Soft golden sunlight bathing a foggy deserted beach…the hustle and bustle of city traffic and skyscrapers…majestic vistas inhabited by fascinating wildlife…and the romance of gently falling rain. With all of these incredible scenes passing you by, it would take a heart of stone not to want to take your camcorder along when you travel.
Fortunately a trip outdoors requires almost exactly the same steps as shooting indoors, with only a few variations. But beware these minor considerations, because they can make or break your entire outdoor shoot.
At home you can beg, borrow or steal to make up for forgotten or broken equipment. Not always so on the road. Dead batteries alone can leave an outdoor shoot immobilized. And you don’t have to worry about rain, blazing sun or snow when you’re shooting inside.
But if you check weather reports in advance and plan out how you’ll deal with the challenges unique to your outdoor location, you’ll find that in many ways location shoots are simpler and at the same time more beautiful than the indoor ones.
Planning out what steps you’ll be taking and finding out about weather conditions are among the cornerstones of good outdoor shooting.
A common mistake made by some amateurs and even some professionals is a failure to carefully plan their location shoots in advance. Nothing is more time consuming and frustrating than arriving at a location, unloading your equipment and discovering that you forgot to bring a necessary cable, microphone or even recording media.
Another time waster is the failure to develop a shot list in advance. Some producers enjoy working in a free form, unstructured manner. That’s an exciting, creative way to work. But when faced with limited time and a limited budget, it’s best to sit down in advance and draw up a list of the shots you don’t want to miss. After you’ve gotten those scenes, then follow your instincts and experiment with other shots.
The availability of power (or lack thereof) is where outdoor shoots vary the most from indoor ones. Batteries are the lifeblood of video equipment, so carry along plenty of them. Take a charger if you plan on staying away overnight. You also might want to consider taking an attachment that lets you charge batteries through the cigarette lighter in your car.
If you’re traveling away from home, check the local weather forecast before you set your plans, and find out about the seasons and local events where you’re headed. You may discover that you’re just barely missing precious events such as the blooming of spring wildflowers or the turning of fall leaves. Some cities have special festivities and events such as Octoberfest or whale watching, so be sure to keep an eye out for good shooting opportunities.
While shooting outside is easy and rewarding, avoid the most extreme weather conditions whenever possible. Sometimes it’s cheaper and more productive to wait a few weeks rather than run the possibility of ruining your
equipment. Your camcorder wasn’t made to operate in torrential rains or blazing heat. If you can’t avoid certain
conditions, plan ahead as well as possible.
Getting There in One Piece
Arriving at your destination with all of your equipment intact is half the battle of outdoor videomaking.
Whether you’re traveling by car, train, bus or plane, once you’ve turned your back and safely nestle into your
seat, your equipment can meet up with its worst enemies. Tucked away in transportation storage compartments,
expensive gear can encounter harsh conditions without your even knowing it. Many storage areas provide little
defense from moisture and extremes of heat and cold, not to mention rough handling by taxi drivers, airline
luggage handlers, etc.
Consider spending the extra money on cases that give your equipment the tender loving care it needs. Video
camera carriers will absorb much of the jarring and minor bumps of travel.
If you’re getting there by car, never store your equipment in the trunk, if you can help it. Even on a mild day,
the sun can beat down on your car for the entire length of your commute.
When you bring your equipment up front with you, watch out for heater and air conditioning vents that could
blow directly onto it. Remember that the sun may shine inside your car and onto your gear. Videotape is
especially susceptible to extremes of temperature.
No matter what your mode of transportation, your safest bet is to keep your equipment close to you at all
With luck, once you’ve arrived, everything will be at least close to what you dreamed of.
Puffy white clouds drifting through a blue sky. Rays of sunlight glinting off dark green ocean waves lapping
at a shoreline of pearly sand. This beautiful setting, however, can prove a videomaker’s nightmare, unless you’ve
Many videomakers don’t realize that extremely bright sunny days on white sandy beaches can be the most
challenging scenarios to tape. In some ways, the sun can be a videomaker’s worst enemy.
Some conditions may require you to experiment with your manual iris control (if your camcorder has one).
The iris controls the amount of light that goes through the lens of your camera. Reflectors and filters are another
easy way to manipulate how much light you record on tape. Reflectors bounce light into shadows and filters
keep light out. Without these tools, bright sunlight can cause your subjects to record onto your tape as
dimensional and deeply lined images. Bright colors can end up washed out.
Don’t forget that videomakers can use many reflectors marketed primarily to photographers. Some examples
are umbrellas lined in reflective materials and collapsible disks of varying sizes.
You can also make reflectors at home. Many pros often make impromptu reflectors out of white foamcore or
cardboard covered with foil.
Search your location for natural reflectors as well, such as water, sand and snow. Parked cars and light-
colored walls positioned near your subject can also reflect some helpful light.
Instead of (or in addition to) reflectors, you might consider using an accessory filter or two. Filters that fit
over lenses come in an array of hues that manipulate the light for a variety of videomaking applications. A trip to
your local photography and video stores or the library will yield full color charts demonstrating before and after
shots with each type of filter.
