Gail Jenkinson: Above and below water with the FS7

Documentary film maker Gail Jenkinson describes the challenges of capturing breathtaking 4K footage in some of the world’s toughest and most inaccessible locations.

Globe-trotting Gail Jenkinson has visited all seven continents as a natural history film-maker. An inveterate traveller and photographer, Gail’s passion for stunning images of the natural world has taken her from awe-inspiring icebergs floating in Antarctic waters to the dense mountains of Rwanda. A skilled underwater diver, she’s equally at home above water, shooting aboard high-tech science research vessels or in tiny catamarans.

Starting as a camera trainee and film loader, Gail’s varied career has seen her working on drama, features and commercials – and latterly her specialism of natural history and documentaries. Over the years she’s worked with several Sony cameras, from the FS700 to today’s large-sensor FS7, F5 and F55 models.

Her recent work on Arabian Seas for Toronto-based Blue Ant Media took Gail to the underwater world of the United Arab Emirates and the rarely-visited coral reefs of Oman. In this largely unexplored aquatic paradise, thousands of creatures are pitched in a battle for survival, from endangered turtles to mysterious sharks and deadly rays.

“Working in any kind of marine environment slows everything down,” notes Gail. “It’s tricky communicating with other people when you’re underwater, and of course it’s more challenging technically.” With the clock ticking as your air supply dwindles, there’s little margin for error. “You really need to understand your camera and make decisions beforehand. You don’t want to be fiddling with menus, and you certainly don’t want something that’s bulky and hard to manoeuvre.”

For the Oman project, Gail used her FS7 Super35 camera in a Sealux marine housing, teamed with a wide-angle 11-16mm lens. Shooting in 4K with the FS7 ensured amazing images of the reef’s natural wonders – but it’s not without its challenges for an underwater film-maker: “4K reveals so much detail that focus is absolutely critical. There’s the layer of air between the camera lens and the housing dome. Then you’ve got another interface between the dome and water – and the magnifying effect of the water itself that might provide poor visibility. You’ve got to take all this into account when you’re focussing.”

Shooting topside can be an equally tricky proposition for both camera and operator – whether you’re in the scorching temperatures of 40°C + of Oman, or battling an Antarctic wind chill.

Shooting Blue Planet 2 for the BBC Natural History Unit took Gail on “the most exciting journey of my life”, crossing Drake’s Passage that she likens to “the gateway to Antarctica”. Based on the high-tech MV Alucia scientific research ship, Gail filmed on-board and took to the skies by helicopter amongst the awe-inspiring tabular icebergs of the region.

The Antarctic summer offered 24 hours of daylight, with Gail favouring the quality of the light from 7pm to 7am to shoot: “The wide dynamic range of a camera like the FS7 gives you loads of leeway to expose correctly. And that’s a really big help when you’re shooting bright highlights on snow and ice.”
Gail welcomed the camera’s generous latitude as much as its unflinching operation in temperatures that fluctuated routinely from zero to -20°C.

“I wrapped the FS7 in a thick neck scarf to keep the wind chill at bay. Also, it’s important to give things time to stabilise gradually when there’s a change in temperature. But other than that I didn’t need to take any special precautions: the camera didn’t let me down during the month-long trip.”

Where to buy the PXW-FS7