The lens I couldn't shoot without: Sophie Darlington on her wildlife filming career with a Canon CN20x50 lens

Sophie Darlington films penguins in Antartica with Canon lenses.
Cinematographer Sophie Darlington has travelled the globe filming wildlife, most recently visiting Antartica to film the Penguins feature film for Disneynature. © Disneynature

"I am a wildlife cinematographer by accident, but I've always loved light. If I see something that has light on it, it almost physically hurts not to capture it." Sophie Darlington is a cinematographer with instincts as strong as the creatures she captures.

A BAFTA-winning wildlife filmmaker working at the forefront of her industry, her projects take her around the globe for months at a time. In them, she provides insight into nature's largely unseen moments, giving them the attention they deserve as well as raising concerns over conservation issues.

Her approach is both practical – "fast, good glass is key" – and artistic, where "that alchemy of light and nature come together" to make her cinematic sequences. With beauty, she says, "you can make people really feel". And in a modern world estranged from nature, it's the ability to put her viewers within the world of her subjects that matters.


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"I think initially, I just wanted to work and film wildlife," she explains during a break that finds her back in her home city of London, England. "I do want to film in the natural world, but... wouldn't it be great to make a difference? Wouldn't it be great to inspire people? That would be an amazing outcome." With an apologetic turn, she continues: "That sounds really worthy, doesn't it? But it's true."

In her late teens, Sophie was working and living in Tanzania, where she met a BBC film crew passing through in what turned out to be a "lightbulb moment" that set the course for her career. "They told me to go to film school," she says, but she didn't do that. Instead, she got a job as a camp manager for Hugo van Lawick who was married to the pioneering primatologist Jane Goodall – Hugo filmed her for National Geographic. Over several years, Sophie learned how to film in the Serengeti.

As the Disneynature feature film Penguins – a coming-of-age story about an Adélie penguin named Steve, set in the Antarctic spring – and another series on a lion pride in the Maasai Mara receive critical acclaim, she talks to us about her career, gear and goals. It's not a path she expects can be mimicked, but it is one that will inspire.

Lions are one of your specialist subjects – can you tell us a bit about that?

"Yes. I've filmed lions all over Africa and east Africa, and they fascinate me. But I've still felt that there was a lion film that could be made which would give a fresh angle… not about hunting or killing, but about family. So many of the amazing wildlife shows on right now are sequence-driven, so you'll have maybe six minutes of a sequence, but you are really trying to illustrate one bit of behaviour. Another approach is you can follow one family of lions for a set amount of time and see what happens."

With that approach, how hard is it to get what you need?

"Nature doesn't read a script, but in the Maasai Mara, we got the most heartbreaking story – a very real and very relevant story and one I'm really glad that got told, about poisonings. It had a massive knock on to our pride... we came away with a massive message, which is that there are 20,000 lions left in Africa and maybe 2,000 left in Kenya, which is shocking."

Spending a long time filming just one family of animals seems financially risky, so what's the benefit of this approach?

"I think that ability to dive in and really experience an animal and understand it. Time is what you want in the field when you're making any natural history show, but also having the kit that allows you to tell that story if something happens. If you're there for a year and in that one year, you get 10 minutes of behaviour, you better be damn sure you can cover it."

Two penguin chicks in Antartica.
Sophie is able to spend long periods of time filming one family of animals but she needs to be ready to capture the action as it happens – and that means having kit that she can rely on. "We all use the same glass because Canon are the only people who make an ultra-zoom for wildlife that does enough," she says. © Disneynature

Do the technical considerations vary a lot, from location to location, shoot to shoot?

"Pretty much every wildlife shoot has exactly the same constraints, which is there will be a moment that you have to cover and it's not enough to have one lens. It's no good just having a mid-shot – it's not going to carry it. You need different shot sizes: the eyes, the paws, the beak, the feathers... but you also need that big wide, so we always use ultra zooms. I am a long-lens DOP."

