Preparation is the Key to a Successful Shoot

What to take and how to pack it

Some of the followers of my recent blog on rolling camera cases were curious about the equipment I had packed into my Temba Universal, shown in the blog’s photograph. They wanted to know how I decide on what equipment I might need, how I organize my shoots and what kind of pre production is required before heading out.
Obviously, every assignment is different but my basic preparation is always the same. Research is essential, whether it’s the location, subject matter, availability of gear, or local customs and requirements. The following is typical of how I approach an assignment.

I happen to be on my way to the Florida Keys to do a portrait of a scientist for an upcoming National Geographic project. Although my subject lives in coastal California, I need to photograph him standing in the Atlantic Ocean. Florida is warmer than Long Island and the waters along the Keys are calm, with little surf and easy to access. Islamorada looked like a good location and it’s not too far from Miami. Besides, shooting in Florida gets me away from the frigid winter in New York.
From past experience, I knew that a permit is usually required by a park commission, county, state or city for photo shoots on beaches. A couple of weeks prior to leaving New York, I contacted the information officer with the Florida Film Commission who set me up with their film liaison person for the Florida Keys. She agreed that Islamorada had some nice beaches and quiet waters. Google gave me satellite views of a good looking, public beach controlled by the city of Islamorada and a private beach in front of the Islander Resort that also had potential. I talked with the people from the city and the hotel and explained that I needed to do a still photo that would include me, my lighting assistant and my subject. I told them that I would be setting up a couple of light stands and a tripod. There would be no need for a generator since my lights would be battery operated. I wanted to distinguish what I was doing from a large motion picture shoot, or a big fashion production with mobile homes, generators, stylists and large crews. Both the city and the resort needed a certificate of my insurance naming them as coinsured for the time I was shooting. This was an easy process, accomplished via email between me and my insurance carrier.
Once the location logistics were under control, I could focus on the equipment I would need to make the picture work. I decided to bring two Profoto 600B battery strobe units that put out 600 watt seconds of power and two flash heads. I also brought extra batteries, though I don’t anticipate needing them. My battery strobe units are very efficient, but it’s always better to be on the safe side. The lighting look I am going for requires a small Octabank and a small Chimera light box, both of which give a nice, broad soft source of light. Once I get to the location I’ll decide which one will be my main light source, as each has its own nuances. I don’t want a light bank that’s too large and will spread out on the water; I want the light focused on my subject. To further control the mood, I packed ‘eggcrates’, a grid that goes in front of the boxes to help focus my light. My other light will have a standard reflector or a Profoto sports reflector which produces a narrow beam of hard light. This head and reflector will be positioned right by the camera, and will control contrast from the light of the softbox which will be off to the side of the subject. The lights will be triggered using pocket wizards.

Since Miami has a lot of camera stores and rental houses, I don’t have to be as careful about what I bring as I would if I were going to a remote location. I plan on renting my light stands and some grip equipment. Carrying large C-stands on an airplane is a nightmare and expensive. I already told the rental house that since one of the stands may be in the water, I would rent one that was pretty beat up. Though I could probably rent everything I needed in Miami, I feel more comfortable using my own equipment whenever possible.
The strobes, heads, and extension cables fit nicely into a large, rolling Pellican case that weighs 60 pounds –the airlines aren’t so friendly with anything greater than 70 pounds. My extra batteries (which are heavy), reflectors, pocket wizards and some grip equipment fit into a medium sized Pelican case. My tripod, Octabank and Chimera, along with a boom pole that breaks down into three pieces fit nicely into the bottom of the duffle bag that holds my clothing. I was able to eliminate the need for an additional, lightstand type case and to pack everything into three checked cases – very efficient packing.
My cameras, of course are on the plane with me in the new Tenba rolling bag I discussed in the last blog. As I was going through security at La Guardia airport, I was asked to put my new rolling bag in the test template – it fit with room to spare.

From Here to There: How to Travel Safely and Efficiently with Your Equipment

Tenba Roadie II Univeral filled with my equipment

Like most photographers, I own a variety of shoulder strap camera bags and back and fanny packs that I use when I’m out shooting. But traveling to various locations with my equipment requires a different type of bag. Years ago I trudged through airports with my shoulder bag and backpack, a veritable photo mule carrying cameras and lenses that were too valuable to check as baggage on the plane. And when digital arrived, laptops, hard drives, and a lot of wires were added to my burden. The memories of switching planes in the middle of the night on international flights and walking miles through surreal, airport terminals carrying fifty pounds of equipment still haunt me. Enter the rolling bag. The wheel has changed my professional life. I was thinking about how something so simple could have so much impact, after I boarded the plane to Abu Dhabi to teach a workshop last month.
I had breezed through the airport with my rolling bag filled with cameras and lenses and a small back pack which held my laptop, some other digital equipment and back issues of photo magazines I hadn’t had time to read. I was even able to attach my shoulder bag to the top of the rolling bag. I was entirely unencumbered.

