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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Traveling Light(er)

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Every so often when I lecture about location photography I show a slide of me posing at the back of my old Buick station wagon.

It's a picture my wife, Judy, made more than a decade ago as I worked on my first book of documentary photography, Faces of the Eastern Shore. The hatch on the Buick is up and its inside reveals a ton of equipment: a canvas bag holding three big strobe heads; a bulky hardsided case holding four high-power tungsten floodlights with their own lightstands; a big Gitzo tripod that easily could handle a 4x5 view camera; a long canvas shoulder bag holding multiple lightstands and other gear; equipment bags holding all manner of cables, radio remotes, slaves, filters and Polaroid proofing film; a heavy duty roly-poly to carry all this stuff – and of course multiple cameras and "real" film.

During the two years I worked on this book, I used just about every item I've mentioned at least once. It was nice to know it was all there in the car, whenever I needed it.

Later, when I began what was to be a six-year project to document people and places in Down East Maine, I was forced to travel lighter. The simple reason was lack of space. On the Chesapeake project, Judy and I could hop in the car with little more than an overnight bag interspersed with all the camera gear. But most of the Maine shooting took place during the two months of the year that we literally moved to our summer place in Lubec. That meant that when we headed north for the summer, the camera equipment had to vie for space not only with all manner of clothing, furniture, and who knows what else, but also our animals, numbering at one time two cats in their carriers and one big black Labrador retriever.

I became adept at adaptation. Almost immediately I jettisoned the tungsten floodlights. Since much of my work was portraiture, I really didn't need all of the strobe firepower I was carrying, so I limited myself to two heads – ultimately two strong and very reliable White Lightning Ultra 1200s. I left any additional fill-in or highlight chores to one trusty Vivitar 283 portable strobe and one incredibly tiny Morris Mini self-contained flash unit. (The Morris Mini is no bigger than a pocket tape measure. It's powered by a couple of double-A's, and, because it has a built-in slave, can be triggered remotely by another flash unit. They cost about $40 each.)

Still, for its size and price (under $100) the 283 really is the portable champ. It has been around for a generation and remains one of the best and most affordable portable strobe units around. In fact, Judy and I use modified 283s for all of our wedding and event work. Our units were modified years ago to be powered by high-voltage battery packs, but the really significant modification was the addition of a Lumedyne bare-bulb head that also boosted the unit's output by a stop. We cover the bare-bulb with a milk-glass diffusion head, thereby creating our own powerful – and portable–mini-softbox.

But, trimmed down though my lighting kit was for working on location in Maine, it was nothing compared to the bare-bones equipment I had to limit myself to when Judy and I traveled to Venice this winter for a month of location photography for our next book.

Not wanting to trust precious and breakable gear to checked luggage – and realizing I'd have to lug this stuff all over the city myself – I limited myself pretty much to what I could cram into a smaller Tamrac rolling camera case that was designed as a carry-on piece. [Full disclosure: Judy also carried a camera backpack that held her two 35mm bodies and extra film.]

I limited myself to only two small lights – which worked out just fine. The mainlight was a simple 283 (i.e., without the Lumedyne retrofit). If I needed to bounce or otherwise modify the light from this unit, I used either a plastic bounce card or a small Sto-Fen diffuser stuck onto its head. My secondary light was the lowly Morris Mini. The 283, by the way, was powered by a high-voltage Lumedyne battery pack that weighed more than the flash itself. More on that later.

But what really added the weight were the cameras and lenses. My Tamrac bag contained four: a medium format Mamiya 6 rangefinder with 50mm medium wide-angle lens, a Leica M6 with a 35mm f.2 Summicron, a Hasselblad Superwide C/M with 38mm Biogon lens, and a Hasselblad 500CM with an 80mm normal lens, as well as a big 150mm portrait lens. In addition, I carried a Polaroid back for the Hasselblads, so I could make proof pictures as needed before shooting in earnest.

Though fairly heavy to carry, this trimmed down camera and lighting kit worked wonderfully well, but I know I can do better. It helped to have a partner, so that when working with the 283 off camera, Judy could become a human lightstand and hold it where I needed it to be. And I am happy to say that the mini-Gitzo tripod I substituted for my big one, worked fine. Obviously it wasn't as stable as the big Gitzo, but it was like a rock compared to some other lightweight models I've seen. (I also was able to pack the little Gitzo in my suitcase–something I couldn't dream of doing with the big one.)

When Judy and I return to Venice in November, I plan to trim down even more. As you can see from the accompanying photos, I've decided to 86 the Hassy 500CM, as well as the big 150mm portrait lens. I just didn't use them that much and they weigh a ton. I also made hardly any Polaroids. So goodbye Pola-back. (But I'm keeping the Superwide. It simply makes magical wide-angle shots, and doesn't take up that much space.)

As for the 283 – that puppy goes with me everywhere, even on trips like this one where we are shooting mostly by available light. But this time, since I won't be making scores of flash pictures in rapid succession–as I would at an event or a wedding–I'll leave the high-voltage battery pack at home and rely on double-A's.

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
The rig I carried to Venice included a Leica M6 with a 35mm Summicron, a Mamiya 6 medium format rangefinder camera with 50 mm lens, a Hasselblad 500CM with an 80mm lens, a Superwide Hassy, a Leica Minilux P&S, a Vivitar 283 powered by high-voltage battery pack, Polaroid back and 150mm telephoto for 500CM, a flashmeter, an extra Hassy film back, a small Gitzo tripod, and assorted cables and cords.

© Frank Van Riper
Second Trip On my next trip to Venice I plan to shed nearly 10 pounds of gear. I'll be leaving home the 500CM and 80mm lens, as well as its big 150mm portrait lens. Also missing will be the Hassy Polaroid back and the bulky high-voltage battery pack.

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Phabulous Photographers: The Gift of Time and Teaching

Digital Downsides

My Great Digital Leap Forward

Death (and Love) in Venice

Venetian Formula: Go Slow, Stay Sane

Preparing for Venice

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