flash

AA batteries

Eneloop AA 1.2v batteries and Think Tank 8 AA battery holder.

Back in September 2008 when I returned to the world of freelancing I tried every way that I could think of to cut my ‘cost of doing business’. One of the central ideas was to reduce the number of disposable batteries that I bought and used. I had a number of speed lights and a whole bag full of triggers, transmitters and gadgets almost all of which took AA sized batteries and so I went out and bought a lot of NiCd (nickel cadmium) rechargeables along with three decent quality chargers.

Every-once-in-a-while I would buy a few single use batteries if I was on a job which justified doing so but I kept to my plan and used the NiCd ones where I could. Over time they lost their power and after about four years they were relegated to being used in kids toys and my wireless keyboard. I bought some new NiCds but the way that I used them meant that the dreaded memory effect killed them off more quickly than I would have liked.

For about six months I was lazy and kept buying Duracells (and other brands) but the box I kept the dead ones in filled up far too quickly and I went back to buying and using rechargeable batteries. By this time the nickel metal hydride (NiMH) revolution had pretty much taken place and I started to buy those. It took me a few months to realise that the old NiCd chargers weren’t the best option for the newer generation batteries and so I invested in a couple of new chargers a year or so ago. Slowly but surely and over the course of 18 months I went from NiCd to a mix of NiCd and single use batteries and then to NiMH. The big battery swap-over has now been completed.

The general consensus amongst my peers was that the Eneloop branded batteries (by Panasonic) were the best and so I built up a stock of thirty or so white Eneloops. Very happy with them, they work really well and hold their charge splendidly. One of my colleagues mentioned Eneloop Pro batteries and that upset me – I am always keen to get the best – and so I bought a few of those to see if they were worth the 60% price hike over the standard ones. Well, they are anecdotally about a third better in that they last that much longer under heavy use in Canon flash units. I cannot see any difference in the recycle times for the speed lights and so I had to ask myself whether it was worth paying more in order to have to change batteries a little less frequently. On balance, the answer is “no” but I now have eight of the Pro batteries and so I use them in amongst the set. The big downside of the Pros is that they have a shorter life. They can handle about 500 charge cycles before they lose their potency whereas the standard Eneloop can do around 2000 charges. That makes the Pro quite a bit more expensive than the ordinary one but there will be colleagues out there who are more than happy to pay that extra to get what they need – it’s a personal decision.

Carrying so many batteries around is heavy and cumbersome. I really like the Think Tank nylon case that holds eight AAs and I have a couple of those in my bag in the same pocket as the Think Tank 4x DSLR (Canon LP-E6) battery holder. I hate the idea of running out of power on a job and I have the two DSLR battery holder in my pocket most of the time too.

I saw a couple of reviews of high quality ‘smart chargers’ the other day and so I’ve now invested in new chargers too. That’s made quite a difference and I’m back to being up to date with the technology. It’s cheaper, it’s greener and my flash units are cycling faster. All good!

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

Moody technique post from the old website

I have been cleaning up some of the behind the scenes stuff on my original dg28.com website and got side-tracked looking at some of the old technique posts (again). I really liked this one from July 2003 which was originally entitled “Choosing a Mood”. Anyway, here is the original post cut and pasted:

©Neil Turner/TSL. July 2003. English, Media Studies and Philosophy teacher in a north London comprehensive school.

©Neil Turner/TSL. July 2003. English, Media Studies and Philosophy teacher in a north London comprehensive school.

Every time you take a photograph you are saying something about what is in the image. It’s impossible to avoid a frozen frame being anything other than an interpretation of that moment so it becomes a mark of a good photographer to make sure that every element of the image (composition, subject matter and light) helps to paint a consistent story. 

The mood required for every image – especially with portraits – is something that you have to consider very carefully.Some lighting guides will tell you that there is a lighting set up for each mood and that it is a simple matter of placing light A in position B and light C in position D to achieve this. I have to agree that there are some obvious starting points for many of the moods that I use, but there are many other factors that have to be taken into account when setting the scene.

Even a short list of variables such as time of day, age of subject, subjects clothing and location mean that there can be no such thing as a standard lighting rig. This portrait of a teacher who feels that he wasn’t prepared during his training for the attitude of pupils needed a lot of thought.

We met at his home in a pleasant London suburb and I was determined to give the whole portrait a real inner city feel. I asked him if there were any dark alleys or heavily graffitied walls near his home but he couldn’t think of any. We got back into my car and went in search of a location, being very careful not to identify the location in the photographs. We found this shady wall with a small amount of graffiti and parked the car. It was an overcast, if bright, late morning by this time so I decided to add to the “street” atmosphere by using a strong side light.

