Watch the Archipelago Climber

Valtteri Hirvonen and the Archipelago Climber

Valtteri Hirvonen
Valtteri Hirvonen

Nordic Cinematographer

Valtteri Hirvonen is a Nordic cinematographer and shortlistee for the Canon Pro video Ambassador programme. Born in Finland, nature has played an important part in his life since childhood and remains a key element in his personal projects. Through his camera, Valtteri tells stories of people experiencing the wilderness up close.

In the spring of 2020 Finnish cinematographer Valtteri Hirvonen set out to complete an ambitious project, a short film about a boulder climber in the Finnish archipelago, shot with Canon Cinema EOS C300 Mark III. Below Valtteri talks about his passion for videography, how he prepared for the one-man-band project and the equipment he used to capture the unique atmosphere on the video.

Getting started as a videographer

I remember my mom taking a lot of photos when I was a child, and my dad used to film home videos that we watched quite often. My parents also arranged these old-school slide shows for their friends. It felt natural for me to start documenting my life as well.

I started my professional career as a photographer about 13 years ago and gradually shifted more towards video. When Canon EOS 5D Mark II came along, it changed my approach to video. It was very affordable and made it easy to shoot professional-quality video. It made me want to learn more. Shooting video requires a totally different storytelling mindset than still photography. Sometimes it’s a real challenge, but I enjoy that.

I always had the idea that I wanted to be involved in important projects. When you make things that matter to you, you put in an extra effort. That’s how the best things get done. And when you make cool things, you meet cool people and you can do more cool things with them. Simple as that.

I applied to the Lahti Institute of Design in 2007, and was accepted, but soon realised that it wasn’t for me, after all. I wanted to get to work and so I asked a few professional photographers in Finland if I could assist them. After a couple of years, I started getting more and more projects of my own through them. From my point of view, apprenticeship is still the best way to learn these things.

Nowadays my projects are about 80% video and 20% still photography. I often work alone or with a very small team. In many cases, that’s the only way to do these types of projects. I work a lot in nature, in extreme conditions, where it is also a safety issue to keep the team small. On the other hand, I have also worked in huge international automotive productions for Ferrari and BMW, with almost a hundred people involved. I loved those just as well!

Valtteri Hirvonen rocks

Shooting in the wild

This project, the Archipelago Climber, came about when I had a meeting with Canon representatives, and they wanted me to do a personal project with the Canon Cinema EOS C300 Mark III. I was brainstorming during the meeting and had the idea to film something in the Finnish Archipelago. I then wrote a story around a specific location I had in mind.

I envisioned that we would just go to this rocky island, spend a night there shooting the film and come home. The reality was a bit more complex and required some compromises. First, I broke my ankle while scouting for locations, so I couldn’t risk venturing too far out to the sea in hazardous conditions. Also, it is really hard to dock on a natural rocky island, if there are any waves at all. We tried to find a safe weather window, but with the project deadline approaching fast, I eventually had to come up with an alternative location.

In the end, we shot the parts with the climber on land, in locations we could reach by car. But I wanted to keep the experience as authentic as possible, so we slept in tents and cooked food over a campfire. There were three of us involved in the project: me, the climber and a behind-the-scenes camera guy. It was super fun, although we didn’t get much sleep, because the days are long in Finland this time of year.

I shot the drone parts on a different day and I really wanted to make the location look like a distant island. The weather worked against us once again! This time the sea was completely calm which made it difficult to fit scenes together. I think I found a nice way to work around it in the edit.

While the pre-production phase was quite challenging and stressful, once we actually got to shooting it was quick and fun. I’m happy with the end result despite the compromises with the location. There’s nothing you can do about the weather, so we need to learn to work around it. I was able to capture the main story and the mood of the film exactly how I imagined them.

Canon Cinema EOS C300 Mark III on rocks

Selecting the right setup

Gear-wise the prepping phase was pretty simple. I tend to keep my setups really light. I’ve used Canon Cinema EOS C500 Mark II a lot, so I know what these cameras are capable of. I made the decision to shoot everything handheld, apart from the drone shots. Thus, I had only one camera bag to take care of. I find that I enjoy shooting more, when I don’t have too much stuff to carry. I can move around more freely and concentrate on the content, instead of the technical stuff.

However, it’s still important to have everything you need. Whenever I am working alone and taking stills alongside video, I usually shoot with Canon EF still zoom lenses to keep setups compact.

Ergonomics are really important as well. For example, I can’t work singlehanded with complex camera rigs and external ND’s in a snowstorm. That’s why everything should be built in. When you try to work a camera wearing thick gloves, you instantly know if the camera is well designed.

I also knew beforehand that we would be able to shoot in every possible weather with the Canon Cinema EOS C300 Mark III. There was no rain this time, so I didn’t have to protect the gear in any way. I also don’t tend to baby my cameras, though I do keep them as clean as possible. For me cameras are tools that I use to get the content what I need. If I need to shoot in the rain or in a snow blizzard in sub-zero temperatures, then I’ll do it. I’m really happy how well Canon’s professional gear manages the elements.

Valtteri Hirvonen Drone

Customisation options, form factor and advanced features

I didn’t need to customize the camera’s assignable buttons; I just started shooting. I felt all the buttons are really well thought through and in the right places. I took the front REC-light off, because it was so dark in the night scenes. I was afraid the red light would reflect off the climber’s face in close-ups.

I find the Canon Cinema EOS C300 Mark III really easy to balance on any gimbal. The form factor is really well balanced, and the camera is almost cube-shaped, when you take the handle off. It was easy to rig on the drone.

I paired the camera with the Canon EF 16-35 mm f/2.8L III still zoom lens and BP-A30 battery for the drone shots. With HDMI, we were able to use the downlink to monitor the footage from the ground. We used LANC to control the camera and I left the auto focus on but slowed down its speed, just in case. Watching through the footage, I couldn’t see the camera trying to find focus even once. It worked perfectly!

I ended up shooting the major part of the film with Canon EF still photo zoom lenses, even though I had packed some Cine Prime lenses with me and usually really like them. When you have auto-focus that works this well, you can push up the ISO pretty high without the fear of breaking the image. So, I just decided to go with the flow and not change lenses.

Valtteri Hirvonen Tent

Superior image quality

For me, good dynamic range is the single most important feature in any camera. So, I was really excited to try the DGO (Dual Gain Output) feature and it worked great! I was really positively surprised how the low-light material turned out. I was able to push the ISO up to 12,800. Most of the film was shot after sunset, with illumination only from the headlamp and campfire. The contrasts were pretty harsh, yet the dark parts of the images looked really good.

I didn’t need to do heavy editing with the colours, which was a huge advantage. Grading was really easy with the DGO files. It looked better and there was plenty of headroom in the whites and blacks, so it was simple and pleasant to work with.

I took some shots in 120 fps, so I could really show the waves hit the rocks and capture how the sea moves with the wind. Some things really come alive when you see them in slow motion. And when you’re able to shoot it in RAW, there’s endless possibilities and creative freedom.

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