6 cheap travel tricks for DSLR filmmakers

Recently one of this blog’s readers asked me: “Can you do a post about something that everyone does–but nobody talks about? Which is: packing and traveling with all of your stuff?” So here I am, ready to share some tips about how to get your gear on location without breaking the bank.

(Click twice on images for larger version.)

But first, a couple of assumptions. Before I started making purchases about how to cart my gear around, I took a look at how I was currently using the equipment, and where I was using it. And I recognized that 95 percent of my travel is local travel – within 50 miles of home. It’s tempting to buy with the assumption that you will be hopping on a plane any moment. But that would be to make the mistake that many car buyers make when they pass over electric cars “because they don’t have enough range.” The fact is, the average American drives about 35 miles per day. But they want what economists call “option value:” the feeling that they can drive anywhere, any time. Gas cars give you that, even though most rarely exercise that option in practice. I bought a Nissan Leaf a year ago, so you know where I fall on this spectrum.

So when I was planning my gear purchases, I decided to focus on stuff that was more affordable than sexy, stuff that would gave me quick and easy access to my stuff both when I’m hunting for it in my office, that would help keep things organized while on location, and would keep my equipment safe without being overly (costly) protective.

So here’s what I discovered.

1. Plastic tubs (the kind with lids that stay closed) are your friend. The transparent ones are also great for helping you see at a glance what you’re looking for, just by looking. Use small tubs for organizing smaller items: lights, mics, etc. I find that my lights travel very well and safely this way, by car, where I can load everything myself with relative care. I put foam in the bottom of some of the tubs, which adds enough shock absorbing quality that I’ve yet to break any thing carried this way.

But what I find most useful about stashing my stuff in plastic tubs, is that I can use them to group accessories with the item being transported. For example, my ProLight is almost always used with a snoot and a dimmer. But almost as often, I’ll want it with barn doors and a dichroic filter. And almost certainly I’ll need blackwrap to kill any stray spill. So I store all of these items in the plastic tub with the ProLight. That way, everything is in the same place when I need it. Sweet.

2. Milk Crates. They are great for carrying grip equipment: clamps and weights not only fit into them, but can hang off the rim for quick access during a shoot. Bonus: you can dump everything out and use it as a light scrim to liven up a boring interview background by projecting light through it.

3. Get a cart. At least start with an inexpensive dolly like one of these. But trust me, go with the cart. The small dolly and truck wheel don’t cut it on rough terrain like Seattle sidewalks. Go for a cart with fat, curb-crawling tires. Mine is a Multi-Cart R12 that I found at Glazers Camera. Worth every penny, and small enough to fold up and fit into my Leaf. I can’t imagine showing up on location without it.

4. Gels are a pain in the ass: always somewhere else when you need them, rolled up with elastic bands. The solution: use a Gelly Roll for packing your gels. You cut your gels, tuck them into the Gelly Roll, and roll them up. They pack small and the tube carries clothes pins (film industry calls them c-47s, but I always feel ridiculous calling them that – sounds like an airplane or a form of plastic explosive to my ear)

5. Have at least one really good Pelican case for your truly breakable and expensive stuff (lenses, for example). You can find them used on Craigslist any day of the week, and even though they are relatively expensive used, they are indestructible. I have a small one for my prime lenses, which helps them stay organized on location, as well as safe. I’ve got a medium sized one that I carry my follow focus, long glass, and small LED light around in. It helps me stay organized while I’m on location. For quick white balance, I keep a gray card taped in a plastic sleeve inside the lid, under the padding (see photo).

TIP: when working out of a Pelican case on location, make sure you latch at least one of the cover lockdowns. Otherwise, someone will sooner or later come along, think that it’s latched, and pick it up, sending the contents of the case cra$hing.

My favorite Pelican trick is to carry a gray card behind the foam liner of the cover. That way, I can always have a gray card within reach when on location. I used to carry a few gels there too, before I started using the superior Gelly Roll for that.

6. Get a used hard-plastic golf club case. It’s great for hauling a tripod and light stands around. I found a used SKB case on Ebay like this one for around $60. Bonus: most airlines won’t charge you oversize fees when you have a golf case. Apparently golfers are customers they want to keep happy. So there, you see the thought of air travel did at least cross my mind! But this case is really awesome for schlepping in the back of the car, too. I can fit two c-stands, a glide track, several light stands AND my tripod in there. In practice I usually leave my tripod in its travel bag because it makes the SKB case too heavy to carry. But it’s an option if needed.

So there you have it: my tips for local travel. How about you? Got any tips to share?

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