Some filters will help you cut out glare in an extremely bright scene. If don’t have one, sometimes just
moving your camera around to another location may do the trick.
You can block lens flare (those rainbow-like rays of sunlight that find their way into the edges of your
framing) with your hand. Make sure your hand doesn’t show up on tape, though. Video stores also sell cuffs that
extend past your lens to do the same trick.
Flags are lightweight shapes made from opaque and translucent materials in varying shapes and sizes. They
are held aloft by stands or assistants to block or cut down light. Some flags, called dots and fingers, block out
small, specific areas.
As with reflectors, it never hurts to open your eyes and use what you have at hand. Shaded areas, fog and
clouds are perfect natural diffusers of light that render harsh sunlight soft and flattering.
Framing for Light and Movement
Framing is probably the most important facet to good videomaking. Most people understand that framing affects
how you arrange your subjects. What they don’t realize, though, is that framing also influences how you light
your subject and how the eye responds to motion.
If a subject is extremely backlit, for instance, try repositioning your camera. If you can’t move the camera, try
pushing in for a closeup. This will cut down on contrast between the foreground and background. The greater
percentage of the shot your subject fills, the more you must figure him, her or it into the overall light metering
Another example of how camera positioning can affect lighting is a white seagull sitting on a white sandy
beach. Rather than shooting it from above, which will make it hard to distinguish from the sand, shoot the bird at
its eye level, so the sea water serves as the backdrop.
When framing for movement, allow lead room for your subject to head toward, otherwise they’ll look like
they’re moving out of camera range.
Try to give yourself a little bit of time to practice following your subject’s movement with the camcorder. The
key is to anticipate where your subject is going. If you’re shooting a soccer game, for example, the players are
probably running after the ball. Follow the ball closely and you’ll be able to tell where the players are going to
Those nice sunny days that most of us consider so “picture-perfect” are often very hot, so it’s important to know
how to prepare for warm weather.
The hot sun can easily and quickly make your friends and pets look tired and sweaty, so let them wait in the
shade until they’re absolutely ready to go on camera. Better yet, offer them something cool to sip and a seat
while you set up the shot.
Don’t let them help you lug all of your equipment around just before you shoot them, or else they’ll appear
tired with shiny faces, messy hair and wrinkled clothes.
Make sure the people you shoot dress in cool, light clothes. If they have to wear a warm item such as a suit
jacket, follow the lead of professional on-
camera talent: in places like Florida, TV news reporters on location often wear such getups as a short-sleeved
shirt, a tie (if they’re male) and a blazer over shorts and sandals. This fools the viewers because the video camera
captures the talent only from the waist up. The pros also use this trick in the studio on long shoots under hot
Regardless of your precautions, if it’s hot enough, your subjects are probably going to perspire. If you’re not
shooting professionally, this may not matter much to you, but if it does, take along translucent powder. You may
occasionally need to blot extra moisture with facial tissues. But be gentle, otherwise you’ll end up with blotchy,
red faces, something you don’t want.
The sun can also wreak havoc on hair styles. Hair should be kept simple and away from the face. Hot-
rollered, blow-dried hair will become flat, so if it’s unavoidable, at least make sure your talent doesn’t stand in
the sun any longer than absolutely necessary.
As in any videotaping situation, make sure your talent doesn’t wear any highly-contrasted clothing. A white
T-shirt on a dark-skinned and dark-haired person against a bright sky is just one example of what might turn out
to be a problem scenario.
Pastels such as blues, greens and mauves are flattering to almost anyone. Avoid small fabric patterns that will
make the image ‘wiggle,’ or any bold patterns, outfits or colors that compete with your subject for attention. This
goes for loud jewelry and garish makeup as well.
Setting Up Your Shots
In both indoor and outdoor videos, the careful attention to the way you set up your shots will help determine the
final proportion and balance of the scene.
Ground lines and naturally occurring borders, such as a hillside in the forefront of a shot of the sky, can help
Sizes of unusually large subjects, such as mountain ranges, trees and buildings, or unusually small subjects,
such as flowers, are easier to interpret when you include familiar objects in the shot. A shot of a friend standing
near a gigantic redwood tree, for example, is easier to interpret than a shot of the tree by itself.
The angles you shoot from and the position of your camera will also affect perspective. A barn shot head-on
records as one-dimensional, whereas shooting it from a corner creates a sense of how far back the building
You can also use lenses and stabilizing devices to develop a larger range of possible shots. Macro lenses,
made to get in close, can make your nature shots look like advanced science films. And if you want to follow a
shot like the pros but don’t have access to
the expensive dollies and tracks the pros use, consider buying a camcorder stabilizer.
Wind, Clouds, Rain and Snow
Of course, the weather consists of more than just hot and cold. Mother nature has many more settings you’ll
need to make allowances for.
If you don’t plan ahead, you may find yourself in the midst of such nuisances as unnerving whooshing noises
from the wind and moisture inside your equipment.
Extreme weather may offer you no other choice than to retreat inside,
but you can work around some conditions. Here’s a list of some foul weather helpers:
- Wind screens (foam covers) for mikes.
- Reflectors and the use of your camera light to even out unevenly lit cloudy days.
