Lightweight lighting gear for long-haul travel work

 I recently did a resort shoot in the South Pacific; quality expectations were high, but the remote location meant the equipment list had to be short. 

Interior photos are my stock in trade. A normal interior photo can take hours to light and prep and stage, and require a dozen light heads, modifiers, etc., all to make it look like the photo was taken without any additional lighting at all. It's a really fun problem-solving exercise every time, and I love doing it.

This recent shoot threw in a couple serious limitations to the usual mix — it was 7,000 miles away from my studio, and bringing Profoto kits and all the associated grip equipment wasn't feasible given the constraints. So, I decided to stop looking down my nose at the whole strobist thing and give it a try.

Loyal readers will remember a post from last fall describing some portraits I did using a Lightware Foursquare system, with three cheap, er, inexpensive, Yongnuo YN-560 speedlights I got from China via eBay for about $80 apiece, and a small softbox from my regular lighting kit (a Photoflex Lightdome), which fits the Foursquare bracket with the addition of their extension rods.

The system tested out well, and I got some really good portraits. I figured I'd be all set. I left the laptop at home in favor of a 64GB iPad and camera adapter; I'd tested it extensively and everything was working perfectly, at least with full cards smaller than 8GB via a card reader, but more about that later.

©Francis ZeraThe lighting kit I assembled was compact, sturdy, and traveled well, taking up no more space in my luggage than two pairs of dress shoes, including the small Pelican box filled with 24 AA lithium photo batteries (the 1030 case with silicone liner seems perfectly sized for AA batteries, and will hold about 36 - I used some foam to fill the empty space so the batteries were immobile and didn't short out against one another to be safe). My travel tripod, a carbon-fiber Benro TRCB 069, which is modeled after Gitzo's lovely but spendy traveler series, works like a dream and folds up to about 14" long and just 3.5" in diameter, as the legs fold up over the head. I got it for a trip to India last year and it's proven to be sturdy and reliable, and the small head still supports my 5D Mark II and 24-70 f/2.8 zoom just fine. It's not the steadiest rig available, but the thing is compact enough to be carried everywhere and allowed me to get shots I otherwise would have missed without a stable camera platform. The other tripod is my Gitzo series 2 with an Acratech leveling base, Manfrotto 300N pano head, Acratech Ultimate Ballhead, topped off with a Really Right Stuff Ultimate Pro Omni-Pivot pano kit. The whole assemblage looks pretty Frankensteinian and weighs about as much as a city bus, but it works great and turns out perfect panos time after time.

©Francis ZeraThe camera list was as follows (everything is Canon): 1Ds Mk II, 5D Mk II (each with a Really Right Stuff L-bracket), 24mm TS-E, 24-70mm f/2.8, 90mm TS-E, 180mm macro, a 1.4 extender, vII, and a 580EXII speedlight. Polarizers and ND filters for the lenses, two intervalometers, spare batteries, hotshoe levels, chargers, cables, etc. I also brought my Leica D-Lux 4 and a waterproof Panasonic DMC-TS2 I got specifically for the trip. All that fit into it's normal slots in my Crumpler Karachi Outpost backpack.

First, I'll start with everything that went well. The equipment traveled like a dream, both out and back, and nothing was lost or broken. That's normal, but I am quite careful and pay close attention to where things end up during a shoot. A well-organized camera bag in which everything has a designated spot makes it easy to realize something's missing before leaving the location. The location was beautiful, the people friendly, and the scenery nothing short of amazing. The resort is very lovely and well-kept, so staging and propping was not an issue. Logistics were a non-issue, as if what we needed wasn't on the island, we didn't really need it, as there were no Home Depot, Design Within Reach, or Crate & Barrel, etc. within a few thousand miles.

The location (a small island resort in Fiji), being on the equator, has lots of hard reflected light to work with, and against. That natural reflected fill really helped with the interiors, until I had to add some extra light to dark areas - I needed a lot of power to match what the equatorial sun was spitting out. Which leads me to some of the issues that needed to be overcome.

Speedlight guide numbers matter (good explainer here). Canon's 580EXII has an advertised guide number of 190, which is pretty powerful for such a small strobe. The cheap Yongnuos have a guide number of 58. That's a hell of a difference, but the three smaller strobes banked together on the Lightware bracket work out quite well, and their combined cost of $320 was less than the one 580EXII. Further, if something were to happen to one of the cheap flashes, they're pretty much expendable.

As you might expect, there were some problems with the Yongnuos. They all have optical slaves, which is what made me decide to buy them. The slaves made it easy to bank them together in a softbox, as only one set of Pocket Wizard radio slaves was necessary - another nice reduction in equipment. I simply attached a PW transceiver to one of the speedlights, set the others to optical slave mode, attached the other PW to the camera, and I was set up for about 100' of wireless strobe action. Most other inexpensive speedlights don't have an optical slave feature, so they each would require a dedicated PocketWizard. Making use of the more powerful Canon speedlight in combination was easy, too -- I attached the PW to the Canon speedlight, mounted it to the little stand it came with, and placed it line-of-sight with the banked Lightware box, setting all three of those speedlights to optical mode. It all worked out great, until the cheap speedlights started acting up.

