5 Tips for Shooting in Hot Environments & Harsh Sunlight

Let’s face it. Making a documentary means long hours of endless shooting and making sure that we have the right shots. Some of these shots require to be taken in hot environments and harsh sunlight. And like any other activity, shooting under these harsh environments can become exhausting. Take these 5 tips we rounded up to keep in mind the next time you have to shoot under the harsh sunlight and other hot environments.


1. Don’t Shoot in Middle of Day

Or if you have to shoot in the middle of the day, make sure you are indoors somewhere, preferably with some air con!  There are a couple of reasons not to shoot in the middle of the day, from say Noon to 2:30pm.

One great reason, outside of yours and your crews health and comfort, is that it will be your harshest time for lighting.  Unless you’re lucky enough to be shooting with cloud cover, you’ll be working with blindingly painful sun light, which will make exposure a massively tricky issue.  Trying to expose someone against a bright and shiny sky at this time of the day is ill-advised.  For example, at this time of the day, the sun will generally be straight up in the sky, wreaking havoc on your subject’s facial features, with wicked shadows.  And making matters worse, if you’re working in a country where people’s skin is darker in color, you’ll have another issue you’re fighting.  And that is, in order to get their face exposed you’ll have to open your fstops up a bit, which will then blow out – that is, over expose – most everything around them.

Of course, if you absolutely must be shooting during this time of day, you’ll have to employ the use of ND filters.  Many cameras now have NDs built into their cameras, however DSLRs really don’t, so you’ll have to buy physical NDs for them.  The ideas should allow for easier exposure, and if you’re trying to create any sort of depth of field, these will be a must when you’re in the outdoors.  Without them you’d have to close your aperture way down, which will then make your focal length huge, putting maybe unwanted objects or areas in focus.  Just remember, the NDs are not going to soften any unwanted shadows.  The sun’s harsh light at this time of day is going to create these no matter what, so just be aware of that.

So when shooting outdoors, if it’s possible, you should be planning your shoots for the mornings and later afternoons, giving you the best opportunities for shooting good footage.  Just take a long lunch and rest break in between.  You and your crew don’t want to be doing manual labor outdoors during this part of the day, better to take a nap and then get back to it!


2. Keep Your Camera Cool

A couple of weeks ago I came across a pretty humorous photo that I shared in The Documentary Life Community.  It was taken of myself and my crew filming in Cambodia.  It was from 2011, I think.  It was the first time I had shot with my Canon 7D in Cambodia.  After shooting for a couple of hours, a warning sign started flashing on my camera.  The camera had overheated and was preparing itself for shutdown.  It was nice enough to let me know ahead of time, so that I could pause with our shooting of an interview.  In the photo we are using these little Chinese-style hand fans, trying to help the camera cool down (see left).

Now, considering how much I would end up shooting with the 7D outside in hot and super sunny days in places like Cambodia, Haiti, and Thailand, I was pretty amazed at how well the Canon did.  Unless we were outside in the part of the day that I was telling you to avoid, and had been shooting in direct sunlight for a couple of hours, all things considered, it did remarkably.

What I’m trying to inform you of here is to be aware that your camera will eventually shut itself done if it gets too hot.  This isn’t a terrible thing that it’s shutting down, because basically something has triggered it to protect itself.  And so, it’s not going to allow itself to function again until it’s good and ready, which generally means that it’s had a break from the hot temps.

What you can do, is keep your camera in the shade whenever possible.  If you’re outdoors shooting in direct sunlight, keep the body shaded, even if it means draping a piece of cloth over it.  And whenever you’re not using the camera, turn the power off.  Even if you’re not actually shooting with it, having the power on, creates heat, which is what you’re trying to minimize.  Your camera will stay cooler longer, and as an added bonus, your batteries will stay juiced longer.


3. Wear Appropriate Clothing

Another thing that is a must when working in extremely hot and sunny environments is your clothing.  Don’t just automatically assume that because it’s a beautiful hot & sunny day out that you can just roll out with your short sleeve t-shirt and shorts.  Depending on the culture that you’re working in, shorts like this may not even be acceptable.  Or wearing a cotton t-shirt can actually be a really sweaty thing to do.  A loose fitting button up shirt might be a better choice.

