Archives For National Geographic Explorer

Cotton Coulson

January 16, 2016 — Leave a comment
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Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson on assignment in the Arctic

Apologies in the long gap since I last posted a story. We took an unscheduled break after the tragic loss of colleague and close friend Cotton Coulson , who helped establish this blog. It is still hard to process the loss and perhaps the best tribute to our wonderful friend and  talented photographer is to post a selection of his images. In a following post I will link to a article about Cotton, which wife Sisse Brimberg helped to write and is a great tribute to our much loved friend and colleague.  God speed Cotton…

 

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Cotton Coulson died May 27, 2015, while on a diving expedition off the coast of northern Norway. See more of his and Sisse Brimberg’s photography at keenpress.com.

 

Support your camera…

February 5, 2014 — Leave a comment

We just had the pleasure of testing out some great products from Australian tripod manufacturer Miller. Here is the story in full. See below for a link to the story on their own website….

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I started out in the film business over twenty years ago, shooting wildlife documentaries for Oxford Scientific Films (OSF). From the 1960’s on, they had been at the forefront of developing specialist equipment to shoot stories that always pushed the limits of technical and creative innovation. This gave me exposure to the best and newest technology in the film and documentary business from around the world. One of the many talented people I had the pleasure of working with during this time was Australian filmmaker and lens designer Jim Frazier, who won many awards for his innovative inventions.

After four years working as a staff cameraman at OSF, I had the opportunity to move to Australia to work on a wildlife series that would see me taking adventures to shoot stories all over the continent. I soon realized what great contributions Australia had, and continues to make, to both creative and technical developments in filmmaking. It became obvious that from the Outback cattle stations that became the base for many of our shoots, to the highest levels of high-tech industry, this was a country where geographical isolation gave birth to a culture that demanded creative engineering skills. It didn’t matter whether it was using fencing wire to mend a broken down truck in the Outback or to have the imagination required for Jim Frazier to create his pioneering lens designs, this was a culture that values innovative solutions.

After selecting the appropriate camera and lens combination (at that time the Aaton LTR Super 16 film camera / Zeiss and Nikon glass), the next crucial part of the filmmakers kit is selecting a good tripod and fluid head system. This decision combines a need for smooth camera moves, a steady platform, but not so heavy that it restricts your ability to be mobile in the field.

Back at OSF I had been using solid Germany technology, an Arriflex camera and Sachtler tripod, both at the top of their field in terms of build quality, but to my mind, not designed for use in the extreme conditions that we often encounter shooting wildlife and adventure stories. When I went freelance and headed to Australia, this led me breaking the mould and to selecting the Aaton camera system. It was designed by a cameraman with an engineering skills, as opposed to a brilliant engineer, that had never spent long hours in the field with a camera in their shoulder.  I wanted a tripod built with similar design sensibilities.

Soon after arriving in Melbourne, I was quickly exposed to one of Australia’s greatest technical contributions to the film business, Miller tripod systems. Originally built with wooden legs and uncomplicated fluid heads, these products were ideal for the independent filmmaker requiring a reliable and mobile system. Twenty years later, they have stayed ahead of the times, trading wood for carbon fibre and fluid heads capable of carrying anything from a video enabled DSLR to the heaviest of digital cinema cameras. For the last two decades, when given a choice, I have hardly used any other tripod system. This has included working on flagship TV series including BBC’s “Life”, “Life in Cold Blood” (featuring Sir David Attenborough), “Frozen Planet” and recently Emmy Award winning National Geographic series, “Untamed Americas”.

Today, I combine shooting stories for networks that include the BBC, Discovery, and National Geographic, with teaching digital storytelling workshops for the world’s premiere expedition travel company Lindblad Expeditions, and their partner National Geographic Travel. My first adventure with Lindblad was in the Arctic outpost of Svalbard, a place I had called home for two years while shooting a story on polar bears. We sailed on the ship Explorer, along with other top National Geographic contributors that were invited to share their experiences of shooting films and magazine articles from all over the globe. I was lucky enough to travel husband and wife team, Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson. They have shot over forty magazine articles during their careers. With many common interests and a shared love of wild places, Cotton and I soon decided to collaborate on future projects, culminating in Expedition Workshops. Currently based onboard the Lindblad / National Geographic fleet of ships, we offer dedicated digital storytelling classes to a small group of guests in some of the world’s most remote wildlife and cultural locations. These cover everything from video shooting techniques to editing a finished film.

For my broadcast work I still use a 100mm bowl Miller DS25 with double stage carbon fibre legs and Cotton uses a Miller 20 tripod system. But we both needed a light solution for the small camera and DSLR shooting we do for the workshops. The ideal solution was the Miller Solo DV and DS10 head. Both Cotton and I have the same camera support systems which we have tested everywhere from the Tropics to the Antarctic. In addition, for shooting human interest stories (as well as when shooting stills), we also both employ Miller carbon fibre monopods.