The Yongnuos had problems with overheating and with long, inconsistent recycle times, so much so that they sometimes wouldn't reliably fire unless I gave them about 10-20 seconds between flashes. They all overheated quite quickly. I will confess to being used to A/C powered Profoto monolights and pack-and-head systems, so perhaps I was expecting a little too much from the little battery-powered devices, but the Canon speedlight never overheated or misfired. In the end, everything worked out quite wonderfully, it just took a little bit longer to get some of the shots. Working on island time can definitely be your friend.

The FourSquare system itself was a delight to work with. It's simple, sturdy, and stable. It consists of a central block that's basically a highly adaptable speed ring that has attachment points for up to four speedlights, mounting holes for softboxes, openings for umbrellas and a variety of mounting points. I bought the handle accessory, and was happy I did, as it allowed me to have an assistant hold the assembled light fixture when necessary, while retaining the option of attaching it to a spare tripod, or use the handle to simply stand it in a corner. Materials (anodized aluminum), fit and finish on the various pieces and parts of the kit is very consistent and high quality; I've no doubt I'll be using it for many, many years. My only suggestion for an improvement would be the addition of an additional threaded hole on the back of the handle such that a brass stud could be threaded in, which would allow a PocketWizard to be mounted to the handle via its existing bushing on the back. I tried several variations of straps and rubber bands in an attempt to secure the PW to the handle, but none quite worked out very well. Although the PW fell off now and again, I was lucky enough that it never dropped into the surf.

©Francis Zera

Speaking of water, a surprise gem was the little waterproof Panasonic DMC-TS2, which I'd only been able to use on dry land prior to the trip.

It's über compact, especially compared to a DSLR. I had zero issues with water intrusion, although I was quite careful to check the seals before each underwater use and dutifully soaked it in fresh water for 15 minutes after each immersion. It being a point-and-shoot with a correspondingly tiny sensor, there were the usual frustrations with noise and low-light, but, again, the equatorial sun is quite bright, even at 10-20 feet underwater, and the little built-in flash did a decent job of filling in the missing parts of the spectrum to bring out the colors in the reef. It certainly wasn't as nice as a proper u/w housing for a DSLR, but at less than $300 the little Panasonic is a bargain.

©Francis Zera

Wireless telecom carriers in small countries can make AT&T look as sweet as your old granny. The local carrier wanted $20 per megabyte for data (contrast that with my $30/month AT&T unlimited iPad data plan), and $4+ per minute for calls, so the phone was kept off for most of the trip, other than when using GPS-enabled apps that didn't require a live connection. Many of these were interesting, and some proved quite useful. For instance, Easy Release was used to obtain signed model releases, handy when I didn't want to deal with paper releases on a windy beach. Theodolite proved handy for recording location data; here's a screenshot.

©Francis Zera

The last weirdness that needed to be overcome was with using the iPad as a photo storage device. I'd tested it several times while traveling, all with pretty good results. This time, though, the thing decided to completely freak out and decide my card reader was no longer acceptable, despite my having successfully used it for months and testing it prior to leaving. My iPad does not like to read CF cards larger than 8GB, despite the assurances from Apple Store staff of compatibility up to 32GB cards. So, despite being kitted out with a giant pile of 8GB cards, the iPad refused to read any of them. In desperation I tried connecting the iPad directly to the 5DII, and to my surprise, all my data transferred quite quickly. The older 1DsII was glacially slow, so I used the 5D for transfers. Even the little Panasonic gave up it's images in a relatively timely manner.

Viewing the images on the iPad was easy, even the large Canon .CR2 RAW files. It couldn't display video files from the Canon, but the stored files, once transferred to a proper computer, worked fine. I couldn't edit anything in any of the apps until I set the camera to record a small jpg along with the RAW capture. I normally shoot in RAW only to save card space, but the iPad could only handle the jpg preview for editing. Once I did that, there were no issues tweaking out some of the files and putting a bunch of emailed photos in the outbox to be sent out once I found a free wifi node back at the airport (one of the resort's selling points is to offer a place to disconnect from the wider world, so there's no wifi available, and limited access to a couple of slow satellite-connected PCs). At $20 per MB, it would have been easy t have racked up a $1,000+ phone bill emailing photos around. With the resort manager / art director on site to approve the work as we went, there was little need for email anyway. 

©Francis ZeraOne perplexing bit of iOS photo-import weirdness was in the iPad's recognition of previously-imported photos from a card. Despite my having checked the "don't import duplicates" option, and the fact that already-imported images were grayed out, very strange things happened - the iPad wrote ghost copies of the previously-imported photos to the cards such that, when I imported the images from the cards to my server back home, there were two copies of each image I'd imported onto the iPad. It took me a while to realize that fact, and even longer to go through and delete the 2,500+ duplicated files, as Lightroom assigned them a unique file name that was tough to filter for. 

So, IMHO, the iPad is currently something of a disappointment as a professional photo device. I had high hopes for the thing, but will likely revert to traveling with a bulkier laptop, even if only for image backups to avoid the iPad's time- and data-consuming quirkiness.

All in all, though, the trip was a rousing success. Lessons: traveling cheap and light is good, especially when there's a high risk of losing items in transit, but there's no substitute for powerful lights. The only thing I would have changed about the trip would have been to ditch the cheap Yongnuos and take four or five of the Canon speedlights instead.

Well, that, and not being able to stay there for another month or so, ... there's nothing like a little extra time in the tropics to get things perfect. Island time is your friend.

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