A Primer on Filming Anole Behavior – Part 1

A field assistant, Sarah, films anole behavior in semi-natural enclosures

I’m in the midst of my fourth summer of field work, and over the course of this time, I have spent many hours filming male Anolis carolinensis. I’ve done this work under several conditions; one project involved filming known animals in the field, a second required filming staged encounters between males in the lab, and the final (and current) project has me filming animals in semi-natural enclosures. These experiences prompted me to create this post, which I hope will be useful to anole researchers and enthusiasts who are embarking on projects that involve capturing video of lizards doing the things that fascinate us. Today, I’ll begin with a discussion of cameras and in a later post, I will write about other equipment as well as some of the techniques I’ve employed to capture useful images.

The Camera

The most important piece of equipment. With the dizzying array of options available (amazon.com lists 839 results in its ‘Camcorders’ section), choosing a camera can be a daunting task. Nearly all of my work has used two different cameras, so while I can’t comment very broadly, there are some key features that I recommend.

The single most important feature is the ability to manually focus the image. Filming a lizard is done from a distance, and consequently, the animal takes up a very small amount of screen real estate. If the animal is on a twig or any other small perch, you may drive yourself crazy trying to get the auto-focus to pick it up. More likely you’ll end up with a clear image of the background and at worst, you’ll be unable to see what the focal animal is up to at all.

Fortunately, many modern camcorders have manual focus capabilities. Be warned that these work to varying degrees. For example, the camera I own allows the operator to focus by touching the viewfinder screen, but this method lacks the precision needed to get a clear picture of such a small target. The second camera I use regularly is on loan from my University’s Natural History Collection. It largely solves the problem by using a wheel for manual focus, which allows me to get a sharp image of the animal regardless of the background, or the lizard’s size relative to the frame.

Beyond focusing mechanism, there are other important choices regarding the camera. For example, high-def or standard? Hard-disk, digital DVD, or another format for capturing files. Do you need your videos GPS-tagged? What about still photos? Image stabilizing? Zoom capabilities? I can’t address each of these options in detail, but here’s a quick rundown of my experience.

The option for shooting in HD is nice, but there are drawbacks. The files are huge, so have a lot of hard drive space to back them up. As a tech-geek with a shiny new camera in hand, I started shooting films in HD in anticipation of creating the next viral youtube video, cashing in on the Hollywood movie rights, and going into early retirement, but I quickly ran into a major complication: it’s hard to do anything to these files. Want to edit some down for a talk? Need to score behaviors using other software? Want to watch them on your computer? If you answered yes to any of these, you may consider going standard definition. Except for the (terrible) software that came with my camera, most playback programs refused to play the files I created in HD (for the record, their extension is .mts). VLC is one exception, sort of. It’s free software and known to play many, many types of files, but playback of the HD video was jerky, bogged my computer down, and was, at worst, unusable. So I was forced to invest in a video conversion program, which gave me a great many choices of file type, but severely reduced the quality of the image to the point that they were worse than films shots in standard definition. Bottom line: until hardware and software advance enough to easily process these files, go with standard definition.

Regarding the actual physical storage of the images as they are captured, I prefer a hard disk drive (HDD) in the camcorder. The drives can be quite large (mine is 120 GB), and usually can be hooked to any computer via a USB connection, whereupon they appear as an external hard drive, allowing easy file storage and back up. Very convenient. Of course an HDD will fail eventually: caveat emptor. Solid state / flash memory card are available in some camcorders, and while their lack of moving parts makes them generally more durable, they offer less storage capacity and are more expensive.

GPS – Anolologists’ choice. I have it but keep it off to preserve battery life. If your research involves geographic variation or any other macro-spatial component, this may be a handy feature.

Taken with the Sony HDR-XR500

Still photos are very important to me. Many camcorders have the ability to capture still images of relatively high quality. I also prefer the option of snapping some stills as I’m recording. You never know what you might see.

Image stabilization in not necessary, but is likely to be integrated into any higher-end camcorder. It will definitely make things a little nicer for the poor undergrad whomever is watching/scoring the videos.

Zoom requirements may vary depending on which animals one is filming. Look especially at a camera’s optical zoom, as digital zoom invariably reduces image quality. For filming carolinensis, I’ve found that 12x optical zoom is adequate.

So, for those of you anole annal readers that have done filming of animals: what did you use? Any advice or experiences you’d care to share?

Stay tuned for the conclusion of this post, in which I’ll discuss techniques and additional equipment that I’ve found useful for capturing the behavior of our favorite lizards. I’ll try to dig up some video and more images to share as well.

2 thoughts on “A Primer on Filming Anole Behavior – Part 1

  1. By coincidence, Chipojolab today provided another perspective on what equipment to use when taking videos of lizard behavior. Check it out here.

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