Before you grab your gear and hop on your trusty steed, you need advance preparation to successfully ride off into battle.
As any good knight will tell you, having the right weapons for the right fight is as important as the battle itself. Not having the right equipment, or having the right equipment but not having it in working order, can destroy you. Possibly worse, it can destroy your reputation.
One way to prevent these errors is by preparing a Gear Grid: a list of the client's needs before every shoot. This standardized Gear Grid should contain all of the usual and essential items that you take on every production as well as a section for the Custom items that are unique to that particular job. Let's break the standardized portion of the grid down. Your essentials consist of equipment that never changes. It could be key words to remind you to check certain items too. The hard core, "can you make pictures or not?" type of list. Before I go charging off on my steed into battle, I review a Gear Grid that looks something like this:
Batteries Charge the batteries -- Prepare them the night before and check them again before walking out the door. Always carry extras and the charger.
Camera Power it up -- Check all the major functions; Zoom, White Balance, Black Balance if you have one, Iris and focus (Be sure to check the Auto functions as well if you plan on using them.) Power it down - OK, I know it is simple but come on, who hasn't at least once been in a hurry and grabbed the camera only to arrive at the location with a dead battery on the camera.
TIP: Preset your white balance, before you leave, for general lighting conditions of your first location (indoor or outdoor). That way, you can hit the ground running and at least your settings will be in the ballpark, should you forget.
Tapes Pre-Label tapes -- Now is a good time to do this. It will save you later when you're crunched for time.
TIP: Try putting the type of the camera you used on the label along with the camera operator's name. This is always helpful if there are equipment breakdowns or reoccurring video problems. It also reminds the client who you are so you can have them repeat business. Load and record on a tape - Once you have checked all the switches, record 30 seconds of bars and tone and then several seconds of live video on each tape. Bars and tone are the unifying factor, a sort of master key that enables all tapes to be set up for the same color and audio levels. The live portion of your recording should contain flesh tone and some movement. This will show you that colors look good and that no hidden switches have been thrown. Since what you see is what you get, it's better to know now, then later.
Tripod Check for your camera mount quick release -- Got it? Good. Without it, your tripod is useless.
Test each mic through the camera -- By testing through the camera you can be sure that you have all the parts necessary and working when you get there. Also, be sure that you have fresh batteries and listen through a good set of headphones. Because what you hear is what you'll get AND... it's better to know now, then later.
If you use one, be sure you have the correct batteries for it and use the mixer when hooking up to your camera. However, you decide to set up your gear, now is the time to make all the parts fit and run together.
This is an essential item on any shoot. When you are running your audio tests, be sure to listen for any distortion or audio that drops out which could lead to major problems down the road. Recheck the setup again. If there are any problems, fix them now. Composing shots in the heat of battle is hard enough, without the added distraction of deciphering audio problems.
If you have someone to operate your boom, bring it. Even if you don't, you can often rig a C-stand to hold your boom if your talent happens to be stationary (or just moving around in a small area.)
List each piece of lighting equipment separately - Another article could be written on what to have in your light kit. Needless to say, until such time that you have them grouped into a case or bag, listing your equipment will help you remember them. Carry extra lamps - Not having a spare could end your entire shoot.
Bring at least one per light -- Carry a multi plug power strip too. In a crunch you can bundle your smaller electrical items on the same cord.
TIP: Pack a small bag with emergency items, such as Ground Lifters - electrical adaptors that go from three prong to two prong, Light socket adapter -- pull a light bulb, then screw in a power outlet. Three-way adapter -- turns any extension into 3 outlets. These are just few suggestions; we'll save a thorough look at what should be in an E-bag for a later article.
You have your essentials together, so it's time to start thinking about items in your Custom space. What makes this shoot different? Will it be indoors, or outdoors? Does it look like sun, or rain? Do you have a long way to travel with your gear? Is the shoot fast moving, or stationary on a tripod? Visualize your entire production from start to finish. The most professional way, if you have the time, is to do a scout of the location before the shoot, or carefully research it, so you will know exactly what you need. Special items like reflectors, rain covers, extra wireless mics, long cables, backdrops, battery lights, carts and extra lights all need to be noted here. As you become more comfortable with your Gear Grid, this custom space will turn you from a forgetful lowly squire to a 'got it on the ball' professional knight.
Contacts & Directions
It goes without saying that every shoot has a contact, even if it's the janitor who opens the door for you. Before the shoot, you should know who is in charge and his or her phone numbers. A backup contact is also a good idea. You never know when a personality conflict will happen. (And you thought I was going to say because the other person couldn't be reached.) Directions and timing are also very important to examine before you depart. An individual's directions may not always be accurate and he or she might not have taken into consideration rush hour.
TIP: I have found a GPS mapping system is worth its weight in gold. If nothing else, when you start having doubts about their "clear directions" it will give you great peace of mind.
TIP: Locate local businesses and emergency contacts, print out their address, phone number and business hours and stick them in your camera bag. Radio Shack, hardware stores, pharmacies, hospitals, etc.
Ready for Battle
OK, your steed is loaded, your armor checked. The last thing a good knight must do is... Recheck! That's right, stand by your steed... er... vehicle and mark off your entire Gear Grid again. Physically confirm that everything on your list is, in fact in your car, not on the coffee table or sitting next to your computer. Be sure to check off both your Essential list and any of your Custom items, if you need to have any for your particular shoot.
Certainly, it may seem a bit redundant, but there have probably been many times where you're sure you were ready, and you showed up with a wooden shield when it turns out you should have brought a metal shield to fight the fire-breathing dragon, instead. If you're unprepared, somebody's going to get burned. Don't let it be you.
Michael Reff is a Senior Photographer for Turner Broadcasting.