UK

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

RGB and me

I get involved in a lot of discussions about the finer points of photography both online and in person. One of the most common this year has been the about choosing which RGB colour space we should all be working in. The truth is that there are a number of variables which, between them, should point you in one direction or another. There are plenty of RGB colour spaces but the main two are Adobe RGB and sRGB – mainly because these are the options you have when shooting with most DSLR cameras. There are a couple of others (Colormatch and ProPhoto) that offer wide gamuts and some real technical advantages but, as I hope to explain, this isn’t necessarily helpful. More isn’t just a waste, it’s a potential problem.

Ideal Worlds

In an ideal world we would have cameras, viewing and reproduction systems that gave us every tiny subtle variation in colour that the human eye can see on a good day in great light. We don’t. Yet.

What we have to work with in the Spring of 2017 is a range of different types of screens, projections and printing systems and those printing systems rely on an almost infinite variety of inks, pigments and papers. That’s before we even start to discuss all of the other materials onto which we can now print. So basically we, as photographers, have a series of moving targets to aim at and it’s almost always been the case in my career to date that I have no control over those targets. The same picture may be used for social media, newspapers, magazines and Powerpoint presentations and it is my job to supply those pictures in a format (or series of formats) that will enable the client to get consistently high quality results from them.

Bringing that back to the topic of RGB colour spaces means that I and my clients have choices to make. Those choices almost always involve compromise. Compromise almost always means that nothing is perfect for anyone or anything. In a version of the ideal world as it exists today I should be shooting, editing and supplying my pictures in the colour space providing the widest possible gamut of colours and tones providing the most vivid yet subtle renditions of the colours that match the brief and my vision for that brief. Maybe the client could pay for enough post-production time for me to provide two, three or more versions of each photograph suitable for each type of use. They don’t have the budgets in 999 cases out of 1,000. Maybe those pictures would then be taken by colour technicians and modified for each and every use and converted to the relevant colour space using the best equipment and software available. It doesn’t work that way very often.

What actually happens is that after I have supplied them the pictures are viewed and judged on a range of un-calibrated monitors in less than ideal viewing conditions before being sent to the web or to reproduction that doesn’t make any allowances for the kinds of screens, inks, pigments or papers that are going to effect how the pictures look. Because of this it has become sensible to make some compromises.

Adobe RGB is better isn’t it?

Yes but no… There’s no denying that in every single way Adobe RGB is superior to sRGB. It has a wider gamut meaning that the differences between colours and tones can be more subtle. There’s a case that says if you want wide gamuts and subtle gradations why stop at Adobe RGB? Why not go the whole way and work in ProPhoto or Colormatch? Good questions and here’s where we get to my reasoning about why I don’t bother.

The first is that most of us rely on what we see on our screens to make decisions about colour and tone during post production. If you work on anything but the highest of high end monitors which have been calibrated to the most exacting standards under ideal viewing conditions then you won’t be able to see the whole Adobe RGB gamut let alone the ProPhoto or Colormatch ones. Forget working on a laptop – unless you have your monitor and your colour management down to a fine art then you will be using guesswork and approximations on your images. Worse still, very few browsers, applications and viewing systems are smart when it comes to colour management. You might, through a combination of skill, judgement and good luck, get your pictures to be as good as they possibly can be only to experience the heartbreak that is seeing those perfect pictures displayed on dumb systems and looking like the flattest and most inept renditions of your images making you feel that you have not only wasted your time but that you may have done something wrong.

Sadly, all of those systems that make your images look awful will also make the Jpegs straight from your mobile phone look pretty good. Not to put too fine a point on it, the phones, tablets and screens that the vast majority of our images are now viewed on are not au fait with Adobe RGB but they love sRGB. Most of the printing systems and most of the automated systems for converting RGB to CMYK for printing work just as well with sRGB as they do with Adobe RGB because almost every CMYK colour space has a narrower gamut than sRGB does and that’s important.

What do you do with the spare reds?

stock-neil-012

Imagine a photograph of a red telephone box on a street in London with a red car next to it and two people walking past wearing their bright red Manchester United shirts swigging from cans of regular Coca Cola. Got the picture in your mind? How many variations of red are there in your picture? It’s a sunny day, there are hundreds and the differences are often very subtle. You’ve shot the picture in RAW (of course) and you are going back to your high end workstation to process the pictures. Your have a monitor capable of viewing the whole Adobe RGB gamut and you get to work. A short time later you have an edit of ten great pictures with all of those subtle reds looking as good as they possibly could and as good as you hoped they would. Save them as Adobe RGB Jpegs and whizz them off to the client. Two things can then happen:

  1. The client understands photography and has a completely colour managed work environment with decent screens and runs applications that can see Adobe RGB files properly.
  2. The client doesn’t work in a wholly colour managed environment and their monitors show your photographs as dull flat pictures that look worse than their own phone pictures.

