Preparing and Packing A Portable Studio Efficiently

Preparing and Packing A Portable Studio Efficiently

When people walk through my living room studio, they are puzzled that I do not own or rent a permanent studio space. What many do not know is that when I’m contracted for a commercial assignment, about 80% of the time I must travel to a location or shot at the client’s home base. And, in many cases that requires transporting several 9 foot seamless backdrops and a whole lot of equipment. I don’t have a giant bus to haul all of my studio gear, so it’s been a trying experience to find the right tools to efficiently pack and tote my mobile studio.

From my arduous time in the music business and traveling all over the United States, I learned the art of consolidating, cramming and compacting. When I first started shooting, everything I owned could be fit into one camera bag and case. I traveled with a slew of speedlights, miniature lightstands and a collapsible softbox. It was the ultimate mobile setup, but after time my clientele grew and so did their demands, which needed proper equipment for capturing the overall vision safely. Over the past two years, my team has developed a system of break-out and break-down that requires a small footprint and very little time. As I acquire more and more equipment, we’ve hit speed bumps and had to adapt. But, the system has held up shoot after shoot, time and time again.

Whether you’re just starting with a few speedlights or travelling with 10 studio strobes, it’s good to have your equipment organized for time efficiency and client perception. I bring the majority of my gear to nearly every shoot, as explained in this article “The Power of Perception – Creating A Reality For Commercial Clients.” There is a level of perception that plays into hauling a truck load of gear on location. Even though you may break out just one single light, the client will notice the equipment and feel as if they are getting more bang for their buck.

Packing

Stan

My location kit consists of 8 strobes, 2 power packs, 5 collapsible modifiers, 4 reflectors, power cables, extension cables, tools and accessories. All can be packed into one giant tool box; a Stanley 37” Mobile Job Box from Home Depot which is listed at a completely reasonable rate. It’s heavy duty, well-constructed and built for abuse. I’ve seen people customize this job box with steel wheels and heavy duty clamps. But, the stock wheels work just fine for our application. This box has a padded handle that make it easy to lift. We call this box “Stan.”

Stan Jr.

When on location, safety is our number one concern. With that said, it’s important to have the proper number of sangbags to weight down stands, reflectors, blankets or anything that needs to be secured. Although I own over 25 sandbags, I’ve found that 12 is a good number to take on location. That will allow for nearly every light stand to be weighted and safe from an accidental fall or a blast of wind. Sandbags are heavy and can take a lot of miles off your car. For transport, we’ve found the Stanley 26” Mobile Tool Box is a great portable case for hauling 12 or more sandbags. We call this box “Stan Jr.”

Stands

It’s a common problem for photographers to throw around cheap light stands and allow them to slide all over the place during transport. I’ve seen photographers use huge hardshell golf cases or bulky road capsules to haul their lights stands, but for someone with a small car… it’s just impractical. The Original Roll Up from the company Standbagger fits my needs perfectly. Standbagger was founded by photographer Steve Burns who created the product when he found a lack of products on the market. Since I cannot fit a gigantic hardshell golf case as well as “Stan” and “Stan Jr.” in the back of my car the Original Roll Up is befitting and can squeeze into small places.

I do travel with several C-Stands which do not fit in the Standbagger but will break down flat and low profile that can slide into the smallest of clefts.

Camera

This is one of the first decisions we have to make as a photographer. There are nearly two dozen major bag and storage companies fighting for your business day in and day out. I’ve experimented and worked with numerous bags over the years and in my opinion Think Tank Photo provides the most efficient, durable camera carrying systems around. They are built for professional travelers and heavy duty users. The Airport Security V2.0 provides enough safe space for everything I need to get the shot. I also use and abuse the Think Tank Photo Memory Card Carrier and DSLR Battery Holder. For a full equipment list, click here.

Apple Boxes and Accessories

These days, if a piece of equipment doesn’t come with a storage container or bag, then it’s either really expensive or really cheap. Fortunately, the rest of my mobile studio has its own home in its own bag which can lay flat along with the Standbagger. In our own game of back-seat Tetris, apple boxes and props are usually found shoved in between a seat or on top of “Stan”

Transport

Betsy

Sometime this past year, we came to a stark realization that we desperately needed a dolly on location to cut down on the number of loads. Our answer was the Rock N’ Roller Multi-Cart R10RT with the expandable shelf. What once took my team 5-10 trips back and forth from the car now requires one mighty trip. Setup time has been reduced in half and with the Multi-Cart shelf we can have our own space for tethering, staging and storage without having to use a client’s table space.  We call this cart “Besty.”

My friend Tony Roslund created an incredible and insightful article on the Rock N’ Roller Multi-Cart here.

Vehicle

It’s all led to this; now that packing has been covered you’re going to need a vehicle that can hold your gear. Unfortunately, a beat up VW Beetle or a vintage Chevy Camaro just won’t do the trick. I’ve found that the hatchbacks or “toaster” cars work really well. In my case a Nissan Cube; a strange looking car that has the tendency to turn some heads while driving down the road. But, the low overhead and large storage size is completely worth the bewilderment. I’m not here to tell you what type of vehicle you should own, but consider it an investment making the job more manageable. Aside from gas, a nice spacious car can make your life a whole lot easier.

At the end of the day we all have different workflows and certainly different volumes of equipment, but I can only speak for what has worked for me. So, instead of throwing all that stuff in the backseat or dragging around a cardboard box full of cables and lights, invest in some heavy duty containers. I guarantee you’re on location workflow will become more organized and more affable than ever. Your back can thank me later.

