June 17, 2021
In 2017 I bought my first digital camera: the Canon Rebel T3. College photography classes taught me the basics of capturing an image but as far as video possibilities were concerned, I knew nothing. None of my friends were film junkies, and the local camera shop felt like it was slowly dying from the inside. So, like any good Millennial, I turned to the platform used to educate the masses: YouTube. It was flashy and fun, but most creators seemed to be Canadian hipsters who filmed coffee montages and snowy landscapes. I was finding it hard to relate to spring gobbler season or an early-fall deer hunt, but I garnered what I could and took a swing at filming a hunt.
My first filmed hunt was shot out of a large oak tree that grew over a horse arena on a little 25-acre farm in Virginia. My friend Matt was as green behind the gun as I was behind the camera, but that didn’t stop us from giving it our best shot.
That day, Matt shot his first doe, and I got the whole thing on camera—well, almost. When I look back at the clip now, I chuckle. But I remember the excitement I felt when I first shared our short video on social media. I was proud! The mistakes I made then were silly and simple to avoid, but how was I to know?
Fast forward about four years and I’m still a long way from producing full-length hunting films, but I’ve learned a few things that I wish someone had told me when I started. So here are my top tips to start filming your own hunts.
Tip 1: It's Digital Keep Shooting
Film is no longer limited by the tapes or a 32-exposure roll of light-sensitive material. Today’s film is all digital. Your limitations with modern digital cameras are battery life and storage. Pick up a large SD card and make sure you have more batteries than you think you need. It’s a helpless feeling when your battery goes dead right when things start picking up. On the same token, if you run out of storage on your SD card, you’ll never forgive yourself. Make sure to carry extras—you know, “two is one, one is none.” If you prep properly, you can shoot masses of video for post-production editing and make an entertaining film.
On the opening morning of 2019 spring turkey season in Virginia, jakes filled the decoy spread. It was right in our lap, so naturally, I filmed what was there. After a half-hour of shooting film of the jakes, a big tom decided to step out into the cornfield behind us. It was right at that moment that my display screen blinked “memory card full”. Luckily, I had brought a few more cards with me and slipped them into the chest pocket of my turkey vest. I quickly changed and formatted a card with minimal movement and was able to capture the hunt. After that hunt, I decided to buy a bigger card as to mitigate future storage issues. Since then, I’ve chosen to use a minimum of 128 GB cards in all my DSLRs. All things considered; they aren’t that expensive—take care of your gear and it will last time and time again. When I know that I have plenty of storage, I tend to shoot more. And when I shoot more, I always capture something that helps better tell my story.
Tip 2: Hide
It sounds obvious, but many folks don’t hide very well when hunting. I go the extra mile to conceal myself as best as possible with the surrounding elements, but before you get into the woods you’ll need to camo-out your camera gear, too. My old leafy camo suit served as a perfect base to cover camera gear. I cut it into a few separate pieces to create the perfect covers. The sleeves work well for my various lenses. Cut them longer than you think; a little bit of bunching is helpful when you need to operate the settings and buttons, like manual focus or zoom.
I took what was left of the suit’s top to wrap my tripod and tied it just below the head. This creates a skirt over the tripod and essentially doubles as a bushy little blind to sit behind if hunting on the ground. In the video below, you’ll see that we set up on these turkeys in very thin woods, but because of my brushy tripod and the leafy suit that I wore, I looked like nothing more than a bush.
Camo is great and all, but movement is what really matters. It’s tough enough to sit still when a gobbler, deer, or any game for that matter, begins moving into the kill zone. Sadly, there’s no way to film without moving (some). So, when you do have to move—make it count and make sure it’s subtle.
If you’re worried about ruining a hunt by filming, jumping into a ground blind can alleviate a great deal of real-time stress when it comes to movement. A solid tripod and chair combo tucked in the shadows of a ground blind can give you the best set-up. This is especially helpful for those who don’t know where all their camera buttons are. The better you know your camera, the better you’ll be at making subtle, yet important, adjustments on the fly.
Tip 3: Decide if You Want to Kill or Kill on Camera?
This past April, the fine folks at Nomad put me on a plane to Kansas and set me loose to chase after their biggest and most handsome Rio turkeys. Young and eager to tackle it all, I carried my camera and tripod into the field and attempted to self-film my solo hunts. My results—initially—left me disappointed. I felt like I didn’t have the proper supporting footage. My microphone’s audio was a bit noisy. And after all my hard work, the bird got shot off-camera. But as I walked out of the still-dew-soaked wheat field at 9:00 a.m. I made the choice to judge my success on what I had learned, not on what I had failed to create.
This is where you have to ask yourself a hard question, “What’s more important? Killing, or killing on camera?”
Answer this question early. Don’t be battling your own thoughts as the turkey struts in behind you, or as the buck closes the gap. Set your priorities and stick to them.
On this hunt, I was only in Kansas for a three-day trip. Although I really wanted to capture everything on film, I had prioritized filling my tags over anything else. So, when the tom circled back behind my blind after an hour of gobbling, I ditched the camera and went into kill mode. At the end of the day, I had some decent film to piece together a video I could share with my friends and family.
Tip 4: Tell Your Story
When things don’t pan out the way you planned—as they almost always don’t when turkey hunting—tell the truth. No, your video of an unsuccessful turkey hunt won’t land you a spot on the Outdoor Channel, but it always can tell a story that is uniquely your own. So, get creative and own your storyline; don’t become a recreation of someone else’s.
This past turkey season, my brother, two close friends, and I drove to the Eastern Shore of Virginia to hunt for a long weekend. The farm we were headed to was only about 100 acres, but there were plenty of turkeys—just none in range. I was able to capture some great footage of the gang strutting in the open field. The turkeys weren’t the only ones hanging in the freshly turned-up field. Deer, geese, songbirds, and fox made sure to pay us a visit, too.
I had plenty of content to shoot all morning long, and I began to think of a way to use the footage to tell the story. The story was all about how we came so close yet we're so far away. As I flipped through my clips from that weekend, I tried my best to find a creative way to visually represent to others what had happened to us: I chose humor.
Tip 5: Talk to Your Viewer
Filming yourself is probably the most difficult thing to do well. Vlogging can be a wonderful way to better tell your story. Once I began self-filming my hunts, I realized there was always a large part of the story missing. Talking people through the hunt—just as in writing—will allow them to understand the depth of the events captured on camera.
Viewers want to feel a human connection, too. Think about your favorite movie or TV series; it’s probably the strong characters that pull you in most—there’s just something about the hero that pulls people in. I’m not saying you must be a movie hero in your hunting films, just don’t hide your face.
As a personal exercise in getting out of my comfort zone, I decided to make a vlog-style video of my summer garden. Alone in the front yard one morning I grabbed my camera and gave my best attempt to explain to others what I had growing in the vegetable garden. I felt silly talking to a camera all alone, but when I watched the video later it was a natural look that drastically helped improve my story. Give the vlog-style a test a go on something that’s not as pressing or important as a big hunt. You can always delete the footage. I guarantee even if it totally stinks and you delete the footage, you will have learned something along the way.
Give these tips some consideration before you film your next hunt and you’ll be well on your way to making something meaningful.