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Documentary Filmmaker answers Top FAQs about Outdoor Photography and Video

Outdoor Curious™ with Trevor Frost
16 May 2022

Are you curious about how to manage camera batteries in the backcountry? Want some tips for more impactful vacation photos and videos? Eddie Bauer exploration guide, Trevor Frost is an outdoor documentary filmmaker and photographer with work featured in National Geographic, Pictures of the Year International, and Fotoweek DC. He’s answering your top questions about outdoor photography and filmmaking in this Outdoor Curious™!

00:28 – Are there specialized areas of outdoor photography and film?

Definitely. There’s adventure photography, there’s nature photography. Within adventure photography there’s different types, there’s mountaineering photography, there’s rock climbing photography. There’s more sort of like backpacking photography. The area that I’ve worked in predominantly has been in wildlife photography or cultural photography, all of which is outdoors. I focused a lot on wildlife over the last 10 years, especially where wildlife and people intersect. So how humans interact with nature.

01:01 – How do you shoot in the rain?

I have never figured out the right solution. And honestly, what happens when you become professional is you stop worrying about your equipment. When I first started, I babied my equipment. I took really, really good care of it. And now I look at it as a tool. I generally just expose my things to the elements in many cases. If it’s really raining, then I will have an umbrella that I kind of strap to my back or maybe there’s someone that’s holding it for me. The shot that you’re after or the video that you’re after is the most important thing. And so, sometimes you have to put your equipment at risk.

01:33 – How do you choose what to shoot?

It happens very organically. Both of the films that I’ve worked on or that I’m working on over the last five years of my life have been films that I sort of stumbled upon by accident. I focus entirely on what do I think that this story communicates, especially, I’m looking for universal elements in the story. So like, what are the universal elements that communicate to a much larger audience?

02:00 –  What are some of the best ethical practices when filming in sensitive areas?

So much of that involves respecting wildlife’s boundaries. And I think that really the same is true with people when you’re photographing people. Certainly, one of the first things that I do is if I’m asking someone else to let me into their life, I’m as vulnerable as possible myself. So I will share many things with them to help them let their guard down. In wildlife, a lot of it is just distance. It’s reading the animal signals. So if you’re getting too close to an animal and you see it getting uncomfortable, especially if it’s doing something, meaning that it’s exhibiting some type of behavior. If it’s just standing there, that’s very different than if it’s eating. Because if it’s eating, it’s not like when I eat or when you eat, it’s not really a part of our survival per se, because we have readily access to food. But if you’re a bear and you’re eating a salmon, for example, you need that energy in order to survive, because perhaps later on in the day, you’re gonna have to defend yourself. And so if I was a photographer and I started bothering that bear by getting too close to it, theoretically it could disturb it enough that it stops eating, doesn’t get the energy that it needs, and then it’s a cascade effect. So those are some things that I try to keep in mind when I’m photographing wildlife or people.

03:21 –  What is the best way to capture unpredictable subjects?

My motto is just roll all the time, which means that I’m constantly recording. Some cameras have this feature in them where it’s called prerecord, where when you hit the record button, it actually records several seconds before you hit it. So in the event that something happens and then you weren’t recording, you might be able to capture it, assuming that the camera was pointing at whatever is happening. To capture those moments that might never happen again, you really have to be rolling all the time. That requires a lot of hard drives, which obviously, requires a budget. One of the things that people assume when a photographer like someone like myself who’s worked with National Geographic, they assume that I go out and I take a hundred thousand pictures and 90% of them are good. Whereas it’s the opposite that is true. So I go out and take a hundred thousand pictures on an assignment and I probably have 300 that I would consider good. And maybe 10 that I would consider great. That’s the honest statistics. And that’s true for all the other photographers that I work with.

04:24 – Tips for what to capture to make my vacation or adventure interesting to other people.

If you want to take pictures that other people are gonna find interesting, then I think you really need to focus on telling a story with your images. So if I went on a trip to Costa Rica for 10 days, what’s the first thing that happens? Well, the first thing is I land in Costa Rica on a plane and then I probably rent a car and I drive to the coastline. So I would wanna make an image of myself driving in that vehicle to the coastline. Maybe it’s a picture of the car driving on a really windy road next to a waterfall in the jungle, something like that, something that tells people where I am. And then the next picture, obviously, would be of the ocean and the beach. And then the next picture, for example, would be hopefully of someone surfing. But you can start to see that all those pictures are building a story. And when you tell stories, I think that people find them interesting only because we’ve been telling stories since the dawn of humanity.

05:19 – You get paid to do this. How did you get started?