If you’re interested in hauling all of this gear on a part time basis, I’m currently accepting applications for my 2015 internship. If you're a young(18 - 25) photographer or photojournalism/marketing major looking to work hard and learn the ropes in the fashion and advertising industry, please email a current resume and current portfolio to info@claycookphotography.com! Must live within 150 miles of Louisville, Kentucky.

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54 Comments

Previous comments
scott belzner's picture

but what do u use for white seamless? 3m roll??
for the life of me i have not used a cloth material that works better then paper.. suggestions?
cheers

Clay Cook's picture

Thanks for reading Scott! My car can fit multiple 9 foot seamless rolls of paper with no problem. I also have a plethora of canvas I use that can be rolled up for transport. It's a game of "Tetris" but, we make it happen!

Lee Christiansen's picture

Best solution for white seamless (not quite so good for standing on though), is this:
http://viewfinderphotography.co.uk/new-wrinkle-free-10x20ft-highkey-back...

I use it on all my location shoots when I need a pure white background. If you look in the review of the product, you'll find mine.

Michael Kormos's picture

Clay, you dump your Profotos into that big-a$$ dump cart along with all the steel hardware, brackets, doo-dads and whatnots? Man, my Profotos must feel royally pampered in their over-padded Pelican.

I'm lovin' your dolly though. I've been looking at some at B&H, unsure which to pick, but this seems like the perfect setup for our the kids' clothing brands we often work with. That Stanley box even looks like it could fit an oompa loompa. Now where do I find one of those?

Clay Cook's picture

Thanks for reading Michael! We go to great lengths to make sure the Profoto's are secure and safe in Stan. Everything has a place.

The Multi-Cart has been a lifesaver, highly recommend!

Jason Brietstein's picture

Was just in Home Depot saying that this Stanley Box would make a great cheapo replacement for the Think Tank production manager we are thinking about purchasing. I was worried about lack of padding, but this definitely gives me the confidence to go with the tool box now.

Clay Cook's picture

Perfect Jason! I have nothing against the Production Manager from Think Tank Photo, it's just not big enough for my needs. I need a lot of space for my gear. My stuff is packed in so tight, that I don't need padding, but I would probably recommend padding the walls of the Stanley box for extra protection if you're not filling it up! Thanks for reading my friend!

is that a faux wood floor in the last picture?

Clay Cook's picture

Yes Jonathon! Sheet Vinyl.

Roy Rivas's picture

If you would have told me what was packed in there I would have never believed it before this article. Great stuff!

Clay Cook's picture

Thank you Roy! It's possible, you just have to play some "Tetris"

'Saw your extention cord reels.
Check out the site and demo video at:
CordPro.com
I use them for battery charger cords to
large extention cords.
Thank you for the great article.

Clay Cook's picture

Very cool! Thanks for the tip Jack and thanks for reading. I'll check it out.

Matthew Odom's picture

Bro i could so do two back flips. This is exactly what I've been looking for!

Clay Cook's picture

That is awesome man! Thanks for reading!

Jeff Settle's picture

Your ability to compress is impressive and inspiring. My needs are a bit different in that I tend to shoot where there is no electricity. I have about 8000ws of studio strobes between 4 monolights, 4 heads and 3 power packs. It is all driven by 2 Honda generators.

I tend to shoot at night in remote locations. To move all this around a site I use a Polaris Ranger Crew. It can take everything I need in one trip.

To move all the equipment at the site I have a 24' utility trailer. I can load up the Ranger and drive out the back of the trailer. I have enough free space to fit a double mattress, in case I am away from home. To get to the locations I have a Dodge 3500 to pull it. The upside is that I have never been without something I needed. The downside is the 14mpg.

Clay Cook's picture

Thanks for reading Jeff! Sounds like you have your setup under control! Keep up the awesome work!

Darren Nana's picture

A good read Clay. Thanks. I saw the Think Tank battery holder you use and thought it looked like a handy little accessory. Thinking it might be a silly price, i looked at B&H and it was just over $10USD, jumped to Amazon in the UK... £74!!! thats $115 USD!!! Not only can we not buy half (literally) of the lights and modifiers that you guys in the US can but when we can we have to pay through roof for it. Someone is missing a trick by not selling all this gear over here. Its either Your Profoto's Elinchrom's or far eastern "equivalents"
/Big sigh and sad face. . .

Clay Cook's picture

Thanks Darren! I'm sorry to hear that, that is a bummer.

Tony Roslund's picture

Thanks for the shout out brother. We also use a "Stan Jr." for hauling all our grip equipment. That's gotta be pretty heavy with all those sandbags in it!

Hal Cook's picture

Great write up. Would hate to carry the tote of sand bags, but I know they're worth it.

Allen Owens's picture

Great read!
I recently discovered that musicians supply stores have a vast amount of really well made cases and transport products. The cases are as good and often better then the higher priced photo gear equivalents. As an example I purchased a small drum case that perfectly fits my 11inch reflectors and the smaller ones nest right inside the 11's and its beautifully padded all around. Light stands apparently are very similar in size to stands musicians use because the two cases I bought are significantly better and easy to cary then my older ones. My larger mono lights have a new home as well with an easier to pack profile in my abused car.
Its worth looking at.
My two remaining cents!
Thanks

Lee Christiansen's picture

Hi Clay. I've just treated myself to one of those trolleys after too much time struggling with multiple trips.

You've got the shelf system with it. I hear from some that it is fiddly to attach. What is your experience?

Bill Hardman's picture

I know that this article is old but I recently purchased a 10' c-stand and am trying to figure out the best way to transport it for location shoots. Any suggestions that you have would be appreciated.