Sailing movies: How we do it – Part 1

From time to time I get questions about how we make our YouTube sailing movies, like which camera and software we use, which editing workflow we go through, and so on. I thought to share it all here, with one disclaimer. We do not pretend to be professional film makers and we definitely still have a lot to learn and improve, so take the following just for what it is, a summary of our own experience up this point and some mistakes we have learned to avoid along the way.

Video equipment

Currently we use a Sony CX730 for dry filming and a GoPro Silver Edition for wet/under-water filming. Both can film in HD and are usually set to 1280 x 720p, 50 frames per second.

Sony_HDR_CX730E_Sonnenblende

Sony CX730

The Sony CX730 has a built in mechanical image stabilizer that helps when filming from a rolling surface (aka a boat) or while walking. We also own an original underwater housing for it, but we never used it so far because I (Marco) do not entirely trust it! Probably a candidate to end up on eBay any time soon. For the wet, we opted for a GoPro instead.

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GoPro Hero 3 Silver Edition

The Sony has a high-quality Zeiss lens with a good optical zoom, plus it can do macros and close-ups. The GoPro on the other hand has a fixed optic, with its signature extra-wide angle look and fish-eye effect. While it doesn’t have a display (well, it could have one, but as a paid option), the GoPro comes with a free application to view live on your iPhone/iPad what the camera is seeing and, in the latest version, also play back the recordings.

We also carry around our beloved Canon 7D, which also has filming capabilities, but we use it only for still photography at this point. In future we will experiment more with the 7D because it can get that unique shallow depth-of-field look that makes everything seem so cool!

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Canon EOS 7D

There are two very important aspects to consider when filming with multiple cameras:

  1. Make sure the clocks on all cameras are synchronised on the same time and date. I (yes, it’sMarco again!) made the mistake to not synchronize the clock on the Sony with the one on the GoPro while filming our trip around the Whitsundays – Australia and ended-up with an unknown time offset between the different clips. It has been a nightmare to re-align everything and make sure they came in the correct temporal sequence. I had to rely on Desiree’s powerful memory to accomplish this daunting task!
  2. Check that all the cameras are set to the same aspect ratio. If you try to combine an “old” 4:3 with a more modern 16:9 or even a 1:2.35 (cinema look), you will end up having to crop part of your footage or compensate with black stripes above/below, also called letterboxes, or left/right, also called pillarboxes. We had this issue with our BVI’s videos, where the underwater footage was 4:3 and the rest was 16:9. If you watch carefully on YouTube you will note how the two formats are actually different, with the 16:9 footage having letterboxes.

Audio equipment

Having a good quality sounds is extremely important for any kind of movie and is often an overlooked factor. You can have shaky images from time to time and your viewer will not be bothered too much by it, but having a bad audio is really a show-stopper.

Take for example one of the first movies we did, Sailing in the Greek Ionian Sea. It was entirely filmed with a Canon PowerShot D10, a non-HD waterproof camera, which has pretty decent video quality but rather poor audio capabilities, especially when filming a speaking subject from the distance or with some wind coming through. For that video we got quite some comments lamenting that our audio was really bad! On the newer camera models, like the Canon PowerShot D20, the audio has been greatly improved. A quick note: Despite the audio quality, this movie has almost 250.000 views as of today, so viewers have been anyway merciful to us. Thank you! 🙂

Speaking of good audio, you would probably guess that while filming on a sailing boat there may be wind blowing on your microphone from time to time. We found that relying on any internal “digital mega super wind noise suppression magic function” usually available on most cameras produces nothing but unacceptable results. You can still hear the wind loud and clear and the dialogues are somehow muffled by the wind suppression function.

Two possible solutions here, one free and the other not:

  1. Choose a location for the camera protected from the wind, like under the spray-hood or with your back to the wind, so you protect the camera with your body. If you have someone to help, you can also have them hold something (a piece of cardboard) upwind the camera to screen it from the wind.
  2. Use a dead cat to protect your camera’s mic from the wind. Most prosumer cameras have it as an option even for their internal microphone, or you can opt for an external one that can mount a dead cat.

