Wildlife stories: making the move from stills to video

Three pros share their tips for filming wildlife, and explain why the latest EOS R System kit is ideal for hybrid shooters.

A Eurasian griffon vulture soaring above the ocean. "In comparison with a film sequence, one photo can stand on its own for a long time, it can be viewed and a story can be told," says wildlife photographer and filmmaker Christine Sovilla. "For a film, however, different scenes are necessary, with different sizes and settings to tell a story." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 C with a Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM lens at 500mm, 1/2000 sec, f/7.1 and ISO 2000. © Christine Sonvilla and Marc Graf

You're in the wilderness, patiently waiting to photograph a Siberian ibex. When the animal finally appears, you take a few photos and then decide you want to film this special moment. What do you do next? Flip a switch and start filming. That's how simple it can be to shift from stills to video with the Canon EOS R System.

As the demand for video footage increases – from publishers and for social media – wildlife photographers are discovering the importance of expanding their skillset and having the kit that enables them to switch seamlessly from one format to another.

Austrian wildlife photographers Christine Sonvilla and Marc Graf have travelled extensively documenting the importance of humans and animals learning to coexist, and they use both still photography and film to convey their message. Using a Canon EOS R5 or EOS R5 C camera, often paired with their favourite Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM lens, they have developed a unique style – photo trapping and filming wildlife for documentaries and personal projects.

In contrast, underwater photographer Aleksander Nordahl explores the issues that plague our oceans, from depleted kelp forests to decreasing micro-organic populations. The Norwegian photographer's primary camera, for both stills and video, is a Canon EOS R5, paired with a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens. Sealed inside a third-party housing that protects it underwater, he films and photographs sea creatures great and small, from whales to jellyfish.

In the age of hybrid shooting, mirrorless cameras and RF lenses make it easier than ever to transition from stills to movies. Here, the three Canon Ambassadors share how they do it, and offer tips for those looking to move into video.

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Building your story

The video you create will primarily be determined by who it's for and where it will be viewed – whether it's for broadcast, websites or social. For all but the simplest of projects, though, you will need a detailed storyboard, often involving additional research, plus sometimes relevant accompanying audio. If you're working for a client, you will need to know exactly what they are expecting, so ask for a detailed brief.

"There are three stages of making a film: the brainstorming phase where you're dreaming of what the film will look like, collecting footage, and then editing," says Marc. "Always remember that one photo can speak a thousand words, but one clip is not enough. Think about different perspectives, image size, and ensuring you have enough footage to cut to make something interesting. You need close-ups, wide angles, and maybe aerial shots of the animal."

You must also consider other elements, such as whether you need to interview someone for a wildlife project. "Our brown bears project focused on humans and bears living close to each other, so we had to interview people about it," explains Christine. "It's about thinking, 'How can I build the tension? How will I end the story?'"

Wildlife photographer and filmmaker Christine Sonvilla suspended from the branches of a tall tree to film the nest of a crowned eagle.

Christine (pictured) and Marc go to great lengths to capture their images and videos, and planning ahead is key. "With visual storytelling, you need to guide the viewer, step-by-step; you can't jump from the start to the end without having links in between," says Marc. "There are many elements to consider. Create a storyboard and have that storyline in your head. You don't want to end up in the editing room in a panic at the lack of footage." © Christine Sonvilla and Marc Graf

A yellow and white jellyfish pulses above a forest of green kelp in an underwater shot by Aleksander Nordahl, captured on a Canon EOS R5 inside a third-party underwater housing.

A burning jellyfish pulses above the vast kelp forests surrounding the island of Grip near Kristiansund in Norway. "Kelp and jellyfish are two of my favourite things to photograph and film in the ocean," says Aleksander. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 17mm, 1/320 sec, f/5.6 and ISO 200. © Aleksander Nordahl

Recording audio for wildlife films

When it comes to audio, there are a host of different options. Both the EOS R5 and EOS R5 C have built-in mono microphones and a multi-function shoe for external digital mics such as the Canon DM-E1D Directional Stereo Microphone. Directional mics pick up sound from the direction they are pointing, but you can also get omnidirectional mics that capture sound equally from all directions.

Christine and Marc carry an external microphone for their personal projects, but work with a specialist audio team on documentaries. They record specific animal calls and try to pick up ambient nature sounds, but this isn't always possible as it depends on the distance between them and their subject.

