Photography / Features

Gearing Up for an FDNY Photo Shoot

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Picking the right gear for a location shoot is seldom easy. You need to ensure you have what you’ll need, while realizing that bringing too much will only slow you down. Choosing the right gear not only helps you make the most of each shooting situation, it also lets you handle a variety of lighting scenarios. The challenge is to distinguish what is essential from what isn’t, and not regret specific items you left behind when the shoot is over.

Another consideration is the need to look professional in front of the client and crew. From planning for how the gear will unpack on site to properly securing it with bungee cords and straps, arriving with a full complement of carefully selected, well organized, state-of-the-art gear will inspire confidence, and get the shoot off on the right foot.

Previsualizing a 10-Million-Dollar Campaign

When Dan Wagner landed a photo shoot for the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) at its Randall’s Island, NY, Training Academy, he carefully considered every piece of gear. “From many years of previous experience, I knew the best way to do this was to research and pre-visualize the shoot,” he says.

Wagner starts the process by speaking with the clients involved in the shoot, such as the ad agency’s Creative Director. “Getting a feel for what the client expects and how the shoot might unfold builds a foundation for what will be required,” he says. “They’ll generally send me a proposal, and what’s really good is if they have a shot list.”

Photographs © Dan Wagner

 

Planned as an FDNY recruitment campaign targeted to diversity hiring, the shoot brief called for action shots of firefighters rappelling down walls, climbing ladders, extinguishing fires, and extended to portraits and group shots.

Preproduction Planning

After viewing the training facility on Google Earth, Wagner realized he would need to cover a considerable distance between shots. “Depending on parking and how the shots were grouped, we could either drive from spot to spot and work out of the back of my station wagon, move gear by hand with a cart, or rely on some combination of the two,” he explains.

Yet, since there was no time for a scouting day, he was unable to research needs for some planned interior shots. He notes, “In cases where it’s not possible to know exactly what lies ahead, an educated guess based on experience usually does the trick.”

 

Given this mix of preparation and instinct, Wagner did everything possible to anticipate the gear he would need and how it would be employed to ensure success. “This was going to be one of those fluid, spontaneous, and fun shoots that keep the photographer and crew on their toes,” he says.

Thinking Ahead

Wagner emphasizes the importance of removing concerns from the list of what can go wrong on a shoot. “By doing this,” he explains “photographers stack the odds in their favor.”

A prime example on the FDNY shoot was Wagner’s decision to book a nearby hotel room for the night before the shoot. This ensured he would arrive on time and well rested, rather than stressed and exhausted from fighting traffic. “Rush-hour traffic can be unpredictable, especially in New York City,” he says. “As a benefit, the hotel provided a staging area where I could meet with my two assistants and go over gear and logistics,” he adds.

For these types of assignments, he also recommends asking at the location about the availability of an AV cart, and a ladder. “While I could bring my own cart and ladder, they would likely be smaller than items found on site and would take up a lot of car space,” he says.

 

Not surprisingly, the FDNY had no trouble supplying any type of ladder desired. As for a cart, his purchase of a MultiCart RocknRoller R12RT 8-in-1 All-Terrain Equipment Transporter made moving gear a breeze.

Camera Preparation and the Concept of “Home Base” Settings

Given the wide variety of activities to be covered, Wagner planned for gear redundancy across the board—from his Nikon D4 and D800 bodies to lenses to lighting. “I wanted to shoot more with the D800 because of the bigger file size,” he says. “The D4 came in handy for situations involving higher ISOs, since it performs really well above 1600.”

Before any shoot, he always set his cameras and flash units to what he refers to as “home base” settings. Some of his go-to settings include ISO 400, Aperture Mode at f/5.6, AFS S center autofocus point, automatic white balance, raw with dual-card backup.

“Knowing what my settings are before I pick up a piece of gear saves time and helps avoid mistakes, such as having the camera set to small, basic JPEG instead of RAW,” he explains.

 

For added consistency and time savings, he also suggests setting up and selecting from a variety of camera presets.

Lens Selection

During Wagner’s discussions with the project’s Creative Director (CD), who is also a photographer, the CD expressed how much he loved the out-of-focus backgrounds created with long telephoto lenses, voicing a preference for 200mm and 400mm lenses.

“Not owning a 400mm, I was faced with the proposition of renting or buying one,” Wagner explains. “A third option would be to use a 2x Nikon AF-S Teleconverter TC-20E III with my Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II, resulting in a 140-400mm f/5.6 equivalent lens.”

