Neither Rain, Nor Sleet, Nor Snow: How To Protect Your Gear From the Great Outdoors

Weather happens! If you follow our tips for shielding your precious equipment from the elements, you'll be able to shoot just about anywhere.

To get the most out of your video production gear, you need to shoot wherever life happens. But many locations have conditions that aren't video friendly. Even small amounts of sand, rain, salt water, or dust can damage or destroy a camcorder. It's vital that you protect your gear.

Whether your image of protective gear is Uncle Joe shooting in the rain from beneath a Hefty bag or a Jacques Cousteau film crew shooting in the deep sea with sophisticated underwater gear, you'll be glad to know there is many solutions in between.

In the next few pages, you'll learn the challenges and solutions of shooting video in rain, sea spray, sand, heat, humidity, extreme cold and underwater. You'll also learn that with the right equipment in your bag and a few tricks up your sleeve, you can shoot just about anywhere.

Rain Drops Keep Falling on my (Recording) Head

If you shoot outdoors, sooner or later you'll encounter rain. Water is a real enemy to the electronics and delicate inner workings of your camcorder. The camcorder itself is designed to protect these working parts, so if it's sprinkling lightly, there's usually no need to panic. A jacket or some other light barrier may be all you need to keep the camcorder dry, and you can keep shooting as long as the rain doesn't increase to a deluge. Just be sure to thoroughly wipe the camcorder's casing with a clean, lint-free cloth when done and store the camcorder completely dry. Keep an eye on the clouds and be prepared for worsening conditions.

In heavier rain, the challenge is to protect the camcorder without losing your ability to operate it. Most videographers have relied at one time or another on this common-sense technique: cover the camcorder completely with a sturdy garbage bag, preferably a clear one so you can see the controls on your camcorder. Cut a small hole for the lens. Tape or rubber band the bag securely around the lens, being careful not to inhibit the camcorder's focus function. Take care to keep tape off the camcorder's surface or you'll have to deal with the sticky residue. Continuously check your camcorder during taping to make sure that the bag hasn't shifted or ripped to expose any part of the camcorder. While less than ideal, this emergency solution has saved a lot of productions.

For a sturdier cover, use the clear, plastic zippered bags in which blankets are sold, or the vinyl department store garment bags used to package mens' suits. Both are waterproof, sturdy, and can be cut to tent your camcorder.

Better still are Rain Capes, made by Ewa Marine and Rain Slickers, made by Porta-Brace. These clear, waterproof pouches encase your camcorder, keeping it free of moisture and dust. They feature built-in glass optical ports and mounting brackets. While waterproof, they are not immersible. They retail for about $130 to $200.

Poolside Antics

When shooting poolside, the goal, again, is to keep the camcorder dry. Evaluate the splash factor and protect accordingly. Wipe any drops off the camcorder as soon as possible using the clean, lint-free cloth that should permanently reside in your camera bag. You can also stand as far back as possible from that splashy cannonball competition and zoom in.

Between shots, cover your camcorder and put it in a secure, dry place. A dripping person walking past your lounge chair can do as much damage as a sudden cloudburst. The cover also protects your camcorder and tapes from prolonged, intense sunlight.

Production's a Beach

Beach productions present four challenges. The first is water; second is sand; third, salty sea breezes and mist; fourth, intense heat and sunlight.

To protect your camcorder from water and sand, it must be completely covered. Salt water and sand are highly corrosive and can be very harmful to your equipment. The garbage-bag solution isn't a good one for the beach because sand has a way of entering through folds in the plastic. Once inside, sand can etch surfaces and sift into delicate components. Professional covers like video rain capes are highly recommended.

It's also vital to cover the lens. Don't take your camcorder to the beach without a UV filter. Not only does it improve video quality by filtering out UV rays, it will protect the lens from sand and salt etches and scratches. It's much cheaper to replace a filter than a lens. At the beach, a filter is absolutely mandatory.

A huge variety of filters are available for every imaginable lighting condition and different optical effects. See "Lens Filters: Quick and Easy Ways to Spice Up Your Videos," in Videomaker's June issue to find the right ones for your specifications.