It's even harder to record audio underwater because the camera is inside an underwater housing. "I mostly shoot in slow motion so the recorded audio is also in slow motion, which isn't much use," says Aleksander. "You can use an external hydrophone, though, which can pick up the click of a sperm whale and record it in high quality while you're filming, and then edit it in post-production."

Sound travels faster in water, though, which offers up other possibilities. "You could give more context to your video that way," says Aleksander. "It might seem really quiet on the surface, but if you dive into the open ocean you'll hear the movement of a big freight boat when you're underwater."


Overcoming technical challenges

"Wildlife filmmakers use longer lenses and with that comes the issue of stabilisation," says Christine. "If you make a slight movement, everything needs to be stabilised again." Marc agrees: "This is something you should consider if you're switching from photo to video in the field, and if you aren't perfectly rigged up."

The Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS USM lens that Marc and Christine favour features 5-stops of image stabilisation so their video footage is shake-free. Additionally, Dual Nano USM motors enable fast and near-silent AF so they can track animals with ease. The couple pair the lens with either the EOS R5 or EOS R5 C and say the EOS R System definitely makes it easier to transition from stills to videos. "There's a broad range of settings, and if you want to save them, you just press a button and it's all there," adds Christine

When your EOS R5 is in movie mode, you can assign your preferred video recording setup to the C3 custom shooting mode. This can then be triggered with the movie shooting button when the camera is in photo mode. "We occasionally switch from photo to video in the field if we believe a particular scene would look great in a sequence. If we need stills to promote the film, we switch to photo and get the shot," adds Christine.

Christine and Marc have also used the EOS R5 C to film a Eurasian griffon vulture in 4K 120fps immersive slow-mo (above). The lightweight and compact Cinema EOS camera is perfect for fieldwork and captures up to 8K DCI RAW video in 12-bit to give footage a cinematic look.


Filming underwater with the EOS R5

Being underwater, where movement is restricted, means Aleksander can't make many changes to his settings when he switches from stills to video. "I film the same way I shoot because when you have limited time, you have to be quick," he explains. "So I use the same exposure and I don't have to worry because the autofocus system on the EOS R5 is very good; it easily tracks jellyfish and other microorganisms.

"The EOS R5 enables me to shoot really high quality slow-mo videos in Canon Log 3," he adds. "It's perfect for underwater videography because it can shoot 4K 100fps for immersive slow-motion. Because everything moves slowly underwater, you can convey that feeling to those who can't dive themselves."

Aleksander pairs his EOS R5 with a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens, which he believes is the ideal focal length for underwater stills and video. "You can't use a 50mm or a 200mm lens when you can only see the next 1-5 metres with bad visibility," he explains. "This lens gives you everything – great angles, and stable and crisp footage."

Green plantlife below the surface of a lake, taken by Aleksander Nordahl on a Canon EOS R5 used inside a third-party underwater housing.

"This was taken during a swim in my local lake this summer," says Aleksander. "Swimming through, photographing and videoing this beautiful place just a few centimetres below the surface is beautiful – almost like another planet." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 20mm, 1/250 sec, f/6.3 and ISO 500. © Aleksander Nordahl

A blue and white jellyfish, with scarring on its body, floats in a black sea in an underwater shot by Aleksander Nordahl taken on a Canon EOS R5 used inside a third-party underwater housing.

"A beautiful battle-scarred jellyfish surviving in the rough waters of Lofoten in Norway," says Aleksander. "The light was perfect and I also decided to film it in slow motion – it is beautiful to watch it pulse through the waves. Let the frames move inside your composition; don't move your composition," he advises. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 35mm, 1/320 sec, f/7.1 and ISO 640. © Aleksander Nordahl

RF lenses for hybrid workflows

Marc hopes to soon be able to add Canon's first-ever hybrid lens, the RF 24-105mm F2.8L IS USM Z, to his and Christine's kitbag. Designed for both filmmaking and stills, and combining a versatile shooting range with superb image quality, this cutting-edge lens sets a new standard for hybrid content creators.

