The traveling videographer
A field guide (and note to self)
There are so many little nuggets of wisdom I wished I’d had when I first started shooting video and photos in remote corners of the world.
I’ve dropped a lens out amidst the debris of a small town that was devastated by the 2011 earthquake in Japan. I’ve had to wade through the mud of rice paddies in Vietnam, using my flimsy tripod as a ‘walking stick.’ I’ve had my camera batteries die many times while trudging through snow in the deepest Alaskan winter. All of these things could have been avoided with a smidgen of foresight.
But I’ve learned so much by being a klutz! And on a trip last spring to Kenya and Uganda’s countrysides, I realized just how much went into preparing for these trips and how organized I try to be when I’m in the field. Find below a list of things to pack, anticipate and think about when shooting in a foreign country and with limited time.
Let’s talk about practical things first.
When I go travel in developing countries or into remote areas, I usually bring roughly 500 USD in cash with me even if I end up spending much less. I just find it easier to have dollars I can exchange than to try and find ATMs. Exchange some of your money at the airport and keep some other bills in various parts of your luggage. Most developing nations are still cash economies and depending on exchange rates you, you may end up with unwieldy large stacks of paper cash.
If you have a phone that’s more than two years old you can request for it to be unlocked through your provider within a few business days (I have AT&T).
SIM cards are available for cheap in most countries. If you can get your hands on an unlocked smart phone that can make its own hotspot, you can buy a SIM card with data in various countries, stick the SIM card into that phone and turn it into a portable and shareable wifi provider.
Clothes can matter so much! Some places may require you to cover your shoulders and your legs, other places have a lot of bad vegetation that will get in your way or scratch you. And depending on where you land, some places need you to adjust to various temperatures throughout the day.
My favorite outfit while filming (in warm climates) is a pair of stretchy hiking pants with plenty of pockets for batteries, memory cards, business cards and small notepads and pens. Then a tank top and a cardigan, again, ideally with pockets. In colder climates I add warm underwear, smartwool socks, and other layers with pockets. A pair of stretchier black jeans with your usual amounts of pockets combined with a button-up shirt with chest pockets and blazer with even more pockets can help you be more business casual during bigger events like the G20 summit.
Really everyting should have pockets, in my opinion.
Comfy shoes are also super important: In warm climates, I usually have some trainers; a pair of shoes that are easy to slip in and out of and don’t require socks (like Tom’s, closed toed but not too hot); and maybe some sandals (though those are only useful in the city and not as versatile). In colder climates, having good boots with zippers rather than laces (it’s just faster) treated to be waterproof and a sturdy pair of waterproof hiking boots. Dry feet are everything
My favorite uniform consists of a black tank top, pants with pockets, a cardigan and some Tom’s.
Cheap sunglasses are great! As are cheap hats, cheap watches, really cheap anything that’s small, comes on and off your body at night and in different climates and can easily be left behind when rushing from vehicle to vehicle.
Traveling so much has taught me make sure I don’t spend too much money on or attach too much emotional value to those loose accessories: too often have I forgotten to do an idiot check and lost things I cared about.
I bring at least one international travel adaptor (the ones that have multiple prongs and can basically be used anywhere) with me when I travel plus — and this was a nice little trick — a small extension cord with multiple plugs. When I travel I’m never really in one place all that much or even near an outlet. With an extension cord you can charge camera batteries, laptop, phone and anything else you may need in one go overnight. And that way you also only need one adaptor for multiple plugs!
Travel chargers are also great, especially if you take photos with your phone: those suckers tend to be a little fussy when they are suddenly faced with extreme climates. Batteries have died on me quicker in both hot and tropical or freezing temperatures.
Meds and related liquids/pills
I generally stash a small amount of meds — not too much but enough to cure a random headache or a funny tummy. I’d add to that bug spray and sun lotion, my favorite things to have and be able to share.
Also…always have toilet paper and hand sanitizer ready. Lavatories come in all shapes and forms, depending on how remote the your shooting locations are.
I love having good reading material and stationary at hand. I write lots of postcards, letters and journal entries while I’m traveling. It’s really so meditative to fly, drive or travel somewhere by boat.
Oh and I load up my computer and phone with podcasts and movies before any big travel! :)
Depending on where you go, being mindful of not taking up resources can be really important. People need all the help they can get — having journalists act like parasites eating up supplies or electricity was something my colleagues and I would observe others do and it really creating antagonistic relations between those affected. It’s always good to have a few granola bars handy(keep them in pockets, you’ll likely not get a break throughout the day). I also often keep a small jar of instant coffee with me since you never know what the supermarket situation is like.
Below is a walkthrough for a minimalist videographer:
- Extra batteries for lavalier microphones
- Battery packs for 5–8 hours word of shooting for your camera
- Camera battery charger
- Extension cord/small extra power strip (turn one international converter into two plugs and two USB ports!)
- Anker USB charger (up to 4 iPhone charges)
- Polaroid camera: this helps if you want to give people a “thank you” at the end of your visit. It’s not unusual for people to ask for money at the end of an interview. Sometimes that’s due to cultural customs or because they may be accustomed to being paid for partaking in studies or other research, maybe even some journalistic projects with international or local organizations that would be willing to pay. But for ethical reasons, journalists should not pay sources. A polaroid may be a way to show your appreciation of their time while maintaining your ethical code.
- An international converter
- Wireless lavaliers
- Shotgun microphone
- Hot shoe extension — my favorite little secret: a hot shoe extension can be placed on hot shoe adaptor of any camera that allows for external flashes and basically extends the top of your camera, which means you can add more gear on top of it.
- Canon 5D Mark II with a 27–80mm Sigma, f2.8 lens
- A 70–200mm, f4.0 Canon lens
- An audio recorder (Zoom H5N) with two key accessories: an attenuated minijack-to-minijack cable that allows you to feed audio directly into your DSLR and a hot shoe adaptor (screws into the bottom of your audio recorder, which is usually reserved for tripod plates). I love these two little things, because they allow you to put your audio recorder right on top of your camera in a way that makes it easier for you to monitor the sound, adjust sound levels and plug it into your camera.
- An external hard drive for you to dump your footage so you can organize it immediately and have clean memory cards at the end of each day
- Card readers — take two, one of them will eventually fail you
- Memory cards — at least enough to be able to capture a day’s worth of shooting
- A lens belt with a detachable lens holder — these two things will make it much easier for you to change lenses on the fly. Make sure you zip them up after each change of lenses!
- A light-weight, but sturdy tripod — I usually look for three things:
A liquid head: which is a feature that basically makes any movement of your tripod smooth and allows for pans
A tripod that is sturdy enough to hold your camera, your heaviest lens and your audio recorder without tipping over
A tripod that folds: sometimes you gotta go from one place to another quickly, boarding the tiniest of planes on a short deadline. I like being able to fit my tripod diagonally into my suitcase.
- A laptop (I have since upgraded my laptop to a MacBook Pro. The newest models are lighter and can be charged with portable batteries via USB-C cables!)