Our Favorite Gear for Creating Studio-Style Shoots on the Road

MARCH 17, 2014

By Dan Havlik

Photographers spend a lot of their time on the road these days, traveling from assignment to assignment with little more than the clothes on their backs and their photo gear stuffed into overflowing camera bags. Consequently, the gear you travel with needs to be portable, durable and, above all else, reliable. Thankfully, manufacturers are producing cameras, lights and accessories that fit these criteria.

What’s the best mobile stuff out there? As with anything, it’s a matter of opinion and personal taste. To help narrow down some favorites, I compared notes with photographer friend David Dupuy, who hauls his gear on the road to shoot events, portraits and products. Together, we came up with the following list of mobile photo gear to help you create a studio-style shoot outside your home studio.

Nikon D800E cameraCameras & Lenses

The camera you choose to take with you on assignment is probably one of the easier decisions you’ll make. Even medium-format camera systems, such as Phase One’s 645DF+ with its IQ2 back, or Hasselblad’s H5D, are relatively lightweight and built tougher than earlier models. Meanwhile, some pro digital SLRs are offering resolution on par with medium-format cameras, in rugged, fast-shooting camera bodies. The image quality and performance of compact, mirrorless cameras continues to improve, with the new full-frame Sony Alpha 7 and 7R models drawing interest from pros.

For my money, though, the 36.3-megapixel, full-frame Nikon D800E ($3,300) is still the best travel camera. The D800E’s resolution rivals medium-format cameras so your images can be blown up to billboard size without much discernable loss of detail. The D800E is nearly identical to the D800 but with one key difference: It features a specially designed anti-aliasing filter with no low-pass filter effect. The result is images that are among the sharpest and most detailed I’ve seen with a DSLR. On the downside, you will see more moiré in your shots but in a studio environment, even on the road, that’s easily controllable and preventable.

If space/weight is at a premium during a travel shoot and I could take only one lens, it would be Tamron’s SP 24-70mm F/2.8 Di VC USD ($1,299) in a Nikon mount to use with the D800E. Along with offering the classic, all-purpose focal length and an f/2.8 aperture, this Tamron lens has something its pricier rivals from Nikon and Canon don’t offer: optical image stabilization via Tamron’s Vibration Compensation technology. While optical image stabilization might not be as necessary in a controlled studio lighting environment, when you’re traveling on assignment, you might end up shooting with just available light, in which case, the VC in this lens will help you keep things sharp.

Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT camera flashLighting

Dupuy is a Canon shooter and his road camera of choice would be his trusty Canon EOS 5D Mark III: “It’s all the camera I need for studio photography and video shoots,” he says. For portable strobe lighting, he’d also go with Canon, particularly the Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT ($499) flashes, which have built-in radio transmitters and can trigger up to 15 other Speedlites in up to five groups. The range of the radio control on the 600EX-RT flashes is also fairly decent: up to approximately 100 feet. And since it has radio-based connectivity, the flashes don’t need to be in line of sight of each other to link up, which is a limitation of infrared remote flash triggering. Dupuy finds this to be very convenient when on the road, particularly because he no longer needs PocketWizards when he’s traveling. For most shoots, he typically brings three of the 600EX-RT flashes along, and finds syncing them via the built-in RT to be easy and reliable. “I haven’t had any problems with it connecting,” he says. “It’s pretty flawless.”

If you want something more powerful but still portable (although much pricier), I’d recommend the Broncolor Move Outdoor Kit 2 ($7,195), which includes the Move 1200 L power pack; two MobiLED lamps; one 28 x 28-inch Softbox Flex; one 33-inch umbrella; one RFS radio slave two-transmitter set; and one MobiLED continuous light adapter. That’s more than enough gear to create a studio-style lighting shoot even out on a busy street—which is where we shot when I reviewed the kit last year. The kit comes with a weatherproof case to protect the power pack and an outdoor trolley backpack, which makes it easy to move around, whether you’re traveling or on a shoot. (When packed up, the 1200 L will fit in the overhead bin of a commercial airplane.)

Another intriguing portable lighting option is the battery-powered Profoto B1 ($1,995), which offers TTL control via a patent-pending invention from Profoto designed to integrate the flash with your camera. It works by attaching Profoto’s Air Remote TTL ($395) to the hotshoe of your camera. When you photograph your subject, the B1 will automatically adjust the blast of light to optimize exposure. If you want more control, you can switch to full manual control with the press of a button on the B1.

Panasonic Toughbook 53 laptop computerComputer

For a travel computer, Dupuy takes his 15-inch MacBook Pro laptop on assignments. He has considered getting a smaller, lighter, ultra-portable MacBook Air, but says he still prefers the processing muscle of the MacBook Pro. “For me, since you never quite know what any job will require, I like to have some extra firepower if, for instance, I need to do video editing or extensive Photoshop work when I’m on a job. I don’t want to limit myself too much with a less powerful laptop.”

I’m an Apple person myself, and while a MacBook Pro is a fine rig for assignments, I wish Apple’s products were a bit more durable. For tougher fieldwork, I’d recommend Panasonic’s ever-reliable Toughbook line of rugged laptops. They’re not the most attractive computers in the world, and they are certainly heavier than Apple’s notebooks, but Toughbooks can take some serious abuse. The Panasonic Toughbook 53 ($1,900) is a good starter model for photographers, balancing durability, portability and power. It can withstand one-foot drops and is shock, dust, vibration and altitude resistant. It weighs around six pounds—depending on which processor you choose—and has excellent all-day battery life and a bright 14-inch screen.