Another problem at the beach is the wind. To capture clean audio, your microphone will need to be covered with a windscreen. Windscreens can be found in foam, flannel, or acrylic fur. Most are designed to slip right over the microphone and are relatively inexpensive. Be sure the screen you select is designed for outdoors, not just to reduce minor sounds of a speaker's breathing or popping consonants. Markertek and Location Sound offer a variety of sizes and styles of windscreens, ranging from $6 to $38 each.

As mentioned earlier, it may be wise to keep your distance from the waves and zoom in. At the beach, you have to worry not only about splashing, but surprises from Mother Nature like unexpectedly large waves. Before approaching the shoreline, spend 10-15 minutes watching the ocean. Waves have a rhythm and often a predictable pattern. Every seventh wave, for example, may be huge. As you approach the shoreline, notice how far the biggest waves washed up on the sand. Obviously, you'll want to set up behind that point even if the waves currently lapping the shore are further back.

Before your production, check the tide table. A film crew shooting in Santa Cruz recently placed a dolly track close to the ocean. In the 45 minutes or so that it took to prepare the shot, the tide steadily moved in. The crew lost an hour frantically rescuing the track and moving it to higher ground.

If you're shooting in a tide pool area, you need to beware of spouts and blow holes. You can be shooting anemones in a tide pool from a dry rock and still become the victim of an unexpected saltwater shower as the waves surge into the rocks and send a geyser of sea water up through a hole or cavern nearby.

Finally, respect the ocean at all times. Every year freak waves or incoming tides sweep people to their death. For your own safety as well as the safety of your gear, don't turn your back on the ocean. Better yet, have a production assistant whose job is to watch the waves.

After any beach production, do a routine maintenance check and clean the heads.

Under the Sea

Underwater shooting isn't just for the crew from National Geographic. Quality underwater gear is available in a wide range of prices, making it possible for just about anyone intrigued by the deep to capture some impressive shots.

First, check with the manufacturer of your camcorder to find out if it can be submerged to the depth your shoot requires. Ewa Marine makes a video housing for depths up to 30 feet for $397. More sophisticated housings start around $1000. They are available from Ewa Marine, Amphibico and UnderSea Video Housings. Some camcorder manufacturers (Sharp, Sony and JVC) also make underwater housings for their camcorders. When searching for the right one for your needs, get answers to the following questions:

  1. Compatibility: Does this unit work with your specific camcorder brand and model?
  2. Ease of installation: How difficult is it to install your camcorder in the housing?
  3. Ease of use: Are the controls easy to access and use? Do they allow you to perform all the functions you require?
  4. Visibility: Does the unit offer increased color saturation and definition for better visibility? Does it correct refraction?
  5. Construction: Is the housing rugged enough for your purposes? How is the housing sealed?
  6. Depth: Is the unit guaranteed to the depths required for your production?
  7. Buoyancy: Does the housing approach neutral buoyancy. Are weights required?
  8. Peripherals: Does it have the capability to accommodate the peripherals you'll need, such as lights or video line out?

Once you've taken the plunge and purchased a housing, take a plunge into the deep--with the housing empty. That way, you can make sure it's watertight at the depths you'll be taking your camcorder. Some underwater gear is also available for rent.

Dust on the Filter

Dust is not only very damaging to your camcorder; it's insidious. Be prepared for dust, not only in the obvious places, but in the form of chalk dust in classrooms, cement dust and sawdust at construction sites, flour dust in a kitchen, residue from a smoky room, and so on.

To protect your lens, keep a filter on it at all times. Stand as far from the action as is practical and zoom in. Protect your camcorder from the worst of the dust with a cover. During production, you can clean the filter with a can of compressed air. Don't wipe dust from the filter and risk scratching it with the grit. After the production, carefully wipe down your camcorder as soon as possible in a clean, dust-free location. Clean all surfaces with a lint-free cloth or a blast of compressed air. Check and remove all dust from openings and compartments, and, if you were shooting for more than an hour, clean the heads. Find out how to do this in "Clean Up Your Video Act" in Videomaker's August issue.

Heat Wave

The main problem stemming from a hot, humid location is condensation. Like drops that bead a cold mint julep on a hot summer's day, moisture can collect inside your camcorder. Dampness is disastrous for delicate electronic components. Many camcorders have a dew sensor that recognizes the presence of condensation and shuts down all functions until the moisture evaporates. Moisture causes tapes to stick and can result in the growth of fungus inside your lens.

