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Photography Kit Essentials: Core Kit and Emergency Items [1/3]


Is your photography kit ready for anything? Here’s what pro photographer Kevin O’Connor packs his kit with, and a few emergency items that may just save your shoot.

Some recent experiences while working on location reminded photographer Kevin O’Connor that it’s always good to have an emergency tool kit with you.

In this 3 part series, Kevin shares photography kit recommendations for different items to carry with you when shooting, customized for various types of work.

This week, we will explore some recommendations to add to your core and emergency kits.

Heads up before we get started: We’ve put together a printable checklist with all of these items on it. 

An Unexpected Surprise: How My Toolkit Saved My Gear

I photographed a wedding last month for dear friends whose only daughter was getting married.

Planning for this great event had started long ago; they had spent the better part of last year remodeling their backyard to make it ready to host 300 guests for a sit-down dinner and dancing afterwards.

The yard was beautiful, as was the ceremony.

The church is a particular favorite for weddings; a tall A-frame structure, with the back wall entirely of glass, framing a grove of redwoods which serve as a beautiful backdrop for the wedding ceremonies.

The sanctuary is well lit, thanks in part to the long time pastors’ interest in good lighting as part of their interest in good theater, and in part due to the father of the bride, who is a member of the church and a professional lighting and sound designer.

You can see from the images here that there was an abundance of light, allowing me to shoot from the back of the sanctuary with a very long lens to avoid distracting guests, while a second photographer was shooting with me, stationed in the sanctuary, out of the way and off to the side so as not to detract or distract from the ceremony.

What happened at the reception, however, prompts this article.

All went well for the first few hours of the party. Everyone was having a good time, and special guests came from near and far to wish this couple well.

The families are fortunate to have a broad range of friends who helped to make this a spectacular party.

The inspiration for this article came shortly after 10 PM. The bouquet had been tossed, the garter had been thrown, both had been caught and photos taken of the lucky recipients.

The DJ cranked up the music and the dance floor was full. The neighbors had been told that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and the music and dancing would end promptly at 11pm, legal in this city.

Suddenly, a spray of water hit my Nikons.

Instinctively, I whirled round, and shielded the cameras and lenses with my back, so that I got soaked instead of my equipment.

By that point, the angry neighbor who had stuck her hose over the fence had moved on to spraying down the dancing guests, including the current vice-mayor of the city, another woman who is mother to a local policeman, and 50 to 60 other guests.

For the grand finale, this unhappy woman hosed down the DJ at his soundboard, shutting down the music, and as the police pointed out later, endangering the DJ’s life.

If he had been electrocuted, she would be facing a murder charge, instead of multiple charges of battery, malicious destruction of property, and various other items that are sure to make for an interesting time in court.

It will be an expensive five minute indulgence of tendencies toward anger, no?

The team swung into action, mopping down the dance floor, cutting power to the sound equipment, and, best of all, connecting a backup sound system to music, so the party could continue, surely disappointing the neighbor with the hose, no?

When I’m working, I always travel with some linen dish towels in my bag.

I keep one to mop my bald head when needed, and others are for emergencies, so that I can mop up with the best of them when I need to do so.

I raced to my camera bag and pulled out these linen towels, having already mopped up the camera as much as possible with my now-soggy handkerchief.

Linen is one of the most absorbent fabrics, and a favorite when drying glassware, among other things.

I got the camera and lenses successfully dried off, although camera equipment should always be checked professionally after incidents like this.

This got me thinking about the sort of tools photographers should carry when shooting on location.

When I say tools, I don’t mean photo gear, primarily, but the tools that let me respond to an emergency that could become a disaster if not handled properly.

These are the accessories that we need in order to make sure that things go where they’re supposed to and do what they’re supposed to do when unpleasant surprises happen, such as being doused with water, or someone steps on the lace train of the bride’s gown, or a button pops off someone’s collar.

The Core Kit That Always Goes With Me

The essential tools I carry are comprised of a core set, plus task-specific tools matching the type of work that I’m going to shoot, so that I don’t carry various things except when I need them.

Some are always in my bag, as noted below; others travel in supplemental bags.

I recommend everyone consider carrying a toolkit like mine, customized for location and type of assignment.

Not only will you be well-equipped to rise to the occasion when needed, but you’ll enhance your reputation for competence and professionalism when you save the day.

