Tested to destruction: the Canon XF range

Cameraman Paul ‘Mungo’ Mungeam has taken his Canon XF305 to the Arctic, up mountains and across deserts, shooting shows such as Charley Boorman’s ‘By Any Means’ and the upcoming ‘Freddie Goes Wild’, which sees Freddie Flintoff battling the elements in some of the most hostile environments on the planet.

Surprisingly, his camera’s still in one piece. We asked the Expedition Media lighting cameraman/DOP about shooting in a volcano, the challenge of shooting over four continents, and whether Freddie Flintoff could take Bear Grylls in a fight…

What kind of challenges does filming in such extreme locations pose?

I’ve been a cameraman for over 17 years now, and I’ve always worked in the niche of adventure television, so I’ve been in every environment – the Arctic, the jungle, the Sahara  – you name it, I’ve filmed in it over the years! Each poses its own challenges, and challenges are what they are.

The beauty of the life of a studio or a facility cameraman is that it’s a very controlled environment, while we’re out there not knowing what will happen or how the kit will cope. We’re usually facing very hostile conditions, whether that’s hostile people or hostile weather, so there’s a lot of trial and error, but with each experience you gain more knowledge and learn how to deal with it.

What are the worst conditions you’ve had to take a camera into?

There was one camera we took down into a volcano in the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia when we shot ‘The Hottest Place on Earth’. It was a prototype and they sent it to us to see how it would cope, because obviously filming inside a volcano is one of the most extreme things you can do with a camera. None of us knew how it would cope, but it did quite well – except all the paint on the buttons came off, which made changing the settings interesting…

When we were in the Arctic, we were camping and filming in -35 degree weather, and you just don’t know how your equipment is going to hold up. You have to use what experience you have to cover your ass, basically.

Do you have any tips for keeping equipment intact through a tough shoot?

I’m a massive advocate of the ‘look after kit and your kit will look after you’ philosophy. You have to be really anal about cleaning your kit every night, which is a real bore, but if you’re camping in the middle of nowhere there’s probably nothing better to do. It’s all about simple things like not bringing the camera into air conditioned rooms if you’ve been shooting in the heat, and leaving it in a bag outside the tent if you’re shooting in the cold, so that the camera stays acclimatised.

That said, ultimately if anything’s got to go, it’s the kit, because that’s insured. As a cameraman, we do sometimes concentrate too much on the shot as opposed to where our feet are or what’s about to come down on top of us. You have to be very rounded to get through these types of shoots, and willing to think outside the box.

Are there any essentials you always take with you when you’re shooting in harsh conditions?

Too many to name! Chamois leather. Always have a chamois. Actually, I’m a really big advocate for keeping things simple with regard to kit. You can get the same results from simple kit if the right person’s handling it, and there’s less to worry about. In terms of functions, the zebras are vital – often you’re shooting by instruments because you can’t see the viewfinder, and when you’re in the Arctic you have to break some rules and burn out exposure to get faces instead of snow…

How long have you been using Canon cameras?

For a couple of years now. I tend not to be brand-specific: I go with the individual product. If the camera can produce the goods I’ll go with it.

What appealed to you about the XF305?

The size, weight, picture quality and usability. From a professional camera operator’s point of view, compared with other cameras in its class, it stands out as being one of the best. The LCD is noticeably better than other models and that is very appealing, but as with any camera it comes down to the final product, and the picture quality on the XF305 is staggering.

I’ve heard of other cameramen being quite snobby about the kind of camera they’ll use, but ultimately it’s not about size – it’s what you do with it. People think, “I’m only going to use the very, very expensive kit” because that’s how they perceive quality, and a small camera isn’t considered as professional. But something the size of the XF305 can get you into places a lot easier: it’s a lot less intimidating politically, and you can film in any space with it. I’ve climbed with big Sony 800s and you can do it, but it’s not so easy. The XF305, you can swing round anywhere. And then there are shows like ‘By Any Means’, where we were hopping in and out of different vehicles all the time – you couldn’t do that with a big camera. It’s all about finding the right tools for the job.

How does the XF workflow cope with this type of shoot?

Amazingly well. When you have a big heavy camera, sometimes you look forward to the disc change because it’s a chance to put it down for five minutes. With the XF305 you can hotshoot it, so you can film 164 minutes and just keep rolling [the memory cards] over so you never really have to stop.

There are two schools of thought with regard to data management; I just did a shoot for Discovery where we used CF cards like tapes, so we didn’t back them up at all. Loads of people would say that’s too risky, but if you think back you never used to back up tapes or discs, you just looked after them. But then when we did ‘Extreme Frontiers’ the production company requested that we backed up everything every night, which is of course the sensible option, but does mean you have to sit up in your tent and spend another two or three hours transferring everything. In a luxurious world, you’d get a data wrangler, but we’re often working in really basic conditions.

Are there any circumstances when you wouldn’t recommend the XF305?

I can’t say there are. It’s all about whose hands it’s in – if you hand it off to an AP, it won’t look great, but if you know what you’re doing I think it holds up really well. The limitations are things like it’s a fixed lens, so you wouldn’t use it for anything that required a lot of long lens work.

What features would you like to see adding to the XF range in the future?

Detachable lenses would be fantastic. The focus is not as accurate as it makes out so you do have to go on your eye. The major issues are that on the zoom ring, where you’re using it manually, there’s a really frustrating delay, and the fact that the on/off/media button can be flicked over easily if it’s knocked, so you think the camera’s off but you’ve actually put it on media mode and have been burning battery power all night. I did that once when we were camping on a glacier and it could have been catastrophic had I not taken enough spare batteries! Ultimately, you have to consider that [these cameras] cost 5K. If you want something red hot, you go for a 50 grand camera. If you want something in-budget that won’t fall apart, you choose this. For a £5000 camera it’s extraordinary, really extraordinary.

Because of that, we’ve had a lot of interest from universities and colleges in the XF105 and XF305 – do you think the XF workflow is a good one for young filmmakers to get to grips with?

They’re perfect introductory cameras. The 105 is what we use for video diaries with presenters, and I can set it up on auto and let them get on with it – it’s pretty foolproof. The 305 is one step up, it’s more professional, has better ergonomics and it’s far easier to control, so as an introductory semi-pro camera it’s amazing. People might think of it as an education camera, but I’ve just shot a big Discovery show with an A-lister, and this was our choice of camera. You can achieve great things with it, and if you can master the 305 you’ve got far more chance of finding work as a cameraman/shooting AP.

Any advice for those students?

Firstly, work your way up. I say that because I think you need to learn the basics, because they’ll cover you in the future. Spend time as the kit room monkey and when you’re in the field you’ll understand how kit works, you’ll know how to look after it, you’ll have the attention to detail the job needs. Lots of people try and go straight into shooting, but if you want longevity, go in and earn your stripes, make lots of cups of tea, press buttons and ask questions.

Secondly, watch the credits of programmes you love and write to them directly. Go to facilities and houses and offer them a couple of weeks of free work, and if you impress them enough with your dedication and servitude you might get a job. Ultimately it’s all about hard work. We definitely have one of the best jobs in the world, but in order to be the one in a thousand who get to do it, it’s about working bloody hard.

Finally, who’d win in a fight between Boorman, Grylls and Flintoff?

Fred’s pretty tasty with his fists, but from our recent experiences in Canada, I’m sure that Fred would agree… in a fight the Bear will always win!

To find out more about the XF range, give us a call on 03332 409 306 or email broadcast@Jigsaw24.com. For all the latest news, follow @Jigsaw24Video on Twitter or Like’ our Facebook page.


Call us: 03332 409 306