Working with multiple systems and formats in the field

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Q, H5D

A typical assignment for me may involve a) quite a variety of objectives, and b) quite a variety of hardware. Whilst the obvious solution would be to go with one complete system and suitable backups, this isn’t always possible for any number of reasons – from weight to lack of coverage in that system to cost or practical versatility. I had a recent email discussion with a reader and fellow pro over how to manage this in the most efficient way possible – both from a cost and logistic standpoint, but also a creative one. Often, suitable equipment for a broad range of optimal coverage* may require a significant shift in shooting mindset between different bits of hardware; for obvious reasons this becomes quite a bit more challenging when you’re working under pressure. I thought it might be an interesting topic to examine further…

*Optimal coverage: the kind of thing that has the highest chance of a) getting the desired image and b) at the desired level of image quality.

For the working pro, the objectives and/or shot list are usually very clearly defined; we build our kit around that and add a spare for everything up to the point we either can’t carry it or the airline doesn’t let us on board – for obvious reasons, domestic assignments are much easier since they’re only limited by the capacity of your car. The challenge comes when either the range of objectives is too broad, or you don’t have spares. Since there is a paying client involved, failure is not an option – the show must go on, regardless. This is part of the whole concept of professionalism, and sadly, something that’s becoming increasingly rare in photography today. I’ve been on assignments or observed assignments where the second shooter (or worse, the designated primary) didn’t turn up with backup gear, and failures happened, or worse, didn’t bother prepping beforehand (batteries not charged, etc.). How these people stay in business boggles the mind.

If you’re shooting for yourself, backups are somewhat less critical – though if you’re shooting in a situation which probably isn’t easy to revisit (e.g. a once in a lifetime trip to the middle of nowhere) then you probably do want to account for contingencies. Note that in some places and situations, it may just be easier to buy what you need if something happens, rather than carrying it from home – e.g. a holiday in Tokyo and you shoot M4/3 or a compact, for instance. In others, you need to have backups for the backups (middle of nowhere, Australia, on assignment with medium format).

Those of us who have been in this game long enough probably can rustle up a spare set of complimentary gear – an older second body, and perhaps a prime lens in the middle of the range of your main zoom. Not only might this give you extra flexibility when everything is working normally (faster apertures, second body so you don’t have to play musical lenses), but you can continue shooting at nearly full capacity even if one or more bits of hardware fail. An example of this might be a D810/24-120VR as primary, with a D800E and 50/1.8G as backup. This becomes harder if there are no alternatives for a piece of equipment, e.g. a Hasselblad HTS tilt-shift converter – here, we either have to have a spare on hand, a spare easily accessible, or perhaps a D810 and 24PCE back in the hotel. For similar reasons, I have two Hasselblads, but I can’t afford two H6s nor at 1-2kg each, can I carry both the primes and the zoom simultaneously.

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GR, D810

Clearly, some compromises are going to be required: the D810/24CPE is not going to shoot like the Hasselblad, nor are the results going to be the same. By the same token, we then start thinking that perhaps one of the systems should be accompanied by other glass that adds versatility – a 180/4 APO Lanthar, for instance. Taking this reasoning a step further, if I’m on a relatively open-ended assignment, I might carry some very different hardware to give me both options and backup: I could shoot industrial documentary with the Hasselblad H, and I can also do it with my Canon 100D, 24/2.8 pancake and 50/1.8. Instead of carrying a second H body and lenses, I might go with the Canon instead for use in tight quarters or if something less intimidating is required. Or I might add the 55-250 STM for situations where I want extended depth of field but a highly compressed perspective – something that’s not easy to achieve on medium format without camera movements, and not something that can be done quickly handheld. This becomes increasingly true towards the edges of the likely encountered shooting envelope: it might be nice to have ISO12,800 usable, but not necessary for all gear to have that capability if most of the work is going to be done in good light or on a tripod.