If there’s any chance of getting option 2 instead of option 1 you have a problem and you can do a few different things:

  1. Work in Adobe RGB, saving the photographs in that space but then doing a batch convert to sRGB to supply to clients who they suspect cannot handle the wider gamuts.
  2. Ignore the issue and continue to supply in Adobe RGB and then complain when the work dries up or when the client comments on the flat files.
  3. Supply two sets of pictures; a “viewing” set of medium sized sRGB files and “printing” set in Adobe RGB
  4. Move to an sRGB workflow and supply everything in sRGB.
  5. Become a campaigning photographer, strive for ultimate quality and educate every one of your clients encouraging them to invest in perfect workflows.

The same goes for every colour. Purples and magentas can easily get mashed up when reducing the colour gamut and greens are famous for moving to mush really quickly in many CMYK spaces.

Why I’m a type 4 photographer

Several years ago now I realised that I wasn’t supplying any of my pictures to clients with workflows that could actively take advantage of Adobe RGB files and so I started to convert my carefully worked Adobe RGB pictures into sRGB before getting them to the clients. Most of the time I was working in decent conditions on my Eizo monitors and the rest of the time I was making educated guesses about how the pictures looked on my laptop.

It worked OK but I started to wonder what happened to those colours that were inside the Adobe RGB gamut but outside the sRGB range. How did an automated batch conversion deal with those subtleties? Photoshop offers several options for rendering those out-of-gamut colours ranging from shifting everything by the same amount down the scale to employing seriously sophisticated mathematics to translate the colours using what it calls “perceptual intent” which keeps the balance of tones without damaging the safest colours to accommodate those either side of the line. I asked myself why I was doing this when I had a RAW file to go back to should I need a more nuanced version of an image. The clients wanted (even if they didn’t know it) and usually needed sRGB files so why did I need Adobe RGB ones? Logic dictated that I try working the images within the sRGB gamut to start with. No more wondering which rendering option would do the best job (if I had a choice) and a lot less reliance on guesswork when I was editing on the laptop. Where, I asked myself, was the disadvantage to working solely in sRGB? I couldn’t find it then and I still can’t find it now.

The clients are happy. I’m happy. Win/win.

Based on a pragmatic and professionally sound set of reasons I now set my cameras, my computers and my whole workflow to sRGB. Having done that there are two further advantages that I had never considered (but really appreciate).

Monitors

Here in the UK you would struggle to buy a decent monitor with a genuine 100% of the Adobe RGB gamut for under £1,000.00. You can buy a quality monitor that handles 100% (and more) of the sRGB gamut for under £600.00 and have considerably more choice. Money saved on buying kit is always something that you should consider when you do this for a living.

Filenames

There’s something else that always bugged me. Canon and Nikon’s higher end cameras always change the leading character in the filenames to an underscore when you were shooting in Adobe RGB. Clearly someone, somewhere thought that this was a very useful thing to do and both of the major manufacturers still adhere to it. It really annoys me – in an almost irrational way. Moving over to sRGB has cleared this daily annoyance from my life (unless I’m editing other photographers’ work) but I’d love to know why Canon (and Nikon) cannot make this a custom function in their cameras rather than imposing it on us whether it suits us or not. This isn’t a reason to switch to an sRGB workflow but it is a side effect that I appreciate. Of course by the time most of my pictures arrive with the clients the files have been renamed anyway but one or two clients like to keep the original camera filenames too.

I shoot RAW anyway

All of this is a matter of opinion and logic for me and I always have the RAW file to go back to should I need it to create Adobe RGB versions. In the last two years or so since I went all the way to sRGB nobody has said “please supply us Adobe RGB files” (all of my clients are polite and always say please by the way). This is probably a case for my favourite piece of advice

“if anyone ever tells you that there’s only one way to do something in photography, don’t listen to them, they’re a fool.”

I’m convinced that, for now, I have it right for me. Want to tell me how and why I’m wrong?

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.

Seven things to agree on before taking a commission

© Neil Turner, October 2014. Production of John Foster's Shot At Dawn in the Council Chamber at Bournemouth Town Hall.

© Neil Turner, October 2014. Production of John Foster’s Shot At Dawn in the Council Chamber at Bournemouth Town Hall.

