D3, RadioPoppers change the way I shoot

Celebratin' the ability to shoot at high ISO values.

Frankly, this is a revolution, as far as I'm concerned.

Why the D3 and D700? Before getting those cameras I was fairly well contented with using my D200 and my S5 (which I still love) and I pushed them pretty far in trying new techniques. But I was, frankly, disappointed at the amount of sensor noise that I saw whenever I went above about ISO 400 on each camera.

I should note that I shoot RAW, so I have not had the cameras performing any noise reduction on the files as would be the case if I shot JPEGs. That may have given me files that looked a little rougher when they came out of the camera, but it gave me more flexibility to work with those files later on.

But the first time I shot with my D3, over the summer, my jaw just dropped when I saw the files. I was at a wedding in a fairly well-lit church but I cranked the ISO up to 5000 for some shots in the middle of the aisle, and I just couldn't believe how good they looked. Even in those shadow areas where you transition from areas of detail-to-no-detail, the tones were smooth and there was nary a speck of noise. (You like that? “Nary?” Sounds British, huh? Classy.)

ISO 6400, 1/6oth @ f/4. Nary a speck of noise,
and a shot I might have been unable to pull off with my D200.

So, that's a big deal, right? How nice is it to walk in to a terribly-lit room and know that you can pull out not just a useable image but quite possibly even a good one?

Even better, you can use these high ISO capabilities with your flash, and when you add in the amazing flexibility that comes from using RadioPoppers you end up being able to do some cool things.

ISO 1600, 1/200th @ f/5. RadioPoppers firing SB-800's hidden to the sides.

For starters, if you're in a room that's already got moderately good light, you can crank up the ISO and then dial down the power on your flashes. Why is that good? Because you save lots of battery power, and you also speed up your recycle times. Go all night on one set of AA's! And it's nice not having to wait 3, 4, 5, 6 seconds in between shots for your flash to get back up to power. And you get to take advantage of whatever ambient light is already floating around.

And if you're in a place that hasn't got very good light, you can make pictures comfortably and easily. I was at a wedding recently where a good number of the guests spent the evening chatting in the garden, where the only light source was tealights strung up here and there, combined with the little bit of light coming out of the windows. But as people talked in the near-utter darkness, I was able to get my assistant off the side and then bounce a light from the side... OFF THE TREE CANOPY.

ISO 2000, 1/25th @ f/4, assistant bouncing off the tree canopy at right.

Why were the RadioPoppers important here? Because my assistant was well out of the line-of-sight that would have been required for regular i-ttl to work, and because I could adjust the flash's power output from the camera. So I shoot a picture, chimp it, and then refine the settings until I get it right.

I was so impressed with the D3 that I also bought a D700. Though both cameras have the full-frame sensor, I think the D700 doesn't quite have the high range that the D3 does, and I don't really like to set it higher than ISO 3200 at most. Still, compared to how I used to cringe at the noise from my D200 after I passed the ISO 640 mark, 3200 is an unbelievable luxury.

Early on in my experience with digital photography I was told that cameras have an “optimal ISO:” that is, an ISO setting where the sensor is best able to capture and interpret the most information. Generally, this is the lowest ISO setting on your camera. After that, you're just getting software to do the work for you. So, for the same reason that I used to like to shoot Fujichrome 50 film instead of Ektachrome 200, I tried to shoot as much as I could at the lowest ISO settings on my digital cameras. Now I routinely set my D3 and D700 at ISO 1250, 2000 or 3200 without batting an eye, because the sensor performs so well at those ranges and even higher. Maybe some of that is software (remember, I'm shooting RAW) but I think the full-frame capture area has something to do with it and maybe it's just a better sensor than Nikon has made in the past.

ISO 6400! 1/125th @ f/4.8. Smooth tones in skin & shadow areas. Sweeeeet.


Baptism for Virginia in Virginia

The clients that I work with start out as brides and grooms, and soon become not just married couples but families. Margaret and Steve asked me to photograph their wedding at the Springfield Country Club in Virginia in late 2005, and since that time they have had two very cool children. The most recent arrival, Virginia Marie, was baptised in December at St. Bernadette's Catholic Church in Springfield, and the family members who had gathered from all over the country then went back to Margaret & Steve's home for an intimate reception.

One nice treat on this day was discovering that Margaret is an accomplished piano player, and her time at the keys was great entertainment. We also had a chance to make some photos of all the various family groupings that seem so hard to arrange unless you have a gathering like this, and I'm always happy to let families take advantage of my services when those opportunities arise.

