Grip Gear on the Go
Lightweight & Compact Location Tools for the Burgeoning Photographer
If you ever witnessed movie production or sat in on a big-ticket photo studio session, you would have seen someone scrambling around like a hyperactive ant, drunk on sugar and beer at a picnic. That person is a gaffer or photo assistant. Telltale identifiers are a spattering of paint flecks encrusted on either jeans, hair, or skin. Other indicators include one or more rolls of gaffer tape worn like a bangle bracelet, a light meter in a back pocket where an usually empty wallet normally resides, and a visage that expresses both confusion and exhaustion. Not all of us can afford or warrant the hiring of an assistant when we go to the park to photograph our kids or go on a day hike, so we have to act as our own. With cameras and lights becoming smaller and smaller, portability is not the luxury it once was; packing a mini-studio is not such a crazy notion. Grip gear comes in two primary flavors: support and exposure, and there is a wide variety of products in these two categories that are both inexpensive and useful.
This P.A.P.A. Don't Preach (much)
If I may momentarily go off on a tangent here: the phrase ‘must have' is one of those overused snippets of corporate double-speak that is responsible for such nonsensical terms as: synergy, integrated solutions and outside-the-box. I made an effort not to use it in the title of this article, but the reality is that an overwhelming percentage of the camera-buying public will purchase an SLR with a lens and over the following weeks realize that they needed a memory card, cleaning kit, carrying case and filters. B&H offers kits and suggests accessories, but sales statistics show many customers do not include all of the necessary tools to fully enjoy the picture-taking process. As such, when we use the words "must-have" it is for a reason. It is with this preface that I present an array of tips and a list of must-have portable grip tools for the advanced and budding photo enthusiast. This by no means is a complete toolkit, but merely a gear cache that a professional location photographer would regularly use for their shoots. Everything suggested below was selected by judging it against its peers on three primary criteria: versatility, dimensions, and weight – the three most important factors for a shooter who will be carrying a single bag all day while traveling, exploring, hiking or otherwise. These tools are less gadget, and more gear; essentials that can nestle in your bag without taking up a great deal of space, and inherently useful enough to warrant their consumption of real estate within the already overcrowded confines of your camera case. Besides, now that most of you are no longer toting rolls and sheets of film with you on a daily, you actually might have some unused space in your old camera bag. So without further ado, my select list of very practical advanced photographic accessories (PAPA for short):
Full size tripods or monopods are the obvious default; but when using a second dedicated flash as many of us are able to do with the advances made in wireless flash triggering, the addition of a full-sized light stand in not always possible. There are numerous compact, near pocket-sized devices to support a camera, flash, or small lamphead fixture. Adapters allow stud posts for lighting to be converted to 3/8" or ¼"-20 threads for camera tripod sockets and vice-versa. A few that stand out for our purposes are some table top tripods like the venerable Leica folder that has graced many a macro shooter's bag for decades and the hiker's perennial favorite: the Ultrapod (and the fruit of its loins, the Ultrapod 2 ). I think I've seen both of these supports used outdoors more than I have indoors – certainly never on a table top. These ‘pods collapse for transport and are durable enough to be beaten around and stuck in all sorts of places never imagined by the product designers.
Tip #1: With folding table top tripods, one need not always spread all three legs to create a support platform. Remaining in its collapsed state make it much easier to lash or strap the legs onto another surface like a pylon or wedge into a crack of a rock wall.
Stepping up, the Novoflex Universal Photo Survival Kit and the Bogen/ Manfrotto Tabletop Tripod are more James Bond than James Nachtwey (although some like me may argue otherwise). They both disassemble into a tiny pouch that you could whip out of your camera bag as easily as you could pull it from the Kevlar-lined inside pocket of your bulletproof tuxedo jacket. The take-apart Novoflex kit is the Swiss Army knife (or German Army as the case may be) equivalent of photographic supports including a suction base, mini ball head, clamp spike and extender.
