I am always, always shocked to meet a photographer with pretensions of being professional who is out on a location with only one camera. And lately I've been meeting more and more photographers who tell me that their cameras are so reliable that they've never even thought of buying a second one...just in case. That's fine with me. I love competitors who will one day let a client down instead of making a modest investment in a back-up camera. Clients who've been badly burned by lackadaisical photographers are easy to win over.
But why the my paranoia about camera reliability? Why do I bother bringing along at least one extra camera on every single engagement? Why don't I just take my chances along with seemingly everyone else? There's got to be a few backstories, right? Well, in fact, I have a few at my disposal to share.
Many years ago the gold standard of professional film cameras was the Hasselblad system. The cameras were expensive and by all accounts very rugged. But they did have a few idiosyncrasies.
If you tried to shoot a 500 CM body before fully winding the camera between frames the whole camera and lens would lock up. You needed to be able to take off the film back, stick a specialized tool though the rear baffle shutter, engage a slotted gear on the back of the stuck lens and re-cock the lens shutter (leaf shutter technology...). Only then could you shoot again.
There was one photographer in Austin who was notoriously cheap and, though his business could well afford it, he owned only one Hasselblad camera body. Being anxious about technical things he never bought the emergency tool and never learned the technique of unlocking a stuck camera. Several times a year he'd be shooting in his studio or on location and, yep, the camera would lock up. Sometimes with clients and models on the set. When this happened the whole shoot would come to a stop and he would send his assistant, along with the camera and lens, to Precision Camera so the owner and repair guru, Jerry Sullivan, could unlock the camera for him.
The roundtrip to the camera store took an hour or two. Longer if Mr. Sullivan happened to be out at lunch. You can imagine how well this went down with some clients. To be fair though, Austin was pretty laid back in the 1990's and I guess everyone could have just grabbed a beer, sat on the loading dock and spaced out. I just know this wouldn't fly today. Not with the deadlines everyone is under.
When I bought into the Hasselblad system I started with two of the ELX motor drive bodies. They were supposed to be built to take lots and lots of exposure cycles reliably. As my business grew and the cameras became central to my workflow I added another motor drive body and one of the workhorse, fully mechanical, 500 CM bodies.
I would always take the three bodies out with me if I was going to be shooting out of town. Just in case. Paranoid, right?
Well at one point on a dry and toasty August day I found myself in San Antonio working for one of the big home improvement chains. We were shooting a sports oriented campaign for the stores and it revolved around kid's sports. We were heading into late afternoon and we'd already shot a complex basketball shot with complicated lighting and a camera rigged onto a backboard. We'd shot a fake swim meet, and some young track stars running hurdles. Our last images of the day were going to be about kids who participate in Little League Baseball.
Our location scout had found a great ballpark and locked down the location. Our casting person had pieced together a small team of young men who play baseball and outfitted them. We set up to shoot in the late afternoon and we were contending with a lot of wind and a lot of dust. Apparently, there were dust storms in west Texas but we hadn't heard about them yet. The nice thing about the approaching storms was the way the dust diffused the sunlight and gave me a very interesting (and compelling) light to work with.
We were finally set and had a shot blocked out. One of our super stars would be sliding into home plate as our catcher tried to tag him out. The temperature hovered in the low 100's and we were moving fast to get our shots before the sun moved out of its perfect position. I had a 110mm f2.0 Planar on my tripod-mounted camera and I shot off about half a roll of 220 color transparency film when the camera and lens just locked up. The client sensed something had "gone south" and came over to see what was wrong. I didn't feel like trying to perform field surgery with the special tool so I reached into our equipment case and pulled out a second, identical body and stuck on a similar lens; the 120mm Makro Planar. We picked up right where we left off and started working on different angles and different actions.
And then the second (almost brand new) body locked up and I started getting nervous. What were the odds? I Grabbed the third body and put the 80mm lens on the front. I figured that with the bigger transparency we could crop in and still get a nice angle of view, even though the lens was slightly wider than I would have liked. We were able to get through the rest of the project and finished with our last shots just as the sun started to set and we started to run out of light.