Quite a lot the posts that I’ve uploaded to this blog in the last few months have been related to the business side of photography. For those who want more of the old dg28 – your time is coming soon. In the meantime I wanted to post my thoughts on what you should agree with your client before undertaking a commission. This is taken directly from my own outline terms and conditions which are posted on my website. I have absolutely no objection to any photographer copying and/or adapting these seven points for use in their own terms and conditions because, in my opinion, the more of us who do this the more likely it is that potential clients will be used to the concepts and it will require less pushing to get them to negotiate.

Terms and Conditions of supply – commissioned photography

INTRODUCTION – The following seven sections represent the basis under which I undertake photographic assignments and commissions for commercial, public relations and editorial photography. They are intended as a background document to which specific or varied terms can be added or amended.

There are, of course, many pieces of legislation that will have an effect on how my relationship with clients works, not the least of which is the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

I really don’t want to scare clients and so I have worded them as simply as I can and I’m always happy to discuss and explain how my terms and conditions apply to you.

  • COPYRIGHT – Unless agreed in advance and in writing I do not assign copyright to any clients or third parties. Please be aware that buying the copyright is far more expensive than buying an extensive and wide-ranging license.
  • LICENSES GRANTED – As a client, you would be granted a license to reproduce and/or distribute the photographs. All licenses have geographical, time, media and usage restrictions. My policy is to negotiate a license that meets your needs and represents the best value for money for you and/or your client. Use of the photographs outside the terms of the license granted would be a breach of copyright.
  • LICENSE EXTENSION OPTIONS – If, having agreed a set of license conditions you subsequently realise that you need wider use of the photographs I am always happy to negotiate a license extension. Whilst the cost of buying extensions will be greater than that of buying the right license in the first place, you will find that my rates are very competitive.
  • DELIVERY METHOD AND DEADLINES – As part of the commission we will agree how, when and where the photographs will be delivered. Options include web galleries, CDs and DVDs, FTP, email and on USB flash drives. Photographs will be supplied in the agreed format within the agreed deadline. Copies of all files will be retained in line with industry best practice and any subsequent re-issue of any or all of the image files will be subject to a charge equal to the actual cost of producing and delivering them plus a 20% service charge.
  • INVOICING AND PAYMENT – Fees and costs will be negotiated and agreed before the commission takes place. Should the details of the commission change then alterations to the costs will be agreed as soon as possible. New clients will be asked for a purchase order or a letter confirming the commission, agreed fees and costs as well as acceptance of my terms and conditions in advance. Once the commission has been completed I will send an invoice to you with payment terms and methods outlined. The grant of license will only come into force once payment has been made in full. VAT will be charged where the law requires. If the client postpones or cancels the commission within 72 hours of the start time I reserve the right to charge 50% of the agreed fees. Cancellations or postponements within 24 hours of the start time may be charged at 100% of the agreed fees.
  • THE LIMIT OF MY LIABILITY – As a professional photographer I take great care and pride in my work and in my relationship with clients and the subjects of my photography. I cannot, however, accept liability for unexpected events including: poor weather, industrial disputes, sickness or injury, equipment malfunction, model release disputes, property release disputes and other actions or accidents that are outside my control and that cannot be reasonably predicted. Please note that any mains powered equipment that I use will be PAT tested, that I carry £5 million of Public Liabilities insurance and that my photographic equipment is regularly tested and serviced. Should you require any specialist insurance to be taken out for your project, the cost will be included in the fees. Back up copies of your images will be stored using reliable methods but I cannot accept liability for systems failures.
  • DISPUTE RESOLUTION – If, for any reason, you have any queries about the service that I have provided I will be happy to discuss your concerns. Photography is a creative activity and I accept commissions on the basis that you are buying my skills and that you trust me to apply those skills in accordance with our discussions and verbal agreements. Written confirmation of commissions should always include any “must-have” picture requirements and, where technically and creatively possible, I will fulfill your requests. If I consider any of your requirements to be unfeasible or if any of them become so during the shoot itself I will point them out at the first possible opportunity and offer solutions.

None of this rocket science and none of it would be form a great contract in isolation but we have seven things to think about and a rock solid basis upon which to build a working relationship with a new client.

Hands and portraits

John Redwood MP, photographed during an interview in January 1994. © Neil Turner/Insight.

John Redwood MP, photographed during an interview in January 1994. © Neil Turner/Insight.