For Camera Equipment Emergencies

Lens Cleaner Foil Packets: Used when the lens needs more than just a cloth; my favorites are from Hoodman, and come as a two part kit, the first pre-moistened for cleaning, the second for drying. While it’s always better to keep a lens clean than to keep cleaning a lens, accidents happen, and that large dollop of cake frosting the drunken wedding guest smeared across my lens couldn’t have been removed with only a lens polishing cloth.

Lens Cleaning Cloths: Staple giveaway of many a trade show booth, these small cloths take up little space, and are always in my camera bag. Some people prefer disposable lens tissues.

Dusting Brush: This brush retracts into a compact case (looks like a lipstick) and is a nice size for removing dust without grinding it into front lens elements.

Velcro™ Cable Wraps: I keep 4 or 5 extra cable wraps in my bag. Seems I often find a cord or cable I need to wrap, often on a strobe head cable, and I can fix it right that minute when I do.


Sensor Gel Stick: Dust shows up on our sensors as well as our lenses. This product lets me address sensor dust on location, quickly, safely and easily.

Extra Tripod Plates: If your tripod head uses a mounting system, such as the Arca-Swiss style, you may find yourself at a key moment with a missing plate for a long lens or body, unable to use it with your tripod. It’s essential to have a spare always ready, and something to tighten it.

Leitz Table Top Tripod and Ball Head: I’ve owned the same set for over 30 years, and it’s saved many a shot. Braced on my chest, it holds a camera steadier than I ever could without it. While less needed with contemporary, high-ISO cameras and stabilized lenses than in the past, it doubles as a second camera stand, for use with a wireless release, and sometimes is pressed into service to hold a lens flag or small reflector. Fits in a pocket and goes where full-size tripods aren’t allowed.

Hex Key for L Brackets: My camera bodies have L brackets from Really Right Stuff to use with my tripod head mounting system, and I always have the hex key to tighten or remove them.

Five In One Reflectors, Collapsible: Find a collapsible reflector that can serve as a diffusing agent when shooting in splotchy light or shooting a strobe through it, as well as reflecting that same strobe or bouncing daylight into shadows. The 5-in-1 designs do both, as well as blocking light by switching to the black cover from the reflective or translucent covers.

Rubber Cap Remover: These flat flexible plastic circles were originally marketed to give people a better grip when trying to remove lids from jars, but they’re great for removing a filter stuck on the front of your lens. Kitchen stores sell them, as does Amazon and eBay, and they’re often given away at trade shows. In a pinch, a broad rubber band can serve the same purpose. Neither takes up much room.

Swiss Army Knife or Leatherman: Cut a thread, remove a label or price tag, tighten a screw; I can’t imagine being on location without either one. Be sure to get the knife that has the scissors, corkscrew, and both Phillips head and flat screwdrivers. I’ve used all of them at weddings and other events. I keep a second, Micro Leatherman in my pocket with my tin of Altoids.

Shower Caps: Most people have snagged one of these from a hotel room, though few have used it. It’s great for covering a camera body in rainy weather, and even more useful when put over front lens elements to protect them while in dusty/rainy/foggy environments, such as on safari. For even better protection, you can also check out more permanent approaches, such as the LensCoat Hoodie, available in multiple sizes to fit all your lenses.

Small Flashlight: This is essential. I favor models that use one AA battery, so that batteries can be easily found wherever I am. Very small disposable lights take even less space and come in red, green and blue as well as white. In very low light, the human eye sees green frequencies best, so I carry a tiny green light for low light situations. Other people carry hats with built-in LEDs, so they can work hands-free in the dark.

Large Trash Bags: A couple large garbage can liners live at the bottom of my camera bag. In a pinch, I can cut an opening to use them as a poncho, for rain or warmth (I’ve done both), and if you get one black and one white, you can use one to block light, another to diffuse light if needed.

Light Gauge Florist Wire: Lightweight wire can be used to hold together broken things, or steady moving things. Florist wire can be used with a small tripod in the field to steady moving blossoms when doing macro work, for example. At weddings, it can repair a broken flower stem in bouquet or boutonnière, make an emergency button expander, etc.

For Health Emergencies

Band-Aids or a Small First Aid Kit: Nervous groomsman stabs groom while pinning boutonniere, groom bleeds and starts to stain shirt. Quickly fixed. (It happened. It happens.)

Throat Lozenges and Breath Mints: A sore throat, either yours or your subjects’, needs attention. Lozenges and mints are a nice touch to be able to offer others as well as taking care of yourself.

Aspirin: For when that headache really, really needs to go away, have something ready. I favor classic aspirin; you may prefer other remedies.