Since I was 70 miles from home and had a crew and cast of nearly 16 along with me I was deliriously happy I happened to have the third body with me. The cost of not having it would have been multiples of the one time purchasing price. The client was pretty impressed too. It was an agency I still work with.
It was a weird event and it never happened again. The repair service cleaned out the bodies (too much coarse dust) and we shot with those same cameras for years afterward. But it was a good lesson.
Of course many readers might be tempted to think that my misfortune could be tied to the fact that these were mostly mechanical cameras with lots of moving parts and tight tolerances, and I can give you that. But...
I remember when the Fuji S3 digital camera was a popular workhorse camera of the early digital days. I bought two of those as well. They both worked perfectly for months. Then I was up in a helicopter shooting luxury properties at Lake Travis when the screen on the back of my shooting camera started flashing an error message. "Card Not Readable." or something like that. Maybe it was, "Card Error."
I popped the card out and replaced with with a different one. It gave me the same error message after three exposures. I pulled the lens off the offending camera and put it on my back up camera and put a fresh card into that camera and formatted it. We got through that shoot thanks to the back up camera. And it's a good thing we did because the helicopter my client rented was a Bell Jet Ranger and back in the early part of this century the hourly retail rate was around $650.
"Ah." You might say, "That was a Fuji "Frankenstein" camera. Not the solid technology you would expect from Nikon or Canon!" Had I been using a real pro camera I might not have had those problems, right? Well that brings me to the Nikon D2X. A camera that I really loved. A camera that I bought to replace the Fujis after a few more card disasters. I'd purchased a D200 and wanted the D2X as it had a few more megapixels and also had a reputation for uncanny sharpness and resolution, so I splashed out $ 5400 and got one. It worked for a week and a half before the shutter stopped working ( purchase new from a Nikon USA dealer) and it had to be sent back to the manufacturer. Seems that there was a "known" early shutter problem and a few subsequent recalls.
I circled back to the D200 and used a D80 as a basic back-up camera until the D200 developed non-linear, front and back focusing problems with all of my Nikon lenses. I found this out on an event location when I tested and evaluated images the night before the opening of a 2500 person conference in Orlando. Off went the D200 (which, incidentally, could never be repaired correctly) and I rushed out to a local camera store and bought second D80 to back up the first one. (I guess it would be perceived as "piling on" to mention the three different recalls for my recent Nikon D750...hmmmm).
I'll close by saying that even the best camera in the world failed me once. It was a Leica M3. Outfitted with a dual range, 50mm Summicron lens. It had just been overhauled by a Leica certified technician and I took it on a romantic trip to Paris as my only camera. On our second day in the city, standing in front of some magnificent example of architecture, the camera locked up and would not wind. With two weeks of vacation in front of us I sighed, pulled a credit card out of my wallet and went looking for a camera store... Time and opportunity lost, not to mention yet another mostly unnecessary camera purchase.
So, when someone says they don't need a back up camera I'll just assume that they don't do this photography stuff for money or for clients with real content needs and real deadlines. Because my experience tells me they are heading for a fall. Not just by a camera failing on its own but also failure due to drop damage, drip damage, or my favorite = the time an assistant stuck her finger through a fragile shutter curtain. The spilled coffee, the unlatched case, the fast sprinting hit-and-run thief, etc. etc.
Even though we were shooting in the studio yesterday I prepped two cameras. One to actually do the job with, the other just in case. If you are serious about providing good service you should be serious about having gear you can use if your main camera does a swan dive. You don't have to be two identical Phase One 100 megapixel cameras but your back up should be able, at the minimum, to give your client useable files for the project at hand. Even if that second body has to be rented for the job.
Get a back up. A decent back up body is less than the charge for one day's work at most people's fees. Seems like good insurance to me; clients are hard enough to find and please...