 

Although the 70-200mm is among Wagner’s favorite lenses, he identified several downsides to using this approach—from the time required to mount and remove the converter, to the increased possibility of dust falling on the sensor during lens changes. And since the shoot was scheduled for a Monday, Wagner ruled out rentals that would require a Friday pick up, since that would not allow time to get a replacement in the event of problems.

Trying Out Lens Options

His next step was to compare three lenses—the 4.6-lb Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR Lens, 4.3-lb Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM, and the 3.45-lb Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR—all of which were available to test with a Nikon D810 at the B&H SuperStore.

“After handling each lens, I decided that the Nikon 200-500mm and Sigma 150-600mm might not be wide enough for the shooting situations I expected to encounter,” he recalls. “The Nikon 80-400mm also weighed about a pound less, and could fit into the same Think Tank Photo Digital Holster 30 V2.0 as my 70-200mm lens.”

 

Wagner elaborates, “In the end, it came down to lens redundancy. The FDNY shoot was too important to risk not having a back-up telephoto lens. Climbing on ladders and photographing fires increased the chances that equipment might get damaged.”

Bringing both the 70-200mm and 80-400mm ensured that if one lens became inoperable, Wagner could continue with the other. “I consoled myself over the expense of a new lens by reasoning that I could always sell it after the shoot,” he says. “However, once I saw the incredible results it produced, selling it was out of the question. The Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm is now one of my favorite lenses,” he adds. “Just look at how sharp each eyelash is in this 100-percent crop.”

Lighting Gear Redundancy

According to Wagner, nothing soothes a photographer’s anxiety more than planning multiple approaches to shoot situations, using a variety of gear options. Since he had to plan for all types of lighting situations, including inside fire houses, as well as locations lacking electrical power, he decided to prep gear for five different lighting approaches with varied degrees of power and lighting effects.

 

· Available Light: With or without reflectors and fill-in flash

· Using Collapsible Reflectors: White, dull silver, bright silver, translucent white, and black

Wagner ended up using reflectors for more than 75 percent of the campaign. While white reflectors are more flattering, since beauty was not a concern for this shoot, silver reflectors were incorporated for a grittier look.

· On-Camera Flash: Two Nikon SB910 Speedlights with an SD-9 Battery Pack, 20 Eneloop AA rechargeable batteries, and a Nikon SC-29 TTL Coiled 3-9' Off-Camera Shoe Cord with AF Assist. Using a long telephoto zoom for limited focus effects meant that Wagner’s on-camera flash had to be within ten feet of the subjects to have sufficient power in bright daylight.

 

· Portable Flash: Two Quantum Qflash Model T5D-R flash units, with Quantum FreeXwire 7Q Compact Wireless Digital TTL Receivers, standard reflector with Diffuser Covers, Bare Bulb eEnhancers, QF63B Telefoto Reflector with Bulb Spacer, a variety of brackets, Quantum QF75 26" Octagon Softbox, and two battery packs—a Quantum Turbo SC Power Pack and a Turbo 3. These battery-powered strobes and free-wired remotes allow greater flexibility in lighting indoor subjects and backgrounds in a more interesting manner.

· Plug-In Flash: Dynalite MK8-1222V RoadMax 800Ws 2 Head Kit, extension cords, PocketWizard PlusX 2 Pack, and a Sekonic Flashmeter. This lighting scenario would allow Wagner to light up whatever might be needed indoors, with an available power supply.

· Portable Continuous Light: ikan Rayden RB10 Bi-Color 1 x 1 Studio & Field LED Light, 2 ikan 95Wh V-Mount Power Kits, and an ikan PWRGP-1 Power Grip for attaching the AC adapter to a stand. This type of lighting is particularly useful for balancing lighting and color temperature in office scenes or situations with overhead florescent lighting.

 

Prior to the shoot, every piece of gear was tested, batteries were charged, and backups for indispensable items, such as connecting cables and adapters, were packed. Wagner says, “With multiple ways of lighting shots and with gear for each approach packed in separate cases, I was able to work quickly, efficiently, and with greater confidence.”

Bags and Cases

Like many photographers, Wagner owns more bags and cases than he’s willing to admit. On this shoot, one of his best decisions was to pack two empty bags—a medium-sized shoulder bag with removable dividers and room for one camera, two lenses and a flash, and a Think Tank holster for a camera body with a mounted telephoto zoom lens.

 

“This meant I could quickly select what I wanted from the larger and more protective cases, based on the needs of each shooting scenario,” he explains. After careful consideration, the following cases made the final cut.