Is that any long lens in particular?

"The Canon CN20x50 is the only choice. We pretty much all use different cameras, but we all use the same glass because Canon are the only people who make an ultra-zoom for wildlife that does enough."

With that, it appears that you are very considered with your use of depth of field – has this cinematic look always been a part of your aesthetic?

"For me, it's really important when watching wildlife that you know who you're looking at. You can have these epic scenes and you can get lost in all the detail. I started off by shooting super 16 and 35 and it's all about your F-stop or your T-stop. If you use NDs, you're going to get a shallow depth of field. Usually, if you're shooting off speed, you're going to need all the light you can get, which gives you a shallow depth of field. Everything in wildlife points you towards it, and having worked on a few feature films, it just feels right. If I'm looking at the eye of an animal, pin sharp, and everything else is soft, it's beautiful. It's really cinematic."

A close-up of a seal in Antartica.
Sophie says she strives to achieve a cinematic feel with her camera work. "If I'm looking at the eye of an animal, pin sharp, and everything else is soft, it's beautiful." © Disneynature
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Cinematographer Nancy Schreiber put Canon's full-frame cine camera to the test on a challenging shoot. Here's her verdict.

What's it like to work with the CN20x50 lens at those minimal planes of focus?

"I had no idea there was such a thing as a focus puller until there was an IMAX crew that came through the Serengeti. I watched this guy using the numbers on a lens to pull focus and I'd never, ever done that! It's all about feel and it can be really easy if you've got something coming towards you at a very regular pace... you learn a lens. But if you've got a bird on water, you don't know if they're going forward or backwards... it can be quite tricky.

"The CN20x50 is a beast. It's incredible because it's got 180 degree rotation. If you're pulling focus, you've got a cheetah running, you really have to move that barrel. I would most probably try to get f/11, but sometimes you're shooting off speed at 90 frames per second, and you don't have the opportunity.

"I don't have a follow focus – I've always preferred to do it by hand. You want very little breathing with the lens and with the CN20x50, even when you kick the 1.5x extender in, it doesn't lose sharpness – it's still pin sharp all the way with no chromatic aberration. In comparison to all the other lenses that I had used, the CN20x50 delivers the image quality that 4K demands."

Your framing is so consistently beautiful – it's perfectly positioned, but when you're at the end of your focal range, as you often are, there's so little margin for movement...

"I get really upset if something visually comes into the frame that shouldn't be there – it happens all the time in wildlife. I was filming Penguins for Disney and there was always one penguin that photo-bombed, and it was so frustrating! You'd have the most beautiful frame and suddenly there'd be... a penguin. Framing is so much a part of it!

"I'm left-eyed, and if I can't use my left eye – because I've been looking through it for four hours and I start getting a twitchy eye (which happens to us all) – I'll go to my right eye... but I cannot film with my right eye instinctively, as I do with my left."

Is that common?

"Maybe people don't talk about it... I worked with a camera assistant once and he had been taking stills, which were great, but they weren't exemplary. We did a test to find out if you're left or if you're right-eyed. He was like, 'Oh, I've been taking pictures with my right eye but this is saying I'm left-eyed.' I promise you, his stills went to being fantastic, from just changing eye. So word to the wise, check your eyes. You never know."

Sophie Darlington films penguins in Antartica with Canon lenses.
Sophie advises aspiring photographers to make sure they're filming with their favoured eye. "I cannot film with my right eye instinctively, as I do with my left," she says. © Disneynature

What's your take on the ethical dilemmas faced by the wildlife filmmaking industry?

"Nature does what nature does, and we're not there to intervene – we're there to record it truthfully. I think I like being a long lens cinematographer because, with that degree of separation, you know that you're not influencing the behaviour in any way. I've seen some heartbreaking things. I've seen a cheetah mother being tossed by a Grant's gazelle. She died. Two days later, her three cubs died."

