PHOTON MADNESS by Gary Regester, 1986 (published in Photo District News)

[bracketed notes from 2003 edit, though the article remains timely after nearly 20 years.]

Why in the name of PHOTON are you out of your studio trying to eke a living on location? Not “on location” as in throwing everything into paper bag, jumping in the van and driving six blocks. Nor “on location” as in a Domke bag full of Nikons and 283s. Here we talking serious “on location” with real studio gear— 4 x 5s, 8 x 10s and 5000 + W/S. The distant and the far “on location” — without the usual supports and army of assistants — a thousand miles from any coast. Where “camera” shops never have EPR 120 and “photo labs” never push. Where new jobs find you and spin you off in further directions. Where plans and strategies change hourly. Life with a phone glued to one ear. Home is tonight’s hotel and the forty winks on tomorrow’s plane.

To run the film in strange labs or send the film to safety (and send a life’s savings to FEDERAL EXPRESS); try to check filtration after exposure to heat and X-RAYs; not to mention the green, green walls of the hotel room-cum-studio-cum-home (the [color] separator will get us anyway); excessive excess baggage at the airline counter — pay the porter well [good idea then]; ‘What do you mean AMEX won’t accept the rental car charge? — haven’t been home for two months”; the ignobled idiots parading as seasoned assistants — you can get very lucky; thanks to our god Photon, the equipment still functions against the certain Laws of Murphy, who is with us always — even to the end; the sheer weight of loaded Anvil [Calzone] designed to make that end come sooner than later. How could you have promised any AD, “studio results on location.

One must, at the least, achieve the fanaticism of the crazed backpacker who trims the edges off his trail map to save a quarter ounce or, by good fortune, possess the native instincts of a Bedouin who moves house and home perpetually about a most hostile environment.

Outside the Safety Zones-

Yet in this day of exorbitant lease dollars, more and more a studio habitué is returning to home on the range. Life on the road again has become. a most necessary fiscal alternative. Yet the real opportunity of living life on the emergency lane is your choice of situation. You are the one who now must quickly problem-solve. Lack of just the right lens or film or light can jar the mind to improvise — not an occasion to be taken lightly.

You have input your studio peers have avoided. You will develop finely mental skills. You have not allowed yourself to accept the simple solution as others have before you, but side-stepped laterally (cf. DeBono) to new ground. Forward (or vertical) thinking builds on accepted ideas, while lateral thinking changes the accepted idea. The successful photographic itinerant must create his own new ground and your images will reveal these efforts.

Innovate and Alter-

As a photographer constantly on the move, give the most complete and repeated thought to the following basics: (1) study your options and constantly innovate (interrogate and learn from your clients who manufacture or sell equipment totally unrelated to photography, pore over the Thomas Register); (2) determine multiple or overlapping usage of photogear (light stands pressed into service as booms, etc.[cables as counterweights]); (3) consider the weight and “break-down” size of your photo equipment; (4) question the weight and size of your protective cases vs. your photo equipment’s protective needs (do electrical cables and light stands really need the protection of heavier hard cases?). The only requisite for the itinerant is the mental resourcefulness necessary to execute top work without transporting a two-ton studio to location.

Off-the-Shelf vs. State-of-the-Art

Some off-the-shelf pro equipment, particularly studio strobe [“flash” is a more PC euro-english] gear, is not ready for itinerant use. In this age of miniaturized cameras and notebook-size computers with which you may communicate with the world, photographers still lug 36-pound strobepacks home from the photo shop. The viable rnanufacturer produces products for the photographers standing at the top of the demographic curve. Though technology can presently produce more than 3000 W/S of light in an 18-pound strobe pack (a 2400 W/S-9 lbs. source beckons around the corner), a manufacturer cannot always invent, prototype and produce equipment for the top end fringe who place their livelihoods at the end of their flying sync cords. Production tools, by definition, lag behind the state-of-the-art. What this means to the photo itinerant is that some equipment you purchase may only be 50% to 80% ready for your unique need.

If necessary, alter your phototools instead of your photography. Continually call upon the aid of your photographic mentors — the strobe wizards, the film and camera tech reps, the knowledgeable photogear dealers and the sharpest machinist, mathematician and engineer (invaluable associates). Use them. Consider how much our photo techniques are defined (and limited) by the design of available photogear. This is serious business which calls upon your most radical genius.

Some Rules for the Road

Get Light — Reduce necessary equipment to a minimum. The baggage limits of the air- lines are an excellent maximum for our creative minimum — whether or not your clientele yet require air travel. At no cost, you can [could then] check three 70-pound pieces of baggage, beyond which (up to 100 lbs.) you will pay. Try to check more than 1 00 pounds and you go directly to air freight and pay much more. [Actually, air freight is now a bargain vs. excess charges and security hassles.] The airlines less strictly limit the total dimension of height + length + depth to 62, 55, and 45 inches respectively. Critical to success in this - mim/max task is the proper ratio of equipment-to-weight-to-utility.

