When I first got into photography, there wasn’t really much of a plan beyond “make sure your battery is always charged and ready to go”. Thankfully, my N90s took AA batteries, so there was always a stack available.
Since those early days, my collection of equipment has grown quite considerably. Every item has its purpose, and not every item is required on every shoot. Given that I work almost exclusively on location, every shoot comes with its own unique set of challenges that need to be anticipated and prepared for.
At the moment, it’s around 10pm on Sunday evening, and I’m near the end of preparing for tomorrow’s shoot in the Lake District (I’ll actually be posting the article after I get back tomorrow evening so that I have a photo or two to attach). Aside from photography equipment, there are other things that I need to plan and prepare for this shoot.
The basic outline for the shoot is portraits in summery clothes and swimwear in and by a lake and waterfall. It’s actually a stunning flooded quarry pit, with a waterfall flowing into it from a nearby river.
We don’t have much information about the location other than what the immediate area in which we wish to shoot looks like. We don’t know exactly how close to this location we’ll be able to park the car, how long the journey on foot will take from the car to the lake, or over what kind of terrain that journey might take us (there may be a well used clear path, or we could be heading through fields and forests!).
So, what are my immediate thoughts about the shoot?
Well, before we get onto those, let’s look at what my immediate thoughts were after I woke up and had a couple of coffees this morning. Those thoughts were to make sure that any and all images currently residing on memory cards were backed up onto the computer (they all had been already), and that I started to get all my batteries charged up (which is now complete). This is something you will need to do regardless of what shoot you may wish to do! Don’t forget these steps. There’s not much worse than turning up to a shoot to find all your cards are full of images you can’t afford to lose or that you don’t have any power for your camera.
Ok, back to it.
As we don’t know how close we’re able to park, we may end up having to potentially walk a mile or more over rough terrain. These are not ideal conditions under which we want to carry a ton of equipment. It also means that suitable footwear is going to be a consideration. The model is going to have to wear something suitable (hiking boots, trainers, etc) for walking a good distance (traversing fields and forests is not best done in heels – so they tell me), we’re going to need to pack fairly light, and it would be a good idea to have our hands free and not being too weighted down over a long distance (especially if the sun comes out to play) so backpacks and rucksacks is the baggage of the day.
Fortunately, there will be four of us. Myself, the model, one assistant and my wife (also coming along to assist and enjoy a day in the lakes). This means 4 backpacks or rucksacks to carry all of the model’s outfits and my equipment, but that still means relatively limited gear.
The essentials are obviously two cameras (main and a backup), a selection of lenses, the model’s outfits, food and drinks to keep us all going through the day and a couple of towels at an absolute bare minimum.
So, bag number 1 will be my Lowepro Slingshot 300 AW. My wife has decided she’s going to take her shiny new Nikon D3200 (which has been all configured and setup to work as best it can), so I will be taking only one digital body (the Nikon D300s), and the D3200 will become my backup (it might even become my main body for a little while, if I can pry it from her grip, so that I can have a play and see how the quality compares with some good glass on it).
As I don’t have to take a backup digital body, and my wife will be carrying her own camera, that means there’s room for me to bring along my N90s, light meter and a couple of rolls of Ilford FP4+ (yay!). So, here’s the final list for Bag #1.
- Nikon D300s + Grip
- Nikon N90s + Grip
- Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8VR
- Helios 44-2 58mm f/2 M42 lens
- Nikon 50mm f/1.8D
- Sigma 24mm f/2.8 MF Macro
- Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6
- 77mm & 52mm Circular Polaris ers
- 52mm Yellow Green Filter (for the FP4+)
- Sekonic L718 Light Meter
- 2x 8GB Sandisk Extreme 60MB/sec CompactFlash cards, 1x 16GB Integral 20MB/sec SDHC card, 6x 8GB Integral 20MB/sec SDHC cards
- Lastolite Xpobalance in the front pouch
Bag #2 is easy. That’s a rucksack that’ll carry all the model’s outfits, a couple of towels, and a small selection of munchies. No need to worry much about that one until the model arrives in the morning.
Bag #3 is another rucksack and it’s where I have to start making decisions on what lighting gear, if any, I’m going to take. Whether we go with available light or flash, reflectors are damn handy, so we’ll throw in one or two of those.
The waterfall is on the west end of the lake, so it’s only going to get any direct sunlight until around 1pm or so (assuming the skies are clear) and we’ll be arriving sometime between 11:30am and noon. This doesn’t give us very long to find a spot by the waterfall, set up and start shooting before we’re out of the sun. So, flashes will probably be required.
If I’m taking flashes, that means light stands and modifiers. Well, I can fit a couple of 24″ softboxes in the bottom compartment of the rucksack, the 48″ octabox has its own bag and is pretty lightweight. If I take the octabox that means I’ve got to take an S-Fit bracket for a speedlight. Throwing in a handful of grids won’t take up too much extra room, and then there’s cinefoil and gaffer tape to think about.
But, all that lot, plus light stands and other bits can add up to a lot of unnecessary weight, and I probably won’t end up using them all throughout the day. That bottom compartment of the bag could also be more useful holding a couple of extra towels.
So, Bag #3 is as follows….
- 4x Nikon SB-900 Speedlights (one acting as a CLS commander)
- 2x RF-602 Tx and 6x RF-602 Rx & PC Sync Cable (in case CLS doesn’t want to work)
- 1x 24Pack Duracell Plus AA spare batteries for the speedlights
- 2x Manfrotto Nano Light Stands
- 2x Flash brackets
- 1x Interfit StrobiesXS S-Fit Bracket
- Small pouch containing speedlight snoots & grids
- 1x Roll 1″ Black Gaffer Tape
- 2x 5-in-1 Reflectors
- 2x Tarpaulins to lay gear out on the ground
- A couple more towels
- Swimming shorts, a spare pair of socks and spare underwear (because I know I’ll end up in the water at some point).
