Adventure Film
Credit: Kevin Callan

Life is getting easier (and cheaper) when it comes to capturing your own adventure film.

I remember back in the early 1990s, working on a film in northern Ontario’s Wabakimi Provincial Park and having to pack in a car battery to keep the camera charged. It didn’t take long before solar panels took over and the days of lugging a car battery through the wilderness was a thing of the past.

The camera choices themselves have also changed dramatically. I simply can’t imagine the ordeal that legendary filmmaker, Bill Mason, and his cameraman, Ken Buck, had while paddling northern rivers with massive cameras, tripods and rolls of film. Not only that, but they didn’t even know if they got the proper shots until they returned home to the darkroom. It would have been an impossible task filming my past project — Once Around Algonquin — with Mason’s equipment, or even what I used back in the early 90s. The 20-day route consisted of 93 portages, adding up to 68 km!

What film equipment I ended up bringing on that trip worked perfectly. I packed the common GoPro for a few scenes, but my main camera choice was something new to me — a Sony NEX-5R (with wide angle and 55-210mm lenses).

I wanted something small and lightweight and that could capture both broadcast-quality film and high-res digital photographs. Originally, I contemplated buying a DSLR or a high quality camcorder. The camcorder wouldn’t allow for taking high quality photographs and the major drawback with that DSLR was the high cost. The Sony NEX-5R was a mere $500. I literally saved a few thousand dollars.

The NEX-5R is a mirrorless camera. That’s what allows it to be so small and compact. A DSLR works differently — it uses a mirror to divert the light from the lens into the viewfinder. You see what exactly the camera sees. When you click the shutter the mirror lifts out of the way, and an image sensor captures the photo. With a mirrorless camera, the light passes directly through the lens. The image is viewed on a screen. This is just like a point-and-shoot camera or the camera on your phone. The experts claim that a DLSR creates a far better image and better focus control than a mirrorless camera. I’m going to assume they’re right. I don’t consider myself an expert. What I do know is that I came back from my time in the wilderness with some amazing broadcast-quality video, amazing RAW photographs and a few extra dollars in my pocket. I also wasn’t overburdened with high-tech camera gear while portaging 68 km.

The Sony NEX-5R has a 16-megapixel APS-C sensor and is capable of shooting 1080p HD video at up to 60fps and up to 10fps continuous shooting. It also has some really cool extras like Wi-Fi connectivity and a really good autofocus system. A much improved  model when it comes to Wi-Fi is the new Sony NEX-5T, and the even newer Sony a6000 when it comes to autofocusing (this camera is definitely my next purchase for this season’s trips).

There were other brands simpler to Sony but the one thing the NEX-5R had was a flip screen. This is important if, most of the time, you’re recording yourself. Having a flip screen makes a huge difference.

The only issue I had with using the Sony NEX-5R was its touch screen — it loved eating battery power and it was difficult to view the screen in bright sunlight. I fixed both issues, however. I packed four batteries and my Goal Zero Guide-10 solar system to deal with the battery issue, and I made a makeshift viewfinder out of sheets of black foam and Duct tape to block the sunlight. Both worked.

Audio was also a slight issue. The Sony camera had an okay built in microphone but not good enough for doing something like interviews. It also doesn’t have the ability to mount a third-party shotgun mic. That’s a negative that I hope Sony changes. However, I purchased the Sony mic that matches the camera. It worked fine and wasn’t too expensive. As a backup, I also packed a Zoom H1 Handheld Stereo Microphone and attached it to the top of the camera with a homemade slide bar. The audio system was solved.

Another bonus is the apps available for download. Some were free and others you had to pay for. I heard complaints about having to pay for extra apps but I didn’t find the cost of $2 to  $5 to be a real issue. The best app was the $5 time-lapse. I loved this feature and became addicted to using it out on trip. However, I had to deal with the increased battery usage each time I filmed a storm moving in or stars shooting across the night sky.

Quite simply I don’t think you can get a much better camera for the size and weight (and price). I’m guessing you can get an even better deal on the NEX-5R right now. The Sony NEX-5T is the latest replacement. You might even consider paying a few hundred more on the new Sony a6000. It’s got the same capabilities of the other models, with a bumped up processor and better resolution. It’s also got an eye-piece to help with the sun glare on the screen and an insanely faster autofocus system. It’s something worth considering.

Remember, however, the one thing that hasn’t changed in film production is the importance of telling a good story. If you don’t have that ability then no new technology can save your adventure film project.

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