My first rolling bag was a small, Pelican case that I knew would really protect my gear. I used it for a couple of years but as my equipment load increased, I realized that although the Pelican was long on protection, it was short on space. While I was investigating more flexible, soft sided bags – Lowe Pro, Tamarac, and Thinktank, I met Peter Waisnor, a Tenba representative who was demonstrating one of the early Roadie cases. It was strong and really held a lot but it was too large to carry on a plane. Peter called a few weeks later to tell me that a smaller version, the Roadie Universal, was now available and that it would fit in an over head, airline bin.

The airlines have two standards for carry on sizes, US domestic and international. The US rules are 22 x 9 x 14 inches and the international rules are 20 x 8 x 14. I decided to try the Roadie Universal, 20 x 8 x 14 inches. I was able to fit two bodies, five to seven lenses and a small flash in this case. Of course the rules can be arbitrarily applied and an airline can tell you to gate check your carry on, which is always a nice time to start an argument. The only time I had trouble with the Roadie Universal as a carry on was when I traveled on smaller, propeller planes. In those situations, gate checking was the only solution. Although it made me a little nervous to leave my equipment, I knew that I could pick up the bag at the gate when I landed and it wouldn’t disappear like checked luggage into the bowels of the airport.

The Universal was a good case but I thought it could be improved upon. It needed better pockets for accessories like card holders, cords, flashlights and filters. I discussed these modifications with Peter who agreed and Tenba made the changes. In late January, 2011 the Roadie II series in three sizes hit the stores: a small version (too small for my use), the Universal version (20 x 8 x 14) that conforms to airline regulations, and a larger version approximately 22 x 9 x 14 that most domestic carriers should accept.

Peter sent me the new Universal version to test, since I do a lot of international traveling. Although the dimensions have not changed, this new version has more inside space, a user friendly, adjustable handle, wheels with less drag, and a more functional front pocket for carrying a laptop. I test packed it and was able to squeeze a third body (though probably not recommended), along with all of my other lenses and accessories into this bag. I even had room for all those magazines I had not read.

If you travel through airports, camera rolling bags are the way to go. Look at all the various brands and sizes to determine which case works best to hold your equipment. Size does matter – make sure your bag meets the guidelines of the airline you fly most frequently. I’m looking forward to taking my new Roadie Universal II to Florida next week on my next National Geographic assignment. I do not anticipate any arguments at the gate.

Back Up Your Camera

I know everyone is now backing up their digital images in many different places (at least I hope so), but what about camera backup? I’m leaving Antarctica, heading back to New York down one camera body, my fault for not respecting the limits of my equipment. A few days ago I was photographing penguins and icebergs in the rain, a mild rain. I kept on shooting until my Canon 5D Mark2 stopped working and came up with an Error 20 message. I had used this camera many times in the past in the rain and had encountered no real problems. And although I had a rain cover for it in my backpack, I did not bother to cover the camera. Was I being lazy or did I just have too much confidence in the camera’s weather resistance. And when is a photo worth losing a camera?
When I returned to the ship I took out the battery and CF card and left everything open. I put the camera in a plastic bag with desiccant, hoping it would dry out overnight but the camera still wouldn’t function the next morning. Fortunately I had a backup camera, a Canon7D. The 7D was out in the rain with me when the 5D died but it continued to function.
As I am headed out to Abu Dhabi a week after I return to New York, I sent Canon repair an email to ask if they could fix the camera and get it back to me asap. Their answer was yes. I decided to push the envelope a bit with Canon: as long as I was sending the disabled camera in for repair, I thought I’d send the 7D and another 5DMark2 to be checked. I also wanted Canon to install the new mode selector locking mechanism on all three bodies. When you’re working with gloves and heavy clothing, that dial seems to mysteriously turn from your original setting to one that you’ve never heard of. And even though I don’t anticipate wearing cold weather gear in the desert, I want to ensure that the mode selection dial doesn’t inadvertently move when I pull a camera out of my bag.
If you are going somewhere special, on holiday and especially on assignment, respect your equipment. If you don’t, be prepared with some backup.

