From dusty deserts to dim firesides: filming in Namibia with the Canon EOS C200

Brent Stirton photographs Namibian tribespeople by the fire, as Spencer MacDonald films him using a Canon EOS C200.
Brent Stirton used the Canon EOS R to shoot fireside scenes as well as those in bright sunlight, so filmmaker Spencer MacDonald needed a video camera that could film it all – the Canon EOS C200 proved more than capable.

For filmmakers, every job brings its share of technical and logistical challenges, and none more so than the task American-born film director Spencer MacDonald faced when making a documentary in rural Africa with the Canon EOS C200. Filming with a skeleton crew in Namibia in less than a week, while traveling more than 700 kilometres over dusty roads, there was no chance of a reshoot, so the pressure was on to get it right.

The team was shooting behind-the-scenes footage of world-renowned photojournalist Brent Stirton photographing the culture of three tribes living across the vast Namibian desert. Brent was to test the Canon EOS R full-frame mirrorless camera's performance in tough conditions – its ruggedness with dust, vibrations and the punishing travel schedule. He was also testing its ability to shoot in low light by firesides and handle massive contrast with the blazing overhead sun in the day. The shoot would not only test the Canon EOS R to its limits, but also the filmmaking equipment that Spencer was using to document the trip.

Spencer needed a portable weather-resistant cinema camera with a large sensor to give a cinematic look, which was also packed with essentials such as professional audio inputs, built-in ND filters and a long battery life. As the vast majority of documentaries and commercials that Spencer shoots are recorded in RAW format for ultimate quality, that was essential, too. But he wanted to avoid a RAW format that uses too much memory space and needs separate recording devices. That list of must-haves led him to the only video camera that fit the bill – the 4K Canon EOS C200.

Canon Professional Services

Do you own Canon kit?

Register your kit to access free expert advice, equipment servicing, inspirational events and exclusive special offers with Canon Professional Services

Filming in RAW

"I was shooting RAW all the time, which for me is the biggest benefit of this camera," says Spencer. "It shoots in Cinema RAW Light format, which gives manageably small file sizes, yet the footage has all the strengths and advantages of RAW. In shooting it, it's easier to expose as you have more dynamic range. And with Namibia being so sunny with intense shadows, we wanted to capture as much detail as possible."

Spencer's journey in filmmaking began with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II so he quickly got the feel of the Canon EOS C200, finding the menus intuitive and easy to navigate. Without the luxury of doing extensive tests with the camera before the shoot, Spencer had just one morning to get a feel of the camera and to check the results, but knew it was right for the job.

"I was instantly impressed by the EOS C200," he says. "The picture was super-cinematic, and I loved the way the shadows rolled off. In the desert, there is already a cinematic quality to the scenery and the camera enhanced it. It gave us total confidence in what the camera could do. And after using it every day, I really got to like the camera a lot, and was very impressed by it."

A Canon EOS C200 video camera.
Spencer says he found the Canon EOS C200 intuitive to use to film his documentary.

Picking a rugged cine lens

Although Spencer had been to Africa three times before, it was his first trip to Namibia. He knew it was going to be very windy and dusty and he'd be under pressure to shoot quickly. With a matte box fitted to the lens to take filters, regularly changing lenses would not only be too long and fiddly a process, but would expose the lens and camera to dust.

He therefore chose one of the best optics for moviemaking, used in many documentaries – the Canon CN7x17 KAS S E1/P1 cinema lens. It offers not only stunning 4K optical performance, but also a massive 7x magnification with its 17-120mm focal length range. Beautiful shallow depth of field effects with soft bokeh are made possible with the fast T2.95 maximum aperture. It has a removable servo drive unit and is sealed against the elements.

"I've never had a cine zoom that goes from 17-120mm by just pushing a button with your thumb," says Spencer. "It made shooting so easy, as I didn't want to switch lenses in the desert. I got to punch in tight without moving the camera. Without that lens it would have been impossible."

Brent Stirton strides across the desert at dusk with his camera, as Spencer MacDonald films him using a Canon EOS C200.
The desert areas of Namibia were particularly challenging to work in, with dust and wind to contend with for the filmmakers and for Brent.
A Namibian desert scene at sunset, photographed by Brent Stirton on a Canon EOS R.
However, the deserts were also incredibly beautiful, as Brent's still photographs show. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lens at 45mm, 1/20 sec, f/4.0 and ISO640. © Brent Stirton
A behind the scenes shot of the figures in Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs movie being filmed.