Think Tank Photo Airport International Camera BagBags

Some may wonder why photographers seem to fetishize photo bags so much but it’s probably because, when designed properly, a good bag can make a job go such much more smoothly. And when you’re bringing thousands of dollars worth of photo gear to a gig that’s far from home, you need something reliable to haul your precious cargo.

Dupuy says he’s worked out a good system for destination assignments, utilizing three main bags and one case for traveling. For his main workhorse bag, he goes with the Think Tank Photo Airport International V2.0 ($389) rolling camera bag. “Domestic bags are too big for international flights. And you can’t be assured you can put your gear in the overhead bin, even on a domestic flight, which is why I go with this International bag, because it is a bit smaller.” He usually pairs the rolling bag with the smaller Think Tank Photo Urban Disguise 60 V.20 ($214) shoulder bag. “The International bag goes in the overhead bin and the Urban Disguise goes under the seat in front of me. There’s also an attachment for the Urban Disguise that turns it into a backpack, which helps keep your hands free.”

For his various light stands, tripods, monopods, clamps and bars for hanging backdrops, he uses the Hakuba PSTC 400 Pro Series Light Stand or Tripod Case ($60). While Dupuy doesn’t, typically, like to put any of his gear under the plane, if he has to, he’ll bring an HPRC 2550 Wheeled Hard Case ($152) along. The Italian-made brand—which stands for High Performance Resin Cases—are similar to Pelican cases but Dupuy finds HPRC’s models to be smaller on the outside and larger on the inside.

3 Legged Thing X1.1 Brian Evolution 2 tripodTripods

I reviewed the 3 Legged Thing X1.1 Brian Evolution 2 ($450)—aka “Brian”—early last year and it’s still my favorite all-in-one tripod to travel with. You can get this lightweight (it’s about three pounds) tripod with its equally lightweight (less than a pound) AirHed 1 ($180) ball head, and have all the stabilization you’ll need for most photo shoots. The modular design of 3 Legged Thing’s tripods also comes in handy on the road. You can easily take off one of the Brian’s legs, make a few quick adjustments, and turn it into a monopod. The tripod also folds up to less than a third of its size, letting you easily stuff it into a photo bag. Brian has a removable, reversible, three-section center column you can extend up to nearly seven feet high, which is great for mounting a flash or a continuous light on top. You can also pop that center column out, extend the legs while pressing the tripod down and get it as low as just five inches off the ground, making it great for tabletop or macro photography. And it’s sturdy: The tripod can support up to 17.6 pounds of gear while the AirHed 1 can hold up to 77 pounds. In other words, this is a very versatile tripod that’s perfect for the road.

Cinevate Simplis Dual Bundle Accessories

When you’re working outside of your studio, your first instinct might be to pack as many photo accessories as possible to duplicate the amenities of your home base. While that’s understandable—and most accessories are on the small side—here are three essentials for destination shoots.

The TriPad ($70) is a folding, triangle-shaped plastic platform you hang over your tripod to create a flat work area.  Along with providing a space for your laptop, the accessory has two slide-out extensions: one on the right where you can place a notepad or a computer mouse, and one on the left with a hole for that essential cup of coffee or cold drink. When you’re done, the TriPad breaks down for relatively easy transport.

If you do any video shooting with an HD-DSLR, you know you need some kind of rig for keeping footage rock steady. The problem, for travel shoots, is that these camera rigs can be heavy, clumsy, awkward affairs. That’s why we like the Cinevate Simplis Dual Bundle ($674), which is a lightweight, run-and-gun camera rig with a twist. Along with using it to shoot steady hand-held footage with your HD-DSLR, the Cinevate Simplis Dual Bundle includes the Trawly Wheel Add-On Kit, which lets you turn the rig into a rolling table dolly. The dual-purpose Cinevate rig quickly breaks down so you can stash it in your camera bag and take it to your next shoot.

Dupuy’s choice for an essential travel accessory is the ExpoDisc 2.0 ($50) white balance filter. “It does a spectacular job of capturing the light in an environment,” he says. “I went from having my photos be too warm to this really beautiful daylight balance.” Dupuy likes ExpoDisc 2.0’s user-selectable warming gels; easier mounting system; and slightly lower price from the previous version. Plus, the ExpoDisc 2.0 is so small he can wear it around his neck and then use it when necessary.

Westcott X-Drop backdropBackdrops

And finally, while it can be a pain in the butt to haul around a backdrop kit for a shoot away from your studio, having a professional setup sure beats hanging a dirty painter’s cloth you found on site. For my portable backdrop kit, I like the Westcott X-Drop ($100), which uses a lightweight, telescoping, X-shaped stand so you can hang 5 x 7-foot sheets. Optional backdrop colors include white, black, green screen, and a variety of patterns, textures and colors. The whole thing folds up and fits in a supplied carrying case that has room for three backdrops.

While the X-Drop is fine for single-person portraits, it’s too small for large groups. Dupuy typically brings a 25-foot fabric sweep from Westcott that he can roll up and fit in his Hakuba bag. He also stashes a telescoping rod from Manfrotto in there, along with some Impact light stands to hold up the backdrop. “People are going to walk all over the backdrop but then you have a white seamless look,” he says. “If you put a light on somebody with that setup, they’re going to immediately fall in love with your photos and think this is something special.”

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