The Inside Scoop
The Travel Photographers Kit Part 2

The Inside Scoop

Medium format gear tends to accompany Jones on nearly every shoot. There is still nothing like the image quality from a 21/4x 21/4" chrome. Jones travels with 500 C/M and 500 EL/M bodies, 120 backs, Polaroid backs, and a handful of lenses. (Right) Sick of relying on flaky rental houses and unreliable manufacturer loan programs, Jones bought his own Nikkor 300mm f/2.8 and 600mm f/4 lenses, in addition to the 20-35mm, 80-200mm, 35-70mm, and 105mm Micro lenses that stuff the dog-eared Domke bag.

The camera bag is a wonderful thing. Bodies, lenses, flashes, cables, maybe some gaffer tape--all the tools of the trade for a working photographer. Serious photographers (which means Shutterbug readers) love taking a peek into the camera bags, cases, and equipment rooms of professional photographers.

Previously we took a look into the traveling gear of the commercial photographer, using my own location kit as an example. My road gear was chosen for a fairly specific purpose--to create images of people and products using controlled lighting. My assignments tend to be carefully planned, and I work hard to eliminate any unexpected conditions. If I'm doing my job properly everything goes very smoothly from the time I leave the studio until the time I pack up my cases and split. When thinking of the kinds of photography where you need to be prepared for anything, I thought of travel photography.

Lighting is critical, and Jones brings a ton of stuff. These older relay-switched Balcar packs don't mind if the wall voltage is a bit flaky, and the older "U"-series heads stay cool and are easy to repair.

While the term "travel photography" encompasses a wide variety of shooting styles, I think the toughest assignments are the ones that force the photographer to both react to and interact with their surroundings. From editorial shooters working for a particular magazine to advertising travel pros who shoot for hotels, ad agencies, and corporations, there are any number of ways to pack for a travel photography assignment. While some travel shooters pack a bag of 35mm gear and a plane ticket, I was interested in the guys who bring the kitchen sink.

A Versatile Shooter
As luck would have it I already had a casual friendship with one such photographer, Boston's Lou Jones. Jones and I had a habit of bumping into each other at major airports, usually in the middle of the night. As I waited for my couple of carefully packed bags of tiny location lighting equipment to make its way onto the carousel, Jones and a small staff were unloading case after case of Balcar flashes, Hasselblad cameras and lenses, and Sinar 4x5 view cameras. This guy brought a lot of stuff!

Forget about shiny new cases, Jones' stuff has traveled the world over. Here he's all set with a couple of Nikon F5 bodies and related bags and cases.

As a photographer working in the greater Boston area, I'm familiar with Jones' work. From his dynamic images of Summer and Winter Olympics to his stunning black and white portraits of prisoners on death row (presented in his gorgeous book Final Exposure: Portraits From Death Row), Jones is known as a guy who always finds a unique perspective on any subject. While a lot of photographers get hot for a while with a unique style, Jones brings true vision to his work. (Take a peek at his work on his web site

At the end of a brutally hot summer I gave Jones a ring and made arrangements to have a chat. For a guy known for his travel and location photography I was stunned by his studio. Tucked into a rough-and-tumble industrial neighborhood, the studio houses a huge shooting space with two garage doors for automotive shooting, and an equally large office/reception/gallery section. When you think of your dream studio/office/gallery/basketball court, you think of this place! When I arrived Jones was putting the finishing touches on the revised edition of Final Exposure, readying an exhibition of huge color Iris prints from his acclaimed Cuba photographs, reviewing oversized silver prints of a recent editorial assignment on pregnancy, finalizing plans for some upcoming seminars and masters classes, and editing transparencies from some commercial work.

As with all photographers who have built success on long-lived careers, Jones is incredibly active. Rather than try and change his style to meet current fads, Jones has built a "brand name," something only made possible by decades of excellent work. A client knows what he is getting when he hires Jones, something that can't be said for a lot of photographers.

The most important piece of equipment in Jones' arsenal is the mighty image archive. The topical subject matter and strong visual style of Jones' work makes the archives a critical resource.

Before we got into the gear Jones and I had a chance to catch up. We commiserated about the state of the modern free-lancer photographer, the realities of flying with equipment, and the future of digital photography. While Jones still captures all of his images on film, he owns a film scanner and has his work for exhibition scanned and printed on an Iris printer. We traded war stories of oblivious assistants, arrogant clients, and life on the road. Then he broke out the gear.

Jones' Bag
Jones had told me in the past that he tended to rent everything he needed while traveling. Well, you never could tell from his equipment room, positively crammed with dozens of flight cases, camera bags, and soft-sided location bags. Since Jones tends to work for a rather select group of national clients, he has to bring back killer images from every corner of the world. Day one may be wide angle shots of the Taj Mahal at sunrise, day two may be strobe-lit images of a jet on the runway, day three may be 4x5 transparencies of a CEO in an office building. While some photographers might think that the latest and greatest lighting gear, camera bodies, and lenses will help assignments such as these, Jones has learned the hard way that sometimes less is more.