My subject was just about the same height as the wall so I decided that he needed to be crouching or sitting down. I set up a single Lumedyne 200 w/s (joule) pack and head without either an umbrella or soft box on a stand at about sixty degrees from the lens axis and about ten degrees above eyeline. The flash was set to maximum power at a range of seven feet (2.1 metres) which, combined with a 1/250th shutter speed, made the available light unimportant. The aperture was f11 at 200 ISO and I shot a few frames with just the subject and the wall immediately around him. When I consulted my LCD screen I liked the shadow and decided to include it more obviously in the composition.

My subject appeared more relaxed looking out of camera so I asked him to fix his eyes on a point in the distance between me and the flash. I also asked him to rest his head in his hand and this gave the shadow a better defined shape. I shot a few more frames and then changed the composition to include some of the grey sky. The sky at 1/250th at f11 was very dark so I changed the shutter speed to 1/125th and the sky was a better tone.

I shot quite a few variations after this, including some safe images without the obvious flash but this was my favourite frame when I came to do the edit an hour or so later. The mood was about right, it conveys the slightly dark theme of the article and screams “street” at you. I’m very pleased with end result, although this wasn’t the frame chosen for the paper!

Technical Note: Canon EOS1D with Canon EF 16-35 f2.8L lens. 1/250th of a second at f9.5 with Lumedyne Signature Series flash.

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…

Lightweight lighting

portralite_both

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.

Think Tank Logistics Manager 30

31 May 2016. Bournemouth, Dorset. Think Tank Logistics Manager 30. Hillcrest Road

Think Tank Logistics Manager 30.

A few weeks ago I bought some more Elinchrom Ranger Quadra kit and after a short while lugging my gear around in multiple bags and cases I decided that it was time to get myself one big case to take most or all of my Quadra gear. My rationale was that I am pulling one bag on wheels and carrying two or three others so why not make it one on wheels with the lighting and one smaller bag with cameras and lenses riding on top of it or over my shoulder as required? There’s quite a bit of choice on the market but all of my experience with Think Tank bags told me to start my search there. They make lots of rolling bags but only three specifically designed to lug large amounts of kit. My benchmark was that I had to be able to get at least two of my Manfrotto 156 stands plus a couple of Manfrotto 001s in there along with two or three packs, three or four heads, spare batteries, cables, light modifiers and plenty of accessories.

I had previously seen a colleagues Location Manager 40 case and so I wanted to check out the Logistics Manager 30 because on paper it appeared to be just about perfect. The internal dimensions were listed at 70cm length. My 051 stands are 68cm when folded and so I tried one and when it fitted the deal was pretty much sealed. All I needed to do was make sure that it fitted into the boot (trunk) of the car and it was at this point that I realised that neither of the two bigger “Manager” series bags would have worked. The 30 goes in with a bit to spare but anything much longer would need to go sideways and therefore wouldn’t be much use.

In the ten days or so since buying the case I have only used it twice. On job number one I was delighted with it when rolling it but less so when having to lift it up stairs or into the boot (trunk) of the car. There’s no bag or case in the world that can magically make its contents weigh less and the temptation to load this one has to be tempered with my need to be able to lift it. For job two I went with just two packs, two spare batteries, three heads and only three stands and quickly realised that I could only fully load this case if I were working with someone else who could help with the lifting. I’m getting old!

My loaded and ready to roll current configuration for the Think Tank Logistics Manager 30.

My loaded and ready to roll current configuration for the Think Tank Logistics Manager 30.

I am happy to report that this case comes with so many options for the inserts and dividers that I have a medium sized carrier bag full of unused bits. The flexibility is amazing and the quality of the construction appears to be right up there with every other bit of Think Tank kit I own. I am particularly pleased with the zipped mesh compartments in the lid. I have lots of gels cut into manageable pieces and they fitted into one of them very well whilst the other swallowed lots of those small accessories that can otherwise get lost drifting around in the base of the bag. You can see that I have a couple of pouches in this case. One has the Elinchrom Skyport HS triggers and the other has lots of small and medium sized clips which are great for holding gels etc.

I’m sure that there’ll be a few tweaks and some settling in but, for now, this layout works very well for me when I am working on my own. I haven’t even thought about using any of the exterior pockets but I have already given the built-in combination lock a go – chaining my locked bag to a radiator after I’d finished shooting, packed up and whilst I’d gone for coffee with the client.

My final point here is that turning up with completely professional solutions is good for your image. I’m sure that a reasonable quality suitcase with some makeshift padding would work almost as well and cost £200 less but this really is doing the job properly and my client definitely noticed.