As readers of this site will know I took up white water kayaking last year after a lifetime of never having done any water sports of any kind. It has been an amazing experience and I'd recommend it to anyone. If a water scaredycat like myself can do it, anyone can!
Since I have been redirecting my video production focus towards outdoors adventure filming alongside my corporate videos I am gradually bringing the two together. The Canon 60D I purchased a couple of months ago is playing a large part in things, being easy to transport. It is a bit of a pain in the arse to use, especially if a shot needs to be done quickly, but it is producing some nice results, albeit with the usual caveats for such a camera.
Since the end of last year I have been planning a series of promos for Bliss Stick Kayaks. Bliss Stick are a company based in New Zealand, who produce some seriously bomb proof boats. Until now they have been difficult to get hold of in the UK, and many kayakers are not aware that they are available here.
My plan is to produce a number of different videos, firstly to introduce the boats to the UK market, secondly to show each individual boat in the range, and thirdly to introduce the Bliss Stick team ambassadors.
For those who kayak themselves and have seen the many films and videos about the sport on the internet, there is certainly a high number of amateur productions out there with the usual wobbly handycam style shots and basic editing. This isn't a bad thing. Shooting white water kayaking is incredibly hard. The locations are often very remote, and if the gear has to be packed into the boat everything has to be kept to a minimum, not only for space reasons, but also for safety. Add to that the desire for kayakers to want to actually kayak rather than be photographers for the day, and it is not surprising that the number of professionally shot films is small.
The major kayak manufacturers have been slow to commission professional video production. As a result there are precious few people who can do things properly, most of them being keen kayakers themselves. Guys like Anson Fogel, Rush Sturges, and Olaf Obsommer to name a few. So it was great to get an opportunity to try my own hand at such a thing.
This last UK Winter has been a harsh one. For much of it many rivers have been frozen, and when they weren't the amount of useful rainfall to top the rivers up has been sporadic at best. We finally got around to arranging a shoot date in North Wales this March with Bliss stick UK paddler Sam Sawday.
Sam is also member of this years Uniyaker team, who will be travelling to Venuzuela later this year and he hopes to cover a number of first descents as well as drawing attention to some of the environmental issues going on.
Our first destination of the day was a place called the Aberglaslyn Gorge. This is the final section of the Glaslyn river before it becomes tidal, and is the only section of it that produces challenging white water conditions. And what conditions they are too!
On the journey to the gorge I was feeling a little worse for wear. I'm not a good passenger, and making me sit through the windy mountainous lanes of the Snowdonia National park in North Wales is not a good idea at the best of times. Originally I had thought that we were going to go straight to the National White Water Centre at Tryweyn, but Sam had come up with the Glaslyn as a good place to try having paddled there previously.
When we arrived I went through an almost instant transformation. This is hands down one of the most stunning gorges I have seen in the UK. It didn't look anything else in Wales. In fact it looked more like something from the Alpine regions!
What made things doubly good was that the river level was up. We were very lucky with this. It transpired that there had been some heavy rain overnight, something that many paddlers we spoke to throughout the day elsewhere were not aware of. This meant that we pretty much had the place to ourselves for filming.
The venture was risky, however. At the levels that the river was running at, the rapids were easily a grade 4+, one step down from the hardest possible. Sam would need to run the various sections many times to get the shots needed.
I tried to keep things as light as I could camera gear wise, but as always I ended up bringing everything but the kitchen sink. My main tool for camera movement for the day was a Cinevate Pegasus Carbon Linear Slider. This superbly made bit of kit allowed me a highly portable way to obtain subtle dolly style shots on uneven terrain thanks to its highly adjustable feet. In fact it was so useful as a platform I rarely took the camera off it, even when I wasn't doing tracking shots! More about the Cinevate Pegasus in my upcoming review.
The Canon 60D was of course the weapon of choice for the day, along with a shed load of ND filters. Until now I haven't found a huge amount of use for grad ND's in video. I think that after this shoot a couple may be in order. ND filters are absolutely essential for using a DSLR for video. You don't want to fiddle with the shutter speed unless you are after a different stylised look, so ND is the only way to get back control of exposure and depth of field.
Although I was using the 60D in 1080p mode, I recorded many of the shots in 720/60p with the intention of using them in slow motion. My final video was intended to be output in 25p, so using 60p gave me 10fps slower slow mo than if I had left the camera in 50hz mode.
Despite the challenging light, I wanted to avoid extensive picture grading, so I left the camera using the standard picture style, but with the contrast knocked down a couple of notches, the saturation brought down one, and the sharpness brought down to zero.
Multiple passes at various framerates and shutter speeds were taken at various points along the gorge to give me editing options. This was to be a fast paced edit of around one minute in duration. So a variety of shots needed to be taken to give me options. I occasionally used faster shutter speeds of 1/100th in 1080p 25 mode to give a more manic look, and changed my operating style accordingly. For most of these shots I tried to keep the iris at around f5.6-8 to keep things in the sweet spot of the lens. Shallow depth of field is not something that would desirable on many of the shots.
One thing that caused a fair bit of difficulty was the light. Light is one big reason why filming kayaking is very difficult. When the sun is bright the water creates huge highlights that are difficult to control and balance with the shadows, which could, as in this case, form a large part of the background. On dull overcast days these gorges can be very dark and challenge the low light capability of even the best cameras. My feeling is that with the right setup and camera motion a grad ND could well be quite useful in a number of instances.
A key part of this particular video would be to keep the cinematography product focussed. There is a fine line between making the shots quite generalised and making them focussed on the boats. I hope that I struck the right balance. The use of slow motion helps greatly I think.
After Aberglaslyn we headed to the Tryweryn centre to grab shots of the playboats (a playboat is a type of kayak that is used for performing fancy acrobatics and tricks in). Once again, a fantastic looking place. The dam was releasing so there was a good flow on the river there, as well as lots of opportunity to get shots from convenient positions. Unfortunately the light was in a less favourable position by the time we got there. Still I managed to get enough good shots in the can to give me a number of options.
Editing took place the following day, with some titling added with the use of Apple Motion and a bit of Cheetah 3D. Job done, client happy.