November 3, 2019

Inside Out: Arlene Nelson

Back in high school I had a psychology teacher who was known for opening up students’ backpacks and slowly removing ALL the contents out onto one’s desk if classroom rules weren’t followed. This ritual caused a great deal of fascination for the class. I thought of this when Tom White approached me asking me to share what is “inside my bag” with Documentary. Unlike my high school days, I’ll do a bit of editing and share with you the poignant stuff that I’ve photographed here. What is not pictured are my iPhone, laptop and lip gloss. On my iPhone are essential apps: Artemis for framing, Sun Scout for charting the sun’s path, and Cameras + Formats for all the varied camera choices available under the sun.  

These days I mainly move between shooting stylized docu series and commercial campaigns. Shifting gears and moving fluidly in these worlds means organization and preparedness are key, where having a mini grip clip can make your day. For shooting vérité, I have a few secret weapons that are essential: the Letus 35MCS Leather Shoulder Pad, for one. Back in the day, before the Letus, I would make shoulder pads out of gel wrist rests for keyboards; this leather shoulder pad is everything! The other secret weapon is the 12” Bi-colored Battery-powered Mini Quasar. Whether as a background light or a little face fill, it comes in handy. They are so bright that I like to throw on some light grid diffusion over it. 

When shooting a sit-down interview or shooting narrative commercial scenes, I use my Sekonic incident/reflective light meter. Looking at a waveform or using false color is extremely helpful, but there is something solid about reading the light calculated through a meter. It’s especially useful in clear communication with a gaffer when one is called for. 

Such a large part of my time is spent on the road traveling. This means everything from headphones to universal adapters, wireless speakers, mophie chargers, and ear plugs have a home in my backpack. I shoot a lot of live music performances and although I’ll wear protective cans if production has them, ear plugs come in handy when cans aren’t available. They are also essential to one’s survival and peace of mind when sitting in proximity to noisy babies and loud snoring on planes. I also carry a media pass with me in case I’m traveling with gear and no one from production is with me. This saves large amounts of money for production, which means they can treat you to fancy meals. 

It was fun sharing this with you all.  Nothing at all like high school! 

What is pictured here:

  1. 12” Bi-colored Quasar Lithium Ion Battery-Powered. It lasts four hours from a full charge and it is Quasar Science-upgraded, so it can also be plugged in.  

  2. Letus35 MCS Leather Shoulder Pad

  3. Back-up Passport

  4. Mophie Charger

  5. Maglite

  6. Eye Piece Chamois—a must!

  7. Bag for small cables, adapters, chargers, headphones

  8. Mini grip clip—always comes in handy.

  9. Warby Parker Eye Glasses

  10. Universal adapter—key when traveling.

  11. Screwdriver for the tie-down screw—this is the very first tool that I bought as an assistant cinematographer, and it is still with me.  

  12. Ping pong ball—because ping pong is my obsession; I love to play whenever I can.

  13. Sekonic L-858D Light Meter—Incident and Reflective Combo. I like to use a meter along with wave forms when lighting interviews, and they’re great while scouting.

  14. Panda Mini Bluetooth Wireless Speaker—for the joy of it.

  15. Ear plugs—key for noisy hotels, babies on planes, and unexpectedly loud locations.

  16. Mini hard drive—just in case.

  17. Sony A7S with a 40mm Voightlander Lens—I like this for scouting or taking personal stills.  

  18. Skull Candy Headphones

  19. Ubiquitous Bongo Ties

  20. Micro fiber towels—my obsession for keeping glasses and computer screens clean.

  21. Media pass


Emmy-nominated cinematographer Arlene Nelson is known for capturing the exquisite in ordinary moments, whether real or imagined. Her collaborations with iconic directors span the genres of narrative (A Mighty Wind), documentary (Valentine Road; Troubadours) and award-winning commercial campaigns (ESPN Baseball; Burger King).