Recently we added a Rode Videomic Pro with a pretty decent dead cat to our bag of tricks. It can work both with the Sony (through a small accessory adapter) and the Canon 7D (directly on the flash hot-shoe). The mic output connects to the external mic plug on both cameras. The only disadvantage is that the Rode video mic is dual channel stereo, so the Sony CX730, which would normally record in Dolby Surround 5.1, reverts to dual channel stereo as well. With the 7D, which has a very basic internal mono microphone, it makes a huge difference in sound quality! Another plus is that the Rode microphone is directional, allowing you to better isolate a dialogue from the surrounding ambient noise.

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Rode Videomic Pro

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Rode Videomic Pro with dead cat

Regarding the GoPro camera, the audio it can record through the underwater enclosure is good for… well, just underwater! Loud noises (like engines, etc.) will also come through properly, but the sound is totally muffled when it comes to speak or ambient. If you intend to use the GoPro to record pretty good sound on the dry, you should at least exchange the closed lid of the underwater enclosure with the open one (just don’t put the camera underwater if you do so!) The GoPro doesn’t have an external microphone plug, so there is no solution to this problem beside recording the audio with a separate external device.

Along these lines, we also bought a relatively inexpensive Rode smartLav lavalier microphone, that can be plugged into an iPhone or iPod touch and turn it into a separate voice recording device. Definitely a cheaper solution than a set of radio-microphones, but it requires the audio to be resynchronised in post production. We haven’t tried it extensively yet, so more comments after we have had the chance to use it in the field.

Rode smartLav

Rode smartLav

Other gears

We intend to travel as light as possible, so bringing along many other gears is out of discussion and according to Desiree I already have too much stuff with me!

One item though that may improve your video quality to a great extent is a tripod. The built in mechanical stabilizer in the Sony CX730 does a pretty good job, but it cannot compete with a tripod when filming from a fixed location. If you do not have a tripod you can always lay the video camera on any available (flat) surface. Try it next time and you will see how more professional your videos will look like. Currently we own a Silk Pro EZ.

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Silk Pro EZ tripod

I have to admit that I do not use a tripod as often as I should, mostly because our videos are totally spontaneous and are not staged (I told you we are not professionals!), so I often do not have the time to take it out and set it up. I favor grabbing the moment over taking a perfect shot.

For walking or action shots, another useful gear would be a steady-cam like device. Once again, the mechanical stabilizer built into the Sony solves this partially, but the stability provided by a good steady-cam device is difficult to match. The professional ones are expensive and heavy, so unsuitable to be carried around on a boat. There are however lighter solutions, especially if your camera is not too big. Lately we bought a (much) cheaper version of the Glidecam, especially to be used with the 7D and possibly with the Sony, but we have yet to try it.

This is it for Part 1. In Part 2 I will talk about software and our editing workflow, including some tricks we learned along the way. If you have any questions or would like to share with us some of your learning, you can leave a Comment below.

With love,
Marco and Desiree

Full disclosure: none of the above mentioned brands sponsors us… but if they would like to, we are open to the possibility! 😉

2 thoughts on “Sailing movies: How we do it – Part 1

  1. Hello Marco and Desiree,

    We have been watching and enjoying your videos and just now discovered your blog. Thanks so much for sharing how you make your videos; we have been learning through trial and error and you have a lot of helpful advice on here. It has been fun getting to know you via the web and hope our paths cross someday in the future.

    Thanks again,

    Peter for the S/V Nadejda Crew

    • Hello Peter, Molly, Caleb, Adelaide, Annika, Katie, Elaine, Michael and Gabe!
      Thank you very much for stopping by our blog. We also enjoy your videos and are following your adventures through your blog.
      Peter, your pictures and your films are something special. The musical score together with Adelaide adds the final touch to your production. Please keep them coming, no matter how much work it is (and we know it is indeed a lot)! 🙂
      We also wish to drop Kismet’s anchor close to Nadejda one day, then we can have a pizza all together!
      A big hug to you all.
      Marco and Desiree
      s/v Kismet

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