equipment

Best light of the year

©Neil Turner. Fistral Beach, Newquay, Cornwall.

It is almost inevitable that when the best light of the year so far offers up a number of creative possibilities the only camera you have with you will be the one built into your phone. I don’t mind admitting that this has always filled me with dread and I have often missed the picture that I know I should have taken because the phone couldn’t do what a ‘proper camera’ can.

We were away in Cornwall last week for a few days and had just arrived at our hotel after the drive from East Dorset when we decided that a stroll along the beach before dinner was in order. We had been to Fistral Beach many times before but never really experienced the magic of the sunset there and when the light started to dip it was obvious that we were going to be treated to something rather lovely. These days I have an iPhone 7 which has a pretty good camera. I normally use it for snaps, record shots and general visual note-taking but when I needed it to produce the results using it with the 645Pro app allowed me to get exactly what I would have wanted if I’d had my Fujifilm X100S with me.

I was so pleased with the picture that I approached the man who features in it and sent him a copy whilst still on the beach. Photography is still a joy.

The third kit fetish

The Phottix 70cm collapsible beauty dish, adapted to fit an Elinchrom Ranger Quadra head.

Everyone knows about the fetish for camera bags shared by most photographers and anyone who has read this blog will know about my own personal one for card readers but there is a third one that has been exercising me of late. I have mentioned it quite a few times over the years and a particular need to have a repeatable set up has led me down this particular equipment rabbit hole once again.

I’m talking about lighting. I’m talking specifically about light modifiers. Those umbrellas, snoots, dishes, soft boxes and hybrid gadgets that you place on the fronts of your flash units in order to control and improve the light.

On our first day in the studio at college back in 1984 we were banned from fixing anything to the lights. Instead we had to place screens and diffusers in the optimum position independently from the light source so that we learned that there was no such thing as the perfect soft box, swimming pool or snoot. By inching a diffuser backwards or forwards by a small margin you could change the quality of the light considerably and you could use all sorts of flags and reflectors to stop the stray light from going where you didn’t want or need it. That was in the studio and that was a very long time ago. As soon as the restrictions about not using ready-made light modifiers was lifted we all sprinted for the big fabric soft boxes and rigid swimming pools and most never looked back.

Unfortunately I was left with a feeling that every time I used a light modifier I am making some really important and potentially detrimental mistakes. I blame the knowledge that I gained about the subtlety of light modification that I acquired in term one, year one of my formal photographic education for the dissatisfaction that I feel with every convenient and portable accessory that I own – and I own a lot of them. A brief headcount yesterday produced the following:

  • Four translucent or shoot through umbrellas
  • Two convertible umbrellas
  • Three reflective or bounce off umbrellas
  • One umbrella box
  • Two rigid beauty dishes
  • One folding beauty dish
  • Two square soft boxes
  • Two rectangular soft boxes
  • Three hexagonal soft boxes
  • Two strip soft boxes
  • Seven reflectors
  • One snoot
  • Three sets of grids
  • Two sets of barn doors
  • Nine reflectors

I have probably forgotten about some others but you get the idea; too many options, no clear direction and no way to always ensure that I have the right one with me at all times. Therefore the compromise is almost always to bring the two or three most versatile with me and have another three or four in the car before making the best of what I have.

This, surely, begs the question about which is my favourite. The answer is as simple as it is shocking. None of the above. My favourite way to work is often to use lights in a way that doesn’t give the signature look of a soft box or an umbrella. I like to bounce. Walls, ceilings, walls and ceilings or any one of a dozen other types of surface will almost always get my vote if I’m shooting a one-off creative image. I have written about my love of large pale surfaces and of using pretty much anything around as a bounce surface and it has become so important to me that creating a ‘look’ has become something I’ve had to work at. I know that something like 33% of photographers rock up and set up their lights complete with their favourite modifier and get on with the pictures and that another 33% turn up and shoot with available light. Many of the rest base their shooting options on what they find and choose between flash with their main modifiers or no flash at all. I like to think that I’m in a small group who will look around for ‘bounceable’ surfaces and go down that route as a matter of preference.

From my list of available light modifiers you can see that I never give up on my quest for ‘the one’ – the light modifier that will make sense of them all. I bought a new one this week and I’m off to use it today. Let’s hope that it both surprises and delights me and that the surprise and delight lead to being able to ignore some of those 1984 college year one, term one lessons

Canon’s flash evolution

When I switched to Canon cameras from Nikon in 1995 the one thing that I missed from my old F4S cameras and my old SB25 flash units was the accuracy and reliability of the Nikon TTL flash. Canon, with all of their promises for the EOS1N and Speedlite 540EZ combination just couldn’t quite match what I had left behind. I have no idea how Nikon managed to get their off-the-film-plane metering to be so good but it was very good indeed.