Do you manage to stay emotionally detached, having worked in wildlife for so long?

"I have been known to shed a tear, but most of my tears come from frustration and rage at humans. I can't believe that people will pay the money that they pay to go to watch an animal and disregard it so incredibly. I think phones have been a massive part of that. I think that maybe we're responsible for it slightly as well because we have the luxury of shooting on amazingly beautiful lenses that bring you right into an animal's world. And when people go out there with their phones, they want to get that shot, and the only way they're going to get that shot is by breaking every rule in the book of that park or ignoring the animal's wellbeing."

The behind-the-scenes sections of a show that wildlife series often run now allow the industry to communicate some of those frustrations. You also get a good sense of the challenging dust or weather conditions you work in!

"Wildlife filmmaking doesn't happen in cosmetic environments. It happens in incredibly testing and rough environments. You're by the sea, you're filming on a beach with wind, so there's sand, there's sea, there's salt, there's dust, there's mud, there are bangs, there are bumps. You're picking up your tripod over your head and you're running for a short distance… you want to get the shot, so most probably the kit isn't at the forefront of your mind. We put kit through absolute hell."

Sophie Darlington sits on the ice with her back to the camera while filming penguins in Antartica.
Sophie often finds herself filming in extreme conditions, so she needs equipment that she can rely on. "Wildlife filmmaking doesn't happen in cosmetic environments. It happens in incredibly testing and rough environments," she says. © Disneynature
A cluster of penguins captured by Sophie Darlington in Antarctica.
"You want to get the shot, so most probably the kit isn't at the forefront of your mind. We put kit through absolute hell," Sophie says. © Disneynature

I read an interview where you said being tall helps you as a female cinematographer...

"I am tall and, actually, it's a real hindrance when filming because you spend a lot of your time curled up in a one metre by one metre hide – I can guarantee being tall is a definite disadvantage. I think I said it glibly once... in the same way I said that the only advantage men have over us is that they can grow beards in the cold. I'm glib about it, but it's very serious. There needs to be more women doing what I do and there are some incredibly talented women doing what I do, such as Justine Evans, Sue Gibson and Julie Monière. There are more fabulous women coming up as well and I think the more they see people like me doing it, the more normal it will become."

Did you ever encounter sexism, when you were breaking into the industry?

"You know what, it never occurred to me not to be a wildlife DOP. When I started, I don't think it mattered to Hugo. He just wanted to see that I had passion for what I was doing and an eye, and he felt I had both. I've seen women carrying as much stuff, if not more, than the blokes on the shoots. If you're interested and passionate, it shouldn't matter a damn."

So what's your advice for women, and men, who are trying to break into the wildlife filmmaking industry?

"I get emailed pretty much every day by people asking how to get into this business. Can you do what I did? The answer is no, because I did my own personal thing. But it's much more accessible now that you can film, edit, put your videos up, tell your story. You can shoot on really affordable, great kit. The CN20x50 costs what it's worth, but if you've got a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, you are away in a hack. That's a great camera to film with a 70-200mm lens, or whatever you might have. The secret is the story, because that's what it always comes back to. My advice would be to get out there – you're going to tell the story by being out there and being in it, not by sitting at home watching YouTube videos. That ain't going to do it for you."

Autor Emma-Lily Pendleton

Sophie Darlington's kitbag

The key kit for filming wildlife

Sophie Darlington crouches in the snow with a Canon lens on a camera in front of a colony of penguins.


Canon CN20x50 IAS H E1/P1

An ultra-telephoto CINE-SERVO lens, the CN20x50 IAS H E1/P1 offers stunning 4K performance, 20x zoom and a 1.5x built-in extender for an unrivalled 50-1000mm focal length (75-1500mm with extender). "Even when you kick the 1.5x extender in, it's still pin sharp all the way," says Sophie. "The CN20x50 delivers the image quality that 4K demands."

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