2.14.2017

Improvising on location. Making mobile, solid, light stands in real time.

This blog post image is about the cart in the foreground, center frame.

I tried to travel light on my last trip. I didn't want to check a third bag. For the most part it worked out just fine. But no matter how many light stands you take with you any time you venture out of your studio you probably know that Murphy's Ordnance declares that you will need at least one more.

I brought along 4 Manfrotto light stands but the optimal number for location work seems to have escalated to five; minimum. My first two days of interviews went smoothly, as far as lighting and light stands were concerned. I used two to hold LED light fixtures, one to hold the diffusion panel and one to hold the microphone boom. Easy as pie.

But then I tried to get fancy and use a larger part of a big room to do my Friday interviews. I marked the position I thought would be best for my interviewee with an "X" of orange gaffer tape and then went divining with my camera and tripod until I found the right combination of focal length, background and distance. I marked that spot with tape and then started lighting. I set up the big scim first because I knew that would be my key light and you kinda always have to have a key light. And through some quirk of my personality that key light (nearly) always has to be diffused. Two stands down.

I knew I needed a light across the background, a mural of a forest, to keep it from falling into noisy darkness so I put up a LightStorm LS-1/2 on a third stand and sprayed the wall. Just lighting up that particular plane (the wall) and nothing else (except a welcome little spill that served as a backlight for my interviewee's shadow side...). Lighting in planes, in a big room, is a good strategy because you only end up lighting what you'll see instead of trying to fill up the whole space with photons. See more in Russ Lowell's great book, Matters of Light and Depth. 

At that point I turned on the camera, walked over and sat in the spot I'd designated as the "interviewee" spot and ran some selfie video to test. When I looked at the test I knew I would need some fill for the main light (key). A traditional solution for photography would have been to tuck a big flex fill reflector near the subject's shadow side but I had a "B" camera set to film from that side so that was a "no go."

I bit the bullet and tossed the second Lightstorm LS-1/2 (CRI 98 !!!!) onto the last remaining light stand and bounced it off the ceiling at full power. Gone was my fill light dilemma but newly arrived was my microphone/boom arm imbroglio. Now bereft of light stands I was temporarily stuck. Fortunately, I was setting up all this after a long day of shooting (instead of waiting for the morning of...) and I had time to scavenge for a support.

I roamed around my client's facility looking for something that would work as a light stand. The limiting parameter being the need for a 5/8ths inch termination at the top to accommodate the grip head that would hold the boom support. That part was a non-negotiable.

I found the Metro cart first and realized that the corner construction would make a channel in which to insert a long pipe. It would also make the who assemblage portable. In a store room I found some metal conduit that was the right length but its diameter was to large. Finally, I found a length of aluminum tube that was just the right diameter; and long enough to work. I put the conduit into place through the gaps in the shelves of the cart. Then I gaffer taped the metal tube to the top of the conduit. Finally, I attached the head and boom to complete my grip project.

When the cast and clients came in the next day no one gave the "Rube Goldberg" assemblage a second look. I seated my first interview subject, wheeled the "microphone cart" in the right position and made a few small adjustments, and we were ready to roll.

Yes, I'm sure someone will tell me they never travel without ten stout light stands and some very compulsive visitor will regale me for not mapping out every single shot on a spreadsheet along with sub-categories for every screw and bolt that might be necessary. I don't care. I'm happy I got to do some basic problem solving and that it worked as seamlessly as it did.

Next time I'll suck it up and bring the fifth stand. Then I'll find the hidden Murphy's Regulation: All people packing five light stands will find, on location, that they actually need six light stands. It never ends.