Filming the Serengeti with the Alpha 7S III
I’m a Swiss photographer, filmmaker and cinematographer specialising in natural history in remote locations, mainly on big cats. I’ve dedicated my life to documenting the natural beauty of our planet and my aim is always the same: to approach nature right at its heart in order to raise awareness around the fragility of our earth and inspire action to preserve it.
I’m deeply committed to wildlife conservation and work closely with WildAid, an environmental organisation based in San Francisco with the aim of reducing demand for illegal wildlife products. In 2019, I launched Stay·WildTM, an online jewellery shop, where 50% of the profits generated are donated to non-profit organisations to support wildlife conservation projects. My work is represented by National Geographic Image Collection.
Our main project was to film the great wildebeest migration in the Serengeti in Tanzania. Every year 1.5 million wildebeest migrate in an enormous loop and it’s recognized as one of the ‘Seven Wonders of the Natural World.’
At this time of the year the wildebeest migrate to the North of the Serengeti where they cross the famous Mara river in an epic and dramatic fight against water, crocodiles and other predators. As the migration is in full swing, predators like lions and cheetahs are very active, each getting many opportunities to make a kill.
© Chris Schmid | Sony α7R IV + 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS + 1.4x teleconverter | 1/1250s @ f/7.1, ISO 400
First impressions of the Alpha 7S III
I’ve been an avid Sony user for years and now use the Alpha 9 II & 7R IV exclusively for my stills work, but I was keen to try the Alpha 7S III for filming.
For me, the best feature of the new camera is undoubtedly being able to shoot at 4k 4.2.2 50/60p, as well as the option to increase that to 100/120, still keeping the same bit-depth. I prefer to shoot in S-Log3 and colour grade my footage, so having 10-bit available is a must.
Touch focus and all the focus setting are also a very welcome addition to the Alpha 7S III. Being able to track a lion in long grass using a steadicam and touch focus on the Imaging Edge application was really important for us, and we didn’t feel the need to use follow focus motors on the steadicam. You can control all the camera settings at a distance without being worried.
The rolling shutter effect has also been drastically reduced compared to the Alpha 7S II and this was most noticeable when shooting on the steadicam.
And finally, being able to push the ISO was a key – not having to worry about using high ISO to get 50/60p even in low light was incredible, especially when big cats are active very early and late at night.
Chris frames a shot on his Alpha 7S III and FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS
We were fortunate to have 2 Alpha 7S III bodies for the shoot – one was partnered with the FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS for static shots on a tripod, and the other was paired with the FE 70-200mm f/2.8 G Master (and occasionally a 1.4x converter) for use on the Ronin 2 steadicam. Both setups also included the Atomos Ninja V for RAW recording straight out of the HDMI port.
Having the ability to control the steadicam camera from the Imaging Edge app was invaluable and we were able to switch settings quickly if the lighting changed.
Working in very hot conditions it wouldn’t have surprised me if one or both of the cameras showed signs of overheating, especially shooting at full resolution, but even leaving the cameras on for hours caused no issues.
Advice for wildlife video shooting
Don’t film everything in slow-motion. Even if it’s nice to have 100/120p it’s important to keep a rhythm between normal speed and slow motion; everything is about pace in your movie.
Spend some time setting up your camera using the memory function before heading out for your shoot. For example, my camera is setup on ‘M1’ for 50/60p, ‘M2’ for 25p and ‘M3’ for 100/120p so I can quickly change frame rate in a second.
It’s really important you understand the autofocus settings before you go on location to understand which will work best for you and for your lens. I mainly used Lock-on at setting 1 so the camera will try to lock on to my subject as quickly as possible, and AF Speed at setting 2 so it can refocus smoothly if it loses the tracking.
Don’t use also auto ISO when filming, as it can be tricky when you’re shooting something dark and the white balance will try to correct the colour temperature. Always use Sunny or Cloudy white balance depending on the shooting conditions.
If you can, add a big external monitor. If you’re working outside, the light can be pretty harsh and you really need to see what you’re doing.
One of the most important things is patience. You need to be patient and be prepared to wait for hours until something happens. Don’t try to rush everywhere as you’ll be missing the most beautiful footage.
And lastly try to change your focal length when you’re on location, making variations between wide shots and close-up shots to give you more options when it comes to editing.