You know that, somewhere out there, there exists the perfect travel kit. The one that won't leave you hyperventilating once you realize that your shoot is going to be pitch dark, won't leave you screaming in agony at 3 AM because you threw out your back the day before, and won't look so silly and unprofessional that your on-camera talent – the people who think you're taking this seriously – just end up chuckling at your aluminum-foil-and-cardboard-box soft light.
You can take this perfect travel kit anywhere! You can set it up in a flash! And it will serve you well no matter what you're doing!
Just one problem: there is no one perfect travel kit. It depends on what you're doing once you get there. Are you shooting action? A bunch of talking heads? Will it be noisy? Will you be surrounded by a huge crowd? Will you be shooting outside, or inside, or both?
All those variables influence the gear you need to bring along. You can bring everything, just to be safe (I know I do, sometimes), but then you're back to that whole damaged-spinal-cord thing.
Oh, and of course: to really have all the gear you need for every situation you face, you'd need to spend a whole lot of money.
But you can be better prepared for even the wackiest of shooting situations by keeping a few handy, inexpensive items close at hand. Everything we list below can fit neatly into your carry-on bag. (Okay, you MIGHT have to take out your already-reimbursed receipts and uneaten boxes of Cheerios first.) And if you forget one of them, you can just buy it (or a reasonable facsimile) once you arrive!
Facial powder and disposable applicators
It's a fact: human faces are shiny. And, unless you're telling the story of someone running a marathon, those shiny faces are distracting. (Are they sweating? Does that mean they're nervous? Why are they shiny?!)
Pack some facial powder and disposable "wedge" applicators, dab a little bit on the shiniest parts of your subject's face, and your viewers will have an easier time focusing on what they're saying instead of their impressive specular qualities.
You can also use a circular polarizer to cut back on that reflection, and you can cross-polarize to really kill that shine dead – just as long as you can put polarizing film on all your lights. If you're using the sun as a light source, that's probably not possible.
Speaking of which...
A collapsible reflector (or poster board)
The sun is the cheapest, brightest, purest, most omnipresent light source out there. It makes an outstanding key light (especially considering that a "key" light traditionally represents the sun).
It's also really harsh.
And too often, I find myself having to make the best of it.
This is where a collapsible reflector can save your sanity. With it, you can fill the dark side of your subject's face. (Yep, that's the origin of that term!)
You can also remove the reflector cover to expose the silk, and use that to soften the direct light...
... or just block the sun entirely by reversing the reflector cover and using it as a flag.
If you left your reflector at home, you can also hop over to the nearest office supply store and grab some poster board.
Look at how non-harsh that is!
What do you do when you pack tungsten lights, arrive at your shooting location, and discover that the room is full of windows? Or when all your lights are daylight-colored, and the room is lit with tungsten lamps?
You might find yourself feeling (or looking) a little blue. Unless, of course, you packed some color-correcting gel!
Companies like Rosco make a huge selection of color-correcting gel, but you will get far with only a half-CTO and full-CTO (or half- and full-CTB if you're using tungsten lights). A light plusgreen might be useful if your room is full of windows, because that glass usually has an almost-imperceptible green tint to it.
But wait! Won't that gel filter out most of the light and make them a whole lot darker? Yes, it will filter out some of the light (probably about half). But personally, I'd prefer that over a subject who looks short of oxygen.
Excess mucus is more common than ANYONE wants to admit. The only not-extremely-awkward way to remove it is to have some tissues conveniently within arm's reach of your subject and make that "you've got something on your nose" gesture.
And you never know when a trip down memory lane will evoke some stirring memories. It's best to be prepared, of course.
And you'll need a way to remove that powder when you're finished...
I think we all knew this one was coming, amirite?
I can think of no other item so ridiculously versatile as this one. It is the default solution to all production-related problems.
Are you wishing you'd packed one extra stand to hold up that flag?
Bust out some gaff tape, and secure it to whatever's nearby!
Are you in the midst of a crowd and worried that your lights (or an especially litigous passerby) will go crashing to the ground? Tape your cords to the floor and worry no more!
(I'd describe this as a "minimal" tape job. I'd recommend covering the whole cord in tape. Just be careful when you pull it up: gaff tape is far more cohesive than adhesive, and when the sticky sides stick together, you will have a heck of a time prying it apart.)
Does your subject have no idea where to stand? Mark the spot with an "X"!
(Oh, and maybe patch up your busted shoes while you're at it?)
Short on sandbags? Flatten your stand and tape it down!
Do you need a way to secure that gel to your (cool-running) lights? Use tiny strips of gaff!
Total weight for all this stuff: about three pounds.
BONUS: Bottled water and tiny cups
This one's a bonus because, if you're flying in the United States, you'll have to buy it once you get there.
Water is useful for patting down that obnoxious up-standing lock of hair on your subject's head.
(Unfortunately, some hair is UTTERLY UNTAMEABLE.)
Tissues will be a much more effective makeup remover when combined with a small amount of water!
And, naturally, your subject will love you for having a small cup of water nearby during the shoot.
(Needless to say, those cups will make it easier to share.)