Coincidentally, it was about this time that I started to use high quality battery powered lights. The Lumedynes that I took delivery of in 1996 changed my professional life and TTL flash became something that I used when I absolutely had to.

Fast forward to 1998 and the arrival of the first decent digital cameras we had (the Kodak DCS520/Canon D2000) and flash took a big backward step. There was no ‘film plane’ for the cameras to meter from and we had to dig out old Vivitar and Metz flash units with old fashioned auto settings just to get somewhere near where we needed to be with our exposures. Canon introduced the 380EX flash which helped but it was basic and relatively low powered with no swivel head and working with them wasn’t a patch on shooting with the pre-digital Canons, let alone the film based Nikons.

Time passed and with every new camera and every new flash unit things got a tiny bit better but I have never felt as comfortable or as confident with TTL flash on digital Canons as I did with film Nikons. There were work-arounds – I used flash exposure compensation at the same time as reviewing the LCD screen and using some pretty good guesswork which, when used with RAW files, meant that we were always able to do the job but it was never without effort in the way that you used to be able to shoot flash with the far less forgiving transparency film.

That was until now. Strike up the band. Hang out the bunting. Canon have, in my opinion, finally done it. They have a camera and flash combination that handles TTL as well as anything that I’ve ever used professionally. A few weeks and a few jobs with the new Speedlite 600EX II RT on my EOS5D MkIV cameras have convinced me that twenty plus years of being unsure with on-camera flash are over. Congratulations to everyone at Canon involved in this evolutionary process – well done.

Footnote: I have owned and used 220EX, 380EX, 420EX, 430 EX II, 430 EX III RT, 540EZ, 550EX, 580EX II, 600 EX RT Speedlites before arriving at the 600 EX II RT. I’ve had the ST-E2 and ST-E3 RT transmitters and any number of external flash packs and light modifiers. The joys of being a photographer – no wonder so many of colleagues swear by ambient light.

Manfrotto umbrella bracket challenge

Photo: Neil Turner

The old Lite-tite on the left and the Snap Tilthead on the right both with Canon 600EX II-RT Speedlites.

When, like me, you have been using a single product successfully for over twenty years it is normally out of a mixture of boredom and curiosity that you have to try out the next “new idea” when you see it. That happened to me a few weeks ago. Having owned and used several of the venerable Manfrotto 029 Lite-tite brackets for so many years I thought that I’d give their new Snap Tilthead with hotshoe a go. For my purposes they will do pretty much the same job: hold a Canon Speedlite flash on a stand with a folding umbrella on those jobs where using other lights isn’t so much of an option. I know that there are dozens of other brands out there but I’m a sucker for certain makes – ones that have served me very well for such a long time.

The more that I have used the new bracket, the more that I have realised that it is very different. Before you take it out of the box you realise that there’s no lever sticking out, no large plastic knob to tighten it onto the stand and that it has a coldshoe built-in. They both have a hole through them to slot an umbrella or other light modifier. In order to compare the two I’m going to start with that built-in shoe.

One of the major gripes with the old Lite-tite is that you had to but a separate shoe that attached using the brass post that was supplied. When I bought my first one I was using Metz flashes which didn’t attach with a shoe and therefore it was fine. From there I moved to using them with Lumedyne flash heads which, again, didn’t attach via a shoe. It was only when I started to work with speedlights that I really noticed. The idea of a shoe attaching via a brass thread and relying on being tightened to stop it spinning has annoyed me for years and the built-in shoe that doesn’t spin on the new bracket appeals to me – and so far, so good. It is easy to use and very secure so that’s a thumbs-up. The metal-to-metal contact is less exciting but it hasn’t caused any issues… yet. A point to the new bracket.

Moving down there is the umbrella slot. On the old bracket this is angled so that the flash points more accurately into the centre of the umbrella (if you attach everything the right way around). On the new one it appears to be straight which means that it never helps with the angling of the flash and so you need to use the dip on the speedlight (if it has one) to better target the light into the modifier. Of course this means that you can’t get it wrong but, for me, this is a point to the original.

