Capturing a World’s First Expedition in 15,000 Photos, 2.57TB and 40 Days.

World’s First Expedition Through the Essequibo River

Flying in a small Cessna, Jon Williams arrived in the heart of Guyana’s jungle. He was there to document and film the first kayakers ever to conquer the Essequibo River. With a journey extending more than 1000KM, the Essequibo River is the third largest river in South America. The all-women kayaking team included Laura Bingham, Ness Knight and Pip Stewart. Their mission was to explore what’s never been seen by humans before, while protecting and leaving no trace to the natural habitat. For Williams, capturing this world’s first record was a dream come true; however the strenuous environment required preparation, bravery and quick-thinking.

“I left the United Kingdom with Laura’s husband, Ed, and Pip’s partner, Charlie to meet up with the women who were already in Guyana,” Williams said. “We also had Laura and Ed’s nine-month old baby, Ran, with us – which made for an interesting journey – three men and a baby traveling into the jungle!”

With 75% of Guyana covered in a rainforest, the overbearing humidity, dangerous terrain, wild animals and insects required extensive research and preparation for safety and survival. Williams documented the team day and night. The group hired local guides to navigate them through the jungle. They also brought gear to protect their filming equipment, but nothing could prepare them for the adventure to come.

“One evening, after the sun had gone down and we’d just finished eating, we were sitting around the camp-fire talking when we heard a very loud growl. Everyone instantly jumped up, and my first thought was that it was a jaguar. It sounded like it was right in our camp, but our guides shined their torches at the river, revealing three pairs of eyes looking back at us. It turned out to be three large caimans (a type of crocodile) who were checking us out and trying to scare us off with their growling, which I didn’t even know they could do! They were swimming very close to the river bank and all that separated us was a small patch of sand. My hammock happened to be the one closest to the river, but our guides assured me the caiman wouldn’t actually come into the camp, they were just being protective of their habitat. After about ten minutes they all swam off, but needless to say, I didn’t sleep much that night!”

Following the caiman episode, their camps included visits by a curious jaguar and snapping scorpions nesting in their bags and shoes. That being said, one of the biggest hardships encountered by Williams was capturing footage of this dangerous expedition.

The filming gear consisted of:

  • Canon® C300 Mark II cine camera
  • Canon 5D Mark IV DSRL
  • Five Canon lenses
  • Three GoPro® cameras
  • GoPro Accessories and Mounts
  • Two DJI™ Mavic Air drones
  • Tripod
  • Rode® microphones
  • Laptop
  • External hard drives
  • Spare batteries and memory cards.
  • Peli™ Case
  • Northwest River Supply (NRS) waterproof bags

Filming in a Strenuous Environment

Shooting for nine hours a day on the river, Williams had to be extremely efficient with his workflow. He used the Canon C300 for video, Canon 5D Mark IV for photos, as well as a drone and GoPro for action footage. He also downloaded satellite maps on his phone to determine what they would be encountering each day, such as rapids, sand banks or villages. He organized and tracked what he was shooting, as well as the events of each day to document the team’s expedition.

“This helped me prioritize what I was shooting and also what kind of new creative shots I should try and get. On days when there wasn’t much happening, it was a good chance to get interviews and b-roll.”

Traveling on kayaks meant limited room for gear. Williams had to pick and choose what gear to use and regularly charge his batteries during his free time. He charged his camera and drone batteries using a generator and his smaller equipment with solar charges.

“I shot over 15,000 photos and a 2.57 TB of video footage. Even though our cameras could shoot in 4K, we shot in 1080p to reduce the file size and to save us time backing up.”

Being in the jungle, the filming equipment was exposed to heat, humidity and regular downpours. The humidity was tough on the gear, causing them to lose the cinema camera, a laptop and two iPhones.

Luckily the film footage survived their journey through the Essequibo River and in seventy-two days, the kayakers successfully completed the journey. They were the first people to conquer kayaking the Essequibo river from the source in Guyana to the Atlantic Ocean.

Editing Workflow

“Upon getting home after this trip, one of the very first things I did (after having a long shower) was plug the external hard drives into my iMac and backup all the footage to my Drobo 5D3 and Seagate IronWolf Pro drives. Although we had made multiple copies of the footage, and divided them up between the crew so that they weren’t all in one bag, I still wasn’t relaxed until I had it all saved on the Drobo! From there, I imported all the images into Lightroom (over 15,000 of them) and started going through them to pick out key shots for press releases and magazine articles, as it was important to get these sent out fast. In Lightroom, I used the star rating system to highlight the best shots. We also had requests for video clips, so I imported these into Final Cut Pro X, creating proxy files for faster performance when skimming though the 2.75TB of footage. I use the ‘Favorite’ function in FCPX to mark sections of clips that I want to use. The 5D3 has a super-fast thunderbolt connection to my iMac, meaning my workflow isn’t slowed down by my hardware, which is really important when you have huge amounts of data to be going through.”

Although the journey came with unexpected challenges, the team found beauty in the wildlife, and created stories to last a lifetime. The team’s documentary will focus on the women’s journey and bring awareness to protecting the environment.

Jon Williams’ Advice

“Do as much research as possible before you leave, it will be extremely valuable. I studied maps of where we were going and watched documentaries about the country. In addition, I contacted a film crew that had spent a lot of time in Guyana and they gave me insider tips on gear, workflows and general survival! Find out what the climate and weather will be like at that time of the year and pack the relevant gear to cope with it. The jungle of Guyana was going to be hot, humid and wet, meaning I needed to bring waterproof bags, camera cleaning tools, and plenty of back-up equipment in case things broke (which they did).”

About DroboExplorer Jon Williams

Jon is a filmmaker and photographer originally from the UK, now based in the German Alps. He specializes in outdoor and adventure sports, commercial brand shoots and bespoke projects with athletes. His other work includes shooting and editing a daily Vlog for the Austrian Red Bull athlete, Paul Guschlbauer, while he competed in a two-week adventure race across the Alps. When not working at home, his Drobo 5D3 travels with him on the road!

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Guest Judge: Jon Williams | Prize Drobo 5N2