sand are always blowing in the ocean air. Sand and film equipment, especially equipment with moving parts, don't mix. So, I highly recommend bringing some canned air so you can regularly blow off your gear and keep sand off of your lens. If you're particularly worried about sand and getting your camera sprayed with water, you may even want to use a rain cover.
In lieu of a rain cover, you could also try the down and dirty solution of using a clear plastic bag and some rubber bands around your lens. Or, you can wrap your camera in saran wrap. Just be careful not to cover up any fan vents and make sure your camera doesn't overheat in the sun. Keep in mind that the camera's not the only thing that can suffer from sand. A few grains of sand in moving parts like your tripod head and legs can also lead to long-term issues with sticky and crunchy tripod legs, as grains of sand get stuck inside. To avoid this, adjust your tripod by extending the bottom legs first, so the locks for the other tripod legs are well above the ground.
Be especially careful of sand when changing or cleaning the lens. You may want to get in a more sterile or wind-free environment, like your car, when you clean or change your lenses to avoid dirt in your sensor. If this is impossible, try to make sure you turn your camera's back to the wind or maybe even drape a big towel over your head and the camera, while you swap out the lenses. Blow off the lens carefully with a blow bulb, or canned air, before using a lens tissue. The last thing you want to do is accidentally scratch your lens by rubbing a grain of sand all over it. The bottom line is to blow off and very gently clean your lens at regular intervals to help avoid problems with sand.
Now, when it comes to lenses for shooting from shore, the longer the better. You want a nice telephoto lens to help you get right up on the action while staying high and dry. Unfortunately, many fixed lens cameras simply don't have a long enough focal length to get closer than a wide shot from the shore. So, this job is best done with a camera that has interchangeable lenses. One plus here for my DSLR people out there, is that shooting on a crop sensor camera, like a Canon 7D, which has a crop factor of 1.6, will make any lens you use appear to be more telephoto.
So, a 200 millimeter lens looks more like a 324 millimeter lens, when you put it on a Canon 7D, which is perfect for capturing tighter and more intimate shots of subjects farther off shore. To steady your shots, you also want to try to use a lens that has optical image stabilization. Don't forget to turn this feature on. And of course, we also want to use a good tripod and make sure it's level to the horizon. Any time you're shooting outside, try to shade your LCD screen so it's easier to see in the sun.
Use a Zacuto viewfinder, a Hoodman, or you can just make your own lens shade from cardboard if you have to. Wearing a baseball cap, or other hat with a brim, will also help to shade your LCD screen and make it easier to see in the sunlight. A polarizer filter is also a good accessory to have on hand, to help you control how much reflection you get off the water. Sometimes you'll want to get nice reflections of the sky and clouds, but other times you may want to get more of the natural water color and scene below the surface of the water. Similarly, a graduated ND filter can be helpful for preventing the sky from blowing out, while still keeping your subjects on the water in good exposure.
When it comes to shooting from shore, don't just park yourself in one spot the whole time. Switch it up some, and look for unique viewpoints that offer high angles, low angles, and opportunities to take advantage of the shallow depth of field you have when shooting with a professional HD camera. If all you walk away with are straight shots of someone surfing, you've missed a big chunk of the story. No matter what you're shooting, you always want to try to capture the whole visual story unfolding before your camera. This means capturing a variety of shots, wide, medium and close-up, as well as capturing establishing shots, and the fine details in the scene around you.
The waves crashing on a rock, a flock of seagulls taking off, your surfer waxing their board, all of these shots will add to the depth of your visual story, and give you choices in editing. Now, perhaps the hardest part of shooting a surfer from ashore is just keeping track of which surfer it is that you're trying to follow. When shooting this footage, every time I switch between the viewfinder and my naked eyes, there is about a 50-50 chance that I temporarily lost track of Tony in the water. The problem is that everyone looks like small dots in black wet suits from afar.
And if they're backlit against the sun, forget about it. When there's a crowded field of surfers, if helps if your subject has a bright colored surf board or other accessory, such as a colorful armband, to help you more easily spot them in the crowd. Even better, if you have a friend helping you spot the surfer, or a pair of binoculars with you as well, it can go a long way to help keep track of your athlete on the water, and not missing the golden moment when they finally do catch that perfect wave. Similarly, you should have some simple hand signals worked out, so you can signal each other basic info, such as I'm going to catch another wave, my GoPro is out of batteries, or yes, I got that awesome shot.
So yes, little sports camera are great for one of a kind, up close and underwater action shots. But for when you really want to take it to the next level, put a full-featured video camera in the mix, and you'll be shooting surf videos just like the pros.
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