Behind the scenes of Wes Anderson's film Isle of Dogs

Director of Photography Tristan Oliver reveals how this stop motion feature film was made, and why it took 80 powerful Canon DSLRs to shoot it.

The larger lens meant that Spencer shot mainly on his shoulder, to balance the weight. He says, "The EOS C200 is normally quite portable but I had it on a shoulder mount 90% of the time. The lens is almost double the size of the camera, so it ended up as a large rig."

The Canon EOS C200 has the groundbreaking Dual Pixel CMOS AF with touchscreen touch-to-focus technology, which has revolutionised how cinematographers can work, finally moving away from the traditional manual-focusing. The camera's advanced EVF allows focus peaking and waveform monitoring to ensure the images are sharp and correctly exposed.

"For this job we had an assistant cameraman pulling focus who was amazing," Spencer continues. "The focus was always perfect as the lens handles so well. Using AF is not my way of working, but I think it could be cool if you were doing stuff by yourself. I would have liked to have used the camera and lens on a gimbal, but with the time it took to set it up for each shot, it just wouldn't have been possible."

Brent Stirton crouches down to photograph tribeswomen singing and dancing, as Spencer MacDonald films him using a Canon EOS C200.
To record scenes such as the local people singing, Spencer used an on-camera shotgun microphone.

Recording sound amid cinematic scenery

Instead of using external recorders for audio, Spencer used a combination of an on-camera shotgun microphone for many of the shots, with a lavaliere lapel mic for close-up interviews. This was all handled by the Canon EOS C200's twin XLR inputs and professional audio controls. As for battery life, the team didn't have to resort to large external battery packs but instead used a handful of the standard Canon batteries that just clip into the rear of the camera and don't affect balance. "They lasted a long time," says Spencer. "Power was never an issue."

The professional kit may have been totally reliable and predictable, but nothing could have prepared Spencer for Namibia's stunning scenery.

The shoot itself was fast-paced and diverse, with a punishing schedule that saw the team driving every day for two to six hours across bumpy roads in their four-wheel drive. Once on location, the team shot from morning until night, with intense sun and strong wind to contend with.

Two women wearing colourful shawls sit in dim light, photographed by Brent Stirton on a Canon EOS R.
"I've never worked with a photographer who lights subjects in the field like that for documentary work," says Spencer. "With Brent, I felt like I was on the set of a movie." Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/125 sec, f/2.5 and ISO800. © Brent Stirton
Two boys build a fire, photographed by Brent Stirton on a Canon EOS R.
While Brent's photographs were full of atmosphere and colour, Spencer loved that his documentary footage straight out of the camera looked similarly "incredible." Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/400 sec, f/1.4 and ISO3200. © Brent Stirton

"We filmed right through the day, whenever Brent was shooting," Spencer says. "We worked around what Brent was doing as his shots with the EOS R were the main focus. I had to film what he was shooting from exactly the same angle, or else I'd be in his shot. I didn't want to ruin what Brent was doing. I got to watch his style and I've never worked with a photographer who lights subjects in the field like that for documentary work. With Brent, I felt like I was on the set of a movie."

Namibia's stunning scenery also helped with the fantastical feel. "It was amazing, every place you went was a different desert ecosystem," he says. "At times it felt like you were travelling on a different planet." The final footage was worked into two edits – a main film, and a longer director's cut – showcasing the beauty of the location, the incredible people who call it home, and the vibrant photography of Brent Stirton.

"Straight out of camera, the footage looked incredible, as the light in the desert is so different. The art direction was already there and is perfect as there's nothing artificial. Everything looked beautiful to the eye, and the way the camera handled skin tones and shadows was really nice," says Spencer. "I'm so proud of the final films as they look beautiful. I chose the right camera and lens and it really paid off."

Autor Adam Duckworth

Spencer MacDonald's kitbag

Key kit for filmmaking on the move

Filmmaker Spencer MacDonald buttons up a striped shirt.

Video camera

Canon EOS C200

Compact and versatile high-performance camera for a wide range of shooters that captures sharp 4K 50P images. "It shoots a Cinema RAW Light which gives manageably small file sizes, yet the footage has all the strengths and advantages of RAW," says Spencer.

Cine lens

Canon CN7x17 KAS S E1/P1

Offering stunning 4K optical performance, 7x magnification with a 17mm-120mm focal length and featuring a servo drive unit, it's ideal for shooting scenarios where mobility is key. "I got to punch in tight without moving the camera," says Spencer. "It made shooting so easy – without that lens it would have been impossible."

Related articles

View All

Get the newsletter

Click here to get inspiring stories and exciting news from Canon Europe Pro

Sign up now