Altering the tilt has always been a question of loosening the substantial handle and making sure that the whole thing doesn’t tip (easily done with a big flash and a big umbrella). The build quality of the Lite-tite has meant that they have lasted for a long time – even if you tighten the handle a lot. There is a small round knob on the new one and there is some sort of tensioning mechanism that stops the whole thing tipping. It doesn’t feel as if you could over-tighten this one and the only issue that I have is that it may not have the longevity of its older sibling. A tentative point to the newcomer.

The next point is where it attaches to the stand. There is a simple metal clip that tightens down onto the top of the stand on the new one which initially feels like a big improvement over the substantial threaded knob on the old one. That knob could always be loosened and used as a twist for the light which isn’t really that easy to do with the new one so, once again, you have to play off a bit of functionality against slimline design. The point here just goes to the added functionality of the older model.

Two points each so far. The slimline design of the newer model is very welcome but Manfrotto have, yet again, added a pointless large red logo onto one of their products to annoy me. The victory by the tiniest of margins goes to the new bracket because there’s no way that the flash can twist, because the mechanism that stops it tipping so easily is a welcome plus and because it is smaller and slimmer. That having been said the old one is tougher, better built and far more versatile if you use accessories that don’t use a shoe. I’ve got both now so let’s see if my opinion changes after the now obligatory 32 months.

Photo: Neil Turner

Not a bad Christmas present…

EOS5D Mark IV Update

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A few weeks ago I wrote on this blog about the wifi potential of the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and I have been using three of its functions pretty heavily on jobs over the intervening period. It wasn’t hard to learn all about the system having used a number of different wireless systems over the last three or four years and my first impressions were very favourable. There are definitely one or two changes that I’d like to see Canon make (preferably in a firmware update) but the system has been remarkably stable and reliable. It’s wireless which means that there will be glitches but I’d stick my neck out here and say that this is the best wifi that I’ve used given that 1) it is built-in and 2) doesn’t require any extra gadgets or adapters.

Today is Armistice Day – the anniversary of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month when the guns finally fell silent at the end of the Great War in 1918. I had no jobs on and so I took myself down to the War Memorial in the centre of the town where I was born to pay my respects and to give the wireless on the Mark IV a real world test that I could actually share with you. I have a server set up at my house ready to receive images transmitted via FTP (File Transfer Protocol) – which is the preferred image transmission system of most newspapers and agencies. For the purposes of this test I was sending to myself but it could equally have been to any third party with an FTP set up. I decided to use my Apple iPhone 7 with the Personal Hotspot function enabled as my network and I timed how long it took to set up each camera to transmit using the phone back to my server. The first camera (thanks largely to the Mark IV touchscreen) took just under two minutes and the second camera about ten seconds less.

This is where I would like Canon to make a firmware change: on the EOS1DX and EOS1DX Mark II you can set up one camera, save the settings to a memory card and load them into other cameras. There is no facility (yet?) on the 5D series cameras to do this. I’m sure that it is to help distinguish between the top-of-the-range 1 series and the much cheaper 5 series but I’m pretty sure that nobody will make a purchasing decision based on this. And whilst we are at it, only being able to store three sets of settings is a bit mean. The original 1DX had five, as do the 5D Mark III, 5DR, 5DRS and 7D Mark II when used with the WFT-E7 transmitter whilst the 1DX Mark II has twenty – as do various Nikon cameras.

This was never going to be a full-on coverage of this low-key event. I wasn’t on commission and I didn’t want to be intrusive and so I just took a few pictures with two cameras and two lenses and uploaded eight as I shot and selected them from the back of the camera. I have the 5D Mark IVs set up to write RAW files to the CF card in slot one and medium sized JPEG files to the SD card in slot two. I selected from the SD card and transmitted the pictures as I went and each picture went in about ten seconds. I had Photo Mechanic running on the server and it added a basic pre-prepared caption to the files before saving them to another folder which in turn synched them to Dropbox. I could have set the system up to do any one of a thousand tasks – ranging from renaming files to distribution which are amongst the options that I use a lot of the time on paid jobs.

I used the Transmit app on the phone to check that the images had arrived and could then have shared them with anyone via FTP or via a Dropbox link generated in the iPhone’s Dropbox app but this was just a trial. Having the images on Dropbox also means that I can grab them onto the phone to use for social media but on this occasion I swapped the wifi function to send one picture to my phone from the camera. It takes less than a minute to swap to this function and, having rated the picture I wanted as a one star, I quickly added the selected image to the phone using Canon’s own Camera Connect app. A lot of people use Shuttersnitch to do this and I am trying my best to learn how to best use that app but for now I use the Canon app to transfer the file and Photogene 4 to edit and caption it. All done in under two minutes and uploaded to Twitter in another thirty seconds. Easy.

