Jungle and Forest Shooting

Capturing the feeling of a tropical rain forest or pristine old growth temperate forest is not easy. The biggest problem is there are so few left and they are being visited to death. So.... they must be protected. Our films and tapes may help.

Music and sound effects help capture the feeling. Look at as many films and tapes as you can before you go. Study what works and determine why. Your finished film or tape can never reproduce the experience of being there in person. Explain to your audience why wildness is not "civilization". Tell about and show birth, death and regeneration. In northern forests the fresh green of spring and fall colors are best. Winter has less color. In tropical forests there is a continual cycle of birth to decay.

High contrast and low light levels are big problems. Shooting on an overcast day or in the shade helps reduce contrast. Fog, mist or smoke with shafts of sunlight also reduce contrast and are fantastic, but not often available. Mists can dissipate quickly. Expose for the brighter areas and use manual exposure because the lighting can change especially during moving shots. Silhouette is often great with brighter areas properly exposed. Avoid the sky most of the time because it is usually too bright. Have and learn to read a topo map of the area or scout it so you can plan to work in the shade as the sun gets higher.

If the camera is still or moving very smoothly slower shutter speeds can help exposure. Donít shoot video at high gain. Use zebra in video cameras to judge exposure.

Shafts of light through the trees on the ground move very quickly. The higher the trees, the faster they move. Be sure to white balance video cameras in the principal light you are using.

Leaves look best if backlit. Light on the shiny top of leaves will look white and not as good. Mid day the top of leaves are mostly top lit.

Movement by the camera or within the frame helps a lot. Zooms and pans are not as good as horizontal, vertical or in/out dolly moves. These can be done, but can cause damage to the forest if you arenít very careful. Any equipment should be thoroughly tested and mastered at home in a park or forest. You can also master lighting and exposure. Some video cameras over-expose greens. Play back your shots on a properly adjusted monitor.


Horizontal dollies. For digital lightweight camcorders, lightweight dollies can be made that are supported on one end by your tripod and two legs of another tripod on the other. The track can be 1" or larger square tube and the dolly made of small bearings. Two parallel round tubes will work too. Small ball heads will allow camera adjustments on the dolly. (See Professional Equipment Advice/Skate Wheel Dollies)

A circular move can be made over leaves with the camera hung from above on an arm pivoted on your tripod head. You will need a counter weight. (Bag of sand.) The accessory shoe of many video cameras is too weak to support the camera. A "U" shaped inverter would be better attached to the mounting screw on the bottom of the camera. (Two shelf brackets.) Camera handles are strong enough to support the camera. The ability to easily adjust the camera angle is important. For lighter cameras, the arm can be tripod legs, painterís poles, broomsticks clamped together or bamboo. Hose clamps will clamp to most any shape. (Have a nut driver.) A short piece of angle aluminum with a 1/4" - 20 or 3/8"- 16 taped hole will adapt any pole to your tripod head. Release all the friction of your tripod head. Inertia will facilitate a smooth move.
A hanging trolley can be rigged on a rope or cable. You need enough slack to not see the cable in the shot. Gravity will make it move. It can be towed and the shot reversed. In regular 16 mm the camera can be turned up-side-down and the film reversed tail to head and result in reversed action. To tow camera and trolley you need a smooth constant pull like with a large reel like a large round kite or fishing reel. Hand over hand wonít work as smoothly. If you attach a pole to your end of the rope you can push up and move the trolley along. Practice all this before going. A large ring on the far end of the rope will help you place and retrieve the support rope from trees.

With auto focus cameras, you can tilt back on two legs from a wide-angle ultra close-up to reveal a larger shot. The legs are at right angles to the lens.

Check for dirt and water on the lens often. Play back a shot before you change the set-up. With wide angle lenses and wide-angle adapters stuff on the lens will show.

Itís hard to improve on natureís designs. Some times a dead leaf or twig will fall in the wrong place and can be carefully removed, but art-directing nature is almost impossible. In a preserve many shots can be made from the trails if you look carefully. Most preserves will not let you off the trails. A local guide can be very helpful if you are diplomatic and donít violate the rules. Get to know your guide and their projects. If you show respect for the forest and rules they may make areas available that careless crews would not be let into. Donít expect that just because you are making a video or film that they will help or even have time to help. There are many study groups that have access and maybe even have a guide available. You might hire someone. If you promise them footage, provide it. Notes on the back of your map will probably get lost. You might trade your footage for things that you donít have time to get such as animal footage. Except for snails, slugs and ants, getting animals and even birds takes lots of time and very long lenses. Consider buying stock shots of a few shots. (David Fortney.com and other stock houses)

People will evaluate your professionalism by your camera equipment. 16 mm or Betacam is more impressive than a "prosummer" (hype term) digital camcorder. You can explain that it cost $3000 is "DIGITAL" and "3 CHIP" and that you have shot award winning stuff with it and it allows you to travel as a tourist, etc.

Film crews before you may have given us all a bad name. You will have to prove that you are an exception. Many rangers are very busy. Higher ups may say no when people on the site might allow more and the opposite. Ask what is possible, donít demand access and permission. Most areas have hours not advantageous to shooting. Your diplomacy may get access earlier and later. Also consider other areas not under park control. Get permission. Donít screw it up for the rest of us.

You can help local shooters with hard-to-get extra film, tape and equipment. People might even meet you on your way home when you are through shooting. Film, tape or a tripod is often hard to get locally.

Be quiet for other visitors.


A diopter is very useful when shooting close. A fast still lens like a 50mm in reverse will allow very close focus. Good support and the ability to move easily in and out is helpful. A small camera focus slide may be helpful for small adjustments.

A small light using your camera battery might be useful.


Rain forests are because of rain. A large umbrella will keep you and your camera somewhat dry. A lightweight light stand can be modified to hold your umbrella. A cup on the next to top riser can hold the bottom of a straight handle umbrella. The top riser can hold the shaft of the umbrella. (A ring above the umbrella spreaders?) The ability to adjust one leg is handy for un-level ground. Few lightweight stands come this way. Your pack will probably get wet and muddy. You can carry smaller cameras in a small camera bag under your chin to help keep it dry.

A rain hat for the camera can attach to a flash shoe angle adapter that can tilt up and down to clear a wide-angle adapter. This will prevent flares and avoid rain. It can be flat with turned down edges except in the front so rain goes to the sides. Overhang all parts of the camera by a couple of inches. Start bigger and trim to best size.

Have good broken-in Vibram sole boots, (trails are slippery) slicker or poncho, water, insect repellent, map, knowledge of poisonous plants, Tecnu, for poison ivy, and ways to dry lens and camera,

If it rains go out to scout and shoot. You donít need camera moves for raindrops falling on leaves to get motion.

Having a Dahlia mist sprayer is handy for leaves and cobwebs.

If you shoot running water, consider slower shutter speeds. With film make sure you shoot enough of each take. Roll 4 times longer for 6 FPS and 8 times longer for 3 FPS.

Sound Effects

It is difficult to get good sound. Cameras are noisy. There are other sounds. The sounds are very weak and recorder transistor noise makes it more difficult. Parabolic microphones do work for birds at higher frequencies. Consider buying or promoting the sounds you need. If your time is limited, spend it getting the images you need.


Study National Geographic type magazines and picture books for ideas and set priorities of what you need. Know what you have to say and if you canít find that or it takes too long at the expense of other shots, look at what IS there and see if it will work. Check other people's videos.

Test all systems at home.

© Copyright 1999-2004 Ron Dexter. All Rights Reserved.