That is: since I am working alone and often on the fly, how much gear do I have to bring with me to: 1. assume that I'll be able to make pictures in the event of a mishap and 2. keep from getting a hernia.
This is not a problem when my wife Judy and I shoot a wedding or do more elaborate corporate or editorial work. In these cases we bring the store: almost everything we own in terms of cameras, lenses, flash units, batteries, stands and tripods. Our main bag is a big Rolling Strong Box from Tamrac, and trust me; even on wheels that thing weighs a ton when it's fully loaded. Add a heavy-as-lead case of studio strobe lights and assorted other gear for a corporate or commercial shoot and you've got a prescription for a wrenched back, or worse.
Though our wedding work is infinitely more journalistic and portable than that of the more formal wedding shooters, the redundancy we build into what we carry to make sure we don't miss anything during a once-in-a-lifetime event means some awfully heavy lifting as well.
So you can understand why I like to travel light whenever I can safely get away with it.
Sometimes the nature of the job can cut you some slack. As I've noted before here, Judy's and my ongoing book project on Venice in winter is being shot almost entirely by available light. Thus, with the exception of one tiny Mecablitz flash unit no larger than a pack of cigarettes, we have traveled to Venice only with our portable gear (cameras, meters and film) and one small but sturdy Gitzo traveling tripod.
Kay Chernush, the nationally known editorial and corporate shooter whom I will be profiling in coming weeks, notes that the true professional is someone who can come back with, not just good but great, pictures even when conditions are less than perfect either through having precisely the right piece of equipment to solve a problem, or by having the skill to see around (and work around) problems as they arise. It's precisely for this reason that Kay tends not to travel light by most nonprofessional standards, her protests to the contrary notwithstanding.
With that in mind, covering a Capitol Hill news conference, as I did a few days ago, provided a perfect example of how I work to save my back and my sanity while still remaining fairly able to work through any equipment failure.
The client was Americans for Alaska, a lobbying group opposed to the Bush administration's proposal to allow oil drilling in what had been a pristine wilderness area. The environmental group had called a press conference to publicize its concerns before a key congressional vote as well as to showcase the opposition of a number of high-profile Republicans, including Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. The job basically called for two things: color slides of the event, as well as a few digital images that would be posted on the group's website immediately, and be offered to any regional news organizations needing images in a hurry. [Note: this new demand for immediate images obviously is a result of the digital camera's ability to make images without the need for film processing. Photographers providing this valuable service for their clients have every right to charge more for it and are foolish if they do not. See below.]
Of course I brought my basic event/wedding rig to the job: a Nikon F-100 with an AF Nikkor 28-105mm f.3.5-4.5 lens. The camera and lens were attached to a fairly large Stroboframe bracket that also held my specially modified flash unit: a Vivitar 283 retrofitted with a Lumedyne flash head, and further modified with a Norman 2D diffusion head over the flash tube to create a pleasant, soft light.
The flash was powered by a reasonably compact Lumedyne mini-megacycler high voltage battery pack attached to my belt.
It's a rig I've been using in various incarnations for 20 years. [In truth the Stroboframe is the only part of this arrangement that has been in continuous use. The camera, lens, flash and battery have seen numerous changes and improvements over that same period, with the current incarnation of components being my favorite.]
For my digital pictures, I continue to be delighted with my tiny yet versatile Canon PowerShot G-1, whose 3.34 megapixel performance makes its images indistinguishable from those made with cameras costing six times its $750-800 street price. [Note to equipment geeks: for events like this I do not need the ability to shoot 40 rapid frames in a row. I also can live with the G1's occasionally maddening shutter lag. Its pictures are gorgeous, and the damn thing fits into my pocket unlike the tank like and hideously expensive Nikon D1x.]
So what was my backup?
None for the digital. If the G-1 crapped out, I'd simply have been forced to have my slide film rush-processed and images transmitted to my client from scanned slides. Not fun, expensive to me, but the client still would have been satisfied.
My backup for my film camera setup was different. To guard against a battery failure, I simply packed a second Lumedyne. But what if the flash tube blew? That one was easy: a replacement bulb is a cinch to carry.
My biggest calculated risk was in not lugging a second big camera body to this comparatively simple job. In the highly unlikely event the F-100 died, I simply would have switched to a point-and-shoot camera.
But not just any P&S. Mine is one of the best on the market: the titanium-clad, sharp as a tack Leica Minilux. In fact, the Leica's 40mm f.2.4 fixed lens is faster than my Nikkor and even may be sharper (though, in fairness, the 28-105 Nikkor is a hell of a piece of glass.)
I would have looked a little funny, throwing aside my impressive-looking pro rig for a tiny point and shoot, but I would have come away with pictures.
And to be sure, the final bit of insurance I carried was a replacement Lithium battery for the Leica just in case.
A final note about digital transmission. Photographers, especially freelance news photographers, seem to have a special knack for giving away their work product, or for selling it cheap, especially to major news organizations that can well afford to pay a living day rate or wage, but who happily pay pittances because they can get away with it.
If you are just starting out in this field, always remember that if you don't value yourself or your own work, no one else will. And for the record, when I am asked if I'd mind making "a few digital pictures for the website, while I'm at it," I say sure then add at least another $150 to my bill.
Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.