I didn’t get paid for a very, very long time. I mean, I did, but it was very small amounts of money. The way that I started was I got grants from National Geographic. I got a $5,000 grant and that was my very first into outdoor photography and filmmaking that took me to Central Africa to the country of Gabon to document caves. And then after that I got a couple more grants from National Geographic. It took about 15 years for me to finally start earning a living. And that’s not true for everyone. Some people probably achieve that quicker, but I think it’s a little bit harder in the editorial world. Meaning, when you’re out just telling stories that exist in the world versus doing commercial work where you’re working for companies. There’s a lot more work out there if you’re doing stuff for different brands, for example, than there is doing the type of work that I was doing. But it is possible.

06:11 – What is the best time of day to shoot?

Anytime. You’re gonna get different types of lighting. On a sunny day, it’s middle of the day, it isn’t usually the greatest time. Most people don’t consider it the greatest time, they consider the early morning and the late afternoon to be good. But what if what you’re photographing or filming is doing something really interesting in the middle of the day? Are you not gonna document it? So sometimes you have to. For example, a sunny day is very different from a cloudy day. So if you have a cloudy day, the lighting is very even, and it doesn’t matter. So you’re never gonna get any of the dramatic lighting. That’s why I kind of say like, anytime is really the best time to be doing it. It’s really much more about what is happening in front of you. If you’re photographing wildlife and you’re trying to tell a story about wildlife and you have that animal, whatever animal that is, doing some sort of unique behavior, you don’t want to wait for the right light because that unique behavior will probably only happen once. You want to capture it no matter what the lighting is.

07:10 – How do you form and compose your images?

I actually work in a very particular way. And I work in a way that I learned from someone else named Ed Kashi. He’s a well-known photographer and photojournalist. He always scans the outside of the frame, which means that, so his eye immediately goes to the edges of the frame, not the center. And the reason for that is that when something interesting is happening in front of him, he knows that that is in camera if he’s got it in the middle of the frame. He knows that whatever is going on, he’s gonna capture it. But all the drama is playing out in the edges.

07:44 – Do you ever use lighting equipment? And if so, what type?

When I used to do more still photography, I did use flash sometimes. I just used basic on-camera flashes. I photograph with all Canon equipment. But I wouldn’t ever use it on the camera. So in other words, I would connect the flash with a cable, a TTL cable to the top of the hot shoe on the camera, and then I would hold the flash off-camera so that the flash is coming from the side and not directly on, that gives you a much better effect, but you can get fancier than that. I never did, ’cause most of my work was photojournalism. So I wasn’t focused on doing stuff that’s overly stylized.

08:26 – How can I take better images with my phone?

For sure, if your phone has a setting that allows you to decrease the depth of field. Like, if I’m taking a picture of my cat, I always wanna try to get the depth of field down so that the background is blurry. Not all, at least sometimes it would look better with the background in place, but quite often I want to try to isolate the subject that I’m photographing with my phone.

08:49 – What lenses do you travel with? Do you have one that you use time and again?

A month ago I bought a brand new lens. It’s a Cannon, it’s 28 to 70 millimeters and it’s f/2. So it’s got a constant f/2 aperture throughout, which is really, really amazing. So basically, it’s like a prime lens, but it’s also a zoom. And I’m getting ready to take that to India, it’s my second film project, feature film project. And that lens, I think, is probably gonna become my go-to lens. But before that, I was using the 24 to 105 zoom lens f/4 constant aperture throughout. And then I also use the 35 mm prime a lot. I love the 35mm prime, it’s just an absolutely beautiful lens. And then the other lens, the last lens that I would mention is a 100mm macro lens. That lens is also amazing. It’s great for portraiture, but it’s also great for photographing small things. I have a huge passion for snakes. So photographing snakes with the macro lens has been something that I’ve been doing for four years now.

09:49 – What are your thoughts on the ethics of editing journalistic images for creative effect?

Well, when you work for a magazine that has photojournalistic standards, they give you a list of things that you’re allowed to do to your images. So you’re allowed to work on the blacks, you’re allowed to work on the exposure, but you’re not allowed to remove things. So that’s the main thing in photojournalism. You’re not allowed to remove things. You are allowed to crop, so you can crop something out, but you’re not allowed to use any of the tools in Photoshop. So if you’re in a program like Lightroom, for the most part, there’s not anything fancy in there that will allow you to break the rules.

10:26 – What’s your favorite go-to trick?

When I’m interviewing someone, I always make it a conversation. I think that a lot of people and everyone has different styles, and so, for some people it works okay doing it a different way. But for me, one of the things that I’ve found to be very successful when interviewing someone for a film that I’m working on is to have a conversation with them. So rather than having a list of questions that I ask them where they feel like they’re being interrogated, I just sit down and I start to talk to them. And I have, obviously, questions in my mind that I want to ask and I may have a list of questions that I need to cover, I know I have to cover these specific things. But rather than just straight up asking them the question, I just start off by talking to them.