And added bonus, you’ll look a little more professional.  You might even look British doing this!  I had my fixer in Haiti once inform me of this.  ‘You look British today!’  I asked him why he said this and he said ‘Today you are wearing a nice shirt with buttons.  That’s British.  Yesterday you wore a t-shirt.  That’s what Americans like.’  Ahhh, the world’s perception of one another.  Isn’t it great?

An accouterments of choice for me now is to wear a shirt that will wick the sweat away from my body.  For anyone unfamiliar with the term wicking, wicking essentially works by utilizing a thing called capillary action.  The fabric is made up of tiny tubes, that moisture will move up into the fabric and away from the body.  The idea is similar to a candle’s wick which draws the wax up the wick to the flame to be burned.  You can get clothing that will do this wicking nowadays at any outdoor goods store.  I own a few pairs of shirts and a couple pairs of pants that will do this.

Oh, and also, always wear a hat or cap. Something should be on your head, protecting it from the sun, at all times.



4. Wear Sunscreen

And speaking of wearing the correct clothing, I’d like to now tell you a little story…

I wore flip-flops once when I was shooting in Cambodia.  Talk about rookie mistake.  Now, yes, this seems like a no-brainer.  Why would you ever wear flip-flops on a job?  I once was working on a commercial gig and one of the PAs came to set wearing a pair of stylish flip-flops.  She was promptly sent home for a change of footwear.  I get it.  You’re working around heavy and serious gear, even C-stands could crack your toe if you’re not wearing some kind of shoes.  But I was in Cambodia, we weren’t operating with any grip and electric or anything like that, we were just outside roaming around the countryside getting some nice B-roll.  Flip-flops or sandals are like the choice of footwear in that part of the world, so I figured why not do as the Cambodians do.  And everything went fine.  Nothing fell on my toes.  I didn’t step on anything sharp.  But later on when we got back to the hotel and I’ve showered, I’m realizing that the tops of my feet have started burning.  I look down and to my horror they are beat red.   They are badly sunburned.

Now you should know that as part of my morning ritual when shooting in hot and sunny places, I always apply copious amounts of sun protection before heading out for the day.  Its not even a question of it, it’s just a question of how much.  Well, the problem that one particular day is that I forgot to put sunblock on my feet.  Why wouldn’t I have forgotten?  Id never had to do it before, because I’d always worn shoes or boots outside.  I’d never had to think about putting any kind of sun protection on my feet.

I tell you this story not only to illustrate the necessity for wearing the proper clothing and footwear when shooting outdoors in the heat and sun, but to also stress the importance of good sun block, when working in the outdoors.  Always wear sunblock when you work outside, and always remember to bring extra sunblock with you if you’re somewhere far from home.  Sunblock may be really expensive to buy or worse just not available anywhere.  The last thing you want is to have to be working with a really bad sunburn.  It can be extremely uncomfortable and can increase your dehydration, which is about the last thing you want to be happening when working in the intense sunlight and heat.


5. Bring a Reflector

A piece of gear that you’ll want to remember to bring with you that is going to help you when working outdoors in the sunlight, is a light reflector.  And preferably one that will not only reflect light for you but will also have a diffusion option as well.  Often times one side of the reflector will be made of reflective material, while the other will be made of diffusion material. The reflector side will allow you to direct some fill light where needed.  When you’re out working in the sun you might need to fill in some of those harsh shadows.  That’s where you’ll want to have a reflector on hand.  Either someone can be holding it while you shoot, or if you’re shooting an interview outdoors you can usually rig the reflector to a tree or lean it on a post, since the movement of your subject on camera will be pretty minimal.  Again, the reflector will allow you to fill in those unwanted shadows that may be created by the harsh sunlight conditions.  It works the same way as a simple bounce card in the studio.

And the diffusion side will allow you to diffuse some of the direct sunlight on an area.  So if you’re shooting an interview in the outdoors you might have someone hold up or find a way to rig the refractor above the subject.  It will be placed between the direct sunlight and the person.  This will help ease the harshness of the sunlight and kind of allow the light to fall on your subject a little more evenly.

So make sure that a reflector is part of your kit when you travel to a particularly sunny setting.


Are you planning to film in some extreme weather conditions? Where are you headed? What precautions do you take to protect yourself and your crew from extreme temperatures? Share with us in the comments below.


Host and TDL Founder, Chris G Parkhurst

Chris is a documentary filmmaker and the founder and host of The Documentary Life, a platform which aims to inform and inspire documentary filmmakers from around the globe.

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