10 Tips for Filming in a Desert

Dust, Heat, and Dirty Lenses: 10 Tips for Filming in a Desert

There's nothing easy in a desert -- food, water, shelter... filmmaking. 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.

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

Taking Care of the Camera While Filming in the Desert

 photo credit: nh53

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

Taking Care of Yourself While Filming in the Desert

 photo credit: maartmeester

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
While these tips seem obvious, I want to clarify their importance…

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

A Few More Tips for a Smoother Desert Shoot

 photo credit: Zach Dischner

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!

  • Anton

    While I haven’t done any shoots in the desert specifically, I have to use most of these tips almost every outdoor shoot I do here in Texas.

    Also, to go from one extreme to another, I’m attached to a film that will be shot partially in North Dakota during the winter and have been trying to think of everything I’d need to be prepared for with shooting in the snowy, cold windy winter up there. I assume most of the tips for desert can be either applied in reverse or in certain cases similarly.

    • Michael G

      Best bits of advice I could offer: 1) treat snow like rain mixed with a 2 year old. It will get into every nook and cranny 2) batteries suck in cold weather 3) visqueen, keep it handy.

      On the personal kit front, for cold weather shoots I found that cop issue cold weather patrol gloves work great. They are thin enough to manipulate things like buttons and bnc tips and the like, but still pretty warm. My first cold weather shoot was in the panhandle of Idaho, and it’s not much better there than N or S Dakota. All I had for the first week were some Wally-world cold weather gloves. They didn’t last and our BBGrip (injury retired cop) turned me on to patrol gloves.

      Good luck, and stay warm.

      • Anton

        Thanks a lot Michael, I’ll start my preparations based on this.

      • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

        Awesome tips Michael. Thanks for sharing

      • Adam

        Hi Michael, thanks for the great tips man, really appreciate it. Maybe black and blue should ask you to write for them?

        Quick question: If you need some desert shots would you say it’s worth the time and cost of travel and filming or would you recommend just buying some stock footage instead? I know it’s not as ‘pure’ in the artistic sense as shooting it yourself, but when it comes to cost and time, would you say it’s a viable alternative?

        • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

          The use of stock footage is always going to be circumstantial to the context in which it’s used and will, almost always, involve a trade-off. For instance, using stock footage if the script calls for two characters to have a walk-and-talk isn’t really viable. If it’s for a simple establishing shot of a desert, then perhaps. But you lose a lot of the control, purpose, and detail that many directors command of their own material.

          tl;dr: There are some shots in which stock footage will never be viable, and some in which it will serve a purpose — all will suffer from some trade-off, however.

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      The exteriors in Texas must be brutal on some days!

  • Michael G

    Surprisingly, a few of these tricks work when shooting big water shots. Most of my work was micro-budget personal stuff, but being on Tampa Bay and having access to most of the the Gulf coast meant a lot of beach scenes. Neutral colors are great in the Florida sun, but breathable fabrics went a long way too. With the humidity you get sweaty just sanding around. I know Nevada is fairly dry, but if you had shoot in a desert near water (I’m thinking most of the Arabian Peninsula) the humidity is something else to plan for.

    • http://www.theblackandblue.com/ Evan

      Good call! I’m from Virginia so I know all about the humidity. And you’re right — some of those Dri-Fit fabrics would be perfect for situations like this.

  • Nolan Maloney

    A little late to the party, but a tip for sandy shooting is pack a pair of goggles or lab safety glasses. One early morning shoot found me on the bleak New Jersey shoreline. The early morning gusty wind sent clouds of dust pelting me and the camera. A camera rainjacket plus some extra trashbag wrapping protected the camera itself, but nothing was protecting my eyes from getting sand in them. I ended up just pulling my hat down, putting up my hood and trying to stay out of the way of the gusts.

    Better solution: eye goggles that don’t interfere with my vision. An eclectic but essential desert kit item.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Karl-Stelter/13714939 Karl Stelter

    Another quick tip for DSLR shooters – I found my 7D heated up very very quickly in a hot environment while shooting often, and placing even a simple towel over the camera while shooting helped.

  • David Condrey

    I shoot a lot of projects in Palmdale / Lancaster and have gotten in the habit of ordering an extra space blanket for every show.

    During prep I like to create a little reflective shell around the camera and batteries independently. Just cut the blanket up in smaller squares and attach with Velcro. But be sure not to cover any ventilation areas.

  • Mark Stolaroff

    These are all great tips. I’m not an AC; I’m a producer, but we shot much of my last film in the desert near Joshua Tree and then further out in the middle of the Mojave. It goes without saying to try to schedule these shoots in the winter months. We shot at the Kelso Dunes, which is about 60 miles from the nearest gas station, and the dunes themselves are a 45 minute hike from the car. In December, it was about 75 degrees. In May, when we returned for pick-ups, it was 107! Even in 75 degrees, you need TONS of water.

    I wear hard contact lenses, so in addition to goggles or tight-fitting sun glasses, I brought some eye spray. It’s this stuff that sprays a fine mist in your eyes, which is just about the only thing you can use to sooth sand in hard lenses. You need a good hat, umbrellas, and if you’re doing Kelso–which I highly recommend if you want that “out in the middle of nowhere” shot–you’ve got to travel with a small,fit crew. No smokers! You need to be in shape. Make sure to bring a still camera to get stills.

    Our camera–the Sony EX1 with Letus Adapter–and support gear performed admirably, as did our 1st AC, Martin Moody. I made sure to give special gifts to everyone who came out with us on that day. It was brutal, but the results on the big screen speak for themselves. One great micro-budget filmmaking trick is to point your camera at something spectacular…

  • Patrick Mcload

    All good tips, but many forget a very fundamental one when in the desert….look down while you are walking! I shot last week in the Mojave, and came VERY near to stepping on a rattlesnake that was sunning itself. Its camouflage was unbelievable, making it nearly invisible to the surroundings. (Also turns out it was the most venomous of all rattlesnakes).
    So a word to the wise, always walk slowly and watch the ground ahead of you.

  • Kirk P.

    Don’t forget a a crap load of compressed air cans! great for getting sand and dirt off the gear. Also If in a sandy place or when it may rain, I always bring a tarpaulin and sit the lens case, ditty bag and other gear on half of it, the other half folded over the gear, placed in a direction the wind keeps it folded over.

  • ghays tahtah

    i shoot a movie in the syrian desert ( midel east ) this year , on the 1st day we blow sand in the scene as like a sand storme , i tape all the audio and video output in gaffer tape so sand and dust dont enter so at the end of the day i just clean the body , lenses and filtters