Tenba 48" Rolling Tripod/Grip Case with wheels for stands, tripod, umbrellas and assorted grip items

HPRC 2700WF Wheeled Hard Case with cubed foam, and a trolley handle for the ikan 1 x 1' light panel, batteries and charger

Tenba AW-LMP Wheel Attaché Large ATA Multi-Purpose for the Quantum gear and accessories

Dynalite 0670LW Lightweight Equipment Case (included in lighting kit) for pack, 2 heads, radio transceivers, and extension cords

Think Tank Photo Airport Security V3.0 for Nikon D4, D800, lenses, flash, batteries, and accessories

• Reflector bags (included with collapsible reflectors)

Think Tank Photo Digital Holster 50 V2.0 and Tenba Roadie II Shoulder Bag—both empty, for grabbing gear on the fly

 

“Inside both the large and medium rolling cases, I left an empty space for storing a lens during lens changes, which is a very useful and fluid way of working,” he adds.

Self-Contained Cases

When packing gear, another helpful tip is to make sure each case or bag has everything necessary—and readily accessible—for the primary piece of equipment to function.

“For example,” says Wagner, “pack your flash together with all connecting cords, adapters, batteries, and any additional items needed for use.” Placing all connecting cords and adapters in a separate case can have devastating consequences if it is lost or stolen, which can risk jeopardizing the entire shoot.

Ready for Shoot Day

Once the shoot day arrived, Wagner and crew were anxious to get to work. “It was a bright sunny day, which gave us some dramatic lighting options,” he notes.

 

While Wagner did pack a tripod, the client wanted the shots to have variety, so he kept the camera moving. “Even if I was in an ideal situation and I could have stayed there the whole time, I would move to another spot to vary the background,” he explains. “I knew they wanted tighter shots, but I would also zoom back to leave the client extra room for [placing] type.”

Since he was shooting active situations with telephoto lenses, Wagner boosted his ISO to 800 for a lot of the pictures. “I tried to use the fastest shutter speed available, to freeze the action,” he says.

 

Another concern was balancing style with authenticity. “You want to put some of your style into it, but at the same time, the shots need to look real,” he says.

This was particularly important, since he was working with real people. “If a shot is too fussed-with, then the intended audience might not feel as though they could be the person in the photograph,” he explains.

Post Shoot Recap

After each shoot, Wagner likes to review his gear choices so he can pack and prepare more effectively for the future. As things worked out, he ultimately wound up only using his camera gear, on-camera speedlights, reflectors, shoulder bags, and multi-cart.

 

“While I did not use each piece of gear I brought, I would probably not eliminate a single item,” he says. “Every piece of equipment was potentially essential, either as backup or as an alternate approach to each proposed shooting scenario. If there is room for added equipment, and a way to select gear on the fly, then having extra items is always the best option,” he advises.

All in a Day’s Work

While originally scheduled as a two-day shoot, “We got it all done in one day, shooting from 9 to 5,” says Wagner. “I generally do six or seven shots in a day, so this was an unusually high volume,” he adds.

 

He spent an additional two days processing the raw files, and delivered more than 2,100 JPEGs, featuring about 40 different firefighters in all. The images are currently being displayed in a wide variety of settings, from the FDNY Facebook page and website to subway posters, billboards, and banners hung outside all 217 firehouses in New York City’s Five Boroughs. Images have also been incorporated in PR campaigns and broadcast on major news channels, locally and nationally.

“They’re a very tight group, the firefighters,” Wagner sums up. “Getting to work with a great Creative Director and the brave firefighters of the FDNY was an unforgettable experience.”

 

To learn more about Dan Wagner, click here to visit his website.

Do you have questions for Wagner or feedback on this story you’d like to share? If so, please let us know in the Comments section, below.

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I have been in the fire services for about 50-years: Boston for 32-years, Pickens County, GA, Fannin County, GA and more doing both paid/career and volunteer as well as wildland fire. I had also been published by several national fire service trade journals as a journalist and a photog maybe 100 times. Your picture shoot essay was very well done. My comment will be perceived as "racist & sexist" but, where are the white American males?

Hi Robert,

I salute your 50-years of brave firefighting. Glad you enjoyed the photos. The next time you're in NYC,pass by any of the 217 firehouses and you'll be sure to see firefighters from all backgrounds. And while in town, please visit the B&H superstore and try out some of the gear mentioned in the article.

Robert - As stated in the article - "Planned as an FDNY recruitment campaign targeted to diversity hiring"

Love your work..  You did an awesome job........

These are outstanding portraits!

Good job Dan!

Thanks Jim and Westside John. I recently had the chance to see a few of the billboards in Brooklyn and Queens, NY -- fun.

👍🏼

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