Before you consider venturing into the desert with your camera gear, you need the confidence and experience to keep yourself alive. This may sound a bit extravagant. But the desert doesn’t have many resources. Not much firewood, water or clear landmarks. The desert always changes. When you have overhead sun and the wind blows away your footsteps, you can easily lose the sense of direction. These tips will make your time in the desert more pleasant so you can focus on your creative ideas.
01. Bring enough water
I can’t say this enough. Water is the most important resource you need when working in the desert. I usually have 3 or 4 litres of water on me (each day), either in an insulated camelback or spread over multiple canteens. I also take ORS sachets with me and before I go on a long and challenging hike, I take a sachet with water.
02. Create a shelter
Prevent that you expose yourself to excessive heat, so plan your activities in the early morning and later afternoon. If you don’t have shade, you are going to sweat (and get sunburn). And if you sweat, your body loses water. In Yemen, I’ve experienced temperatures up to 52 degrees Celcius and this heat will drain you completely. Take a rest and relax during the hot hours of the day. A heat stroke can cause hyperthermia and could lead to heavy headaches, dizziness or even seizures and kidney failure. A shelter can be a tent or simply a tarp that creates shade. You can make a simple lean-to shelter from a tarp if you make a ridgeline and have two attachment points. As long as you are out of direct sunlight.
03. Sun protection
I always wear a breathable hat or a shemagh on my head. I like the shemagh because it’s made from cotton and stays wet for quite a while so it keeps my head cool. I don’t wear shirts without sleeves and I protect my neck and back of my ears with a shemagh and/or sunscreen. Don’t forget to wear sunglasses to protect your eyes.
04. Bring a basic survival and first aid kit
They are small kits but it really boosts my confidence in being alone (or with someone) in the desert. It really helps if you don’t have to worry about your safety. It makes more headspace for creative ideas. My survival kit contains supplies to purify and filter water, firestarters (if there is firewood), a compass, an emergency blanket, a whistle, a small knife and a signal mirror. If you are going completely off-grid, I’d suggest taking a GPS device such as a Garmin InReach. Have a look at my basic survival kit and my first aid kit.
05. Dust is your camera’s enemy
I’d advise not to change lenses in the desert. It’s extremely dusty and the chance that your sensor will catch dust is very high It would be better to take another camera body instead with a different lens on it. If you are filming with a big cinema camera, such as a RED Epic, Panasonic Varicam or ARRI Alexa, then it would be pretty heavy to carry two camera bodies.
If you do need to change lenses in the outdoors, clean your lens mount first with a dust blower to remove all dust particles. Aim your camera to the ground (but don’t come too close to the ground) and do a quick lens swap.
06. Protect and clean your camera
I always bring a small white tea towel or shemagh that I can wrap around my camera when I’m working in the sun. The heat will make your sensor hot, and if your sensor gets hot, your images will have more noise. It also functions as a dust cover. At the end of the day, I clean my camera body, lenses and other equipment.
I hope you find these tips useful. If you still have questions, feel free to send me an e-mail or ask your question in the comments below. Good luck and have fun in the desert!