Pepto-Bismol: Few tasks are more unpleasant than shooting for hours with a rocky digestive tract. Don’t leave home without it.

For Surviving Long Shooting Days

Nutritional Supplements – Lucho Dillitos: I tried out the small squares pictured here at my last wedding, three 18 hour marathon days. Billed as the secret weapon of cyclists and endurance runners, it’s a concentrated guava paste created in Colombia, augmented with a small amount of sugar, and wrapped in a biodegradable leaf. After using them for this wedding, I’m a convert, and these small squares earned a place in my tool kit. They’re stable, and won’t melt in your pocket from body heat. For extra care, I put them in snack-size Ziploc® bags.

Energy Bars: I look for a variety of flavors, with high protein and low sugar, and bring a stash to hand out as needed. Sharing these with light-headed clients can save the day.

Fruit: Some photographers carry apples and oranges, in Ziploc bags with paper towels to wipe their fingers. For obvious reasons, bananas should be avoided, or if you must, carried in a hard shell case to prevent squished banana from decorating your cameras, lenses and accessories.

Refillable Water Bottle: Carrying enough bottled water for an all day shoot is not always possible, but a refillable bottle is always useful. Great for filling once through security for on-plane use, too.

Change of Shirt: While shooting, I’ve been soaked by hoses (and sweat), doused by coffee and drink spilled on me, smeared with food and vomited on. A quick change of shirt and I’m back in business. It’s also a nice psychological boost to change shirts halfway through a long and hot shooting day. When you feel better, you shoot better.

Second Bow Tie: I wear bow ties when I’m working for the same reasons pediatricians often wear them; bow ties keep out of the way when shooting, take up less space, and don’t hang down to get caught or ruined. Mine mostly come from Beau Ties. Being able to change ties quickly when changing shirts, for whatever reason, is a great idea. If you can tie your own bow tie without needing a mirror, it’s a fun party trick that can entertain your friends, too.

Handkerchiefs: A couple extra handkerchiefs to lend or give away impress your customers and can save a shoot. Keeping mascara from running down faces or garments saves retouching time later.

Gaffers Tape and Duct Tape: Most people know duct tape, but gaffers tape can be a photographer’s best friend. Its adhesive comes off without damaging things, so it can be used in much the same way as duct tape, but with less damage to the surfaces that are being taped. A big wide roll is great for taping down power and lighting cables, but heavy. I keep a very small roll (from Ace Hardware) of reinforced duct tape in my bag. I’ve used it to secure suddenly-buckling tripod legs, tape a remote sensor on a tripod leg, keep a diffuser on a strobe, and improvise a lot more uses under pressure.

Emergency Storage: I keep several gallon-size Ziploc freezer bags in my kit. They’ve proved handy for a wide range of uses—everything from storing tear-soaked handkerchiefs to sealing lenses in a rain storm.

Q-Tips: The travel and sample-size section of most drug stores stock a small cases of Q-tips. If you need something taking up even less space, use a snack-size Ziploc bag. These are great for cleaning equipment and smoothing makeup.

Clothespins or Small Clamps: Some subjects show up to be photographed needing a few strategic drapes or folds to be held in place. Clothespins are an easy fix, but I favor the small black clamps shown at center here. Available at hardware stores, they’re useful for holding more than just clothes in place.

Cinefoil: Also called photo foil, or theatrical foil, it’s black on both sides, and is used to shape light output from strobes and studio lighting. Small pieces are also used for blocking light in tabletop setups where a bigger gobo would be in the way.

Reynolds Wrap: Shiny stuff that reflects; what’s not to like? Useful for improvised reflectors, big or small, when doing macro work, tabletop shooting and food set-ups, particularly. Best to crumple it up, then flatten it out, to ensure you don’t reflect hot spots.

Up Next: Part 2 – Portrait and Wedding Kits

So that’s what I carry in my general day-to-day kit. I hope at least a few items are new to you.

When it comes to special assignments, there are a few unique tools I’ve found are indispensable. The type of tools it can take years of experience to discover.

I’ll be laying out the entire contents of my special assignment kits over the next two weeks.

First up, I’ll be covering what I pack for wedding and portrait assignments.

Kevin O’Connor helps design and test software, is a graphic designer and photographer for multiple clients and companies, and fixes people’s (and companies’) color.

He has consulted to multiple companies, including Apple, Sony, Fujifilm USA, and X-Rite. He loves teaching good color practices to enthusiastic learners.


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