We must “out craze” that backpacker to reduce the ounces and the drams. Trade a couple of your five-pound fan-cooled strobe heads for two 8-ounce pencil tubes; change from steel lightstands to aluminum. Spread out your equipment and spend a good long time just staring at your tools of the trade. Remember these tools are also the limits of your trade. Carry various parts of your photogear with you — to the super market, on the subway, into bed. Ideas come at any time — let her (him) sleep somewhere else.

Minimize, Maximize — Choose a minimum of tools with maximum utility. Hasselbiad owners, why buy a 40mm, a “normal” 80mm, and 120 mm lens, when for less weight (and money) a 50mm and 100mm will do almost the same tasks [OK, add a doubler]? Won’t an “amateur” Nikon model w/Auto Winder get the job done as well as a heavier (and again, more expensive) Nikon F3 w/motor drive [F?]? Might not a field view be flexible enough to solve your corrections with less weight than the studio version? How few holders or film backs can your location technique get by with? Take the minimum and see if that renowned local assistant can provide the balance.

Over and Overlap — Eliminate redundant equipment. Create as much multiple usage for each item in your traveling menagerie as possible. A ten-pound strobe pack can double for a ten-pound boom counterweight. Maybe excess cables can do double-duty as a counterweight. Change hard cases into tabourets or make [lightstands with wheels] work as dollies. Use your two pencil strobes both as separate light sources and together as an instant bi-tube. Your changing bag will help to pad your view camera. Think and re think.

Get Out and Innovate — See if your local strobe wizard can change the condensers and capacitors in your. strobe pack. to improve your weight/output ratio. Or you can remove that bulky stand bracket from your strobe head by having your machinist replace it with a “no-moving-parts” block with four 3/8th holes placed at 30°, 0°, 45° and 90°. Add removable cart wheels to your Halliburton case for a quick dolly on which to pile everything else. Think, innovate, alter (then market it).

Protect Only What Needs Protection — Protect your fragile photogear with. hard cases (Anvil, Halliburton, Fiberbilt), but there is no need to protect your bomb-proof tripods, light stands, booms and the various clamps, with the heavier luxury of an additional hard case. Use a large duffle. Pack your equally bomb-proof soft gear — umbrellas, Chimeras, cables, your wardrobe — around the hard gear within that duffle, adding protection and, avoiding the weight of another hard case. Perhaps two padded duffles which nest into each other — double protection when “they” are handling the luggage; then split the load when you are. Try shortening the cables on your strobe heads to reduce the load in your hard case (and increase flash efficiency). Throw the remaining “extension” cables in the soft duffle.

Rule of Two — Take at least two smaller strobe packs rather than one big one. If one of two packs goes down, you just open up a stop. But when the one and only big egg in the basket breaks, the shoot is over. If you need 1 200 WIS, get two 600s and if you need 5000 W/S. travel with two 2400s or four 1200s. You not only buy safety, you get in credible ratio choices for the strobe heads. Take at least two camera systems. Choose different formats to maximize utility — you could always shoot a 2-1/4 job on 4 x 5 or 35 mm if you had to. Almost every facet of photogear should be considered in pairs or in multiples of two — clamps light stands, AC cables, sync cords, light meters, umbrellas, spare lamps, etc.

Muscle vs. Finesse — There seems to be a direct relationship between the amount of muscle required and the amount of time and care that goes into packing and transporting photogear. A couple of Anvil cases pack much quicker and easier than taking the time to carefully pack a duffle. Yet an Anvil case can weigh 30-pounds empty and a duffle nothing (5 lbs). It’s much harder to loft about a 70-pound case than a 45-pound bag, but the speed, ease and protection may weigh the argument in favor of the heavy hard case. Remember that equipment never goes back into the case as easy as it comes out — Murphy again. Make sure you have a cart or cart wheels on some hard case to aid easy transport of’ gear through airports and hallways. Excellent dollies can now be found at most home improvement suppliers for less than the cost of seamless — use it once and give it to the assistant with the seamless.

Actively Seek New Ideas — Read Inc., Forbes, Wall Street Journal, and technical journals on non-photo subjects [the ones in the office of the client whom you are trying to collect from]. See how other disciplines are problem solving. Read the photo trades. Review the Black Book [, Workook and all the other promotional ‘directories. Keep track of your peers. Remember, your most important tool is your mind.