11:11 –  What has been your most memorable photo?

If I had to choose one, if someone is gonna force me to choose one, it would be, I was in Australia working on a project on crocodile, saltwater crocodiles, which are the largest crocodile on earth. They can grow to be about 20 feet in length and weigh about 2000 pounds. They’re pretty amazing animals. We designed remote control boats with GoPros inside of them. And so these little cameras inside of these remote control boats, we would drive the remote control boats around the rivers and the lakes where the crocodiles were and the crocodiles would attack the remote control boats. And we were able to get video and images of them attacking these boats. So we were able to get what it looks inside, being inside of the jaws of a crocodile. And that was certainly one of the more memorable pictures and video clips that I’ve ever captured on camera.

11:59 – How do you achieve long exposures in the daytime when there’s harsh sunlight?

That’s a good question. Really simple. There are things called ND filters, which are neutral density filters. So a lot of times there’s screw-on filters, but sometimes they’re like a clamp-on filter as well. And what they do is they just darken everything. So they darken the film or they darken the sensor so that you’re able to get that long exposure during the daytime. So if you’re photographing, for example, a waterfall and you want to slow it down so that you get that blur effect on the water, you would want to have an ND filter, a neutral density filter, with you and then you’ll be able to get that done.

12:35 – What are some good ways to create depth of field in your images?

The main way to get depth of field in your images is to lower your F-stop, which is your aperture.

12:44 – How do you charge batteries in the middle of nowhere?

So sometimes it’s almost impossible to charge batteries ’cause we may be on the move and we can’t carry the equipment that we would need to charge them. So I actually just carry enough batteries to last me the entire time. So I was working on a project in the Amazon for three years and we were in the middle of nowhere and we did have solar panels and they would allow us to charge batteries some, but not a ton. And so what I did, if I was going down for two weeks, I would bring down 20 batteries. And that way I would have enough batteries to last me the entire trip. And then I could charge a little bit if I needed, if for some reason I burned through more batteries than I thought, I did have solar panels. So there’s a number of different companies that make small solar panels that you can travel with and you can set them up outdoors, that they’re waterproof, et cetera. They’re pretty amazing, they do a good job, but you obviously need a lot of sun. And in the rainforest, it was really hard to get that. So carry a ton of batteries. That’s probably the best solution out there.

13:41 – What is the best lens to capture aerial shots?

If you’re trying to zoom in on a section of the landscape, then you would want a telephoto lens, like a 70 to 200 or a 400. And if you want a wide shot, then you would want a wide lens, like a 16-35 or a 17 to 40. But a lot of that is also gonna depend at the altitude that you’re at. So if you’re in a small plane and you’re flying at a low altitude, you can photograph with a wide angle lens, like a 16 to 35 or a 17 to 40. If you’re in a plane at high altitude, you’re not really gonna get an image that looks good if you shoot with a wide angle lens. So you’re gonna have to shoot with a telephoto lens. And if you’re using a drone, a lot of times they have a built-in lens and it’s usually built-in wide. So it’s set at a wide because you’re not gonna fly that high normally.

14:31 – Have you ever chosen to put the camera down instead of taking the shot?

I have done that. I’ve done that on number of occasions. I’ve done that sometimes because whatever I’m with, for example, this is a really good example actually. This past summer I was in Dominica, which is a small Caribbean country, and they’re famous for being a beautiful island with beautiful people, lots of rain forest, but they’re also famous for having sperm whales and they have resident sperm whales that live there year round. And I was very fortunate to be able to spend time swimming and photographing sperm whales. There were a few occasions when what was happening was so special that I decided not to film it. Sometimes the camera does, in my opinion, get in the way of remembering it. And I just wanted to remember it for myself and not be documenting it for anyone else. So I also put the camera down on a film that I was working on not too long ago where one of the subjects in the film was having a really difficult time and it made sense to put the camera down and to help that person rather than film. So that was an ethical decision to not be filming in those moments and to help the person instead. So I think at the end of the day, you have a responsibility as a storyteller to help people. And I think, on some occasions potentially even help animals unless it’s something natural that’s happening. I would never interfere with a predation event, but if I saw an animal that was caught in a net or in a trap or anything like that, I would definitely put the camera down to intervene.


Exploration Guide

Trevor Frost is an explorer, filmmaker, and photographer with an obsession for sharing stories that explore the human relationship with nature. He received his first grant from the National Geographic Society at 22 and at 29 completed his first feature story as a photographer for National Geographic Magazine. Over the last decade, Trevor has worked on every continent except Antarctica , often in remote and difficult environments, like rainforests and caves.

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