We’re back to very different shooting disciplines and methods again, and in this particular example, an even bigger gulf in image quality. Whilst the D810 might reach 80% of the Hasselblad under ideal circumstances, the 100D isn’t even going to get half way – yet because of the creative choices I’ve made, I’m going to have to present both to the end client. If you yourself are the end client, this isn’t going to matter so much as the different file sizes might annoy you for printability or handling; I’ve got to potentially mix them in (if say I’m shooting with something longer or wider on the Hasselblad, and one of the pancake primes on the Canon) and not have either stand out in a jarring way. I suppose one could alternatively present them as a completely different body of work – but most of the time, this requires complete coverage from either one or the other to fill the brief and a significant duplication of work when shooting and subsequently on processing. This is going to require several things, which brings us to the meat of the article:

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GR, D750

  1. Understand the limits and strengths of each piece of equipment. Try to avoid working outside them; those situations are typically those which produce borderline results that may not be acceptable (and certainly more likely to stand out). Obviously, one must also have a clear idea in mind of the objectives of the shoot, the working conditions and the intended output so that you pick the right gear for the job.
  2. Choose either identical or very different backups. This is because similar – but not quite the same – hardware lulls you into a false sense of muscle memory: the small differences in button placement or AF response are likely to be what costs you the shot. I have a hell of a time shooting with a D800E and a D810 simultaneously because but bodies are nearly identical, but not only are the button placements different enough to matter for some things, but the two sensors respond very differently: for optimal image  quality, the D800E must not be allowed to clip, but the D810 must not be underexposed. It’s much harder to confuse a H6D and a 100D or GR in the heat of the moment, and thus the difference in physical form itself serves as a reminder that the process must be different.
  3. Consistency of workflow is paramount. My workflow has always been built around getting to the same (flat, neutral) starting point, regardless of camera. From here, it becomes easy to stylistically bias the results in any direction you wish, but if you cannot get to the same starting point, you can’t make images from different cameras  visually consistent. It’s also for this reason I avoid manufacturer-specific conversion software and use something as universal and flexible as possible, i.e. Photoshop. Needless to say, curate wisely; the pairs of images from the same shoot presented here are an example of that (and quite different hardware used to create them).
  4. Carefully managed overlap. Whilst we want sufficient duplication of capabilities to be able to finish the mission if something fails, if you’re going to carry it anyway: you might as well use it to extend your shooting envelope. This means trying to avoid two completely different lens systems, for instance (too little overlap); or carrying two identical zooms (too much overlap).
  5. Avoid too much spread. On the face of it, this sounds complimentary to the previous point. However, it’s more of a creative one: you don’t want to give yourself too many choices, either. This can distractingly impact one’s focus, not to mention have unpleasant consequences for your back.
  6. Suitable carrying solutions. There’s no point bringing it, but having it buried and unreachable in the bottom of your bag, back in the hotel, or having to be rigged to be shootable (especially applicable to video work). Finding a way to have the backup easily accessible is important, especially if you plan to deploy it in such a way as to extend your shooting envelope (e.g. wide on one body, tele on the other). I find that one camera in the hand, lenses in a quick change bag like my daybag along with the other body (or over the shoulder) is the most efficient way of working: everything to hand, but not in the way swinging and banging everywhere, either.
  7. Preparation and pre-shoot checklists. Make sure batteries are charged, cards are empty and formatted, everything is actually packed, etc. Common sense – but not always common, and easily forgotten in a hurry.
  8. Practice, practice, practice. For the same reason most athletic training centres around repetition to create and reinforce muscle memory for faster reaction times, and to allow the athlete to concentrate on the last percent of art – we photographers also need to have our reflexes conditioned so that when quick responses are required, we don’t miss the shot or have the wrong settings in. Simultaneously, we need to condition our vision to be able to parse the bulk of the scene on autopilot – e.g. not cutting off edges, watching subject isolation and backgrounds – and thus be able to devote more conscious concentration to the critical action. Limiting the number of different bits of hardware can help tremendously here, and even if you’re not working under time pressure – it’s still much more pleasant to be fluidly familiar rather than struggling with your hardware.

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D5500, A7RII

I’ve worked with a lot of load pairings in the past – everything from identical duplication (a pair of D800Es), to where the compact has a bigger envelope than the primary (GR and M4/3), to near identical pairs (D810/D800E, H5/H6) to enormous differences in shooting envelope or image quality (H5/100D, GR/645Z, GR/MF Film, Q/A7RII) and multi camera setups (Q/A7RII/D810/D5500) etc. After fumbling through some of the more unpleasant misses, suffering unnecessary backache, excess overlap and every other frustration – I keep coming back to points 1. and 2., which are linked. Some people are able to tolerate more similarity or less difference between gear, which is not something you know for sure until you’ve actually tried it – preferably before the next critical shoot. MT

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