21 Dec Approaching a destination DSLR film assignment.
There is nothing quite like the feeling of heading off to a new part of the world for a shoot with nothing but yourself and a scaled down shooting kit. In 2012 I’ve had some wonderful opportunities filming in locations such as Alabama, Florida, Namibia, Botswana and most recently The Maldives. On each of these occasions I’ve had to rely on an ultra light kit. It takes careful prep to decide exactly what will really be needed, and what luxury items can be sacrificed. I am a huge advocate for always having the exact right tool for the job, but for solo travel it’s simply not practical. So like any new project, planning is critical. This article discusses what I have found works for me through much trial and testing.
What to bring.
Firstly, you need to research your destination as much as possible. What you will be filming will determine what gear you will need. For example, For Namibia, i packed numerous ND +polarisers to deal with harsh light that I anticipated dealing with, as well as a second light tripod so I could run two time-lapse setups per night. With the Maldives, I packed a new Aquatech underwater housing for the marine shots.
So before you set out, ask yourself these questions – What am I most likely to encounter? Will their be interviews? How will the environment effect the shoot?
At home base, we tend to take it for granted how easily we can replace lost or broken items. Most times you won’t have that ability on location. So pack spares for items most likely to fail. Top fail contenders for me are: radio mics (the lav mic itself, clips, and wind protector), bulbs, extra media and batteries (camera + AA). Also, the simplest thing like a lens cloth can complete throw you if you happen to lose the one you have. Of course you can’t bring backups of everything but if you carefully think before leaving of what’s most likely, you’ll be on the right track.
Other very important items that are often forgotten are: universal power adapters (plus a power board so you can multi-charge), Allen keys (don’t fly with them in hand luggage as they’ll take them at security), monopod + tripod tightening tools, spare base plates, and air blower for camera sensor maintenance.
When it comes to your biggest weight bearing items – stabilisers (tripods, sliders etc) have to make a choice between weight vs function.
Here is my choice for solo travel shoots.
1. Tripod > Miller Solo DS10 carbon fibre.
It’s a great versatile tripod that allows for low mode shooting and is carry friendly. I have considered packing lighter options (like the Manfrotto 701HDV) but in the end this is such an important item I think it’s worth it. If your check on luggage is tipping the scales, you can sneakily carry the head of the tripod in a small carry on bag.
2. Monopod >
The universally loved Manfrotto 561-BHDV-1. Lightweight and stong. Breakdown for travel. I also bubble wrap my mono along with other items in my check luggage. Remember to pack tape to re-wrap them on the return journey.
3. Glidecam >
It’s become synonymous with hand held glide systems. Simply a great tool that when mastered enables you to very quickly pull off powerful shots in the tightest of places. I never leave home without it. The preferred model for DSLR shooting is the HD4000. Although heavier than its sister models, I find it the easiest to balance and fly stable. Lens’s most often found attached with the glidecam are the 24mm 1.4, 35mm 1.4. Occasionally we’ll use the 50mm 1.2 (although takes some practice) and the 14mm 2.8 (for tight shooting environments or epically wide establishing shots. Start your glidccam training on the widest (therefore easiest to achieve) lenses.
3. Slider. >
Here’s a tricky one. Out of the set above, in my option it’s the easiest to talk yourself not leaving behind. I brought one to Africa and didn’t end up using it even once. But of course it all depends on your subject matter. I just find many of the slide shots I can replace with a carefully executed glidecam move. There are scores of lightweight sliders on the market, however a good choice for travel would be the Cinevate FLT. It’s strong, fairly light and does what it’s meant to.
4. Lenses >
This is always where most of the pain in decision making lies. I love to have full set of Canon primes with me on shoots, with every one finding special one-on-one time with my camera.. So how do you leave any behind? Again, it comes down to what is Most needed, and what is really a luxury. One new serious choice has recently hit the market – the Canon 24-70mm 2.8 LII. I have always been a lover in L series prime lenses (the only exception in my bag being the 70-200mm 2.8 L II) however this lens really impresses. It is a huge improvement on the earlier series one model. The sharpness, clarity and bokeh all closely mimic that of the primes it covers. Although its yet to be a permanent member of untitled film works’ lens arsenal, I can confidently say it will be traveling on some future shoots. It will be fantastic to have this lens as an alternative to packing the 24mm, 35mm and 50mm. Of course these lenses still all produce superior image (as well as much faster performance) but with the increased ISO performance of the current cameras, the choice is becoming less one sided.
Having said all that, my “current” line up of travel glass is:
70-200mm 2.8 L II
100mm Macro 2.8 L IS
For Africa I also packed the 14mm 2.8 (for nightscape timelapses) and the 300mm 2.8 L II + 1.4x and 2x extenders.
