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My best ever mistakes

The following 2 posts will detail what I think are my best ever mistakes. I consider them my best, because they’re probably the mistakes I’ve managed to learn the most from. These posts will be very cathartic, and very personal. My aim is to end up with an american style self-help support group, with all of my readers sobbing onto each shoulders and crying “I’ve left the lens cap on too”. This post will be concerned with simple mistakes, many of which are equipment related, and build up to more esoteric and complex problems in the next post. My expectation is that many of you will have made mistakes like these at some point or other, and I’m fully expecting to hear a few embarrassed groans in the comments as I bring up certain topics, but hopefully there will be one or two cock ups that I can lay solitary claim to, and thereby pass on my wisdom and hopefully prevent you guys from making the same mistake.

For each mistake I’ll take you through what I did wrong, but more importantly what I’ve learnt from it.

Always carry a camera

Let’s start with the absolute basics, the elephant in the room – hands up anyone who’s gone out on a job without a camera? (Come on, be honest…..) OK, since we’re all being confessional here I thought I’d start with the biggest cock up of all – not bringing a camera.

Best ever mistakes
There’s something “small” about these images, but I can’t put my finger on exactly what….

In my first year in college my best mate and I went to spend the weekend with another friend at her parent’s house in Windermere in the Lake District. I’d borrowed a 5×4″ large format camera from the college, and was very keen to try it out, as I fancied myself as the descendant of Ansel Adams. I made several boasts about how amazing this camera was, including it’s abilities to correct verticals and alter perspective with it’s many movements. Her Dad, who develops property in the area, picked up on this, and suggested I take some pictures of a new development he was working on, and that he’d give me some cash if they were good enough to use. I’m obviously not about to say no to this, so on Sunday morning, we piled into his Land Rover, and drove for 40 minutes or so to an old farm house that had just been renovated. I turned around from the back seat to fetch the 5×4″ camera case from the boot, only to realise that it was still sitting in the hallway.

35mm
Ah, that’s it – they’re supposed to be 5×4″, not 35mm!

Not taking a camera on a shoot has to rank as probably the biggest single mistake you could possibly make. In my defence, I still had my 35mm kit with me, and took some shots – just not shots with perfectly corrected verticals and eye wateringly sharp detail. Needless to say, I didn’t get any cash either! As a working professional, his experience really drove home to me the importance of always having some way of shooting the job. It’s one of the reasons I carry 2 bodies nowadays as a matter of course, and have done for 18 years or so. In a similar vein I’ve had examples in recent years where much song and dance has been made of a shiny new technical thing “x” or “y”, only to discover on the day that it won’t float and doesn’t want to work. I still need to get something shot, so always carry a backup.

Takeaway:

Always carry a camera (and check the hallway before walking out the door)
Always have a backup

The importance of ballast

Ballast - mistakes
Ballast. A pain in the bum to cart round the place, but saves you lots of expensive repairs!

Sticking with equipment, here’s one I’m really guilty of – not weighing equipment down – particularly lighting – when shooting on location. The pic on the left is what happens to just a flashgun on a small stand in a gust of wind – let alone what could happen if the same light had an umbrella, softbox or similar attached. That’s a real pic by the way – that’s not fake motion blur, I was in the middle of shooting when the wind took it, and half a second later there was a crunch. Everything was intact apart from some of the connections – the flashgun survived and is still working more than 9 years later, which can’t be said for the kit on the right. This happened on an early morning shoot for Women’s Health, with a large crew – Art director, hair and make-up, model assistant, permits, all the trimmings. The faint orange glow from the right is my assistant holding a flash head with an orange gel on, and the key light is a Genesis flash thing through a white shoot through brolly. Which, I should point out was on a decent stand, with a decent amount of ballast on. There was not a breath of wind in the air when we started, but of course after a few shots, one little gust came along, lifted the light up, and then smashed it down the concrete stairs in front of everyone. Boom. Bits everywhere. Quite dramatic, fairly expensive, and time to get on the phone to the insurance people.

Ballast - mistakes
By no means does ballast need to be “standard” or “professional”. Just heavy, and firmly attached to the stand!

Takeaway:

The golden rule is, you can never have enough ballast, and the more you add to the light stand in terms of diffusers, softboxes etc, the more of a sail the whole thing becomes. There are lots of official ballast solutions, although this can mean carting lots of weight around, and wherever possible I’d use what you can grab rather than carrying extra weight – in the above case, weights I found in a gym, and the strap on my camera bag. I’d also suggest using bigger heavier stands as much as possible, as that will naturally create more ballast. I just posted a video on Youtube all about this topic, so nip over there when you’ve got a few minutes to spare.  Mind you, smashing gear to bits can often provide you with the impetus to go out and buy the Profoto gear you’ve been meaning to buy for ages 😉

Sweat the small stuff

This principle applies to so many shoots, but I’ve picked a recent one as it was front of mind. Who’s heard of Chris Hadfield? I hope most of you have, as he gained worldwide fame a few years ago during his year long stay on the International Space Station by creating lots of very informative videos, including most famously, a superb version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity. He’s also written a very good book, and given a TED talk. In this he describes how a mission very nearly fell apart due to a few beads of sweat causing some lotion on his skin to run into his eyes, ad thereby nearly blinding him. Doing a spacewalk blindfold is not recommended, but the point he makes is that since NASA and himself had made the effort to “sweat the small” stuff, and think ahead about details like this, there were systems in place to deal with it. Photography is very rarely a matter of life and death, but overlooking a little detail can make life much more of a hassle than it needs to be.

