The sun is bright, the birds are singing, and there’s a nice breeze to keep you cool on the hot summer day. It might be a beautiful day to you but it probably won’t appear that way to your camera and the shoot you’re about to take. The bright sun results in harsh and unflattering lighting, the birds become distracting background noise to your take if the wind doesn’t blow on your mic and ruin the audio first, and having your camera left in the sun to shoot could potentially overheat and damage it.
The outdoors may be a beautiful setting for your film but with that beauty comes challenges. It would be wise to plan your filming and shoots with these challenges in mind.
When filming outside, the lighting is constantly changing. Not only is the sun moving in the sky resulting in different hues of light but a cloud could suddenly go in front of the sun and darken that light too.
Being aware of the lighting is going to be most important if you are doing interviews outside. Bad lighting is too bright, makes your subject squint, and creates intense, unflattering contrast between the shadows and light on your subject’s face. You will find the worst lighting in the middle of the day when the sun is at its highest in the sky.
To overcome these poor lighting conditions there are a couple of actions you can take.
First of all, consider picking a time of day other than midday where the sun is the most intense. The best time of day to film is during the golden hour which is roughly within the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset. The light at this time is soft and golden and produces less dark shadows and contrast which adds to a more flattering look overall (especially on faces).
However, it would be incredibly hard to get all your filming done within only one hour at both morning and night. This is when having tools to help will come in handy - specifically reflectors. A reflector is any kind of surface used to reflect or bounce lighting off of. They can be as simple as a white poster board or as high-quality as a professional-grade one.
A reflector is used to take the hard light from the sun and bounce it off, turning it into softer light. Soft light creates shadows that are lighter and don’t have clearly defined edges. This more flattering look allows details in your subject to stand out instead of being lost in shadow.
There are many kinds of reflectors out there and the difference in their size and color will change the results you get from them. A silver one reflects the same color light that it took in and also reflects the largest amount of light back compared to other reflector colors. Silver is generally seen as the best reflector for a beginner to start out with. A white reflector will reflect a soft white light back that is less obvious than that from the silver. A gold reflector mimics the color of light at the golden hour and washes your subject in a warm yellow light. No matter what color you pick, the larger the reflector is the softer the light reflected will be.
If you are interviewing outside under the sun, place your subject with their back to the sun. This not only stops him/her from squinting in the light but also backlights them - creates a halo of light around them separating them from the background. Then stand in front of your subject and use your reflector to bounce light back onto their face and brighten it up.
Experiment with the position of the reflector and how far or close you put it to the subject to see what kind of lighting it produces. For example, the farther away you hold the reflector from your subject the softer the light it will reflect back onto them.
The biggest audio problem you’re going to come across in the outdoors is wind. Wind can be a nuisance on any given day but it takes it to a whole new level when you’re trying to film outside. When wind passes over the microphone it creates a rumbling sound that can ruin a take.
You could try out simple solutions first such as shielding the mic from the wind with your hand or some other object. You could also try rearranging the placement of the mic and subjects so that the mic is out of the direct path of the wind.
These are quick, simple solutions but if you really want to make sure your audio will turn out good you should get some kind of windscreen to put on your mic.
There are a variety of windscreens out there such as foam, dead cat, and blimp styles. Each is made of different materials and provide different results.
No matter what actions you take to protect your mic from wind and other unwanted noises make sure to test it before doing the actual shoot. The worst thing that could happen is if you finish up with a long shoot only to review the footage and realize unwanted noise was being captured.
We all know that weather is unpredictable; especially here in Utah when it can be nice and sunny one day and the next day a freak snow storm appears. Even though many of us complain about the weatherman being wrong so often we should still pay attention to weather forecasts to at least get a sense of what the day might hold. When you know what the conditions are going to be like you can either cancel and reschedule your shoot for a better day or bring equipment to deal with it.
The first weather condition you should watch out for is rain or snow. Water-damage can easily be the end of your camera so it’s important to be adequately prepared for it even when you’re not expecting it.
Start by keeping some kind of cheap plastic poncho or bag in your camera bag so that you can whip it out and use it to protect your camera until you get it to a sheltered area if it starts to rain. Also, keep silica gel packets in your camera bag to soak up any moisture that might have gotten on your camera. Silica gel packets are those little white packets found in shoe boxes, medications, etc. They can also be bought online.
Now, if you plan to film in the rain there are other tactics and gear you can use to get your shot done and keep your camera safe. First of all, look for a sheltered area you can use your camera from such as underneath a tree or umbrella. Even if you have fantastic rain gear for your camera it’s best to keep as much water away from your camera as possible.
For your camera, put a rainsleeve on it. A rainsleeve is generally a plastic cover that covers your camera while leaving the lens exposed and allows for your hands and part of your arm to be covered too when using the camera.
Of course, bring a rain jacket and clothing items to keep yourself warm and protected from the rain too. You won’t last long enough to get your shot if you immediately get soaked to the bone and become too cold to continue.
Rain and water isn’t the only weather event you need to be worried about. Another condition you need to be aware of when filming outside is the heat. If your camera is outside working for long hours with the sun blazing down on it it will likely overheat which will damage the internal components.
The best solution for this would be to keep it out of the sun or put a cloth over the camera so that the sun isn’t directly beating down on it. Either that or you could go under a tree or umbrella for shade.
Overall, the biggest challenge to filming in the outdoors is that the conditions are constantly changing. When you film indoors, the lighting is how you want it and there won’t be a sudden breeze or storm to mess up your shoot. But even though you don’t have total control over the conditions, the outdoors lead to beautiful settings and adventures for your film that you can’t get indoors.
Now you may be all excited about embracing the difficulties of filming outside but there’s one more thing you need to do first. Before you take all your equipment out to film, scout out a location and visit it at different times of day to see how the lighting is and what other conditions are like in the area. Maybe there’s a lot of people at that location at a certain time of day creating noise and distraction. Or maybe the sun gets to a certain point in the sky and is blocked by a mountainside you are next to. It’s better to get to know what the environment will be like before you bring the crew, subjects, and equipment up to the location only to find out that the location is less than you hoped for.
Documentaries are always more work than you’d think when you are first starting. You can’t just grab a camera and start filming aspects of real life and think that makes a documentary - that’s a home video. With the help of these tips you’ll be able to turn your documentary from just “okay” into a tighter, more captivating film.