Al Humphreys: making a movie in a desert

One film showing at this year's film festivals is Into the Empty Quarter. This is how it was made.
Filming in the Empty Quarter © Alastair Humphreys
By Alastair Humphreys

Alastair Humphreys is a British adventurer and film-maker who has cycled around the world, rowed the Atlantic, trekked 1,000 miles across the Empty Quarter desert and walked across India. In this gear special, he explains what camera equipment is best for an adventure.

Filming Into The Empty Quarter posed several equipment challenges. When Leon McCarron (pictured above) and I walked a thousand miles across the Arabian Peninsula, we wanted to drag along as little as possible.

I hope that outlining our kit will be helpful for anyone planning to film an expedition of their own. But before you read about the gear, watch the trailer below!


Most expeditions filmed for television take a different approach. They have big budgets, support crews and cameramen. Expeditions with massive sponsorship backing are different too, being able to buy whatever kit they like.

But for normal people wanting to film their own story, you will have to juggle these factors:

• Budget
• Weight
• User skill

Kit is not the most important aspect of making a decent expedition film. If you head off into the wild armed only with a tripod, an external microphone and an entry level DSLR or a decent compact camera then you have all the gear needed to make an award-winning classic.

The story and user skill are far more important. So do not be put off if you can’t afford some of the kit below. Get out there and make your film anyway! Heck , some of Searching for Sugarman was filmed on a phone.

On the other hand, if you are fortunate enough to be armed with a lovely camera and a 3kg, €5,000 lens then you will certainly get some pretty shots (like these). Even then though, the story and user skill are still far more important.

Al Humphreys' desert-going photo+video gear. © Alastair Humphreys

Our desert set-up:

• Canon XF100: a light, quality, versatile camcorder. Decent range of focal lengths. Autofocus and rotating screen both very helpful. This was the go-to camera when something happened quickly, such as meeting people.

• Canon 5d Mkii: stills camera and HD video recorder. Great for still images and for pretty-looking shots. More of a faff and hassle to use than the XF100.

• 24-105 f4 lens: a versatile lens that is ‘good enough’ for virtually every circumstance. Can get a shallow depth-of-field at the long end of the focal length.

• 50mm f1.8 lens: a very cheap lens for low light shots. Useful as a back-up too.

• Rode Videomic microphones plus windshields. We ordered a lav mic too but it arrived too late for us to take. I regret this massively! Do not underestimate the importance of sound in your film.

• Batteries: we calculated how far it would be between charging opportunities and took sufficient batteries for this interval, if used sparingly.

• Battery chargers.

• Loads of CF cards. We had to be sparing with our battery use, but we did not want to be limited with how much footage we could shoot.

• Tripods: Sony handicam tripod and Velbon CX Mini tripod. The bigger and heavier and more expensive a tripod is, the better. It also though becomes bigger, heavier and more expensive…

• Lens Cleaning Kit.

• Headphones to check audio levels.

• Small compact camera (with AA batteries).

Now go forth, live an adventure – and tell us the tale!

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