Two summers ago, I had a cracking shoot in Cardiff for a PR company, spending the day out in the bay shooting catamaran racing from a RIB. I knew from experience of shooting sailing that I’d need some long glass – certainly more than my standard limit which is 200mm – so I hired a Nikon 400mm 2.8 from Calumet, and took my monopod along, as there’s no way I’d be able to hand hold such a beast. My monopod is one of those pieces of kit that I’ve had for ever, and use once or twice a year at most, so I don’t pay too much attention to it. I simply threw it in the boot, and drove to Cardiff. I was getting my stuff together in the morning and discovered that the tiny tripod screw adapter that I had assumed was on the top of the monopod, wasn’t, and despite a hunch that I always keep a handful of adapters in my kit bag, I was disappointed. So, no balancing my huge beast of a lens on the monopod.

Tripod adpater
All it takes to make a piece of equipment redundant is something as small as the adapter you see in the picture on the left. Cheap, and I own several, but had none with me that day.

Instead, I had to mount the lens on a tripod. Now, that’s not the end of the world, and it still supports it, but a tripod is much, much more hassle to handle and maneuver in the bow of a speeding RIB than a nice, light monopod. Particularly when you’re also working alongside someone shooting video, and of course both the subject I’m tracking, and the RIB are moving at the same time. Quickly shifting 3 legs is a bit more complex than just one, even if you tape them together as I later did, it’s still up to 9 locks to shorten or lengthen the legs rather than 3. All of this extra hassle for the lack of a tiny adpater screw, of which I must own half a dozen!

Takeaway:

Think through a job in advance, and then actually go and look at your kit, rather than assuming everything is where you left it months ago!

Neglecting personal kit

Sticking with using the wrong kit, it really pays to give stuff a quick test drive before going out on a shoot, and that can include non-photographic kit such as footwear, and clothing! I’ve shot dozens and dozens of races over the years, and am very familiar with the trials of getting myself and lots of kit around a race route in enough time to catch the action before it all passes. I’ve experimented with various different rigs, as well as varying amounts of kit – from a couple of bodies and spare batteries to full rigs with lighting stands, and have worked on foot, out the back of the car, and from a bike. The key word here is “experiment” as there have been successful rigs, and not so successful ones!

For this shoot back in 2010 I was covering an orienteering race for Men’s Fitness. As you probably know, in orienteering, competitors choose their own routes, and do their own navigation. I’m not fit enough to keep up with this guy, who’s a serious racer and doesn’t want me ruining his time, so we arrange to meet at a few points across the area. It’s the Surrey Hills in February, so it’s quite cold, quite wet, very hilly, and very muddy underfoot. I was mucking about with different rigs, and had settled on a webbing belt, with two cameras hanging off me and was wearing a new pair of hiking trousers. As I got ready to go I found the belt in the trousers was digging into the webbing belt, so I removed it, assuming the trousers would stay up on their own.

Equipment
You will notice how sleek and fast the runner on the left looks, and how heavy the belt on the right gets, particularly once you add 2 camera bodies, and your trousers are slowly falling down.

They didn’t, certainly not with the added weight of a webbing belt pushing them down every time I started running anywhere. Picture the scene about a mile from the start as I scramble up a muddy hillside, 2 camera bodies slung off me, a heavy webbing belt digging into me, and my trousers working their way down my legs like some hipster. This is not a comfortable way to cover a dozen miles or so, and it doesn’t make for a happy shoot!

By the next shoot I’d made big improvements – I wore a belt for starters, but nowadays I put lots of the kit that I have to carry, but know I’ll only need to access once or twice en-route, in a lightweight running rucsac, where it rides very comfortably. It might seem very butch and manly to put sacrifice your personal comfort to the expense of getting the shot, but I can assure you, if all you can think about is how uncomfortable you are, and how cold your arse is as a February wind whips between your legs, you’ll realise that it makes a lot of sense to sort yourself out first.

Takeaway:

Never try a piece of kit out for the first time on a shoot – not even personal kit like clothing or footwear, and don’t suddenly change one of your habits on the morning of something physically challenging.

You’ll be able to read more of my embarrassing lessons (let’s not keep calling them mistakes) in next week’s post. Hopefully I won’t have created any new ones in the intervening time…..

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