90% of success is just showing up. Over and over again.
When I first started working as a commercial photographer, after stints as a university lecturer and an advertising agency denizen, there weren't a lot of options when it came to packing and transporting gear. We ALL used small armies of assistants to carry, drag and otherwise move our needed gear from location to location. When I left the warm nest of advertising to venture into the dangerous wild lands of photography we usually (desperately) needed to add light to whatever scene we were trying to shoot because we were locked into using slow, color transparency films with (now almost) fantastical ISOs like: 80. Or 100. And we did so with medium format and large format cameras.
Getting good, color correct shots without buckshot sized grain made the use of big, electronic flashes more or less a requirement. It was also a time of many soft boxes so it was a rare day that we might have a reason to use direct flash. More power was always welcome.
My main lighting kit consisted of two Norman PD 2000 flash boxes and about six of the heavy metal heads. The weight of each flash generator was about 32 pounds. The heads weighed about eight pounds each and then there was all that heavy duty cabling and even heavier duty extension cords. We moved with all the grace and speed of sedated water buffalos. The idea of moving between, say, three locations in a day was considered either an Olympian endeavor or a fantasy.
Sure, there were guys strutting around with 35mm cameras and goatees who claimed to be able to do everything with a tripod and some Kodachrome 25 (yes, as in ISO 25) but the advertising agency and corporate clientele I dealt with demanded quite a bit more from their images than the editors of magazines that tolerated and abetted the "small format" shooters. And, of course, the "gold standard" of the day was still the 4x5 inch view camera.
The missing components in that era were strong and lightweight cases in which to transport all the heavy gear. We were so delighted when companies like Pelican hit the market with their resin cases because they were less than half the weight of the wood and metal Anvil cases that were in wide use. But the Pelican cases weighed multiples more than similar cases available today. We kept our assistants busy back then. And they stayed in good physical shape out of necessity. Loading in to a remote location took hours. Getting stuff set up was a process. And taking it all down and packing it out felt more like punishment than the coda of a successful shoot day.
I thought long and hard about this as I was pulling a Think Tank original "Airport Security" rolling case out of the hatchback of the Subaru a few days ago. Back before we ended our commercial engagements for 2020...
How far we'd come. I still light stuff and it still requires moving gear, but nothing like what we did back in the 1980s, 1990s and even into the new century. The ingredients of the present rolling case, if well packed, can rival or exceed what our last century gear was capable of delivering when augmented by 400 pounds of heavy support equipment.
I bought my Airport Security rolling case around the time I was writing my first book about lighting. I'd made a switch from big boxes that plug into the wall to make bright flashes to using Nikon's little hot shoe capable Speedlights. I was amazed enough about how far we'd come with digital gear and efficient lighting to write a book about it. And almost every location we shot on for the book was handled, logistically, by the stuff packed in that one piece of luggage.
Cameras, multiple flashes and triggers, extra batteries, big lenses; the works. Three compact light stands rode in the front, stretchy pocket and a small Gitzo tripod got strapped to the side. No carts, no assistants, no back strain. It was a shift that changed the face of commercial photography on location. But as much as it was made possible by better and better camera sensors and more controllable and powerful small flashes it was ultimately facilitated by the noble rolling case.
"Wheels for everything!" became a mantra.
I have two different Think Tank rolling cases. The biggest is the original (and now travel-battered) Airport Security to which I've added a slightly smaller "Airport Essentials XT" that's also a bit lighter. And I like the fabric better (it's charcoal gray instead of ballistic black) because it looks more au courant.
I bought the second case for those clients who think they might like to add some video to their mix on what starts out as a predominately "still photography" shoot. The second case carries Atomos monitors, audio recorders and interfaces, microphones, batteries, more batteries and mounting hardware for all the video oriented stuff.
The advent of good, sturdy rolling cases was pivotal for me. As was the introduction of flashes that could be individually controlled by their cameras. It meant several kinds of freedom for my ways of working. I could do away with assistants for all but the bigger projects. I could pack everything into the back compartment of my vehicles and still have an available backseat. In some cases (domestic, large airplanes) I could wheel all my gear aboard planes and tuck it into luggage compartments instead of having to check cases. I no longer need to find parking close to wheel chair ramps to get my gear into client buildings. And the list goes on.
I worked with an assistant that I really liked all the way up till 2001. She was great. We carried gear all over the place and depended on a collapsible cart for the heavy stuff. When I was out of the country doing work she freelanced for other photographers. When I came back from an extended trip we met for lunch to catch up and talk about future work.
She'd spent part of the previous week working with a semi-famous (at least in commercial circles) photographer who flew in from NYC. He arrived at the Austin airport with at least a dozen Anvil cases of lighting and support gear. My assistant found herself in a crew with five others. Their job was, essentially, moving the gear. There was no heavy cart to ease the burden. Apparently the photographer's M.O. was to just hire enough strong help to carry all the cases wherever they needed to go. Through airports to waiting taxis. From the taxis to the client locations and all the way down the long halls of corporate America.
The next time we worked together the assistant arrived and we started loading the much smaller (and better packed) cases from my studio into the car. The cart goes in last. When I brought it out to the car she looked at the cart with an unusual expression. And then I saw a tear roll down her face and she smiled at the cart as if it was an old friend she hadn't seen in years. Our day was nimble and efficient. And I worked with her until she headed to Los Angeles to work in movies.
I decided, at that juncture that I'd never find another assistant of her caliber again and that's when I started eyeing the rolling cases and the smaller and lighter inventory of photo luggage.
There are still times when I load out heavy. If we're shooting video on a big set with lots of daylight gushing into our space and the need for lots of light I'll still bring the cart and as much gear as I and an assistant can handle. But over the last decade, out of hundreds and hundreds of location assignments. It's usually just me and a rolling case or two. I like it that way. It helps me maintain the self-delusion that I am, at heart, an introvert who just wants to be left alone.
I've talked about Think Tank stuff but I'm brand agnostic. If a case packs well, is solidly made and has good wheels and an extendible handle that's sturdy I'm good with it. If I find stuff that works better under a different label I'm good with that too.
Now that I'm doing more work with video I have a dream/plan to investigate not bringing my own lighting gear at all but finding a good key grip with a grip truck full of stuff and just having that company show up at our shooting locations to carry in grip gear and lighting and to set it up under my direction.
I have this fantasy of showing up with just my camera and a few of my favorite lenses, walking into the shooting location and setting up my camera on a tripod that's already been set up and made ready. At the end of the shooting day I would disengage the camera, thank all the crew, and walk out the door --- completely unencumbered. Almost seems like a full circle back to the old days.
But for now the rolling cases make life easier and much more mobile. They sure beat the crap out of shoulder bags for moving between two disconnected points.