I recently found myself in a position that I didn’t want to be in. The camera system that I had brought to cover an event decided at the last minute to die. I use a lens adapter with this camera that had previously given me some challenges, making my camera behave weirdly, so I exchanged it a few months ago. The adapter on the camera had functioned perfectly since then, about four months ago.At this particular shoot, I pulled my camera out of my backpack, mounted the lens adapter (Canon EF to Fujifilm X-Mount) and turned on the camera. Nothing. I double-checked that I had a charged battery (I had brought a dozen with me since I had planned on a long shoot), and the battery in the camera was freshly charged. I tried the power again. Nothing. Dead camera. I then tried removing the Canon lens and adapter and putting just the body cap on the camera body. Still dead. At that point, a million thoughts ran through my head. This was a run-and-gun shoot, and all I had was my mirrorless camera, a couple of lenses, batteries and cards and my gimbal. I hadn’t brought a backup camera. Or had I?
Ever since I’ve been shooting video for a living, I’ve always thought about a backup camera. Our A camera is the Canon C200. It’s a $7,500 digital cinema camera that, fully kitted out, can weigh as much as 25 pounds. Also, to be completely blunt, we can’t afford to own two of the C200s. The best backup plan is to always have two of the exact same pieces of gear. That way, if the worst should happen, you have a piece of gear that can seamlessly replace your main camera/microphone/light source or computer and you can continue working, finish the project and then deal with the fallout of what happened, how you might have prevented it and what your course of action is to repair or replace the item that hung you out to dry.
The next best plan of action that may be available to you is to carry a spare item. While it may not be the top of the line, unless you can afford an exact replacement for your main piece of gear, the item is competent to finish the shoot/edit/project and will get you over the finish line. It may not have all of the nice features, bells and whistles your “A” piece of gear may have, but the backup will save the day and get the job done.
For instance, our A camera is the Canon C200. Our B or replacement camera is the Fujifilm XT-3. Regardless of where I’m shooting and who I’m shooting for, whenever possible, I pack the Fujifilm XT-3 and a few Fuji lenses and some batteries. The Fujifilm is a $1,400 mirrorless camera and it doesn’t shoot the same Cinema RAW Light that the C200 does. It doesn’t have XLR audio inputs, built-in ND filters and quite as good of a picture. If I’m shooting an interview or some b-roll though, the XT-3 is generally good enough to pinch hit for the C200. It wouldn’t look as impressive to a client as the C200, but if the C200 malfunctioned or broke, most clients would be plenty happy that I had thought to also pack the XT-3. It can do a similar job and give us a similar end result as the C200.
Possible Sort-Of Replacement
In 2019, believe it or not, you might carry a possible sort-of replacement for you’re A or B camera, and that’s your phone. I carry an iPhone 8 Plus. It’s not the most state-of-the-art iPhone on the market, but it shoots acceptable-quality 4K video in decent lighting. It has no microphone inputs, but I do have a Røde Video Me-L, which could possibly capture adequate sound, depending on the situation I’m shooting in. I also have a Moment wide-angle lens, filter adapter for the Moment lens and a Zhiyun Crane M as well as a tripod holder to attach my iPhone to a tripod. I purposely bought a 256 GB model iPhone, which means even at 100 Mbps, I can capture hours and hours of 4K video with the iPhone. It’s not ideal, and it’s debatable about how professional of a setup it is, but in a pinch, it could stand in for either my A or B camera and possibly save the day if the shoot was a once-in-a-lifetime, difficult-to-repeat event.
The Size/Weight Penalty
What stung me on the shoot I described at the beginning of this blog was the size/weight penalty. I normally bring a backup camera to every shoot, and in this case, I did. My A camera, for this shoot, was the Fujifilm XT-3. The plan was to use it on our gimbal with an Atomos Shinobi SDI monitor with my Røde Video Micro atop the monitor, and I was wearing a lavaliere microphone to record my own voice as I conducted interviews. I had a wide-angle lens mounted on the Fujifilm, which would allow me to place the camera and Røde mic within a couple of feet of the talent I’d be interviewing so I could record acceptable quality images and sound.
All I had brought to the shoot was a backpack, water, sunscreen, lots of spare batteries for my XT-3 and for the Shinobi monitor, a hat and a jacket for the evening in case it became cold. What I neglected to bring was my wide-angle lens, gimbal, phone holder and second Røde Video Me-L mic for the iPhone. My backpack was already bulging and really couldn’t hold anything else, so I made a conscious decision to not approach this project with all of the support gear needed to use my B camera—my iPhone—because of the weight and size penalty.
I could have tried to shoot video with my iPhone alone, but knowing that the images would be jittery and not smooth, and that the audio would be unusable because it was breezy and I didn’t have a proper video mic with a windscreen, I was cornered. I failed to execute my backup plan to its full extent.
You’ll make decisions on which gear to bring to a shoot, and at times, you’ll be wrong, just as I was for this shoot. I had tested my Fujifilm XT-3 the night before to make sure all was well and it functioned perfectly, so in my mind, with a track record of the past six months, I took a calculated risk. So, to save weight and not weigh myself down for a long and hot day of walking around a huge event, I made the decision to not bring all of the gear I should have.
This was actually a great learning experience. Always bring what you need to execute your backup plan. If you have to pay the weight and size penalty by hauling around gear that adds extra weight and bulk, do it. It can be the difference between completing the shoot or coming back empty-handed. What’s your backup gear plan?