“A cameraman without a camera is just a man.” Stephen Press, a freelance cameraman from New Zealand, displays this signature on all of his posts on the b-roll.net forum. His quote makes a good point. No matter how much we may try to avoid it, professionals and craftsmen are defined by the tools they carry.
The varied and random situations faced by the average TV cameraman require us to be ready for anything. At the bare minimum, a television photographer needs a camera. Many will argue that the list of essentials should also include a microphone, tripod, lights and a run-bag. While heavy tools and gear may be left behind in the truck, the run-bag goes everywhere the shooter goes and is filled with small quick-fixers and supplies — elements that can make or break a video shoot. Neatly organized or haphazard, fully equipped or sparsely loaded, the run-bag can reveal a photographer's true character.
What is your favorite “indispensible” tool in your run-bag? I posed the question to the members of b-roll.net, a Web site forum for television photographers. My unscientific survey yielded a number of trusted accompaniments, from precise electronic testers to granola bar snacks.
Andy Grossman, a photographer with WVEC-TV in Norfolk, VA, compared photographers to paramedics responding to an emergency. Much like paramedics, TV news photographers need to be prepared for just about anything. Having the right tools in a run-bag can guarantee you'll be ready.
The following list is a compilation of important support gear we all should have on hand.
Often referred to by the brand names Leatherman or Gerber, these indispensible devices combine a Swiss-Army knife collection of tools along with a pair of pliers and wire cutters. Almost any field repair, from retuning a wireless to tweaking your tripod, can be accomplished with the blades, files and screwdrivers found in the multitool. Sometimes this is the only apparatus that can keep your shoot rolling.
Be warned that even though these multitools should never leave your run-bag, they will not make it through airport security. A quick stash in your checked luggage is recommended.
Never mind all of the duct-tape jokes. It's gaffer's tape that can be used for just about anything. The cloth tape sticks to almost everything but doesn't leave any residue. I've used gaffer's tape to keep power cords on the floor, lavalier mics on guests and collars down on jackets.
One of my favorite uses is to cover highlights on shiny metal objects. The black tape covers the sharp reflected light but disappears into the shot. To avoid carrying a full roll of gaffer's tape, many shooters pull a small section of tape off and wrap it around a pen or marker.
A foldable circular reflector can be a lifesaver for interviews in harsh sunlight situations. Most reflectors have a white side and a shiny gold or silver side. Positioned just right, the soft reflected sunlight fills in shadows on your subject's face.
The wider the radius of the reflector, the more intense the reflected light, but a small 24in reflector gives just enough light. This smaller size allows it to be held with one hand by a multitasking photographer.
The act of setting color balance on a camera by shooting a white piece of paper is a time-honored tradition. Many shooters use light blue-colored warming cards to cheat the color balance. The camera's sensor over-corrects for the blue and gives your image a warmer, yellow-orange tone.
New camera models come with color monitors and the ability to manually adjust the color temperature, but the warming card can still be helpful in balancing multiple cameras to the same look.
The blue nylon camera cover is an icon of the television photographer. These covers help protect the camera from minor bumps and scrapes, but more important is the quick access to a rain cover in the side pocket. A more substantial rain cover should be within quick reach in your bag for a longer stay in bad elements.
At the same time, don't forget about the simple solutions. In treacherous rain and storms, a simple 10-cent plastic bag can do wonders to help protect a camera worth thousands. Stash a few garbage bags for the camera along with smaller plastic bags and rubber bands to guard your wireless.
The absorbent cloth keeps lenses clean and stops rain drops from ruining your shot. One method is to purchase a large sheet of chamois, and cut it into small portable pieces. Hiding these cloths in various locations means they're always within reach.
The right audio and video adapter can save a live shot or tape feed. It may be the only thing that helps you get media in or out of your camera. The alphabet soup of cable acronyms isn't always interchangeable — a BNC video cable to an RCA jack or an XLR to a phono jack. A BNC barrel and an XLR gender changer can help make cables work for you instead of against you.
The digital nature of today's cameras demands a spare firewire or USB cable. Bring as many variations as you can carry. Murphy's Law guarantees that the adapter or cable you need is just the one you failed to pack.
A camera may seem like a strange example of support gear, but small, affordable cameras are perfect for cramped or dangerous situations. The tiny cameras may go where your high-dollar primary camera can't or won't — underwater or at high altitude, on a police dashboard or hanging off of a motorcycle. The little camera won't out-perform your main camera, but the unique angle will be worth the lesser image quality.
Early in my career, a reporter friend taunted me with the phrase, “A poor carpenter blames his tools.” In the run-and-gun world of TV news, there is no excuse for not being prepared. The story happens whether you're rolling or not. What tools you carry in a run-bag often determines how your story turns out. Always run with the most useful gear you can.
Kevin Johnson is the founder of b-roll.net, an online industry resource for television photographers. He has been in the video field for 16 years, and currently shoots for Cox Television News Bureau in Washington, D.C.