How do I reduce gear on shoots?
I ask myself this question almost weekly. Since I shoot 100% out on location (most requiring travel), what’s in my bag can either cost extra baggage fees or save my keister on a shoot.
Just because I can lug a three-light setup, doesn’t mean I should.
My key: Be prepared not just as an artist, but as a Boy Scout.
Gear holds me back more often than I admit. This coming from a frugal Boy Scout who admires MacGyver. Give me a van full of photo-related gear to bring to Burning Man (see above photo) and I’m happy as a clam. Granted, I used about 55% of it, but glad I had it all.
It’s easy to say, “I’ll take quality over quantity.” But which tools get left behind? My answer:
1) Be creatively prepared.
There’s a difference being prepared as an artist, versus Boy Scout prepared. You never want to be kitchen-sink prepared for a shoot. That ship won’t sail. Worse yet, all the other kids will laugh at you. Creatives know how to do more with less, which forces ingenuity and resourcefulness. If you are thinking, “I can get my Sunpak to f/16 in noon sun with a Speedlight and evenly light a bridal party in one shot,” take a Photo 101 refresher. When that final print hangs on the wall, being creatively prepared means never looking back and thinking, “Gee, I wish I had just one more small light as a kicker on the hair” or “Too bad I left my digital medium-format rig in the studio.” Of the thousands of variables that make a good picture, essential gear helps make the art. And good gear doesn’t hurt. Gear essentials to shoot landscapes in Ireland will differ from what I bring to a wedding. You want to bring everything you’ll need, nothing you don’t. Therein lies the fine line on when to lug the kitchen sink.
Experience plays a big part in dictating gear. Just don’t fall into a rut. What worked once, won’t always.
2) Don’t expect to control everything.
Intent makes art, not accidents. Even Jackson Pollock had a vision for his paint splatters. If a particular photo works, it is because the photographer made it that way. We have to accept responsibility that every creative decision we make in the final image comes with intent. Some photogs fall prey to the notion that everything will fall into place because of control. Alas, this is where creativity fails. How come dumb luck “happy mistakes” happen more to some than to others? Perhaps they put themselves in situations that force them to think creativity and not rely on instinct as sole creative muse. But I like to think any professional should be able to walk into a situation and apply their skill with consistent results. And for a creative person, that means consistently creative.
For me, so much of my personal photographic style uses off-camera lighting. If you are not solid on your style, check out my post on developing your photographic vision. I enjoy the challenge and I feel it distinguishes my work as different. Not better, just different. I can always fall back on a one-light technique in a pinch. I’d rather have one quality light (a strobe with a large diffuser) than lots of Speedlights. However, Speedlights are wonderful for lower ambient scenarios like at sunset or a ballroom reception where just a kiss of light is needed.
Choose only the gear that allows you to be consistently creative.
3) Learn from pain.
If you have three options when it comes to lugging gear: Deal, Delegate, or Leave At Home. If cramped shoulders result in an epic image you bring home, that’s a beautiful effort. I say Deal with it. Complain to your spouse or assistant; never to the client. As climbers know well, you have to work hard for a glimpse at the top. If you loathe the idea of lugging, Delegate to an assistant. Some call this dumping outsourcing, but it frees you up to think creatively. Ultimately, you sign your work, and the vision comes from you. Whereas sandbags, beauty dish, ring flash or C-stand might fall under the Leave At Home, there’s nothing like busting out the perfect creative tool for differentiating your work when you need it.
Know your gear inside and out, which includes capabilities, limitations and quirks.
4) Balance quality with quantity
Economics influences my gear choices. So does solid back-up gear. I find gimmick gear grows old quickly. I rely on the gold standards, which includes at least one trusty light source I can count on no matter what. And the sun doesn’t count. I won’t tout brand names, but will say “go-to” gear can be a tad more expensive and a bit heavier, but is worth its weight in gold for reliability. The right tool for the job depends largely on the shooting environment. In low light at a wedding, I can usually get by with a pair of video lights or Speedlights. But if I want light to have a signature look, that’s where big strobes and associated light modifiers might come into play. Portable light doesn’t have to cost thousands. And sometimes the underdog wins.
So much of choosing gear is personal preference, closely aligned to style, patience, time, effort and risk.
I hope these four tips help you reduce gear on your next shoot! Be sure to check out other articles in my photographer’s resources here.
About the Author
RJ Kern likes to shoot candids from the hip with an off-camera flash. He’s based in Minneapolis, MN and loves to create as much as share. He’s been enjoying the process of bringing back medium format into the wedding market, but this time using pixels. Tech humor, duct tape, creativity… garnished with light… remains an important part of his photography style. RJ has been a Pictage user since 2006.