What does it take to get pro results practically anywhere? This on-location shooting guide covers all the bases for shooting outdoors, at events or in your subject’s home or office. Much of this gear also is useful for creating an instant studio at home.
Achieving perfect light on location is one of the primary challenges versus the controlled environment of a studio. For the ultimate in on-location lighting, monolights are relatively portable, affordable and easy to use. (See our coverage of high-powered monolights suitable for outdoor use. Also check out the article featuring battery-powered monolights in our sister publication, Digital Photo Pro.)
If you’re working with flash, modifiers are extremely helpful for fine-tuning flash output. Modifiers help you control the light through diffusion, shape and directional control, and color correction. Diffusers reduce and spread the light from your flash for a softer effect and less contrast. They’re especially useful for portraiture and for fill lighting.
In the studio, you can bounce flash off the ceilings or walls. For outdoor shoots or really big spaces, bounces, snoots and grids, and beauty dishes help you refine your flash output to blend seamlessly with the ambient light or to create dramatic effects. Modifiers that bounce light are reflective and allow you to redirect the angle of your flash output. Snoots and grids create a spotlight effect, shaping and restricting the flash output to a specific area of your composition. Beauty dishes reflect light for a soft effect and create flattering catchlights in your subject’s eyes, ideal for portraiture.
Essential for outdoor work or mixed-lighting environments, gels let you change the color of light from your flash. Use them to match your flash output to the ambient light or for creative effect by adding color contrast to the scene.
REFLECTORS, SCRIMS AND FLAGS
In addition to modifying your flash output, it’s good to have tools to redirect or restrict ambient light, too. Reflectors are one of the most important accessories for on-location photography. They’re easy to use, require no power and are ideal for redirecting available light to fill shadows for more even light on your subject.
Conversely, there may be situations where you want to reduce or block ambient light (overhead sunlight, for example). Scrims soften and reduce ambient light, similar to a flash diffuser, while flags can be used to completely block a light source.
All-in-one products are available that combine reflectors, scrims and flags in a convenient, unified design.
LED LIGHTS FOR FILL & VIDEO
Though typically less powerful than flash or strobes, LED lights are excellent for providing fill light and are particularly ideal for video. Adjustable output lets you dial in the strength of the light for natural-looking results, and because they’re always on, you can readily see and adjust their effect. That continuous lighting ability is also what makes them an excellent choice for video work.
Sometimes you’ll find the perfect setting on location, and sometimes you won’t. A portable backdrop, muslin or roll of seamless paper is wise to have on hand, especially for portraiture. Whether you choose a convenient kit or build your own with a pair of stands and a few backdrop choices, you’ll be able to turn almost any room or outdoor space into a studio.
Bringing a laptop or tablet along gives you options for remote camera control, image review on a big screen, and even editing and backup in the field. You might be able to get by with a single charge, but there are portable solar-powered options for recharging your gear on location. While an extension cord is always smart to carry with you, if you won’t be near an outlet, the solar power option can power up all of your devices, plus recharge camera and flash batteries.
Camera LCDs are incredibly convenient and continue to improve, but they remain difficult to use in bright sunlight. An LCD loupe is critical for checking focus, exposure and image details under bright outdoor conditions—even more so when working with mirrorless cameras that omit an eye-level viewfinder outdoors—and it’s a much more contemporary and elegant solution than a black drape over your head.
Optical filters still have their place in the photographer’s toolbox despite the proliferation of special-effects software. One filter you must have in your kit is a polarizer. There’s no magic software bullet to handle unwanted reflections, and you can’t re-create detail in the computer when glare blows out the highlights of your exposure. A polarizer handles this instantly. Another practical filter for outdoor use is a graduated neutral-density filter, which can help you rein in extreme contrast for better exposures and less postprocessing.
TRIPOD & HEAD
A good tripod and head are essential for on-location photography. While the most important characteristics of a tripod are its stability, sturdiness and ability to support the weight of your particular camera and lens combination, the size and weight of the tripod itself become a consideration for fieldwork. You want to put your energy toward creativity, not gear portage.
The weight of everything in your kit adds up, and a tripod is one piece of equipment where you can shed a few pounds by choosing a lightweight carbon-fiber model. A typical carbon-fiber model might weigh 30% less than a comparable
aluminum design, and yet support 20% more weight from your camera and lens.
You also need a head for your tripod. If you’re shooting strictly still photos, ballheads are popular for their ability to position the camera in just about any orientation quickly. For a heavier camera and weighty telephoto lens combination, a gimbal head may be a better choice for balancing the weight—you don’t want your tripod tipping over!
If you plan to do any video, you’re going to want a fluid head. These pan/tilt heads use a hydraulic system to dampen vibration for the smooth pans essential to video work.
Gitzo’s Traveler Series 2 carbon-fiber tripod weighs just 4.2 pounds, but can support more than three times its weight and can be used with lenses up to a 200mm telephoto prime.
The midsized BH-40 LR Ballhead from Really Right Stuff is an ideal choice for keeping weight down without sacrificing adjustments—in addition to the full movement of the ball with dual drop notches, the base pans, as well.
CAMERA & LENS PROTECTION
You don’t have to be drenched in a torrential downpour to appreciate protection for your camera and lens—even a light, unexpected shower can wreak havoc on cameras that lack weather sealing. It’s not just water to protect against, either. Extended exposure to direct sunlight, salty seaside air, and windy or dusty environments are all distractions, at best, and potential damage to your camera system, at worst. If photography frequently takes you outdoors for hours at a time, camera protection is a worthwhile investment. Plus, waterproof options let you get creative for portraits poolside or in stormy weather.
LENS CLEANING OPTIONS
Outside the controlled environment of a studio, you’re practically guaranteed to get dust on your lens. That can be a relatively minor problem (more time spent retouching photos) or a major bummer (scratched lens). You’ve invested in precision optics, so make the extra investment in cleaning products specifically designed for photographic lenses. The ability to efficiently care for your optics as you shoot protects your gear and can save you a lot of time fixing spots in postprocessing.
CAMERA BAGS & CASES
One of the most important considerations working on location is organization—that’s why so many pros have assistants in tow. If you don’t have that luxury, then it’s doubly important to choose a bag or case that keeps all your gear organized and easily accessible. The right bag for you depends on the gear you typically use. If you carry a big-range zoom lens and few accessories, your organization needs will be different than if you prefer to work with a variety of primes or specialty lenses.
Most camera bags are designed to stack gear, with padded dividers, to economize the bag’s volume. An ideal bag or case will have room for all the tools you most frequently use on the top level, where they’re easily accessible—you don’t want to be fumbling to find the right lens or filter.
Choose a bag or case with plenty of room for your gear, and spend some time thoughtfully arranging your kit. If everything has its place and if you keep it there, you’ll never be digging through your bag while the talent waits.
BAGS FOR TRIPODS & STANDS
If you’ll be bringing more than one tripod, or a tripod and stands for reflectors, backdrops and the like, an additional bag to keep organized is a wise investment. It simplifies carrying these somewhat unwieldy—yet indispensable—supports, especially if you’re working alone and need to carry several at once. Even when I’m only bringing a single tripod, I still like to use a bag, and keep a pair of pliers, the adjustment tools supplied by my tripod’s manufacturer and a sandbag or two for stabilizing my tripod in there, as well.
Every pro we talked to agrees: Gaffer’s tape is awesome, and you need to carry it for gear first-aid and "best-alternative" solutions. Fix a broken battery door, improvise a snoot, hang backdrops, secure extension cords, strap a bag with a broken zipper—gaffer’s tape can handle a lot of field emergencies so you can get the shot.