8 tools every cinematographer needs in their “Ditty bag”
Every photographer or filmmaker has things that go into their bag, even if they’re working as part of a team. There are things that you just know you’ll need. While everybody’s list is going to be slightly different depending on what they shoot, it’s a good thing to think about. Just so you’re not caught off guard. In this video from Aputure, DP Julia Swain talks about the 8 essential items she keeps in her “Ditty Bag”.
This brings about the obvious question, “What’s a ditty bag?”. Essentially this is the bag which contains the kit that you bring on set every day. It contains the essentials that you can’t work without. As I mentioned, each person will have their own bag.
Even on a film set, different roles will have different essential items. A grip, for example, would have different essentials than a DP. So, tailor this to your needs. It’s also going to differ between a DP on a video shoot, and a regular stills photographer, but the principle is the same. Just tailor it to your own needs.
1. A Light Meter
While the jury’s out on light meters for photography, when it comes to filmmaking, they’re still quite common. Julia shows off the Sekonic L758 in the video. And she finds it essential for quickly and accurately metering the light without having to deal with waveforms and histograms that aren’t always as accurate as we might like.
I’ve owned this meter in the past and it went everywhere with me. It was overkill for my needs at the time, though, so I sold it and went back to my trusty L718. But, I have another L758 on the way to me right now (should’ve shipped today, actually). I’m just finding myself shooting multiple cameras more often, and this accounts for differences between sensors and lens combos, and lets me match them all quickly.
2. Point & Shoot camera
I do find it quite amusing that she’s referring to the $4,250 Leica Q with its Summilux 28mm f/1.7 lens as a mere “point and shoot”. But, it is what it is. It allows the DP to get their own fresh eyes on a scene, check out other angles and compositions without having to lug around the big heavy video cameras.
For photography, too, I’ll often have a second camera in my bag with a zoom lens on it just for wandering around a location and checking compositions. Then, when I know what I want, in steps my subject, I switch over to my main camera with a better quality lens. In a pinch, even a phone can be handy. They’re also handy for behind the scenes & reference shots. I usually record those on a separate camera, just because it makes file organisation that much easier.
This seems like an obvious one, because who doesn’t have their phone with them all the time anyway? But the number of apps available for photo and video use these days is unreal. It’s far more than “just a phone” or just for posting on social media. When used right, it can become a valuable tool for filmmakers and photographers.
Personally, I always pack a backup phone, too. It used to be that an iPhone SE was my main phone with my old iPhone 4S as my emergency backup. Things just have a habit of falling in rivers when I’m on a photo shoot. Lately, that’s changed. The iPhone SE has become my backup and my new primary phone is the ASUS Zenfone 4. Having phones of both iOS and Android platforms lets me have the best of both worlds when it comes to app choices.
Just, do make sure, especially with video, that while shooting, it’s turned off or at least set to airplane mode!
3b. A head lamp
While phones typically have a built in LED light that can serve as a flashlight in a pinch, it’s always good to carry a dedicated tool for the job. Especially if you need to see in the dark while actually using your phone.
Depending on what and where you’re shooting, you may not need this all the time. But, expect the unexpected. It’s a handy thing to keep in one’s bag. You never know when the power might go out. Or if you’re at an outdoor location, the shoot might run late and start creeping into night. So, always handy to have with you. Get one with a blinking light function, so that if you are part of a team, and you get lost in the dark, others can more easily find you.
4. Leatherman Multitool
Julia likes the Leatherman Wave, but there are a whole range of Leatherman Multitools out there. I have to admit, this isn’t something I typically find I need on a photo shoot. There have been times, though, where I’ve wished I had something like this on a video shoot. I might have to put one of these on my Christmas list.
5. Your own walkie talkie earpiece
This is something that’s more common to a film set than a photography session. For big productions, most people will have a walkie talkie. But one thing I learned recording sound on video productions, and from friends who work at radio stations, sharing headphones is bad. It’s the easiest way to spread ear infections and other nasties. For recording audio, I bought my own pair of BeyerDynamic DT100 headphones, and they’ve stuck with me everywhere ever since. Nobody else uses my headphones, and I use nobody else’s headphones.
Even for your phone, if you’re planning to use it as an communication system while having your hands free, have your own earpiece. Don’t use somebody else’s. Sometimes you need to be able to listen and talk and go hands free. Even on a photo shoot. Like, that one time I was photographing somebody from the far side of a river with a 300mm lens. Using the phones as a 2-way radio type deal allowed for easy communication between me and my assistant on the other bank with my subject.
6. Light bulbs
This is the first of Julia’s more “optional” items. These are the things that you just kind of accumulate over time. Things that you wouldn’t necessarily think of normally, but you know can present a problem.
And the first of those is light bulbs. You never know when you’ll turn up to an indoor location to find that the practical lights are all wrong. Everything’s beautifully lit, but then you’ve got that horrible green compact fluorescent energy saving light bulb in the back. Or an LED bulb that’s just a little too blue, or flickering. So, you may need to swap it out with a good old fashioned tungsten to give that nice warm glow.
7. Small LED lights
The Aputure M9 is another light that Julia takes in her bag. She does it for the same basic reason that I carry a handful of speedlights in my bag, even when I’m shooting on location with strobes. They’re just to be able to throw a little bit of light in a dark pocket at a location. You might want to simulate the dim glow of a car’s dashboard, or perhaps a TV screen. A small light like this will offer that without overpowering the main lights on the set.
8. Grip gloves
Again, these are more geared toward video shooters than stills, but a good pair of gloves is handy for photography, too. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve shown up to a location and had to clear a few prickly brambles out of the way. Or needed to move slippery and slimy rocks or logs. If you’re dealing with continuous hot lights for video, get some gloves that can stand up to the heat. If it’s just to stop your hands getting covered in crap while moving things around a location, gardening gloves can work quite well.
In my own bag I take much of the same stuff Julia does (minus the earpiece, leatherman and lightbulbs), I also take a couple of USB batteries. If I end up using my phone(s) for an extended period of time, they can drain, and I want to be able to get them back up to full strength easily. There’s also a roll of 1″ gaffer tape, a small first aid kit and some bug spray (I shoot a lot on location, and they’re a pain).
What do you keep in your ditty bag? What goes out with you on every shoot?
John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.