Get packing--the right way

Getting your gear to an assignment is half the fun--the other half is making sure it still works!

Here's how I came to be a day late and a flash unit short.

I was on an annual report assignment for a big corporation, and it’s a logistical nightmare. Seven flights in eight days, a half-dozen rental cars, taxi caravans, hotel and motel reservations, meals for 6 people...yes, it’s very exciting, but it's also a royal pain!

Cameras, lenses, accessories, film (three kinds counting Polaroid), tripod, AC-powered lights, battery-powered lights, cables, light stands, umbrellas, cases, wheelies, clothes, and the fab six rushing to and through airports. Making eight o’clock flights after shooting from 8 AM to 6 PM, arriving at the next city sometime after midnight only to do it all again at dawn the next day. After just a few days like this we felt like Marines in a chopper on the way to a hot zone. Jump out of the chopper, shoot like mad, jump back into the chopper and fly off.

It was only the second day when...disaster struck!

How I used to pack my lights (note the past tense!)

The AC flash gear that travels with me on these types of assignments can include up to 4 Lightware cases, 4 Dynalite 1000 watt-second packs, 8 Dynalite heads, and the cables to attach everything together. At the time this assignment took place, a few years ago, Lightware case “A” held two packs with their power cables and extension cords while case “B” held 4 Dynalite heads and their cables. Case “C” was a duplicate of case “A” and, likewise, case “D” mirrored case “B”. Obviously, cases “A” and “B” were treated as a unit, as were cases “C” and “D.”

To make a long sad story short

On this assignment, as the art director, the account executives, the assistants, and I winged our way to Cincinnati, case “A” got sent to Dallas! Because of a misread label (or some similar snafu) a baggage handler sent case “A” to do some sightseeing. In that one instant the fickle finger of fate made my case “B” (which was still with us) almost useless. And, as if to rub salt in my wound, when case “A” finally got to Cincinnati I was in San Francisco, when case “A” got to San Francisco I was in Wichita…. all the while as we lugged almost useless case “B” along with us.

So it went, for five more flights in six days…. case “A” always one day late and me two packs short. Always trying to learn from my mistakes, this comedy of errors led me to a new way of packing my equipment that has now even been extended to some of my other luggage.

The 25% Solution

I call my new technique “stand-alone” packing. Each case (or bag) of gear has all the parts and accessories needed to make the equipment within it operable (see photo #1). There can still be up to four cases (A, B, C, and D) but now each case contains one pack and two heads along with all the cables needed to make them work.

This new organization of my cases’ innards means that if case “A” is sent on a little side trip I’m only out 25% of my flash power instead of the 50% loss using my old system. Not a perfect solution, but cutting the possible damage in half by by changing packing habits is definitely worth doing!

There’s another advantage to this approach: For a small job, I can grab one case and know I’m good to go. Or, I can put two identical cases in the trunk of my car and leave one in the trunk in case of an emergency.

For want of a power cord the flash unit is lost! The solution? Pack all the pieces needed to make it work in one case! Power pack, heads, head cables, power cable, extension cord, radio slave receiver all travel together in one neat package. Note: some of my Lightware cases have been replaced by the waterproof Tundra brand.

But what if you don’t have four cases of AC flash units?

Stand-alone packing can also work on a much smaller scale. For example, here are three light meter cases (photo 2). Although I prefer to use a hand held incident meter any one of my half dozen meters are worthless without a battery. So, in this instance, stand-alone packing means I put a spare battery in the accessory pocket of each meter’s case. That means I can pick any of my meter cases (with the meter inside it of course!) and slip it into my bag knowing I’ve grabbed a spare battery too.

How about your square gelatin or acrylic filters and filter holder? Are they packed together in the same CD wallet? Start thinking like that. Look through your equipment and consolidate items that need each other to work and put them into one package or pouch.

And if you're just shooting snaps, buy a belt pouch for your pocket camera with enough room to store a spare battery and extra memory card (photo 3) because without these two accessories your expensive digital toy is just a dead digital

Three incident meters in their cases, and three spare batteries too!

A dead battery renders today’s pro meters worthless, so always have a spare battery.


Pick a pouch for your compact camera that has room to carry your necessary spares.

A final thought: Anyone who rummages through my shoulder bag when I’m on an assignment will find a spare T-shirt and pair of boxer shorts used as a pad on the bottom of the bag. In the side pouch of that very same camera bag there’s a folding, travel toothbrush, a miniscule tube of toothpaste, and a comb.

That's because camera cases aren't the only things that go on unscheduled sightseeing excursions.