It’s late now, and I’m heading up to get an early night. Another part of preparing (this isn’t the kind of location I want to shoot at after only 3 hours sleep).
It’s now 8am now, morning of the shoot, the sun is shining and it’s nice and warm, so bag #4 has now kind of become bags, #4, #5 and #6, but they’re small ones.
Bag #4 is my tripod bag. As I’m keen to test out the video capabilities of the new Nikon D3200, I’m going to be taking my Libec video tripod with me. It’s their lighest weight model, but more than capable of holding a DSLR, even with a 70-200mm f/2.8 on it, so should do the job fine.
Bag #5 contains the 4ft Bessel Octabox. This is an S-Fit modifier designed to go on studio strobes, but it still gives me f9@ISO200 at a distance of around 6ft with an SB-900, which should be plenty for what I need today.
Bag #6 is a cooler bag containing all the drinks for the day. These drinks were just going to be packed into the rucksacks when I thought it might be a little cooler than it is, but I think the sun warrants this now.
One other thing that I was going to mention, which turned out to be no problem at all, was the weather. I’ve been monitoring Accuweather, BBC Weather Reports, and the weather app on my iPhone over the last few days in order to make sure that plans could go ahead at the location we’d picked out.
Fortunately, the weather guys got it right for once (which, given the overcast days full of rain we’ve had this weekend, I’m quite pleased with), however backup plans had been in place to shoot at an alternate location with a lot more cover from which we could shelter and shoot away from the rain.
[ Several hours and one exhausting shoot later... ]
Currently, it is 1am on Tuesday (although it’s still Monday night as far as I’m concerned), and I still haven’t been able to muster the energy to finish this post. I’m not tired, but I’m absolutely shattered after today’s shoot, battered and bruised with one or two extra scrapes and can barely think, but it was worth every single minute!
I shall finish this in the morning (the proper one, after I’ve had a sleep).
1pm on Tuesday, and after about 10 hours of sleep and a couple of coffees I’m starting to feel a bit more alive again, despite the constant ache that makes it difficult to move.
So, the shoot is done, how well did we prepare?
Pretty good, except that I actually forgot to pack the batteries in there for the RF-602 transmitters, which meant I had to rely on CLS (which performed admirably) during the few situations where I needed to use flash.
Most of what was packed ended up being used, although I didn’t get the chance to shoot any film (just gives us another excuse to go back!), and there wasn’t really anything that I wished I’d taken but hadn’t done (except, perhaps, for a couple of long ropes to make the climb up and down the incline of the slope a little easier – oh, and batteries for the radio trigger transmitter).
Were there things I could’ve done without if I really had to? Well, yes. I could’ve not taken the octabox or speedlights and shot only available light, but that would’ve meant that some of the shots I wanted I wouldn’t be able to get (although many of the photographs were taken using only available light and a reflector). Having them gave me more choice and more options.
I probably should’ve packed a couple more towels than I did. Fortunately, we ended up having just the right amount, but had any of us accidentally slipped into the water, we might’ve had trouble.
There were plenty enough drinks and munchies packed to keep us all going through the day – as usual, I was the only one to remember those, so it’s a good job I did!
We ended up shooting at the location for about 4 hours in total (plus a 90 minute drive and 30 minute walk each way), and got some results that we were all rather pleased with. As we were able to share the load, carrying everything to and from the car and the location wasn’t a big hassle.
So, think about your shoot in advance. Think about the problems the location may present.
How is the lighting going to look at different times of the day? Scout the location beforehand if you’re able and stick around for as long as possible so that you can plan accordingly. Will you need extra lights to augment or combat the available light? If so, what modifiers will you need to take? What will you physically be able to transport to the location? What can you practically setup at the location? There’s no point taking a big portable studio strobe and an 86″ parabolic umbrella if a speedlight and small grid will do or there’s not enough room to set it up (or no ground suitable for placing down a light stand).
How are you going to get to the location? Will you have to walk or hike a couple of miles from the car? Can you drive and park right where you wish to shoot? Will you have to take a boat ride? or a bus? or a train? What’s the weather going to be like? If it’s raining or windy, are there nearby locations under shelter that you can still shoot or go to protect your subject and your equipment?
Have you advised your subject on the particulars of the shoot and suggested some items they bring along? Perhaps walking boots, sunscreen, a couple of towels, appropriate clothing to travel from the vehicle to the shooting location? You don’t want to have your subject wearing shorts or a short dress with sandals or flip flops if you plan to walk through a field full of thorny plants or nettles!
Does everybody involved in the shoot have everybody else’s emergency contact phone numbers in case somebody has an accident? If you’re shooting out in the the middle of nowhere, do you have the phone numbers for the local mountain rescue or other emergency services that may be appropriate? Will you even get phone reception where you’re going, and should you inform them beforehand that you’re going to be at a particularly remote location and to keep an eye out for you if they happen to be heading out that way? Do you let them know that all is well and everybody’s safe when you’re done?
All these questions and more are things you should be asking yourself before every location shoot. Some will seem like common sense, but you may surprise yourself with some of the less obvious things you hadn’t thought about. With experience, many of these questions will become second nature, and you’ll instinctively just know what to do, what to take and what to suggest everybody else involved takes with them. But, it’s always good to double check and plan head!
One more note on preparing before I go. At the beginning of April, my phone contract was up for renewal so I decided to upgrade my phone for a shiny new iPhone 4s. Several people have mocked me for putting a screen protector on it, and ruining its gorgeous retina display. Regardless, it remained.
iPhones and sharp edged rocks don’t mix. The glass underneath is perfect. Lesson learned!