There’s nothing easy in a desert — food, water, shelter… filmmaking.
Recently I had a reader named David email me saying, “I am doing a shoot abroad in the desert with the Arri Alexa and was wondering if you knew of any tips to keep it safe from the elements, particularly with the sand and dust floating about.”
Sand and dust, while obviously expected, aren’t the only elements you have to worry about — there’s also incredible heat.
Shooting a movie in a desert means not only protecting the camera from all this, but also yourself and the rest of the equipment.
Taking Care of the Camera While Filming in a Desert
While I don’t have experience shooting in any major deserts like the Sahara or the salt flats of Utah, I did work on a feature film in Las Vegas which, if you drive away from the bright lights, is a massive pit of sand and dust. In fact, I spent an entire day in “The Valley of Fire,” where I took a crash course in desert camera protection.
I learned that camera’s are built to withstand the elements, but that doesn’t mean you should put them to the test. There are many proactive and reactive measures you can take to keep the camera running smoothly even in the harshest desert conditions:
- Use an optical flat to protect the lens
- Cover the camera when possible
- Put gear not being used in the shade
- Keep an eye on the camera’s temperature
- Clean your gear at least everyday
So, let’s take a look at each of these in depth…
1. Use an optical flat to protect the lens
Putting a filter in front of the lens keeps it shielded from any dust kicked up by movement in the desert. It’s also easier to clean a filter than it is a lens and filters are cheaper to replace should scratches result from the wear and tear.
If you don’t have an optical flat, use an IR or Hot Mirror filter instead — basically, any filter that won’t affect the stop you expose the image to. In many cases, you will likely be using Neutral Density filters which will also provide protection.
2. Cover the camera when possible
I love space blankets — designed to contain warmth or shield from heat — and you should definitely have one in your toolkit. That way, between long setups, you can cover the camera with the reflective side of the blanket out.
This will reduce the camera’s chance of overheating since most camera bodies are colored sunlight-sucking black. Or you can also…
3. Put gear not being used in the shade
I have yet to work on a film that doesn’t have at least one pop-up tent at its disposal. These are quick, deployable covers that create instant shade.
If you have access to one, put your camera cart or gear underneath it. It’s not good for the gear to bake in the sun (plus if you’re using metal cases, they can heat up and burn you when you go to open them).
If you don’t have a pop-up, kindly ask the grips to make you a courtesy flag to create shade.
4. Keep an eye on the temperature of the camera
Most cameras have temperature control, fans, and cooling vents to keep temperature down, but they are still highly susceptible to over-heating. Once the temperature gets into a danger zone, alert the director of photography and production and shut it down. Not only does over-heating damage internal components, but it can also add noise to the image.
Having ice packs on hand — placed inside a ziplock bag to protect from condensation — is also advised to cool it down faster.
5. Clean your gear at least everyday
No matter how hard you try to prevent it, the desert sand/dust will end up anywhere and everywhere on the camera. It’s crucial you clean it at the end of everyday, preferably away from the dusty environment.
Use a camel hair brush for delicate areas, compressed air or a blower for large areas of dust, and the appropriate methods when doing so. Check lenses and filters religiously and clean them, if needed, before dust settles onto them.
Taking Care of Yourself While Filming in a Desert
Just like cameras, humans are built to withstand the elements, but we don’t always liked to be put to the test. And trust me, the last thing you want while working a hard 12 hour day in the desert is to be miserable the entire time. So here are a few tips you should follow to make your life as a sandman a bit easier:
- Have proper protection from the sun
- Drink lots of water
- Wear neutral colors
6. Have proper protection from the sun
Sunscreen, sunglasses, a hat, and chapstick are must-haves. When I filmed Red Herring in the Valley of Fire, I forgot chapstick and my lips were chapped for an entire week afterward. However, unlike others on the crew, I got no sunburn because I had applied sunscreen.
7. Drink lots of water
Dehydration is a real-problem on normal sets where you’re standing all day and moving heavy equipment. In the desert, the heat amplifies it ten-fold. Be liberal with how much water you drink and help remind your fellow crew to continue to hydrate. You’ll have more energy, feel more relaxed, and be better prepared for a long day if needed.
8. Wear neutral colors
It’s tempting to dress yourself in a white t-shirt in the hot sun and, depending on your crew position, you may be able to get away with it. But in the desert, everything is easily reflective.
If you’re going to be standing near the camera, wear a lighter, but neutral color that won’t bounce sunlight as harshly as white — think light blues, greens, earth tones.
Finally, stow away any watches or jewelry you commonly wear that could reflect light into the shot.
A Few More Tips for a Smoother Desert Shoot
Of course the desert doesn’t just make it harder to take care of yourself and your gear, but its unique properties can get in the way of the filmmaking process itself. These last two tips are designed to help you overcome obstacles that are presented by the desert — mostly its unrelenting sun.
9. Use a hoodman — a real one or a makeshift one
A hoodman blocks sunlight shining on a monitor and creates enough shade to see what’s happening on the screen. They’re must-haves if shooting in a bright environment like the desert. During your camera prep, check with your rental house to see if they have them available for every monitor you are using — director’s monitor, on-camera monitor, etc.
If they don’t have hoodman’s available, it’s really easy to make your own out of some gaffer’s tape and cardboard. See these two how-to posts for more info:
As an absolute last resort, take off your t-shirt (or use an extra piece of cloth) and drape it over your head and the monitor to create a viewing hood.
10. Tilt down when slating to prevent reflections
Like a metal wristwatch, the slate is highly reflective. This is great for dark, moody interiors, but can become a burden in sunlight. Make sure you tilt the slate down when marking a scene so that the sunlight doesn’t bounce off the slate and back into the lens — making your writing on it unreadable.
Also, be wary when moving it while a scene is being shot as you don’t want to blast a bright square into the background of a scene.
(As a bonus, however, the slate makes a great small reflector if you’re in a pinch for a little fill light.)
Share Your Desert-Filming Tips in the Comments!
Have you ventured into a hot, sandy environment for the sake of the perfect shot, amazing sunset, or maybe even astro timelapse?
If so, I bet you had to find a way around a few problems the desert presents and I want to know how you overcame them — what precautions you took, how you handled your gear, and if any desert-related problems arose.
I can’t be the only one who’s endured a dusty day of filming in a desert — so please share your experiences in the comments!