Tip #2: Like the folding tripods, the take-apart tripods don't need to be fully assembled to use. Because the legs are narrower and more pencil-like, they may be stuck in the ground like a tent stake.
The minimalist approach is met by Camera Armor with their Millipod Micro Tripod with a folding aluminum support base that remains attached to your camera at all times. This prevents scratching and scarring the bottom of your camera when placing it on rough surfaces like rock walls, wood posts or metal rails in addition to the obvious: preventing the camera from toppling over when you are striving to take that long exposure night shot or are sprinting to get into the shot before the self-timer goes off.
Using boompoles with cameras or lights attached is a growing trend to get over-the-heads-of-the-crowd types of shots. Way back when, I shot a wedding where the hall would not allow for light stands so I had an assistant hoist a battery powered strobe up on a boompole and coordinated his direction with my intended subject via two-way radio. In a less professional and more portable arena, a mini boompole like the Quik Pod has found a strong following amongst the Vicky-shooters and budget videographers. For those not in the know, a Vicky shot, by definition is a self-portrait taken at arms length, often taken by a photographer or snapshooter who:
a- does not trust anyone to hold their camera,
b- can't find any one to take the picture,
c- just really likes their new hairstyle.
Tip #3: Using a boompole generates loads of unique perspectives to shoot from and to get acrobatic shots without being so limber yourself.
Clamps are an alternative to using leg-based supports and there are an equally varied number of these types of devices as well. The de-facto Bogen / Manfrotto Superclamp (aka the Matthews Mafer clamp) has been the industrial standard for years, but in comparison to the ultra-light supports we are outlining here, it is positively bulky. Thankfully Bogen also offers the new Nano Clamp that despite being about the size of a folding mobile phone, can support up to 8.8 lbs (4 kg) despite only weighing 3.8 oz (110 g) itself.
Someone at the Matthews R&D lab decided that it would be a good idea to take some household tools and weld a mounting stud onto them – and they were right. Depending on your situation, you can choose from a putty knife , vise grip locking pliers or a good old plumbing/woodworking c-clamp to hold your photographic device in place. Personally, I'm holding out for a pinking shears or fly-swatter clamp…
|Check your toolbox and see if you are missing anything – Matthews may have stuck a mounting stud onto it…
The renegade in this category is the Joby Gorillapod- a varied series of alien-looking legs stemming from a tripod base. These can be curled and wrapped around any number of irregularly shaped objects and the balls peppering the flexible legs function as the grip that keeps your camera from slip sliding away.
Tip #4: Small clamps are excellent for mounting lights, cameras and modifiers in tight places where the leg spread of a lightstand would interfere with production. Additionally, they can be used to hide or disguise a device so as to not reveal its presence with a protruding lightstand.
Lighting & Exposure:
For most, the careful use of a handheld meter or a camera's built-in metering system is the default when it comes to this arena. For situations where one wants to take command of light instead of reacting to what available light exists, modification and balance are important. Beginning with metering – color balance is being more critically addressed with customized profiles for all optical input and output devices like cameras, monitors and printers. Some of the home or studio based calibrators are not designed to be used in the field but there is a growing category of tools that are. ‘Ye olde' gray card has gotten a major makeover for the digital age since very few modern meters read that trusty old 18% gray. It's a little-known fact that most meters these days read anywhere from 12-16% and not 18% as our textbooks would have you believe. Additionally, older gray cards are not color-neutral and often have a cast that will affect your balance if you take readings from it. As an alternative, color checks, grey charts and neutral gray cards are available in handy pocket-sizes.
A few balancing cards designed for portability are the 4x6" Perfect-Pixs Digital Focusing Target, the colorful Xrite Mini ColorChecker, the business card-sized Digital Image Flow Digital Grey Kard, and my personal favorite – the QP Card . All four PAPA-approved cards will easily slip into a pocket, and depending on your needs, they can be used not only to balance color but also for more robust testing, calibration, and synchronization as the ColorChecker card affords.
