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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography


By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

It was, truth to tell, just a run-of-the-mill commercial job: a day-long shoot last year in a downtown Washington office building.

One of this town's myriad associations had hired Judy and me to make portraits of its officers, document some of the group's daily activities, then end up with a large group photo of the entire staff, made in the building's lobby.

A piece of cake - similar to dozens of jobs we've done over the years. Sure, to be done right, it involved lugging a lot of equipment and setting up a number of studio strobe lights in different locations throughout the day, but that's why it's called work.

Add to this the fact that the clients could not have been more cooperative and friendly and you've got the makings of an enjoyable, if unremarkable, day.

But in fact I'll always remember this day as the one on which I fried, toasted or otherwise fricaseed three of my studio strobe units in sickening succession. These units, incidentally, had served us almost without complaint on location and in studio jobs across the country for well over a decade.

Nothing so focuses the mind as trying to focus one's camera while lightning seems to be striking near your head, or while blue smoke literally obscures the viewfinder. (Never mind trying to breathe through the stuff.)

Our topic for today, brothers and sisters, if you haven't already guessed it, is: Surge Protection - Don't Leave Home Without It.

Power surges, so I gather, occur more frequently than we like to think: anomalies in power line output that can overwhelm appliances, computers and other electronic equipment with little or no warning. You'd think I would know about the need to protect one's stuff from power surges given my devastating experience nearly 20 years ago when I was struggling to complete my biography of John Glenn in time for the 1984 presidential campaign. At the time I was on leave as chief political writer for the New York Daily News and was under the gun to produce "Glenn: The Astronaut Who Would Be President" in a ridiculously short five months. So new was I to computers back in mid-'83 that I had to borrow a desktop unit from a colleague so I could work in my office at home.

In that comparatively low-tech time, "automatic save" features on computers were uncommon and, racing to finish a chapter one day, I didn't think much about the weather as "late afternoon thunderstorms" so common to Washington in spring and summer rolled ominously in.

No, I didn't think much at all about the weather until a huge lightning and thunder episode plunged my apartment - and, of course, my computer screen - into darkness.

The power surge caused by the lightning strike blew the lights and ate my chapter. I was livid; I was near tears. I also was literally and figuratively powerless.

When the juice finally returned there was no sign of my chapter. I had no choice but to immediately begin writing it all over again, this time through gritted teeth. Since that time, I have become paranoid about saving written material regularly, and about plugging all my computer gear into surge protectors.

But note: I said "computer gear." I had not been providing my photographic gear - namely my powerful strobe units - the same protection, and finally last year I paid the price.

I have come to regard all electrical outlets now as potential destroyers of my equipment. And for just a few bucks, I now feel reasonably safe about protecting it from power surges. I regularly carry two plug-in surge protectors (a k a surge suppressors) in my camera bag; they act as a kind of gatekeeper in between my equipment and the wall outlet. These protectors are small, lightweight and plug into the wall. Thus, I plug my gear into the protector, not the potentially damaging outlet.

Surges, by the way, don't just occur during heavy weather. The one that fried my strobe units during the location shoot came on a perfectly calm day. For the record, we had been working in the association's offices for most of the day, plugging our gear into various wall outlets without incident. So, when we moved to the building lobby for the final group photograph, I had no reason to be wary about the outlet that I found sitting innocently between two elevator doors on a second floor balcony overlooking the lobby (my camera position). It was this outlet, providing power to two strobe units on either side of me, that wound up frying three of my strobes. A second outlet at ground level, powering a fourth light, worked fine.

A simple search of the Internet shows how many outfits make surge protectors - and therefore, how prevalent the problem is. I should note that, as with most anything, you get what you pay for. Really powerful surge protectors can run you hundreds of dollars and be bulky affairs that most folks would plunk under their desktops and leave for good. (i.e., precisely the kind of unit that's by my feet as I write this column.) For portable work, of the type we photographers do on location, protection can usually be had for much less: heavy-duty extension cords offering as many as six surge-protected outlets, or the more portable units I've mentioned above.

Then, of course there is the reverse problem of electrical brownouts, especially during the summer, when power grids nationwide are taxed so heavily. These dips in power also can do damage, and the alternative here might be a surge protector equipped with a backup battery to provide an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS). The UPS can pick up the slack during a brownout or outage (usually for up to half an hour), then recharge itself once power comes back on. These gizmos usually run between $150 to $500, according to PhotoAIM, Ron Engh's excellent online newsletter.

Either way, you have to decide how much protection your expensive gear is worth. Not providing any, as I did for so many years, simply makes no sense.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Big Changes Likely for Leica
When Newer is Better
Street-Smart Guide To Avoiding Camera Thievery
Revisiting a Classic: The Legendary Leica M6

 Van Riper on Van Riper

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