35mm Gear
His 35mm kit is both simple yet exotic. Jones dragged out a couple of very, very well-worn Domke bags, stuffed with Nikon gear. He shoots with a pair of garden variety Nikon F5 pro SLR bodies. His workhorse lenses are several-year-old Nikkor glass--including a 35-70mm f/2.8, 80-200mm f/2.8 AF-S, 20-35mm f/2.8, and a handful of normal and macro lenses. Oddly enough, as well-known as he is for some of his wide angle corporate and travel work, the 20-35mm is the widest lens he owns.

I've seen lots of Jones' Olympic coverage over the years, and since I had been shooting some sports recently I asked him how Nikon Professional Services was in getting him the exotic glass he needed for such assignments. To my surprise, Jones went in the equipment room and came back with a 300mm f/2.8 AF-S and the monster 600mm f/4. "No matter how early I tried to reserve these lenses," Jones grumbled, "I never could get my hands on them when I needed them." So he simply bought them. Maybe not the most practical items, since they are used rarely, but worth their weight in gold once the Olympics are in gear. And, oddly enough, Jones finds that the 300mm f/2.8 has become a handy lens for even average travel assignments.

Medium Format Gear
Next it was medium format gear. Here Jones is strictly a traditionalist--it's nothing exotic, being 500-series Hasselblad bodies and T* lenses. In a moderately banged up Halliburton case Jones usually travels with a 500 C/M; motor-driven 500 EL/M; wide, normal, and tele lenses; Polaroid backs; spare 120 rollfilm backs; and a pair of 45Þ prismfinders. Many of Jones' trademark images take great advantage of the Hasselblad's square format. In fact, the images in the Final Exposure book are printed stark and clean with the black frame edges showing.

Here is a great example of Jones' vision. On assignment for FedEx, he created the arresting image using available light and studio strobe.
© 2002, Lou Jones, All Rights Reserved

Lighting Kits
Lighting is usually what separates the boys from the men. Whether you bring your own or rent on location, providing your own light source to fulfill your creative vision is usually the mark of the pro. While many "travel" shooters I know rely on TTL on-camera flash units, Jones brings a Ryder truck full of studio strobes. While I showed off my new computerized Balcar Concept B3 system, Jones preached to me the benefits of his traditional, reliable gear. Jones brings cases upon cases of early 1980s Balcar flash units, "A"-series packs, U-series heads, umbrellas, Chimera light boxes, sacks full of light stands, and lots of cables and power cords. The A1200 and A2400 packs are stuffed into oversized Fiberbilt flight cases, the light heads in big Lightware ballistic Cordura cases.

The flight cases have clearly been around the world and back, and the gear itself shows the results of some hard-fought battles across the globe. That said, this stuff just works and works. While older Balcar gear like this gets a bad rap for its finicky plug system and flimsy reflector mounting system, Jones swears by their color consistency and ability to operate on even the poorest Third World AC power lines. (Jones claims modern computerized flash packs have failed on him when in extremely primitive shooting conditions.) While the latest and great Balcar Nexus system might seem more practical, sometimes the old favorites get the job done, regardless of the surroundings.

Stands And `Pods
Once you get through all of the road-scarred cases and camera bags, you get a look at Jones' huge tripod and light stand bags. Not a subscriber to the "pack light" theory, Jones brings the big heavy light stands, umbrellas, softboxes, and diffusion panels with him on almost every shoot. While it may seem like ultimate overkill, taking a quick look through the hundreds of slides set up for sorting on his oversized light box it's pretty obvious that he uses almost all of this stuff on nearly every shoot.

Rent Or Own?
A typical travel assignment for Jones might be several weeks of shooting all over the world, or maybe just a day in the car. For overseas trips Jones tends to rely on rental gear. As with most photographers who have been doing this for a while, he prefers to use the exact same kind of gear when renting as he shoots at home. As rental houses upgrade to the latest and greatest stuff, that is becoming more and more difficult. Manual Hasselblad bodies, Nikon bodies, and glass and view camera lenses are usually found fairly easily, but the strobes, softboxes, stands, and accessories tend to vary by region. If you're picking up local assistants it may not be such a big deal, but bringing your own people, as Jones often does, makes unfamiliar gear an accident waiting to happen.

After a day with Jones you begin to understand that great pictures don't take themselves. It takes a dedicated artist, willing to bring enough people, gear, and talent to any site to capture a memorable image. I've met a lot of photographers willing to shoot with a much more stripped down, minimalist kit, but it seems that Jones really brings just enough gear to support his style of shooting. From corporate to editorial to fine art and beyond, Jones clearly knows what he's doing. So next time you're trudging through an international airport at 2:00am, keep your eyes open for Jones. He's the guy dragging all of that gear to the rental car desk, and loving every minute of it!