In any given year, I typically travel overseas to shoot video 4 to 6 times. For 2015 my location list so far is Alaska, Ghana, Haiti, Mexico, Egypt and Asia.
Shooting video on the road, and especially in a foreign country, is very different than shooting around town or around your church. The stakes are higher when you forget something, many countries don’t want filming to happen in their country, everything is more stressful, and moves faster.
I thought it would be helpful to give you my Top-15 tips and tricks when you take your video shoot on the road.
- Pay the little extra for the early boarding. We all have seen the poor guys in Group 4 take the walk of shame to the front so they can gate-check their carry-on. You have no choice, you have to get your gear bag in the overhead bin. Gate-checking thousands of dollars in lenses and camera gear and the potential damage involved is simply not worth the $50 for the early boarding group. You can thank me later.
- Get an unlocked phone. Most countries (especially African countries) have pay-as-you-go sim cards that will work in your unlocked phone. I have an iPhone 4s that our carrier unlocked and I am able to call back to the US for pennies, plus have data for email and texts. I have been standing in a place with no clean water, no electricity, and mud huts all around, but I had 4G coverage and called my wife in the U.S. The phone is huge tool for contacting in-country leaders as well as staying connected at home.
- Visualize your shoot conditions. Is it going to rain, is it hot, is it dusty, is it bright sun, is there a security risk, what kind of vehicle will pick you up from the airport, will there be room for extra bags, etc…
- Pack your gear like your check bag will get lost. This past May, for my shoot in Alaska, my bag was ended up in Fairbanks and I was in Juneau. Fortunately, I had my camera, lenses, audio, plenty of batteries and even a changer all in my carry-on bag. The next morning, we did a ten-mile hike, shot in mine tunnels and dense forests, as my bag made it’s way back to our hotel. I always look at my bag and evaluate if I could shoot for a day if my checked bag got lost. It has saved me multiple times. Yes, I may be wearing the same socks for 3 days, but I’m doing the job I came to do because I packed strategically.
- If you are working in a 2nd or 3rd world country, assume you might not have electricity for a night to recharge your batteries. Make sure you bring extra batteries, just in case. I was once shooting in Iraq. Each night I would plug in batteries to recharge and get about 10 minutes charge time before the power would go out for the night. Assume inconsistent power and then be pleasantly surprised if your power is stable.
- I always carry a few little secret weapons that help me solve problems. Take a Sharpie marker and wrap it with Gaff Tape. It’s more compact than a full roll of tape and can fit in your pocket. Pick up a shower cap from your hotel room. It is a great DSLR rain cover in a pinch and is light, free, and compact. Pack a cheap SwissArmy knife in your carry-on bag. A basic screwdriver, scissors, and little blade can solve untold problems. Take a small bottle of medicine; Aleve, Advil, Tylenol, & an antihistamine (allergy) would be the basics. Bandaids not only cover wounds, but can also attach microphones or relieve a blister. And last, but not least, take a package of camping toilet paper and put it in your camera bag.
- Take a household, 3-prong extension cord, put your foreign power adapter on it and then use your normal plugs on the extension cord. DO NOT take a power strip to countries with 220v 50Hz power…the power strip will trip and be useless. I also always carry a 3-prong to 2-prong ground lift adapter just in case. Most modern electronics are self-switching on their power, so I never take a power transformer. Be sure to check the power requirements on each device before plugging in.
- Once you pack your bag, carry it around for a day or two before you leave. Learn where all your gear is. Memorize your pocket layouts. Shift to load of the pack to be more comfortable. Learn how to quickly get the bag off and on. I know these things seem simple and needless, but trust me, everything you do to prepare prior to the trip will pay off on the trip.
- In a foreign country, assume you will be in a small car. Don’t pack your family vacation giant check bag, it probably won’t fit in the car.
- Think like a security guard looking at an X-Ray machine. Does this group of cables running beside this extremely dense camera battery that leads to a wireless mic pack look like a bomb? Maybe some strategic gear placement will help easy the fears of the security guy. Organize your cables. Wrap them and make them tidy. Remember that the security screener has to be able to asses the threat level of your bag.
- Get to the airport early. It is better to sit around and wait at the departure gate than to have growing anxiety going through security. With the amount of gear, cables, batteries, IPads, computers and other electronics we carry-on, plan on a slow an leisurely time with your friendly TSA screener. The more time you have, the more relaxed you will be. The more relaxed you are, the easier it is to be friendly and patient with the security screeners.
- Use a camera back-pack for your gear and stand-up straight to make it look light. Gate agents are constantly looking for oversized carry-ons to gate check. If your gear is compact and wearable, it looks less scary to the gate agents. Now, some airlines (especially foreign carriers and low-cost U.S. carriers) make you weigh everything and have strict weight rules. Avoid those when able.
- Allow no less than 2 hours between flights at a foreign airport or between you first landing in the U.S. and your next flight. When your flight lands overseas, and you’re ready to catch your connecting flight, you will have to clear security at least once more. Plan on it. Pay attention to what the security guys are telling others. The rules in the U.S. are out and the mysteries of foreign security are in. Roll with it and stay calm. When returning from a foreign country back in the U.S. plan on extra time. You will have to clear both Passport control and Customs, then re-check your bag with the airlines and often go through security again. It’s easy to forget that little step because you are very focused on getting home.
- Plan on a lot of walking. Foreign airports require significantly more walking than U.S. airports. If you’re not in shape to quickly walk a couple miles dragging your bags, then start getting in shape now.
- Once you clear security, get away from security before they can change their minds. Get your stuff and walk away. You can redress in a minute. I once was traveling in a closed country and the second my bag came out of the x-ray, I grabbed it and all the rest of my stuff and zipped away. I handed my carry-on to the pastor and it was outside in the van a minute later. After the hand-off, I had a security come look at the bag I had left as I was waiting for luggage; but the bag he was looking for was safely in the van and filled with all sorts of goodies to help our partner church.
These 15 tips are just the beginning. Every trip, I learn something new. The most important tip is this: HAVE FAITH – TRUST GOD. Remember that you are shooting this footage for the Lord and He will help you accomplish the work He has set before you.