The Things That They Carry
Six Pros Reveal The Secrets Of Better Pictures

© 1999, Tony Sweet, All Rights Reserved

For years we've been asking professional photographers a variation of the same question: what does it take to be a pro? We may ask, "What's the secret of your success?" (as if it were a secret); or, simply, "What is it that gets you those great photos?"

Well, we've finally found the answer: green plastic trash bags.

You see, when we asked pros to tell us about what we might expect to find in their gadget bags along with their cameras, lenses, flash units, and film--you know, those little oddball or unusual things that are not necessarily photographic in origin but are deemed absolutely essential to the process--there wasn't one who didn't mention those bags, or, in one case, the shower-curtain alternative. Why tote 'em along? Because they're lifesavers, good for everything from protecting equipment in the rain to blocking light and reflections to cleaning up the campsite.

Of course, a lot of other neat little goodies were mentioned, and we'll be getting to them in a moment, but if you want to get off to a good start on your way to making better photos, better make your first stop the supermarket. That'll be aisle four--pet foods, paper goods, bags, and wraps.

A Little Help. To gently coax nature into a better pose, outdoor photographer John Shaw carries a 10' long piece of nylon parachute cord--"to tie branches back." Also, an eyeglass repair kit, because "the tiny screwdriver and screws fit cameras, too," and a Swiss Army Knife--"gotta have it." Another must: "Hotel shower caps--great for covering a tripod-mounted camera when it rains; the elastic keeps it from blowing off."

"I've Got A Little List..." Arthur Meyerson shoots for corporate annual reports and other business publications as well as advertising and editorial illustration. Among his gadget bag necessities are Zip-Lock bags ("makes it easy to show film at the airport x-ray stop"); Hefty plastic garbage bags ("instant rain and water protection, and it can also be used as a poncho"); a Marine compass ("for determining, via our computer's software program, the exact spot for sunrise and sunset"); batteries ("for everything"); gaffer's tape ("for everything"); and the toolbox-in-the-palm-of-your-hand combination of a Swiss Army knife, the Leatherman tool, and a set of jeweler's screwdrivers. Meyerson also tosses in ear plugs, safety glasses, model and property releases, aspirin (maybe he sometimes works with Art Directors), sunscreen, mosquito repellent, Dust Off, and lens tissue--and a Frisbee ("for keeping clients entertained while waiting for the sun to go down").

Homemade. Nature photographer John Netherton carries small (about 5x7") Plexiglas mirrors ("glass will break, easily and early") mounted in custom-made wooden frames that feature a tripod mount so the tiny reflectors can be attached to tabletop tripods and placed anywhere they're needed. Not only that, the frame allows him to slide warming filters in over the mirrors, so that the light's not only reflected, it's also warmed up. "Also, you know that plastic peel-off material used for the service reminders the quick-lube people put on your windshield? A friend of mine dyed it to different degrees of warmth, and I cut pieces to the size of my flash head. They stick right over the panel to warm up the light, and when I'm done I peel 'em off and put 'em back in an envelope." Unfortunately, the source of the peelable plastic has been lost, but you can ask your car dealer about it the next time you're in for service. Or try an Internet hunt.

It's A Wrap. Location and corporate photographer Gary Gladstone, who wrote and illustrated the "Our Towns" articles in recent issues of this magazine, never leaves home base without a black vinyl shower curtain liner (his equivalent of the plastic trash bag). "It weighs almost nothing, takes very little space, and is good for lots of things. I wrap it around my tripod's legs when shooting a detail or close-up of a reflective surface so the legs don't show in a reflection. It's also an instant black cloth--just hang it over a window to darken a room. It keeps me clean and dry when I have to lie down for a low-angle shot, and I put it over everything when it starts to rain." Gladstone also carries a dental mirror: "I use it when I've got my camera way up on a tripod and don't remember or want to check the settings, or if I can't recall what frame I'm on." And he's never without tiny, disposable keychain flashlights--"for working in a dark setup or looking in a camera bag or case for the screws that fell out of the tripod."

Hold It. Jerry O'Neill, writer/photographer/consultant, carries a good selection of spring clips and clamps--"to hold reflectors, flash units, cords, anything. But get heavy-duty, not weak and wimpy ones. I also like vise grip pliers with 1/4x20 standard tripod-thread bolts welded to them. I can clamp 'em onto anything and mount my camera to the bolt. They come in several sizes. Lots of photo companies offer them--even in professional black finish." And he's never without a selection of Sanford Sharpies fine-point markers "so I can actually write `push three stops' on a film can and not have it smudge off."

Don't Forget Your Toothbrush. Tony Sweet shoots for stock, greeting cards, calendars, and books, and to provide images to promote his web site ( and his workshops. In the field he's sure to be carrying a changing bag ("in case the film gets stuck in the camera or I'm loading infrared film"); a credit-card size mirror ("for throwing a little spotlight on small subjects"); a small waist pack in addition to his backpack ("for a quick hike or climb that doesn't require all 50 lbs of camera gear"); a cream colored or white foldable Totes umbrella ("good when it rains, of course, but also it's a great diffuser to keep direct sunlight off the subject")--and a toothbrush ("for cleaning sand or salt from the equipment"). He's also a believer in the UV filter as an emergency lens protector when wet snow, sand, or salt water stand between the photographer and the shot. Speaking of sand, he keeps a sandbag in the car--"just throw it down on the hood or across the door jamb for quick camera support for grab shots." And finally, a bunch of round, wooden dowels and twist-ties--"to steady up tall, spindly flowers. It's an idea I got from photographer Rod Planck, so I'd like to be sure he gets the credit."

He did. And with that, it's time to head for the supermarket to pick up some you-know-whats.

Note: A few of these items appeared in slightly different form in the Winter '98 issue of the "IlfoPro" newsletter.