Take Off That Polarizer

High shutter speed, and not a polarizer captured this Humpback Whale's tail

It never fails. Every time I teach a photo workshop, I notice that at least 25% of the participants have a polarizing filter on their lens and they never take it off. Here on board the National Geographic Explorer in Antarctica I’ve been using the phrase “Just because we’re in a polar region, you do not need a polarizing filter!” This onslaught of polarizing filters must be a result of camera sales people trying to sell more gadgets to their customers with the promise of better images through polarization. Yes, polarizers do have their place in photography, but definitely a limited place.
I’ve always believed that putting a filter in front of your lens deteriorates the sharpness of your glass and since polarizers use two pieces of glass the results are worse. Also, the loss of 1.5 to 2 stops of light is quite significant; especially if you are trying to shoot penguins, seals and whales from a moving ship and need a high shutter speed.
What situations warrant the use of a polarizing filter? If you shoot a landscape with blue sky and puffy clouds and you want the sky to look dramatic, you can use your polarizer but keep in mind that it is only effective if the sun is 90 degrees off your subject. Even then, I think that this look is a bit old fashioned and should be used judiciously.
A polarizing filter will also eliminate the reflections that occur if you shoot through glass. Use one if you want to photograph the Christmas windows at a big department store. If you need to shoot copies of art work that have a high gloss finish you should also polarize your light source in addition to using a polarizing filter.
When you are shooting scenes that include a large body of water, a polarizing filter will eliminate the glare that can occur from the sunlight. Keep in mind however that sometimes glare can make the water look moody and more realistic. Some photographers use the polarizer when shooting fall leaves to help saturate color. However, if you want a reflection of trees and leaves in a lake, you will need to remove the filter or you will lose the reflection.
If you plan on buying a polarizer spend a little extra money and get a good one that won’t compromise your high quality optics. Always test the filter in the store with your widest lens to be certain that it won’t cause vignetting. The polarizer is a thick filter; if you anticipate using it with a wide lens look at the special, thin polarizers made for wider lenses. Never use a polarizer to protect the front element of your lens. Get a UV, haze or skylight filter for that purpose
I do carry a polarizer with me, but I only use it when I think it will help make a better image. In many instances the use of a polarizer is a subjective decision and is based on the type of image you like to shoot.
But if you need a good shutter speed to shoot something moving and the situation doesn’t warrant polarization, take the filter off and get a sharp picture. More equipment doesn’t always make a better photograph.

10 Basic Tips for Successful Travel Photos

Adelie Penguins Take a Plunge

I’m aboard the Linblad National Geographic Explorer cruising around Antarctica. My goal on this 140 passenger, adventure cruise is to help everyone go home with better photos of this incredible journey. There are many, different levels of photographers on the ship and from my discussions with them I’ve come up with ten tips to help you when you travel with your camera.
1. If you bought a new camera for your trip, familiarize yourself with it before you head out.
2. If you procrastinated about tip number 1, at least bring the instruction manual with you so that someone else, (like me) can help you understand your camera.
3. Bring extra batteries and extra memory cards; you always shoot more than you expect. On this trip we are witnessing thousands of penguins – swimming in the sea, diving from ice floes, sitting on their nests, and marching up and down the beaches. Shooting wildlife means shooting a lot of images. A good rule in this situation is: shoot first, edit the garbage later.
4. Look for images that you can shoot with the equipment that you have. Don’t be envious of a fellow traveler’s super telephoto lens. If you can’t get close to your subject then think of other types of photos you can do.
5. See like your camera. Our brains can look at a big scene and focus in on details – cameras do not have that ‘wide angle telephoto’ ability. If you shoot what your brain sees you will come home with a lot of wide scenes with teeny, tiny detail over a wide area. Keep something large in the foreground as an anchor to your images.
6. Bring a camera that you will take with you when you head out. A large camera left behind in your room is no match for a smaller camera you can easily carry. It’s always better to bring back a photo of lesser megapixels than no megapixels at all.
7. Don’t depend on your zoom lens – use your legs to zoom. By walking up to and around your subjects you can shoot from different angles and create unique images. If you just walk, stop and zoom, you will never discover your subjects’ full potential.
8. Research your destination before you leave home. If you are familiar with the culture and geography, you will be prepared to make more intelligent photos. Look at published travel books and online sites to find photos of your destinations. These images can serve as guides to what you may want to photograph.
9. The primary factors that will make your photos better are light, composition, and moment. Look at the light, watch the shadows, and see what angles make the best use of light to give your subject dimension. When you compose your photo, make use of all the space or real estate in your frame – do not put the focus bracket in the center of the viewfinder on your friend’s face and then shoot. You will end up with the top half of your photo filled with sky or unimportant background. After you focus on a face or object, lock in your focus and recompose to take advantage of the full frame. Look at all four corners of the finder and know what’s in the picture. The moment – whether it’s your friend laughing or an animal turning it’s head just the right way, can make an ordinary photo into a great photo.
10. Patience is a virtue– do not leave it at home. If you want to create images above the ordinary, there is no underestimating the importance of taking your time. Wait for the light to look great on your subject, wait for the moment. And in my case yesterday, wait for the crazy bunch of Adelie penguins to make up their minds to dive into the water.