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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…

Whilst I was out…

Whilst I was out shooting some pictures for the EOS5D Mark IV Update I shot a small set of pictures that reminded me that it is almost inevitable that you find interesting human stories whenever you are out shooting pictures. I met and chatted to a former Royal Marine who had donned his green beret and his medals to come along at the eleventh hour to honour one of his relatives –  a Royal Marine Musician – who died when the ship he was on, HMS Hood, was sunk in 1941.

A moving gesture from a man who had himself served for over 27 years for a relative and fellow Marine who he had never met.

Mark Tapping who served 27 years in the Royal Marines places a framed photograph of his relative Royal Marine Musician Albert Pike who died when HMS Hood was sunk on the 24th of May 1941. Armistice Day at the War Memorial in Bournemouth 11 November 2016. Bournemouth, United Kingdom. Photo: Neil Turner

Mark Tapping who served 27 years in the Royal Marines places a framed photograph of his relative Royal Marine Musician Albert Pike who died when HMS Hood was sunk on the 24th of May 1941 on the memorial. Armistice Day at the War Memorial in Bournemouth
11 November 2016. Bournemouth, United Kingdom.
Photo: Neil Turner

 

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.

Photography compared to…

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BOURNEMOUTH, DORSET. 08 April 2016. A fairground on Redhill Common. © Photo Neil Turner – Freelance photographer.

When you try to explain concepts in photography to someone who isn’t deeply embedded in the art/craft/science/passion it makes sense to find something else top compare it to. My favourite comparisons are driving, cooking and sport.

Driving is something most of us do and, on the whole, we do it without having to think too much about the basics. I’ve talked about it before so I’ll quickly recap my thoughts:

Changing gear, using the indicators, knowing when to use windscreen wipers and headlights are all pretty much done on auto-pilot whilst we think more consciously about road awareness, speeds, traffic, navigation and much else besides. The comparison to photography is an easy one to make because there are basic controls that we like to think are second nature; exposure, focusing, making sure we have memory cards and batteries whilst composition and anticipating things happening in front of your camera (and often off to the side and behind you) are things that require more conscious thought.

Tempting though it is to continue stretching the analogy I want to move onto cooking. All pictures have some basic ingredients and the skill of photography is to take those basics, add some interesting extras and know how to combine them and serve them up. That’s the schmultzy bit out of the way. Great chefs (and I’ve photographed a few and dined in the restaurants of several) are constantly looking for new twists and the odd exotic ingredient whilst making food that serves the joint purpose of feeding and engaging diners. Mediocre chefs overdo it, use too many trendy techniques and ingredients at the same time and generally fail in the main task of presenting good food where substance and style are in balance. The rest of us when cooking do the same old dishes, warm up too many ready meals and generally avoid any pretence of culinary ambition or expertise.

I’m pretty sure that I don’t even need to draw the comparisons between cooking and photography except to say that I’d almost rather have the gourmet food and the home cooked stuff all of the time and miss out the self-regarding nonsense in the middle. Restaurant critics and food writers have a lot in common with people who write pretentious twaddle about photography. This is one analogy that can go on for a long time.

So what about sport? I am sitting and writing this on the day of the opening ceremony for the 2016 Rio Olympics thinking of my many friends and colleagues who are already there working as photographers, editors and photo managers. They will be watching/photographing/witnessing some of the finest athletes in the word today. Athletes that have spent years perfecting their skills and getting themselves into peak condition being photographed by many of the finest photographers who have also spent years getting to where they are today.

Comparing photography to sports isn’t so much about finding similarities – it’s more about the differences. When you run 400 metres as a professional nothing much changes. Tracks are tracks and running shoes develop little by little. I know that diet, training and off-track activities change but, essentially, the principal task remains the same because running one lap of a track as fast as possible is what it is; tremendously tough but always the same. Photographing that event is a constantly changing thing. From black and white to colour, from manual focus to auto-focus and now we have to shift the pictures extremely rapidly too. Technology means that day-to-day, week-to-week and year-to-year shooting the same kind of job changes. An athlete remains at the top of their game for a relatively short time whilst the best photographers are around for decades. A swimmer attending their third or fourth Olympics is news whereas a photographer doing that would be just getting started!

Comparing apples with bananas has value when trying to explain the wider art and craft of photography to someone whose experience has been the odd compact camera and their smartphone. Right now I need to go and explain why it takes at least three hours to do the post-production on a six hour shoot and why I can’t just give the client some rough Jpegs. Anyone got a compelling analogy for that?

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.