Absolute necessary lens accessories are filters: Tiffen ND filters (I pack 2 and 3 stop), Tiffen Circular Polarizer (72mm + 77mm), as well as at least two lens pouches. The best I have used by fa are the ThinkTank pull string pouches. The Lens Changer 50 V2.0 will hold all your primes (with lens hoods attached!) including the whopping 85mm 1.2. I am yet to use a variable ND that doesn’t give a “muddy” cast to the image, so I strongly recommend a high quality individual ND. Also i should note, I have stopped using UV filters as permanent attachments to my lenses. I just find they form another optical barrier to your lens. Of course without a UV you do add more risk to damage, but I prefer a cleaner image. Let your high quality glass do its job unhindered.
5. Audio >
An often much overlooked area. The quality of your field recordings can make-or-break your production. Here are my essential items:
1. Rode Video Pro mic. After much searching for the perfect on camera mic, this one rested best-on-show. A great, compact little mic with lovely tone. The wind protected is a must add-on.
2. Roland R26 field recorder. This device was a real “zoom” killer for me. It records up to six channels at once direct to SD. What sets this apart from other hand-held field recorders is the quality of its pre-amps. There are two types of stereo microphones built into the R-26, plus a pair of XLR inputs for external mics, and an input for a stereo plug-in powered mic. It’s also a wonderful atmos recorder for situations where live music is being played.
3. Radio mics. Sennheiser evolution G3kit. (2 receivers, 2 transmitters) don’t forget fluffy wind protectors and lots of spare batteries 4. Rode NTG condenser mic. There are several models, I like the NTG 3. Great paired up with the Roland for interviews and atmos location recordings. (Note: This item could be sacrificed if an ultra-light kit is required.)
Recording audio without good quality headphones is like filming without a viewfinder. After many brands tested over the years, my all time favorites are the Sennheiser HD-25s. Rugged, reliable and great sound. They can take a real beating and parts can be replaced like the ear cushions and leads.
6. Lighting >
This department often takes up the largest load back at base, so how do you pack for travel work? Again it all depends on what you the project entails. If you are to be shooting a lot of interiors and interviews then more allocation for lighting will need to be made. I’m a huge fan of Dido lights. They are strong, sturdy and have dimming and spotting adjustments. With a couple of Dedos and some bounce and gels you can achieve wonders. Remember if you are traveling internationally remember to check the power comparability with your lights. A simple way to avoid power issues is to run battery operated lights. Today’s LED lighting options are incredible. One of the best new pieces of kit I’ve bought lately is the Dedo Ledzilla LED light. It runs on a Sony 970 battery, runs cold as its LED is dimmable and will give you six hours of use from a single charge. A fantastically light travel light. Another option is a small LED light panel. There are many great models on the market. You’ll also need to pack a couple of lightweight stands. Some small pieces of foam core (for bounce) and some daylight gels are useful inclusions.
7. Media and Backup >
It’s critical that you have a data management plan in place before you leave. The safest method is of course multiple backups. Using a laptop, I like to transfer each card onto two separate portable hard drives. These then stay in separate bags and really, one should be with you at all times (not in checked luggage). I also like to keep a detailed shot list whilst on location. It helps down the track in edit as well as let’s you see what coverage you still require while you’re still shooting.
8. Kit bag >
And what to hold all this precious cargo? As i said before, I love having the exact right tool for the given job. This applies to bags also. Never skimp on the purchase of a quality bag. I have had my porta-brace lighting bag for over 10 years and its still going strong! For a great travel backpack, Lowepro is my choice. I have both the Vertex 300W and the new Pro Trekker 400. The Trekker is a brilliantly deep bag which can hold 2 cam bodies, a large tele and 3-4 more primes with ease. The Vertex is great for local shoots where less is required. I do love the fact that it can hold my 20″ laptop in a dedicated zip up sleeve and has more small pouches within the lid for small items. Both bags have various external straps for lashing on glidecams or monopods (sometimes both!)
9. Miscellaneous >
Other important items that can often be forgotten are:
Canon timer remote for Time lapse set ups. A vertical grip is also a good idea to provide enough power for time lapses with extended periods. (More on time-lapse techniques in upcoming post) Zacuto Z finder (2.5x is my preference), gaffer tape, multi tool, lens cloths, universal power adapters (plus a power board so you can multi-charge), Allen keys (don’t fly with them in hand luggage as they’ll take them at security), monopod + tripod tightening tools, spare base plates, and air blower for camera sensor maintenance.
I have purposely left out cameras from this list as obviously this is come the that evolves the fastest. From Namibia in July onwards, all my 2012 trips were filmed using the Canon 5D mark3. However I have the sneaking suspicion an 1DC may make its way to my bag for the next shoot.
A great thing to do is keep checklists. Note every item you take on your next travel shoot and have that at hand next time you pack. It will really avoid forgetting a critical item. On your return, note down any items that you did not use. This will help refine your perfect shooting checklist. This article can perhaps act as a starting point.
untitled film works