The annoying part of this process using the iPhone (or iPad) is Apple’s insistance on renaming files with an “img_” prefix when the cameras are set up to use a personalised prefix. Please Apple, if you see this, give us the option to NOT rename files.

One of these days I am going to make a short video about how to set up one of these cameras quickly and another about how the iPhone workflow works for me. For now I am very happy with this  improved set-up and would love Canon to make the firmware changes that I suggested above.

Just a couple of other points that I’d like to add:

  • The Mark IV appears to require less sharpening than the Mark III. No idea why yet but I seem to be on about 60% of the amount and getting great results.
  • The Anti-flicker on the Mark IV is superb. I will blog about this one day soon when I have some samples that I’m allowed to share on here. It made me look again at the anti-flicker on my 7D Mark II which is also pretty good.
  • The new button on the back of the camera which I’ve customised to allow me to adjust metering patterns on the fly is a really welcome addition. They have used a different switch to the one on the 7D Mark II which does much the same job and I marginally prefer the one on the 5D Mark IV.
  • The touchscreen is so much better than I had expected and I have become so accustomed to it that using a Mark III the other day felt old-fashioned.
  • It’s a shame that there’s still no lock on the diopter correction wheel though.

So all-in-all I am delighted with the Mark IVs. I’d be grateful if Canon could just make those small tweaks that I have mentioned above and I’d be really grateful if they could make the latest version of their EOS Utility software compatible with Mac OSX Sierra too.

 

Lightweight lighting

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Front & rear views of the Elinchrom Portalite pressed into action.

Anyone who follows this blog knows how much I like using the Elinchrom Ranger Quadra system for a lot of my work. Next week I have a job coming up where I need to be able to pack light and rush around and I have been perfecting using the Canon radio slave system so that I can just use my Speedlights and a couple of tiny stands on the job. Whilst playing around I thought that I’d see how easily I could attach an old Elinchrom Portalite softbox to the Canon and the answer was “frightningly easily”. The Canon Speedlight 600EX II-RT comes with a diffuser cap and just popping that onto the flash after the flash tube section had been pushed through the plastic Quadra mount held the softbox rather well. I could easily add some foam tape or some velcro but this will stay in place unless I shake it around. It’s a bit smaller than I’d like a softbox to be but it is supremely light and so I’ll just have to get it that bit closer to the subject.

The Portalite folds up really small too and so I have another choice when I’m shooting. I will probably use a Westcott double folding umbrella most of the time but it really does pay to have options. Best of both modifiers work absolutely brilliantly with the Canon wireless remote set up with the ST-E3-RT transmitter and the RT flash. From testing today the recycle times on the 600EX II-RT are better than any Speedlight that I’ve ever used before and because of that I’m more than happy to work this way for this specific job.

First impressions of the EOS5D Mark IV wifi

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The Canon EOS5D Mark IV – the first professional DSLR from Canon with a fully functioning wifi capacity built-in.

When Canon announced that they had added a wifi capability to the new EOS5D Mark IV I was simultaneously surprised, delighted and apprehensive – emotions which have in turn given way to a sense of relief. Wifi was a feature that many photographers had asked manufacturers to implement over a number of years and we had always been told that there were technical reasons why it couldn’t be done and that most buyers simply didn’t want it. The rise in popularity of limited wifi in consumer and ‘prosumer’ models told a different story and Canon did the right thing by including it in this latest release.

The surprise element came because very few of the rumours that preceded the announcement of the Mark IV mentioned wifi at all. A lot of those people awaiting the new camera had resigned themselves to another generation of cameras with bolt-on accessories to handle rapid image transmission.

The delight was that I was looking at finally getting cameras that could not only talk to a smart phone or a computer in the way that the Canon EOS 6D already could but to be able to send pictures using File Transfer Protocol (FTP) which is what the majority my clients want and need without the cumbersome WFT units or the increasingly flaky Eye-Fi cards.

The sense of apprehension was that I was worried that Canon would have done half a job and implemented a solution that didn’t do everything that I wanted and needed it to do.

Having had the camera in my hands for five days now I can finally talk about my sense of relief. It works.

Not only that but it works really well.