Tip #5: You can either white balance before shooting or simply include a frame-filling shot of the card, and then pick white points or midtones on your computer while in your image editors' curve, level or color balancing adjuster.
A somewhat cynical colleague of mine called the ExpoDisc, "the world's most expensive Styrofoam cup," and he would be right based on appearances. It is when you use the ExpoDisc that the benefits and advantages over your coffee cup are realized. It slips over the front of your lens and essentially turns your camera's internal light meter into a reflected color meter. It is available in a large number of sizes and with color bias for portraiture if you wish.
Another device that has been known to confound a few users (albeit they all swear it works extremely well) is the CBL (Color Balance Lens). Frankly, the manual and accompanying literature are poorly translated from Korean, so my advice is to throw them away as they are destined to confuse you. The CBL is a two-sided disc with a series of "prisms" that reflect different wavelengths of light to an internal meter in a way that is more accurate than the use of handheld reflected meters; thereby creating a virtual incident meter with your camera. Simply hold it at arms length and meter off the gray side or balance off the white one. It is extremely rugged; unlike paper-based color balancing devices, this won't become soggy or warp when it is exposed to moisture.
|A Balanced Trio – L to R: 110mm CBL Disc, QP Card, Photovision Target
Bridging color balancing and our final subject; light modifiers, the Photovision 14" Pocket One Shot Digital Target is a collapsible reflector with neutral grey, black and white swatches on one side and a lovely light reflecting silver surface on the other. The reflector includes a valuable DVD on color management that I think exceeds the cost of the reflector/color target itself.
As previously mentioned, controlling light instead of being controlled by it is sometimes the difference between a good shot and a masterpiece. Packing an external light source like a flash or portable strobe puts the photographer in the driver's seat; you don't need to bring half of your studio with you to do it. With a little creativity and the right accessories, a photographer can recreate the atypical three-point lighting setup with sunlight, a portable flash and a reflector. There is an elegant minimalism that is generated when the old adage "keep it simple, stupid" (KISS) is adhered to. For a shining example of the mojo of which I speak, take a gander at the One Light Workshop, where a number of the tools and practices I am touching upon here are implemented everyday.
One or more reflectors of varying sizes may be utilized during a shoot to control light values; a reflector's surface color and type are all variable and have different effects. Selecting only the most portable options; the more compact folding and all-in-one types are also the most bag-friendly. Hensel, Photogenic, Impact, Photoflex and Westcott all produce a 20-22" diameter five- or six-in-one reflector that folds into a compact featherweight package and provides warming, reflection, softening and even light absorption. To position any of these may require some clamping calisthenics in lieu of an assistant. Another option is the PAPA-friendly Lastolite Mini-TriFlip which is slightly larger, but incorporates a handle in its eight-in-one package. This way you can easily grip the reflector and fire off the camera with your other hand.
Tip #6: Often ignored, the so-called "black reflector" surface can be invaluable when trying to remove or control reflections. It is also a great light-shaping surface that can soften light or add shadow depth to a subject depending on its use.
Lastly, I would probably be electronically lynched for not including the most obvious tool no self-supported photographer should be without – gaffer tape. This roll of cloth and glue is the well-heeled gaffer's insurance policy, instant repair and hazard indicator available in a selection of widths and colors (I like red - visible yet not obtuse). Of course, you can never go wrong with basic black. Unlike its cloth-backed cousin, duct tape, good gaffer tape adhesive does not leave a messy residue after being peeled off a surface. If you can believe it, there is a Gaffer's Starter Kit for the rookies that includes a roll of gaffer tape (naturally,) as well as a pair of industrial gloves, a Leatherman multi-tool, and Maglite flashlight.
Tip #7: Its million-and-one uses are too long to list here, but as a final tip you can save some space and weight by taking a roll of gaffer tape and spooling a few feet of it around a pen or marker so you have no excuse to be without it.
And so, with this roll of tape I will wrap up this article. Hope it was informative and if you have something in your bag-o-gaff tricks, share them by contacting me firstname.lastname@example.org. I'll post your best responses in a future piece.