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Rio Maranon

The following article was forwarded with permission by Nick Mawer. It's about a descent of the Rio Maranon in Peru, but was first published in an Audio-visual trade magazine and is obviously slanted in that direction, with commentary on the filming equipment and techniques used.

The PDX10 as an expedition camera

Running along the riverbank at an altitude of four thousand metres in the Cordillera Hauyhaush, Kyle ODonoghue was suddenly very pleased that he had opted to shoot the expedition on a Sony PDX10. Over a period of two months in July and August, O'Donoghue, a freelance miniDV cameraman documented the historic first descent by four paddlers of the last un-run tributary of the Amazon River, Peru's Rio Maranon. This is his story of the South African Rio Maranon Expedition 2004.

Kyle ODonoghue is a freelance cameraman whos taken a liking to action and adventure. He recently filmed a South African expedition down the Amazon River in Peru. Shooting conditions ranged from high altitude info-lithium-sucking cold to hot and incredibly humid conditions in the Amazon Jungle, says Kyle. Despite some shortcomings, the Sony PDX10 proved to be just the camera for the job. Kyle was initially invited on the expedition when the original crew failed to get sponsorship and the expedition suddenly needed someone who was gullible enough to pay his or her own way. I had roughly a month to prepare and after hours of research on the web I opted for the Sony PDX10, recalls Kyle. But his hours of research were almost in vain when his camera was stolen in Arequipa just days before the expedition was due to start. Fortunately I had a back-up camera which I was able to use, he recalls but it left me with no leeway. I knew we were going into an environment that would test the camera as much as it would test my abilities as a cameraman. I just had to hope that nothing else would go wrong.

Promises, promises

On many expeditions, activities have to be organized around the needs of a camera crew who move much more slowly than the people they are filming. Tim Biggs, the expedition leader, had previously been on a river expedition in Peru where the camera and back-up crew were bigger than the main expedition. They ultimately slowed down the whole trip and Tim made sure Kyle understood he wasnt prepared to have a repeat performance. I was determined not to be a hindrance to the team and wanted the shooting to feel very natural and unrehearsed, says Kyle. Initially I was promised I would be part of a back-up crew with a support vehicle. The idea was that wed meet the team every couple of days so that I could shoot footage. As the expedition neared set-off day, I was informed that the back-up crew had backed-off and the vehicle was no longer part of the equation. What does a man do? I became the back-up unit travelling on public transport between checkpoints in the gorge section. Thank God Id selected a compact camera.

Shooting with the camera

Kyle recalls his search for the right camera with a hint of a smile. Smaller single-chip cameras have been around for a while but until recently, they havent offered the picture quality for serious broadcast work. I was therefore very interested in the PDX10 when I began my search for a broadcast quality camera to lug on a journey covering 1800km. Over the course of the journey Id travel by donkey over treacherous mountains, by bus through mountain roads and along the river in an unstable kayak. I needed something light and portable. The PDX10 camera weighs a less than 1kg and looks like a handycam. It records in DVCAM mode and offers great resolution and picture quality in good light. It also has XLR sound inputs similar to the PD150. Because it is a small camera, all of the accessories are also small, light and generally very cheap. I supplemented the camera with a set of ND filters (the PDX10 unfortunately has no built in filters), a polarizer, mini parabolic reflector and wide-angle lens. I also had a small mini-fluid head tripod that worked amazingly. All of the gear, including the tripod, weighed just under 3kg. Handling the PDX10 is not as easy as its heavier PD cousins and when shooting in hand-held mode, was much more difficult than I thought it would be. I found myself using a tripod for everything except dynamic situations that required quick action. The camera has a 35mm lens that, although it delivers nice sharp images, is very limiting when pulling focus or working with variable focal lengths. To achieve more interesting shots you really have to stack the odds in your favour.

Being small had its problems

Water damage was obviously a huge consideration and Kyle initially wanted to buy a Peli-case to protect the camera while he was travelling in the kayaks. The paddlers objected to its size and so he was forced to choose a Watershed dry-bag. Its a soft camera bag with a zip-lock type seal, says Kyle and its completely waterproof. (On a previous trip he had discovered that normal dry bags dont deliver on the promise in their name) In addition to the Watershed bag he had an EWAmarine underwater housing for shooting in wet conditions. The waterproof housing proved light and easy to use but the handling of the camera inside the bag was difficult, he says. Using the housing he was able to mount the camera on the front of a kayak and capture shots as the paddlers attacked small rapids and progressed along the river.
Kyle found the inconspicuous size of the PDX10 very useful. I think if I had shot the documentary on a Canon XL1 or PD150, it would have been nearly impossible to get shots in small villages without arousing suspicion, he says. When people saw the camera we were using they didn't immediately play up to it. For third-world documentary making this is a real plus and additionally it meant there was less chance of problems with authorities at border posts. Kyle had originally planned to take a solar charger but ran into all sorts of complexities when charging lithium batteries. Instead we opted to buy additional batteries and charge them en-route in small towns that had electricity, he says. We were also very careful not to review footage or shoot with the LCD screen turned on in order to preserve battery power.

A few drawbacks

Despite his praise for the PDX10 Kyle is quick to recognise that it does suffer from some drawbacks. The most obvious is that it is basically a handycam and doesn't feel as professional as the bigger PDs. The eyecup is really small and can be uncomfortable when shooting for long periods of time. In addition the manual focus ring was not very useful and eventually seized. Also, the LCD screen was almost impossible to see in bright conditions. (I believe this problem has now been fixed and the new-model PDX10s are amazingly clear in bright sunlight). But my biggest disappointment with the PDX10 was the low light performance. With only a 7 lux rating, shooting in any low light situation is immediately noticeable due to visual noise. Vertical smear was also an issue and it was near impossible to shoot campfires, sunsets and sunrise without it.

A great little camera that proved its worth

After balancing the good with the bad Kyle reckons that the PDX10 is a great little camera. He acknowledges its drawbacks but reckons that it has one saving grace that makes it ideal for adventure or third-world documentary making. It is a light and extremely mobile one-person camera that delivers professional results, he says and you cant beat it on price. If youre prepared to work around its shortcomings itll deliver results every time.

The end of the beginning

Two months after starting their adventure the crew paddled into the confluence of the Ucayali River where the Amazon begins. With many hours of filming under his belt the expedition is over. Expedition leader Tim Biggs is the only person to have run all three major tributaries of the Amazon, says Kyle, proud to be part of the adventure. What remains now is to cut the raw footage into a documentary. Ive got some great footage that reflects on the power and raw beauty of the river. Its high impact stuff thatll have you hanging on by the seat of your pants.