To avoid condensation problems, do two things. First, pack moisture absorbing silica gel or another drying-agent product whenever you travel to a humid location. These products absorb moisture so your camcorder won't. Most are reusable. When the drying agents become damp themselves, simply dry them in an oven set on low heat. A good rule of thumb is to purchase one ounce for every cubic foot of sealed container.

The second line of defense against condensation is to allow your camcorder to gradually warm to the temperature of the location. Whether you're taking your camcorder from an air-conditioned car to a Vietnamese jungle or from an air-conditioned hotel room to a humid indoor swimming area, allow about 30 minutes for the camcorder to acclimatize before shooting.

Condensation can also occur when bringing your camera into a warm room from a cold location. Cover your camcorder with a vinyl or plastic cover for an hour when you come in from the cold. The cover will keep the moist air out while the camcorder warms.

A general rule of thumb is to use your camcorder only when it has reached the ambient temperature of the location. You should also avoid overheating your camcorder by transporting it in the trunk of a car or by setting it up without adequate ventilation.

Winter Wonderland

An avid skier, I've frequently witnessed people learning this disappointing lesson the hard way: in freezing temperatures, even fresh camcorder batteries have a short life. When the temperature hits 32 degrees, both nicad and lead-acid cells can lose 50% of their battery life or simply quit working all together.

Avoid this problem by keeping the batteries warm. Carry them inside your jacket, next to your body if possible, or wrap them in flannel or wool. Don't put a battery on the camcorder until you're ready to start shooting. Another common mistake is setting the camcorder on the frozen ground while removing gloves or otherwise preparing to shoot. This not only leads to moisture accumulating in the camcorder; it chills the battery very quickly, shortening its life. It's also a good idea to put batteries in a waterproof Ziploc bag at all times. There's always that out-of-control skier behind you or that melting snow in the branches above.

At high mountain elevations, there's more UV light in the atmosphere, which can make your video appear blue or very washed out. Use a UV filter--a good idea, anyway, to protect your lens--and avoid wide shots. Close ups and medium shots mean less atmosphere between the subject and the camcorder and the effects of the UV light will be diminished.

Finally, plan ahead how you'll manage your gear in snowy terrain. I carry my camcorder in an insulated front pack when I ski. This allows freedom of movement, keeps the camcorder warm, and doesn't interfere with riding the chair lift as a backpack or shoulder bag could.

Predicting the Weather

You can't predict the weather--or can you? A cool service every production manager should have is Metro Weather. This 24-hour service will, for a fee, give you live, up-to-the-minute weather forecasts and climate data for your specific location. If the sky looks threatening, you can call and find out if rain will hit before you get your next shot. They'll check the satellite and let you know when and where those clouds will burst. Call 800-488-7866 for more information.

You can also check your local phone listings and the Internet for frequently updated automated weather reports.

Location: Life

Some of the most satisfying video you'll ever get will be in unexpected places. Plan for the unexpected and the whole world can be your location.

Janis Lonnquist is an award-winning writer/producer with credits in video, television, and film.

[Sidebar] Weather Protection Gear - Manufacturers and Suppliers

  • Amphibico
    9563 Cote de Liesse
    Dorval, Quebec, Canada H9P 1A3
  • Location Sound Corp.
    10639 Riverside Dr.
    North Hollywood, CA 91602
  • Cambridge Camera Exchange
    119 W. 17th St.
    New York, NY 10011
  • Helix
    310 S. Racine Ave.
    Chicago, IL 60607
  • Ikelite
    50 W. 33rd St.
    Indianapolis, IN 46208
  • Markertek
    4 High St.
    Saugerties, NY 12477
  • Porta-Brace
    Box 246
    North Bennington, VT 05257
  • Photomart Cine-Video
    6327 S. Orange Ave.
    Orlando, FL 32809
  • The Saunders Group
    Ewa Marine brand
    21 Jet View Dr.
    Rochester, NY 14624
  • Telepak
    4783 Ruffner St.
    San Diego, CA 92111
  • UnderSea Video Housings
    9560 South Canyon St.
    Orangevale, CA 95662

This list is only a sampling and is not intended to be comprehensive.


Mon, 12/01/1997 - 12:00am