The DS10 heads have withstood the rigors of every environment we have thrown at them, from the muddy banks of the Amazon to the sea ice of the Antarctic’s Weddel Sea. Recently while shooting the king penguins in South Georgia, Cotton and I both spent many hours on our stomachs shooting images of the molting adults and growing chicks, as well as the many elephant seals populating the beaches. To make this possible we each used one of our favorite features with the Miller Solo DV, its ability to spread the legs out quickly so we can shoot just above ground level.

Capturing images at just 12” from the ground, it places you at the eye level of the subject enables you to better convey the environment in which they live and better enter their world. At other times you can extend the Solo DV to almost 6’, enabling you to capture high angles when that is more appropriate. It is truly a very versatile set of legs.

The tripod always holds fast in the high winds that sweep down from the glacial ice. These catabolic winds can appear in minutes, raising wind speeds from zero to gale force without warning. We also walked many miles up and down the high mountain slopes and thick tussock grass, and weighing in at less than seven pounds, the light carbon legs and compact head made our treks much more manageable.

The head is equipped with a simple but very effective counterbalance control which neutralizes the effect of the camera’s weight when it is tilted. The pan and tilt provide smooth movements and are each easily locked, plus the quick release plate allows the camera to be removed instantly from the head, as well as positioned to make ensure the whole system is balanced. The DS10 head is ideally suited to cameras weighing in at between 5 and 11lbs, with smaller or larger heads available to suite other camera systems. All simple, but very effective designs that you would expect from an Australian engineer! One of the other features that immediately sold me on Miller tripods was the placement of the levers for adjusting the height on my larger DS25 / Sprinter combination. Unlike other popular European designs, the double set of leg extensions can all be controlled from the middle of legs, making it very easy to adjust height without having to bend down…. something that save valuable seconds when capturing a scene.

The monopod has many advantages for the kind of shooting we are doing, which includes everything from old style street shooting of people, to shooting wildlife from the deck of the ship, where there is often no room for a tripod or the vibration of the engines cancels out the steadiness of the Solo / DS10 system. The quick fix to stop the vibration while shooting from the deck is to place the base of the monopod on your foot. This absorbs the motion and allows you to capture a steady shot. I also use the monopod much as you would a Steadicam system. When walking with the camera to track with moving subjects, you keep a bent arm, the monopod hangs down and acts as a counterbalance making it easier to keep a level horizon and more effectively track you subject.

Our students often arrive on the ship with more economical tripod and fluid head systems, but after demoing our Solo / DS10 units, order a Miller system as soon as the get home. After years of field testing many Miller products, I would definitely recommend them to everyone from the beginning filmmaker to seasoned cinematographers working on features or television projects.

Biographies
David Wright is an award winning director of photography and producer, with recent accolades including an Emmy for cinematography. He works on high profile television series, features and commercials, also specializing in shooting high speed / slow motion imagery. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic, the BBC, Discovery and PBS

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Cotton Coulson is an award-winning photographer who began his career shooting for National Geographic at age 21. He was the Director of Photography at “The Baltimore Sun” and Associate Director of Photography at “U.S. News & World Report.” Cotton was Senior Vice-President at CNET Networks where he managed the Creative Design and Product Development teams. Cotton is also a Contributing Photographer for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Today his photographic and video work is focused on contemporary environmental issues.

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View the story as posted on the Miller website

During the summer of 2013 we sailed from Trinidad to Buenos Aires on board the National Geographic Explorer. Named the “Epic South America” voyage, we explored seven different countries and traveled more than 6500 miles. Along the way we taught a digital story telling workshop….

Lindblad just posted a short video about the program. Stay tuned for 2014 date and locations

Finding the right camera bag seems to be an ongoing struggle. It constantly reminds me the Goldielocks and the three bears…. I am always trying to find just the right on.

The parameters are protecting the camera gear, having a bag that is  light, but strong and also comfortable. To my wife’s dismay, I think I have every shape and size on the shelves of my office. Then I discovered Gura Gear. They produce a line of camera packs that are to be the ideal combination of quality, strength and are still light weight. Perfect for a trek in the mountains or a day photographing in the city. With weight restrictions also being a concern at airport check-ins, this bag is also a great solution for plane travel.

I have been testing out their Bataflae model (see above), which even my very discerning wife doesn’t mind wearing when we are out for a hike. The pack is well designed and very versatile in terms of fitting the straps to ensure a comfortable fit what ever size you are.

The other challenge we face in traveling is packing gear in shipping cases so that airport security guards don’t damage items when they place things back where they may not have started out. Gura Gear have the solution for that too. They have a great line of pouches they have branded the Et Cetera line. As there website suggests “a great way to handle your extra stuff and organize the chaos”. The pouches each contain items like my radio microphone kit or video monitor. Not only can I quickly find locate each of those kits, but they are safe inside the larger shipping case, even with the roughest treatment the baggage handlers can throw at it. With transparent lids so you can see the contents,  strong enough sides to afford extra protection and a place to label the gear, more pouches the Et Cetera line will be on my Christmas list.

