Sometimes we know what a job will entail. Sometimes we just wing it. But if you are going to "wing it" you might as well come prepared.

A view looking straight up. A ceiling detail from the 
Alexander Palace in Pushkin, Russia.
Camera: Hasselblad Superwide.

I didn't think I needed the Hasselblad SWC/M (the Superwide camera with the fixed 38mm Zeiss Biogon lens) for my assignment in Russia many years ago but my friend, Paul, insisted I take one along, so I did. It turns out that the fixed lens camera was useful for just about every situation. Many times, just like a cinematographer, I'd want a wide, establishing shot to go along with all the detail documentations I was doing for the Worlds Monument Fund. During the course of a couple weeks on the ground there I probably put 40 or 50 rolls of film through that camera. (zone focus only, frames hand cranked, twelve on a roll. No automatic modes, no built in meter, no raw file butt saving in raw).

Before I left on this particular mid-winter trip I did a bunch of research. I researched the weather and eventually bought the U.S. Army Ranger's book on cold weather survival; along with lots of layers of Polartec and down. I took to heart the three main pieces of advice: 1. You can't do your job if you are physically compromised. 2. If you keep your feet warm everything will follow from there. 3. Don't get wet, and if you do get wet get dry ASAP! I still have the insulated, Vasque hiking boots and a box full of wool socks.

The other bit of research I did was about
electricity, lighting and practicality. This was in the mid-1990s and most of us were using big, fat, heavy electronic flash systems from Norman or Speedotron. Our 2,000 watt second boxes were about thirty pounds apiece and worked only on 120 V a/c power. The juice coming out of the walls in Russia is 240 V. We'd need big, big transformers if we wanted to use our gear of the time. With flash heads, strobe boxes and transformers alone we were looking at about 150 pounds of gear to carry, and that was before counting in stout light stands and modifiers.

Another interesting point...at the time there was nothing like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in most of the rest of the world. No wheel chair ramps, no sidewalk cuts/ramps, etc. This meant that even though we could get a couple of hundred pounds of gear on a cart there was no way to get it anywhere meaningful. I needed to come up with some better options for a job that was mostly about interior architectural documentation of a monument (the Alexander Palace) that had been off limits to westerners for about six decades (it was and still is a main office for the Russian Naval Intelligence Agency). Many steps, no elevators and narrow stairways are an extreme obstacle course for over laden photographers. 

The bulk of my work would be making architectural documentations of the interiors and exteriors of the Catherine Palace and the Alexander Palace; two buildings steeped in history and drama, barely 400 meters apart from each other. 

After much research I decided to use Lowell tungsten lights. I bought three different types: 1. Tota-Lights for wide, efficient coverage, DP Lights for the ability to change the beam angle and to use barn doors, and the little Pro Lights to work as elegant little accent lights (they are also focusable and have barn doors). I learned that I could use these fixtures in Russia by using the right plug adapters to match the wall sockets to the plugs and (as important!!!) by lamping them with 240V lamps (light bulbs). 

I ordered a bunch of lamps and a bag full of plug adapters and then headed to my local cinema supply shop to stock up on gels to match the tungsten lights to daylight, half daylight and quarter daylight, where necessary. All the fixtures fit into one rolling Pelican case and provided me with a flexible solution that I could handle solo. (No, no budget or security clearance for an assistant although I had a Russian photographer who accompanied me everywhere as part of a "cultural exchange.").

It was a novel thing to work under tight security. At the Catherine Palace I was ever under the watchful eye of a curator and my Russian photographer but at the Alexander Palace I was accompanied by a translator, a soldier with an automatic weapon, and an officer with a side arm. There were windows out of which is was forbidden to look or photograph. 

I found that gifts of Polaroid tests were a great ice breaker and went through tons and tons of Polaroid 669 and 665 instant film. 

Circling back to preparation, I remember standing outside the Alexander Palace trying to line up a shot, with a Hasselblad on a tripod, which would not show the two T-72 tanks in the foreground. Snow was swirling everywhere and the temperature was far into the minus zone. Easily 20 below zero (f). I was in waist deep snow and trying to be careful not to breath on my Hasselblad viewfinder so it wouldn't ice up and rob me of my ability to focus and compose. I looked at my small Russian crew and watched them smoking cigarettes and stamping their feet to try and stay warm over on the snow cleared sidewalk. Even buried under snow my boots were keeping my feet warm and all the extra layers were doing their jobs.

We were out getting angles on the building for a long time; maybe three hours. When we finally finished I could not collapse my tripod because it was covered with ice. I'm happy I took the advice from a Colorado sports photographer and brought an extra ski cap along for my camera.....

Over the course of two weeks in February 1995 I shot about one hundred interior set ups and another hundred exteriors. Working in a different culture and language makes everything much slower but our U.S. entourage (mostly architects and benefactors) had taken a course in cultural awareness and understood that our workflow would be different by necessity. 

You know you've prepared well when: You haven't run into anything on an assignment that you could not shoot. You used everything you packed; at least twice, and you couldn't imagine not getting those shots. You stayed warm and toasty and able to do your work. You packed so you could handle the entire load; from car to location and back to your hotel.

I have project to work on this afternoon over at the theater. We'll be doing a mix of things. I'll pack based on what worked best in the past plus a bit of padding in the lighting department. It should be a smooth three hours, especially compared to two weeks of film shooting near the Arctic Circle in the dead of Winter... Just trying to decide if I need more than one light meter....


  1. Wonderful memoire. Thanks for all the writing over the last year, wonderful stuff.

  2. Hi Kirk,

    I love hearing about your very interesting exploits whether current or from the past. And it's also very nostalgic hearing about the film days, I do miss that time even though it wasn't easy by any means.
    Would be interested in any coffee and or vodka comments as well.
    Again thanks for sharing!


  3. Nice story, but would have been nice with some interesting images from the trip :-)

  4. I agree with Anders above. Please show some fotos from that trip, especially the ones with people. It was a totally different time.

  5. In the 1980s I traveled around the world to shoot a promotional film about Ford Tractors. 16mm film, 2 person crew, Tota Lights for interiors, Arri S and Bolex Rex 5 cameras. For some reason we weren't able to get 240V lamps for the Tota Lights. Our solution was to wire two 110V lamped Tota Lights in series. This allowed us to use the lights with 240V AC. The two light rig was a very awkward and disaster prone. Luckily it only blew up on the last location where one of us (probably me)hooked the rig up improperly (i.e. not in series) and burned out our lamps and blew the fuses in the old farm.


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