It’s January 2017 and like most photographers I am looking forward to the year with a mix of excitement and trepidation. What kinds of challenging and interesting projects are going to come my way in the next eleven and a half months? How is my work going to develop? Am I going to get enough work to pay the bills? Big questions that add to the roller-coaster of emotions that being freelance brings out.

One of the things that I always try to do is look back at some of last year’s work and compare it to older stuff and try to come up with some thoughts that help me to understand my own style better and to make sure that I don’t get tripped up by the same old mistakes. There’s a question that pops into my head about this time every year and it is one that I think that I am finally happy to answer:

What do you do with hands in editorial style portraits?

Almost every time that I shoot a portrait I try to give the client/editor as much choice as I can. Tight head and shoulders only portraits are one thing but what about wider compositions where the subject’s arms and hands start to feature? How should I get people, who don’t do it naturally, to pose? I quite like to keep some pictures as tight as I can and so folded arms are really useful because they bring the hands and arms higher up the body allowing me to frame the photographs that bit tighter. Nine times out of every ten that you ask someone to fold their arms you end up having a conversation about body language and lots of corporate types have been told by their PR people that folded arms look defensive. If only all things were that simple: folded arms bad/hands in pockets good just doesn’t work in photography. Folded arms in pictures can appear defensive but they can also appear as positives – they can be friendly, strong, loving, confident, feeling cold and so many other things. On the negative side they can appear aggressive, angry, lacking in confidence and forced. If you put “body language folded arms” into your favourite search engine you’ll get a few thousand articles written from a few hundred different perspectives telling you that folded arms can mean a number of different things and that context matters. Like so many things in life, it is a matter of judgement and skill and in the photographic portrait it is definitely a matter of getting the relationship between the folded arms, the composition and the facial expression right.

I can understand why PR people are wary of folded arms because they can go hideously wrong but you should never rule out a fantastic photographic tool just because it can be misused.

What about hands in pockets?

I’ve already mentioned hands in pockets. This, by the very fact that the hands are further away from the face, gives a wider composition and some people look great when relaxing hands in pockets whilst others look awkward. That’s where the skill of the portraitist comes into its own; working out who does what well and getting them to trust your judgement when photographing them that way. The difference between lazy and relaxed isn’t that great and you need to train yourself to distinguish between the two.

Over the last twelve months I have been asked to shoot a lot of pictures where the subject has their hand on their chin/lips/ears/hair (mirroring one of the least appealing ‘selfie’ trends appearing all over social media) or where they are cupping their face with their elbows on a table or the back of a chair. It isn’t something I would naturally ask someone to do but if they naturally do it themselves then I will often work with it and see if it makes the picture. Sometimes it comes off but it mostly looks contrived and, quite frankly, a bit naff. Did I say a bit naff? I meant a lot naff.

What else can you do?

One of the most useful ways to shoot portraits is to do it when the subject is talking to you or to someone else and gets a bit animated. Hands suddenly move away from being a potential problem to be a massive asset. Again you have to be a bit careful about what kind of gesture because we all know that pointing fingers, waving two fingers or forming a fist can be misinterpreted very quickly but, if you are in the business of portraying someone as they really are then their subconscious hand movements are a very useful way of getting there quickly.

Jacqueline Wilson receives up to 400 letters from young readers each week and does her best to answer as many of them personally as she can. © Neil Turner/TSL

Jacqueline Wilson receives up to 400 letters from young readers each week and does her best to answer as many of them personally as she can. © Neil Turner/TSL

Back in the mid 1990s I even shot just people’s hands on several occasions. Lots of people were exploring the same idea and several photographers did it far more assiduously and successfully than me. It is, however a great exercise for two reasons: the first is that it gets you notice that people have character in bits of their body other than their faces and the second is that shooting their hands can help to relax more nervous subjects.

Of course you can get the subject to clasp their hands gently on front of them or behind their backs. Hands on hips works about 2% of the time and almost always requires a smile

You may have noticed that I’ve used words like useful and often and sometimes a lot in this short post. That’s deliberate because there really are very few hard and fast rules in good portraiture. Getting people’s hands into the frame is something that I love to do (not a January 2017 revelation) and portraying people as themselves is a primary goal (probably a January 1987 thought). Great portraits rely on a number of factors working together and getting something that is a lot stronger than the sum of its parts.

My January 2017 goal for the year is to get better at the way hands appear in my portraits. I’m not going to shy away from folded arms, hands on hips or anything else but I’m not going to ask anyone to touch their lips or in any other way pose as if they were a teenager doing a selfie that they’ll regret in six months time.

Want to see more? My portraits portfolio can be seen here.

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.