Elinchrom Quadra ELB

27 April 2016. Bournemouth, Dorset. Elinchrom Quadra ELB. Hillcrest Road Neil Turner

When I get a new piece of kit worthy of mention, I usually write a first hand account of how it is working out and go into details based on using it on a few jobs. I bought an Elinchrom Quadra ELB HS kit a couple of weeks ago and I thought that it was about time I gave some first impressions on this blog. Sadly, I haven’t used it for anything particularly interesting and I certainly haven’t stretched it beyond what I would normally do with my old Quadras (some executive portraits and a quick location shoot) but I can already see a lot of small but amazingly significant changes from the original system.

Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that I was very impressed with the Quadra when I wrote about it in my “32 Months On” and was further impressed when the Lithium Ion batteries came out. The differences between the ELB and the Quadra for most jobs aren’t huge but everything about the new kit tells me that the designers have listened and that the manufacturers have allowed their engineers to implement some great changes. For me, the positive changes with the pack are:

  • Far better display
  • Vastly improved menu system
  • Ability to recondition flattened lithium batteries
  • Better cable port covers
  • All of my old Quadra bits and cables are compatible with the new pack

I have the new High Synch head too which brings one key improvement which is the ability to synch with my cameras at shutter speeds right up to 1/8000th of a second using the EL Skyport Plus HS Transmitter and I’ll talk about these a bit further down the page.

Let’s talk about the menus: back a few years I said this about Quadra menus “some bits of the menu system are not too obvious without the book. Changing stuff like the duration of the beep that signifies that the pack has recharged or whether the readout is in f-stops or watt/seconds isn’t too much of a problem but switching Skyport channels for the first time isn’t all that easy.” With the ELB I was changing stuff without having to resort to any instructions and the display is easy to read in just about any light. For me, this kind of progress is brilliant and it makes the new kit that bit easier to use – which is what you want, serious evolution rather than revolution.

When I swapped over to the Lithium batteries I posed the question “What do you call it when something that was already very good gets quite a lot better?” I went on to answer “an upgrade”. The downside of the lithium batteries is that if you leave them flat they can appear to be dead and not accept a charge, no matter what you do. When this happened to one of mine the marvellous folks at The Flash Centre reconditioned it for me. The new ELB pack has the facility to recondition batteries and that could turn out to be a real help. I try not to leave anything flat but if it happens again, I have the wherewithal to get myself out of that particular jam now.

As I said before, small improvements add up and the less heavily engineered and simpler port covers are great. Nothing revolutionary but a fair bit better than the old ones and the same can be said for the relatively small power bump from 400 watt seconds to 424. That’s a fraction of an f-stop but, to paraphrase a well know UK supermarket, “every little helps”.

So far, I cannot see any negatives with the new pack – a solid upgrade with some great functionality. The same cannot be said for the EL Skyport Plus HS Transmitter . That’s a mouthful so from now on it is the HS Transmitter and it’s infinitely better. It’s a lot bigger than the old Skyport – which is a great thing as I have always said the old one was unnecessarily small. The new one runs on AA batteries which answers another one of my criticisms. You get viewfinder feedback such as a ready light and, most importantly of all, you can now shoot with high speed synch if you have the right flash head. With the ELB pack there are way more functions built into the transmitter and all-in-all it is way more than an upgrade. If I have a criticism, it is pretty expensive but that’s all I can find wrong with it so far.

27 April 2016. Bournemouth, Dorset. Elinchrom Quadra ELB. Hillcrest Road Neil Turner

Moving onto the high synch head, well it looks and feels exactly like the old heads. It takes exactly the same accessories and cables as the old head and it definitely works when synching at shutter speeds in excess of 1/200th of a second. I have yet to give it a thorough testing but it appears to do exactly what it should – which is great.

Up until now everything I’ve had to say is positive and I am extremely pleased with my new acquisitions. I was asked the other day why I didn’t buy the Profoto B2 instead. The answer is that I wanted the backward compatibility of sticking with Elinchrom and I refused to pay the price for the Profoto. It has a TTL function which the Elinchrom lacks but I have no idea when or even if I’d use it and I don’t like the way that light modifiers attach to the B2. Maybe TTL would be another (the next) upgrade for Elinchrom’s ultra-portable. Maybe it would push the price up too far. Who knows.

What I do know is that, yet again, the engineers at Elinchrom’s Swiss HQ have taken a very good product that I had 100% trust in and made it better in every way that I can see. I’m a fan of these ultra-portable kits and I’ve tried pretty much every one of them since I first handled the Lumedynes and Normans back in the early 1990s. The Quadra ELB is one of the best bits of kit that I own and I will post some examples when finally get to shoot pictures that stretch its capabilities out beyond what the old Quadra could do.