The lens boasts a 5.5-stop Optical Image Stabilizer, with up to 8-stops possible when the lens is working in conjunction with the In-Body Image Stabilisation (IBIS) in an EOS R System camera such as the EOS R5, making it ideal for filming wildlife handheld. And for a lens with such impressive capabilities, it weighs just 1430g, making it easier to carry when you're tracking an animal over long distances. "I think this lens is going to be an absolute game-changer," says Marc.

If you're looking for another lightweight lens but with telephoto reach, the Canon RF 200-800mm F6.3-9 IS USM features a Nano USM motor for fast and quiet focusing. It's also weather-sealed, making it ideal for shooting in challenging conditions.

A man standing on an Italian street holds up a camera with a Canon RF 24-105mm F2.8L IS USM Z lens.

Exploring Canon's first 24-105mm hybrid lens

Fashion photographer Jamie Ferguson and videographer Kyle Jones visit Florence to showcase the capabilities of the Canon RF 24-105mm F2.8L IS USM Z and the Power Zoom Adapter PZ-E2.

Post-production and colour grading

Fine-tuning your footage in post-production ensures a narrative flow and a consistent look. Colour grading can be as simple as changing levels or curves in Adobe Photoshop when working on stills, but if you're editing film footage, it's worth remembering that it can require a lot of processing power, so you will need a Mac or PC that is up to the task.

"This is the fun part," says Aleksander. "When you're recording in UHD, and you're sifting through to find that one perfect clip, you realise how beautiful these creatures are. Colour grading can take a while to master, but you'll really enjoy it, so don't be afraid to play around with what's available."

Christine and Marc have a specialist team for big productions, but they use Adobe Premiere Pro and DaVinci Resolve for personal projects. "Playing with colours and lighting to get it just right across each sequence so that the final product looks coherent is very important," says Christine. "How it all comes together is what makes the story what it is."

Just as you can create different crops of your stills in your photo editing software, you can adjust the framing of your video in the edit, zooming in or cropping to adjust the composition. You can also select different video formats depending on whether you're making a longer documentary for YouTube or short social clips.

All three experts agree that there are many options and setups available for those who want to try wildlife filmmaking. "For the first time in the history of photography, with the EOS R System, we have cameras and lenses designed for both professional photographers and filmmakers," says Marc. "So if you have a Canon camera, keep in mind that you also have a professional video camera in your hands, and it would be a pity not to use it."

Written by Nikita Achanta

Adobe, Photoshop and Premiere Pro are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Adobe in the United States and/or other countries.

DaVinci Resolve is a registered trademark of Blackmagic Design Pty Ltd.

Canon cameras can only be used underwater in an appropriate third-party housing.

Christine Sonvilla, Marc Graf and Aleksander Nordahl's kitbags

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Christine Sonvilla and Marc Graf's kitbag containing Canon cameras, lenses and accessories.


Canon EOS R5

Capture sensational 45MP photos at up to 20fps, or flick a switch for cinematic 12-bit 8K RAW video using the entire width of the camera's sensor. "We appreciate the great dynamic range of the camera, which allows us to get out all the details in post-processing," say Christine and Marc. "It's small and lightweight, so it enables us to film in areas which require a lot of hiking. Also, the option of switching to 8K is a great asset." Aleksander adds: "I couldn't do what I do without this camera. I can shoot videos without artificial light and create the slow-mo videos that I love so much."

Canon EOS R5 C

Shoot incredible 8K movies and capture detailed 45MP stills, all from a camera that combines the best of Cinema EOS with all the advantages of the EOS R System. "Even though it's a professional Cinema EOS camera, it's super lightweight, fits easily in every backpack and enables high quality shooting even in remote areas, where larger equipment cannot easily be transported," say Christine and Marc. "We mostly film in 4K and use the least compressed codecs, so we greatly appreciate the built-in cooling system for longer recording times."


Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS USM

A 100-500mm super telephoto zoom that delivers detail, clarity and an exceptional telephoto performance. "It's a photo lens but we also use it for filmmaking appreciate its features," say Christine and Marc. "It's lightweight, but still allows for reasonable apertures and gives great focal length coverage for wildlife subjects."

Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM

Capture more, even in low light, with this fast L-series ultra-wide-angle zoom with 5-stops of image stabilisation. "This is my favourite lens and it works really well underwater," says Aleksander. "It's so sharp and captures really great stills and video when the lighting isn't great."

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