Over the last few days I have done some unscientific but real-world testing of the wifi built into the EOS5D Mark IV and compared it to the EOS5D Mark III and EOS7D Mark II both using the WFT-E7 transmitters that have been am almost permanent feature in my working life for the last couple of years. Put simply and in ‘normal’ use the FTP transmissions from the Mark IV are as quick and as reliable as the older cameras with their £600 bolt-on transmitters. Setting up FTP on the Mark IV is in many ways a lot quicker thanks to the excellent touch-screen option on the camera and getting the wireless operating from getting the camera out of the bag is way quicker.

One of my big fears with the new set up – based on various manufacturers telling us that metal bodied cameras might block the signals too much – was that the range of the transmitter would be too short and so I went to a place where there would be a lot of wifi congestion and ‘pollution’ to test it out. Coffee shops in busy shopping centres have loads of wireless traffic at lunchtime – especially when the students roll in and so I went to one with no fewer than twenty-three different wireless signals and I set the cameras to transmit over my own Netgear 4G mifi unit.

With the mifi in my pocket and the camera in my hands, there was no discernible difference in signal or time sent to send images between the Mark IV and the WFT-e7 equipped 7D MkII whereas the 5D Mark III was a little slower as always which I have always chalked up to the slower USB connection to the transmitter.

I tried the same test connecting each camera to my Apple iPhone both using it as a personal hotspot and to transfer pictures to the phone in the direct mode and, again, there was no real difference that I could see.

When I got back home I tried to see what the maximum range was to get a good signal between camera and 4G mifi and here I found a difference. The Mark IV range was completely effective up to about 2.5 metres whereas the 5D Mark III with the WFT-E7 was around 4 metres. The plastic top plate on the EOS6D was supposedly there to allow greater wifi range and in my admittedly un-scientific tests it appears that you do get a little more range.

At this point it might be worth remembering that the Mark IV is fully compatible with the WFT-E7 (as long as you update the firmware in the transmitter) should you need the extra capabilities – which include greater range, more preset FTP channels and the built-in Ethernet. All of that, when added to the WFT-E7 having it’s own LP-E6 battery, make it worth considering having the separate transmitter for those odd occasions when you need them. I already own three of them and so will definitely be keeping one or two for those very eventualities.

Having conducted all of the mobile testing with a three year old iPhone 5S I took delivery of an iPhone 7 part way through the week and the speed with which connections are made and images transferred with the new phone is dramatically better which is worth keeping in mind if your work involves transferring pictures to the phone and/or controlling the camera through Canon’s smartphone app.

Close up of the main menu screen that allows you to choose which wifi function you want.

Close up of the main menu screen that allows you to choose which wifi function you want.

Exactly how you set your system up for rapid transfer of images from the camera over wifi can make quite a bit of difference to how it performs. Most of my quick transmissions are for various corporate and editorial clients to get my pictures onto their social media and web platforms almost as quickly as they can when shooting pictures on their own smart phones. For that they need medium sized JPEGs at best and so I tend to set my cameras up to write the RAW files to the Compact Flash card and medium size/quality JPEGs to the SD card and then transmit only the JPEG with basic IPTC metadata attached.

Whilst most of my usage for the wifi built into this camera will be based around various FTP servers I will be using the direct transfer to smartphone, tablet and computer options a fair bit too. I’ve had a fair bit of experience with Canon’s apps over the last few years and I’ve decided that the best way to use the phone and tablet apps is to set the apps up to display images based on their rating rather than having to scroll through hundreds of images on a phone screen to find the right one. By using the ‘Rate” button on the camera to add a single star to selected pictures I can shortcut the whole searching on the phone process greatly. When I review the pictures on the camera’s LCD screen (and the screen on the Mark IV is beautiful by the way) I can use the rate button to tag them as I go through. Once connected to the phone those tagged images are right there at the top of the page saving me loads of time. I find that I only need one-star or no-star options to make this work really well too.

I discussed the idea of getting images away quickly on a blog post last year https://neilturnerphotographer.co.uk/2015/08/24/getting-pictures-away-quickly/ and having the Mark IV just adds to my choices. It takes the WFT-E7 if I need the extra features and it accepts Eye-Fi cards although I don’t see any need for them any more.

There are already dozens of reviews talking about image quality, video capabilities, auto-focus, speed of use and the new button on the back of the camera and I’m not going to add to those except to say that in another blog post I described the Canon EOS5D Mark III as the best camera that I have ever used for the work that I do. That statement is no longer true. The Canon EOS5D Mark IV has superseded it in every way that I can think of.