Filming in Africa

I have recently returned from spending two months filming a documentary on conservation in Malawi for a charity called Purple Field Productions. As anyone who has worked in Africa will probably agree, it presents some unique problems and challenges but also provides wonderful rewards.

Below are a few observations and tips I picked up during the project. Feel free to add any of your own or dispute any of mine…

1. Getting there: we took a very small, light and compact set of equipment with us. Not only does this keep expenses down for excess baggage allowance but it also much easier to get through customs at the other end. Sadly, in many African countries (and in other parts of the world) corruption is rife and carrying expensive, professional looking equipment invites trouble. For the trip to Malawi we took the Sony A1E which is a really nice little HDV camera that’s discreet and fits easily into hand luggage and we didn’t have any problems. Unfortunately it’s not always possible to minimise on equipment. On a trip a couple of years ago to the DRC I was filming for ENG and had a Panasonic AG SPX800E. We had a considerable wait at customs until our local contacts were able to help us out. That also highlights another must – the importance of good planning and good contacts, so that you are not completely alone in a foreign country for when it inevitably all goes wrong!

 2. However… Hakuna Matata! Learn not to sweat the small things or you’ll   have a nervous breakdown. It might sound obvious but problems with basic infrastructure and a laid back approach to life means that facilities, standards and timeframes you may be used to at home just don’t apply in many parts of Africa. Especially in rural areas. For example, severe diesel shortages in Malawi resulted in long delays and last minute changes to the timetable.

3. Dust, sun and sweaty fingers – all bad for cameras.

  •   Dust was a big problem for us and we had to be extra careful to keep all equipment clean. Air duster and chamois are essential parts of the kit.
  • Strong African sunshine poses both technical and creative problems. It can obviously damage lenses and overheat equipment – including reducing the life of batteries. Aesthetically, midday sun can burn out pictures and create a flat, bland look to a shot, whereas, although early and late sun gave much greater depth and a beautiful golden hue to the shots, you can’t rely on using it alone – both for logistic reasons and because you’ll end up looking like your whole film was shot at dusk! Filters helped a lot – both UV filters to protect the lenses as well as polarizers and ND filters to enhance the shot and allow more flexibility with the depth of field. 
  • Filming in Africa, the contrast of the dark skin tones to the strong sunlight is also problematic. We found, especially during interviews, that the reflector was another essential piece of kit to get decent, natural looking lighting onto people’s faces. Any other tips for working in harsh lighting conditions would be appreciated…
  • Sweaty fingers were an even bigger problem for us in Malawi as the Sony A1E has a touchscreen menu – one of the biggest downsides to the camera in my opinion. We had to be extra careful to have clean fingers when operating it and copious amounts of wet-wipes were used when we were out in the field – I wish I’d packed more as I nearly ran out! Although we were incredibly careful with the screens, both cameras developed a fault with them towards the end of the trip. Luckily we could work around it but this was a let down on an otherwise handy and versatile little camera. 

4. Enjoy yourself! I love Africa and I especially loved Malawi. The people are friendly, the landscape is stunning and the lifestyle and culture is unique. Being able to do what I love, in such an amazing location and knowing that it’s also for a good cause – what more could anyone want!?

Purple Field Productions is a UK based charity that works with local organisations within developing countries to produce films for educational and humanitarian purposes. To find out more visit the website or find them on facebook or twitter.