Kevin Johnson /
07.01.2010 10:47 AM
Bag of tricks
Unlikely additions to your kit can make all the difference.

The job of acquiring beautiful moving images often requires more than just a camera, and television photographers are a resourceful bunch. To solve a myriad of challenges on the fly, you need a collection of small tools and tricks that come from years of experience. The trusted run-bag can hold many of these time-tested appliances.

With that in mind, I assembled a list of the core gear that should be in every good photog’s run-bag. Elements such as gaffer’s tape, sun reflectors, multipurpose tools and cable adapters go into that indispensable bag that never leaves your side. But there are also the unusual, and sometimes downright wacky, tools you’d never think would be used in the field of TV production.

“Hey, you, hand me a CP50”

If you’re like me, your introduction to the unique lexicon of the television production world occurred when you were on the set of your first production and a grizzled veteran asked you for a “CP50.” As a newbie, you have no idea what they’re referring to until the punch line is revealed. CP50 is the high-tech term for “clothespin, 50 count.”

Whether the lowly clothespin needs a sexier name is up for debate, but the value of the little wooden spring clip cannot be overstated.

You can hold up backdrops without damaging the fabric, affix gels to lights and readjust them without burning yourself, and hold a reporter’s clothing together in the wind.

The finest stegosaurus impression I have ever witnessed was courtesy of an unwitting reporter with a spiky spine of clothespins keeping his loose jacket from flapping in the wind.

If you can’t beat them, join them

Basic color temperature rules dictate that daylight is around 5600K and incandescent light is around 3200K. What these rules don’t tell you is that the little table lamp in your shot will never be able to overpower the sunlight coming in from the window.

In times like these, it’s always good to carry small squares of color temperature blue (CTB) gel. These thin plastic sheets are used to convert the light you have into the light you want — for example, turning a standard tungsten light into daylight balanced light.

Put your clothespins to good use, and clip the gel in front of your lights. White balance for the outdoor light, and let Mother Nature be your lighting director.

I’ve only had one instance in which I didn’t have to wait for the passage of time to move the sun across the sky. While trying to set up an interview with a U.S. Navy captain on the bridge of a mammoth aircraft carrier, I was scowling because I couldn’t get in the right spot with the sun. The captain asked me what the problem was, and I explained the sun was in the wrong spot.

“30 degrees to starboard,” he said to the crew. The entire ship turned to the right, and the sun was out of my shot. It’s good to be the captain.

About your expense report

I’ve filled out a lot of expense reports in my career, but the strangest receipt I’ve presented to the boss was for a box of unlubricated condoms. After a brief explanation, it was clear the purchase was for business purposes.

Pulled over a microphone, an unlubricated condom can protect your audio implements during foul weather or poolside interviews. Your mic is virtually waterproof, but you can still get decent audio through the latex.

A couple of tips: Avoid lubricated condoms, as the oils could damage your electronics. You also may want to add a windscreen over the prophylactic microphone to mask the reservoir tip.

“Stop” that

Who would think to keep a rubber doorstop in their gear bag? I hadn’t considered that idea until it was suggested to me by another camera operator.

Often the visuals of a story call for a low-angle shot from ground level, but placing the camera flat on the ground doesn’t give the right composition. You need something to prop up the front of the camera. Improvised solutions include throwing your wallet or a battery on the ground as a lift, which invariably results in a soggy, dirty or missing wallet or a shorted-out battery.

A rubber wedge doorstop does the trick. You can easily vary your angle of attack as needed, and the rubberized surface gives a little grip.

The doorstop can also be helpful in its true capacity: holding the door open while you run cables or load gear.

I’ve got an idea!

Carrying a low-wattage light bulb in your gear bag is not meant to be a metaphor for a less-than-bright idea. Rather, this allows you to quickly change the practical bulbs on-location to prevent bright lamps from ruining your shots. You don’t have to bring out the heavy artillery in your light kit to balance a bright table lamp.

Another great option is a simple lamp dimmer. Adding one of these will allow you to bring down the brightness.

While you’re in the electrical supply section of your favorite hardware store, be sure to pick up a two-prong to three-prong AC adapter. Your beautiful lights won’t do a thing if you find yourself in an old house that doesn’t have grounded electrical outlets.

Go fish!

The world of television photography often boils down to hours of waiting punctuated by moments of pure adrenaline. A few simple mental distractions are important additions to your kit to get you through the waiting. A good book, a few sudoku puzzles or a deck of cards can keep you alert during those long, tedious stakeouts and keep you from having to explain to your boss how you missed a shot because you were catching z’s.

Your own little convenience store

Add a few comforts of home to your run-bag. Some granola bars and bottles of water may be your salvation when you’re stuck miles from the nearest drive-through window. A small stash of standard over-the-counter medications and first-aid items is a good idea as well. Aspirin, Imodium, Pepto-Bismol, hand sanitizer and bandages can increase your comfort or even save your life.

Where did I put that?

In the end, having all this gear in your bag doesn’t do you any good if you can’t find anything. Be sure to keep a small LED flashlight on your keychain. You can signal S-O-S for safety, level your tripod or find that lost RCA-to-BNC adapter in the woods during a pitch-black new moon.

Adding some of these items to your bag may not make you MacGyver, but you’ll be geared up for a much better shoot.

Kevin Johnson is the founder of b-roll.net and a cameraman for Cox Television News Bureau in Washington, D.C.



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