- Hair brushes, hair spray and pins for stray tresses.
- Plastic bags to cover your equipment in the rain.
If you can, angle your body to block the wind for your microphone. Windy days are sometimes impossible to
record clear sound on, so you might want to experiment with dubbing in sound gathered from another location or
on a different day.
An occasional drop or two of water is not going to destroy your camcorder, but it’s definitely not made to get
wet. Some cameras come with dew sensorslights that go on when too much moisture builds up in the
equipment. If yours doesn’t, you’ll need to keep an eye out for moisture build-up in your camera.
With camcorders becoming more compact and lighter weight than ever before, shooting outside doesn’t have
to take much more thought than staying indoors. Just remember that if want to avoid running back home for
whatever you forgot, make extra sure you pack it with you before you leave. Pack lots of batteries and check the
weather for monsoons or blizzards and you’ll be ready to go.
Don’t Leave Home Without Them
Planning ahead, making lists and checking them twice are your best allies for ensuring a problem-free field trip.
The further you’ll be walking with your gear, the more important it is that you pack lightly and compactly. Within
reason, though, it’s still a good idea to take extras of everything so that if something breaks, you’ll still have spares.
Here’s what your check-off list should look like, give or take a few items specific to your shoot.
- Batteries. Lots of them. These should always be at the very top of your list, right next to the camcorder itself. And
make sure you’ve charged them. Do the math for how long you plan to shoot, adding in the time your camera will be
on pause, then add some more. Keep in mind that mikes often need batteries as well, as does your monitor, if you pack
- Battery charger and A/C unit if you’re staying overnight. You can plug some battery chargers into your car’s
- Videotape. Like batteries, it’s better to have too much than not enough.
- Camcorder. Don’t forget the lens cap.
- Mikes. It may be hard to decide what kind you’ll need, so don’t hesitate to take at least a couple to choose from and
as backups in the event that one malfunctions.
- Tripod. Yes, it is tempting to leave at home. But don’t. Why bother shooting at all if your video is going to be
wobbly? Tripods improve your video a thousand fold and are the one piece of equipment you shouldn’t skimp on.
Single-leg monopods that retract to the size of a ruler are an extremely lightweight option for hikers and rock
- Mike cables. The wires in these cables are fragile, so be gentle when you pack them.
- Monitor. Not essential, but so much better than squinting into your eyepiece for long periods of time. You can often
find very small battery-operated monitors at consumer electronic stores. Make it a habit to always review at least some
of each scene before you pack up and move on to another location. It may be impossible to re-shoot a scene hours or
- Audio headset. For the same reason you want to review your visuals before you go home, you’ll want to make sure
the sound you’re recording is perfect the first time around. Any kind of headset is better than none, but if you can, get
one with cushioning that fits around the ears. This helps seal out external sounds so that you can hear exactly what’s
going through your camera.
- Reflectors and filters for shooting in bright sunlight.
- An extra bulb in case one burns out.
- Lens cleaner.
- Plastic bags to keep moisture off your equipment if it rains.
- An umbrella to shield your equipment and you from the sun.
- If you plan on shooting people and you want them to look nice, don’t forget to throw in some translucent face powder and a comb for touch-ups.
One other thing before you leavemake sure you understand how everything functions and that it’s in good
Assistants to the Rescue
An amateur shoot doesn’t need as many people involved as perhaps a major Hollywood shoot with a seemingly endless credit roll, but even just one extra person on hand can do wonders for your taping expedition.
Say you’re videotaping your trip to the Grand Canyon. There are tons of shots you want to be sure not to miss, like
that pan across the incredible view.
An assistant can help:
- Steady you. This is extra critical when you’re moving the camera in unstable positions or on shaky ground.
- Assist with smooth pans. Starting and stopping a pan is not easy to do fluidly. Ask your assistant to either let you
know when to start and stop verbally. Or if you don’t want the signal heard on tape, a tap on the shoulder can suffice at
the appropriate moment. They may even keep you from taking that one or two extra steps that’ll accidentally send you
over a precipice.
- Carry additional gear. Even small, light objects can seem heavy after a long day, especially if you had to park far
away or had to drag stuff on and off the tour bus many times.
- Provide commentary. Can’t walk and chew gum at the same time? Can’t shoot and talk? Your assistant can help.
- Help you shoot. Shooting is fun, but it’s also tiring. Another benefit of staying rested is that it helps keep you from
getting sloppy with your shooting. You may even find that each of you have specialties that you can capitalize
- Set up shots. While you’re getting one shot, your assistant can scope out the next.
- Keep track of equipment. It goes without saying that you should never leave your equipment unattended, but that’s
easier said than done when you’re alone.
- Listen for extraneous sound. Hearing excess background noise and looking for stray hairs sticking out on your
subjects while you’re shooting is not a simple task. But once you get home and view the tape, you’ll wish you’d had
someone there to help you pay attention to flaws such as trees growing out of the tops of people’s heads.
- Add some fun. There’s nothing wrong with going solo, but it’s nice to have someone there with you to share the
enjoyment of shooting.
- Get you home. After a long day out, they may be the only one who remembers where you parked the car.