Black Market Self-Taught

So you have to have a matte black Italian MANFROTTO (read: Bogen) lightstand. [As Manfrotto/Vinten bought Bogen from Hasselblad, this example is resolved.  Also, the internet makes grey marketing a breeze.] Or maybe a black, red, white or fuchsia colored French GITZO tripod. Or anything else in the world that you can’t yet get in the USA. Maybe you heard about this latest and greatest photo wonder -from a friend returning from Germany’s biennial PHOTOKINA. Or you saw an ad in an international photo magazine. Don’t be stopped by national border, do what photographers in Uruguary, Dubai and Malay have done for years — the “black” market.

As our esoteric example, let me use a black finished MANFROTTO stand with MANFROTTO’s own label on it. The MAN FROTTO stand is available in the United States for around $68. However, it will not have MANFROTTO’s name on it and you will probably only find the silver finish. But if a black finish with Lino Manfrotto’s own label is what you must have, you just call VISTEC in Toronto and for $75.25 Canadian (that’s about $54 in U.S. funds at today’s exchange rate — 18 March 1986) and you’ve got your stand. Simple! Right? Well, maybe.

We will assume you already know that a MANFROTTO and a BOGEN one and the same. The light stand in question is made by Lino Manfrotto in Italy and is marketed in the U.S. under the name of his importer, Lester Bogen, only in a silver finish. Or it is marketed as an accessory to a NORMAN, PROFOTO, ELINCHROM, BALCAR, LARSON or CALUMET strobe.

Next you must write Manfrotto (where do you find address?) and ask for the names of his international importers (will Lino question your intentions?). Then write [write?] the importer of choice (English will probably do) and make sure he imports the black finished stands without putting his name on it and ask for the names and addresses of his top three dealers (he will know exactly what you are up to).

Now write each dealer to find the best retail price. When the letters come back, rip off the stamps for your kids and check the exchange rate to make sure the U.S. dollar is still as strong as it was when you wrote the dealers a month earlier. Now go down to Deak-Perea [Thomas Cook] and convert U. S. funds to the specific national funds. Mail it off and wait for your stand to hit U.S. customs. [Use the post, not FedEx, as customs tend to let postal item slip on through.]

Customs calls. Good. Go directly down to those government agents, pay the 1 5% duty (about $8) and shipping (about $8) and at long last, you’re walking home with your heart’s desire for just about the same price you would have paid for Lester’s silver stand. Maybe black spray paint would have been easier, but not quite the same.  (Black MANFROTTO stands are now available as the O.E.M. stand for PROFOTO, CALUMET and LARSON, however, you still cannot get a MANFROITO stand in the USA with a Manfrotto name on it. But “a rose by any other name, still…”)

Holder Option

Is traveling with two dozen four by five holders holding [sorry!] you down? Consider applying your multi-back Hasselblad technique to the problem — two or three medium format roll-film backs for your traveling 4x5. Roll-film backs not only offer less weight and bulk, but are especially handy because of daylight loading and unloading. Remember that Ektachrome EPR1 20 is a lot easier to find on the road than Ektachrome 6117.

There are a variety of sizes, types and makes. 6x7cm, 6x9cm and, to get your full five inches, 6x12cm. Some roll-film backs slide behind the groundglass just like a holder, other designs require that you remove the groundglass back and lock the film back in place. SINAR, of course, makes the top- of-the-line, complete with a $1 500 adjust able format model. For the rest of us flatlanders, ARCA-SWISS, HORSEMAN, and CALUMET make some excellent roll backs. There is also a 4 x 5 POLAROID back that uses the “medium” format Polaroid materials.

Office In Your Lap

Technology daily crunches and compacts the businessman’s office. Traveling photographers will be the first to take advantage of these lap-sized offices (if only because we love new techtoys so much). You can now do all your on-the-road billing, books and hard copy correspond with a micro-computer and printer that live happily in your attaché’.

With modem, you can remote-access commercial databases such as SOURCE and PHOTONET or send and retrieve necessary information back to your studio computer. Most telex, companies now provide “mail box” services, so you can not only send telex from your lap office at any time, but retrieve incoming “mall” day or night — just “log-on” at 1:49 A the minute the shoot is over.

Future Arts

Will the photo equipment dealer survive the growing sophistication of the working photographer who can access cheaper and cheaper information directly? Do you luxuriate in the warmth of human understanding which you encounter at your dealer’s counter or is this a best-forgotten “luxury” left for the aspiring photogs with plenty p of time on their hands? Would you rather get better information faster and eliminate the middle-men by buying direct from the manufacturer’s mainframe?

Will digital imaging leave film behind (Take that, Rochester!)? Will the newest Hasselblad “film” back shown at the 1986 PHOTOKINA be a four-color scanner transmitting to pocket computer or directly to your printer’s press? No more trips to the lab? No more lab? Will the next State-of Imaging require continuous source lighting or “Is this any time to be dropping $6000 into strobe gear?” With the key-a-color-or subject-or-background computers upon us already, are we about to enter the Age of  Shock.  [This future is still not quite here after nearly twenty years.  Except the “Age of  Shock”]

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