We have two exciting trips coming up with National Geographic / Lindblad, Epic South America & South Georgia/Antarctica.While on board we will be teaching two film-making workshops, please let the reservations folks at Lindblad know if you would like to attend, as spaces are limited. As fun as these trips will be, they will demanding in terms of protecting gear in the rigors of climates that range from the tropical heat of the Amazon, to the frigid temperatures of king penguin colony. The Gura Gear pack and their Et Cetera pouches will be traveling with me to meet the challenge. If you are getting ready to join us on these adventures or heading off on your own, Gura Gear is a great option to carry you gear. Excellent build quality, design and so light that it will really help you stay within airport weight limits for carry-on bags.

Traveling to some of the world’s remotest locations is perhaps the best part of being a documentary filmmaker or photographer. The downside is staying in contact with loved ones and also staying in contact with social media networks that many of us rely on. Secretly I have to admit being off the grid is something I enjoy, but it is easy to be the one traveling to somewhere exotic while leaving family and friends at home. On some well funded shoots we started to carry an early satellite phone, but even they can be frustrating as they were bulky and often lost connection. Still, it was an improvement from the old days of HF radio. My wife still cringes when we think back to me calling her via a radio from remote corners of the Arctic. With nothing else for entertainment, everyone else across the Svalbard and perhaps most of Europe could listen in to our conversations. You either made the choice not to care what people overheard or tempered the exchange and kept it business like…. There was simply no privacy and sometimes the conversation made being homesick even worse thanks to all the things that were unsaid.

Fortunately satellite technology has moved on. I have become a big fan of the SPOT Messenger system. We initially started using it when I was shooting a story on black bears in northern Minnesota. I would spend all day walking with habituated animals and never knew where I would end up. The SPOT would send out a position every ten minutes to a Google map and enable my wife to monitor my progress anywhere she had internet or 3G service. Quite incredible and soon the researchers working with the bears realized that my walking with the animals all day gave them an incredibly accurate plot of everywhere the bears moved. Much better information than was being transmitted but much more sophisticated tracking collars.

I shouldn’t ignore perhaps the most important feature of the SPOT messenger, the HELP and SOS/EMERGENCY buttons. Walking in the remote woods of Minnesota, anything could have gone wrong and the help button would first allow me to send a call for help to predetermined people giving my exact position, the message arriving as a text or email, and then if something really bad happened, the SOS/EMERGENCY button would alert the appropriate rescue squad (police, fire, game wardens etc). A great insurance policy when you are alone in the woods or away from cell phone coverage. In fact over and over again these devices have proved to be life savers across the world whether someone has crashed a vehicle in a remote place or been hurt on an expedition. The testimonials on their website speak for themselves.

Soon after this SPOT brought out their next generation of beacons, the Connect,  that enabled the user to send a brief text message, tweet or Facebook unpdate. This is all done by the unit connecting to a mobile phone from which you type in your message via an app. Combine this with the tracking service and a map that you can share, suddenly the world can follow your adventures. For limited time the Connect is available with a $50 rebate

But today arks another milestone as SPOT have launched the affordable SPOT Global Phone, a satellite communication device we can all use. With low per minute cost it provides an excel;lent way to stay in touch from the remotest of locations.  So happy travels and now their is no excuse for not calling your mother!

The last thing you want is to be in one of the world’s most spectacular places and not have the right equipment to capture your adventure or not know how to get the best images from your camera.

That means one of the biggest challenges is preparing for a photo or video shoot. The same goes for when we go on a shoot for a client like National Geographic or you join us on board the NG Explorer for an expedition with organized by Lindblad.

After many years of working for clients like National Geographic, in some of the world’s most difficult locations, we are sharing our secrets of the trade to help you get a head-start so you know what equipment to bring and how to use it.

Over the next few weeks we will be releasing a series of videos to get you started and sharing invaluable tips to make sure you are well prepared for your trip.

Episode One- Introduction

Booth Island, Antarctic Peninsula

This morning we had an amazing encounter with two very playful humpback whales who expressed their curiosity by coming up right next to us in our zodiacs, sometimes even swimming under the boats and giving us a gentle nudge. The zodiacs sat motionless and the whales swam from boat to boat, much to delight of the guests.

I chose to shoot stills today, as did my wife, Sisse Brimberg, giving us very unique and different perspectives. Normally we suggest carrying a long lens for shooting whales, but today, the wide-angle was the right choice. Never have we had such up close and personal encounters with these magnificent creatures. The skillful Linblad naturalists did an amazing job driving the boats, giving us great photo and video access, at the same time, without disturbing the animals behavior.

Photos by Sisse Brimberg & Cotton Coulson, ExpeditonWorkshops