PHOTO: Karen Lanier
Karen Lanier
July 31, 2017

Just outside your door, dramas play out, all day and all night. Life-and-death battles are waged, and our farms and gardens have the scars to prove it. Weird and wonderful creatures commit bizarre acts of survival. Life in the natural world moves at unseen speeds and is manipulated by subtle and deceptive beauties. Watch any of Sir David Attenborough’s series, and you might be inspired to capture the action on your own property. Making a mini documentary using video or a series of still photos of your garden can be fun and simple.

documentary frog
Karen Lanier

Equip Yourself

Start small and make it easy on yourself. You need not buy telephoto lenses, nestcams or motion-sensors, although these are the tools of the trade if you get really serious about documenting your farm or garden’s wildlife. If you work with domestic animals, such as goats, pigs, chickens, ducks or horses, any point-and-shoot or phone camera will get you close enough to the action to make a documentary. The key is to carry it with you. One of my photography students simply walks her neighborhood with her cell phone and makes a point of creating one interesting photograph each time she walks. This trains her eye to tune in to her surroundings and notice that the same scenes she passes every day always have something new to offer, if she looks for it.

documentary spider
Karen Lanier

Many gardeners and farmers try to take quick snapshots or videos and end up with blurry, blown out or underexposed shots that aren’t worth keeping. Here are some techniques to prevent that.

  • Use a tripod or a makeshift camera support such as a fence post or tree stump. At a minimum, hold your camera with two hands and brace your elbows into your body.
  • To stop action and reduce hand-held camera shake, set your camera’s shutter speed to a fast setting, or select a scene setting that is intended for sports.
  • For small-scale subjects, such as insects, use a macro setting for sharper images at close range.
  • Zooming in magnifies any movement, so move your body closer to your subject before you use the zoom.
  • Override your camera’s exposure with a compensation feature found on most phones and point-and-shoot cameras. The symbol looks like +/- and indicates adding or subtracting brightness from the scene. Remember to reset it when you move into different lighting.
  • Using video on small devices usually consumes a lot of battery and memory, so use video sparingly. If you can capture the subject in a still image, it’s likely to be higher quality. A series of three-to-five nice stills can tell a great story even without motion.

Choose A Subject

What’s going on that intrigues you? What do you want to understand better? What is beautiful or strange? Maybe there’s a raccoon visiting your corn or your chicken coop. Or a beetle that is making itself at home in your blackberries. Maybe your pumpkin patch is the healthiest ever, and you want to create a story that centers on the growth of the plants there. Perhaps your creative mind envisions setting a scene in your garden and simulating a funny story. Maybe you are very curious and very patient; you can set up your camera where you see signs of animal activity and wait undercover until something arrives.

documentary squirrel
Karen Lanier

Whatever the subject, choose one you care about, and pay attention as the story unfolds naturally. What makes a story? A series of images with a beginning, middle and end. Stories usually include some type of tension, climax and resolution. At best, a documentary shares a story that is factual, provokes thought, conveys feelings and clearly shows why the audience should care.

Here are a couple of practice techniques for finding a good subject and not scaring it away.

  • Limit yourself: Take a hula hoop, or a 10-foot section of rope or garden hose, and define a small boundary where you are confined to making observations. Think of this space as if it were your entire farm, on a tiny scale. Notice and count the diversity of plants in this area. What insects or signs of larger animals do you find? What is the soil like? Where is the shade and sun? Take only 10 photos within these boundaries. Then, allow yourself to look beyond the boundary, and take only 10 photos from within the boundaries, looking outward. What did you notice that was new or that you were unaware of before?
  • Blend in: Each time you go out in the garden or farm, try to become part of the background. Time your documentary visits to the same time of day, wear the same clothing, and sit quietly in the same place for several days in a row. Notice wehther the birds and other wildlife come closer or behave differently. If you try this same technique with your farm animals, how do they behave?

Observe & Capture

Dive into resources such as your local library, extension office, garden supply store or the internet, and you’ll probably find some good information on your documentary subject that will inform how you approach it. It’s also fun to let new information inspire a tangent. For example, my native plants club had a garden tour, and a knowledgeable gardener showed me that monarch butterflies lay their eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves. Learning about monarch eggs, I also noticed a tiny egg that extended out from a thin filament, and learned that it was a lacewing egg, a beneficial garden predator. Next time I saw this beautiful, transparent-winged insect on my window screen at night, I grabbed my camera so I could match up the photo of the adult with its egg photo. Maybe it’s not the makings of a blockbuster movie, but it created a deeper connection between me, my garden, the undersides of the leaves and the fascinating creatures that live there. For me, that’s enough of a reason to do a little research and pay attention to what appears in front of me.

documentary leaf eggs
Karen Lanier

Edit & Share

Strike a balance between hoarding all your shots and oversharing. In this media-saturated society, we could use more quality and less quantity of homemade movies. Who doesn’t have loads of digital files that just take up space? As a photographer or videographer, you are constantly an editor. You choose what goes in the frame, and you choose what stays out of it. Likewise, be selective about keeping only the best, clearest, sharpest and most telling shots. Let the pictures in your documentary speak for themselves. Imagine the series of images you select needs no narration or explanation. If you believe the story lends itself to musical accompaniment, be certain that the lyrics are well-timed and meaningful. Better yet, use instrumental music that complements the tone of your images—playful, morose, suspenseful, romantic, earthy—whatever feeling you want the story to evoke. Again, don’t overthink it. Just keep it simple.

As an example, here are two quick videos of the same subject, a bumblebee foraging in the flowers of a common milkweed, but the mood is very different with two different music tracks.

Now observe the same footage with a different score.

When you’ve finished your mini documentary, share it on social media as well as YouTube or Vimeo. Tell people via email, or invite folks over for a screening and potluck. Be specific about the type of feedback you’d like to hear. If you’re getting into filmmaking and want to up your game, ask for thoughtful critiques. If you just want to know how others have approached a similar problem in their gardens, ask for that input.

documentary spider web
Karen Lanier

If you are not motivated to share your artistic endeavor, you can simply document what is important to your farm or garden’s management, whether it be watching your composting transform into humus or your pollinator garden humming with life. The harmony of natural processes, the rhythms of the sounds outdoors, and the healing qualities of slowing down and noticing the world around you are more valuable than the number of likes your mini documentary gets on Facebook. When you can’t be out in the field, it’s refreshing to have your short video at your fingertips and play it back whenever you need a dose of nature’s reality TV.


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