You can see more photos from Virginia's baptism on my website here.


RadioPoppers next generation holds promise

New RadioPopper transmitters & receivers announced!

After this weekend's announcement of a new generation of RadioPoppers, I may just end up selling off my Pocket Wizards. All 10 of 'em.


If the promise holds true, and I suspect it will, this next iteration of Poppers will not only let me control my SB-800's, but will also let me remotely adjust the power output from my Alien Bees.

Since getting the Poppers I haven't used my Bees very much, in part because I was just having fun playing with the Poppers and also because I was able to shoot my D3 at higher ISO's than I used to be comfortable using.

So, in the past, I had a somewhat complicated setup whenever I wanted to combine the two.

I rigged up my Pocket Wizard transmitters so that they would screw in to the 1/4-20 tripod socket on the bottom of my camera. This was done with a nylon screw that went partly in to the transmitter's socket and then the whole unit was spun in to the camera's socket. Then I ran a modified PC cord made from a Nikon SC-11 onto which I soldered a miniphone plug to the camera's PC socket. If I'm just using the Bees, I'm good to go, or I could add in the SB-800's on a transmitter and have my assistant adjust them based on our complex system of hand signals.

Lots to carry, even without a lens.

When I wanted to mix in on-axis fill with that or use the first generation of RadioPoppers with this setup, I could put an SB-800 or an SU-800 in the hot shoe and go to town. But this had a couple disadvantages: for one, it gets heavy, especially if I've got the flash mounted, and secondly it ends up being a lot of stuff hooked on to your camera and it can get awkward trying to use it with any sort of panache.

But the new Poppers say they will work with BOTH my SB-800's and my Alien Bees AT THE SAME TIME. So i can continue to use the Bees to create a base level of ambient light and then use the SB-800's to augment that light in a creative way.

So what will I have gained?

The ability to adjust the power of the Bees without having to physically go over to them (and they're often waaaaay out of the way, like tucked away on a balcony or clamped to something near the ceiling) to make the change.

And instead of, say, three devices buckled on to the top and bottom of my camera, I'll only have one. Or Two. But that's less than three, right? (Confirmed by looking at my fingers and subtracting) Right.

Better previews on your Fuji S5

One issue that comes up when I'm working with the Fuji Finepix S5, a camera I otherwise love, is that the ability to zoom in on your images on the back of the camera was, well, let's just say "limited." Comparing the S5 to the zooming abilities of the Nikon D3, the D700 or even the D200 really drives home that inadequacy.

Fuji built in to the S5 the ability to quickly zoom in to a face (as much as the camera is able to guess what a face is, I suppose) by pressing the lowest-left button on the back, the one just below the "setup" button.

Pressing the magnify button zooms in, and the little square shows
about how much of the overall image you're seeing when zoomed.

But, convenient as this option is, it doesn't let you zoom in very far. In fact if you're reviewing the image in the camera some time after shooting it, and you've already let your "show me the picture right after I shoot it" preview stop displaying the image, it's only zooming in on about half the image area. That really isn't enough to get a great deal of useful information from the screen. Especially frustrating is trying to determine if some small area of the photo is sharp (like, say, the eyes) because you're still seeing the face, the shoulders and a lot more of the image too.

This is the same scene. See how much tighter you can zoom in?

You can get around this limitation, sort of, by using the same button to zoom in right after you shoot the image, while the "show me the picture right after I shoot it" preview is still on display. This lets you see a much smaller area of the whole photo. Depending on your settings, though, you might only have a couple seconds to catch the preview while it's still on before it goes away. In fact your only customizable options there are to use either 2 or 4 seconds for the preview, which ain't much. But you can also set it to stay on without a time limit, which is good. So what you need to do is go in to your settings menu by choosing SETEP > DISPLAY > IMAGE DISPLAY and then selecting CONTINUOUS. Confirm your choice by pressing MENU/OK.

Setting this function will give you enough time to mess with the zoom buttons.

If you zoom in during this initial display, you can go in much, much tighter, until you're seeing only about 10-15% of the image area. That's usually close enough, on this screen, to tell whether you've got it sharp or not, and you can get some better information about shadows, reflections, or anything else you're looking for.

Now, you may be like me (and all right-thinking citizens)and you're concerned about battery life. "If my preview stays on forever, won't that drain my double-A's?" Well, quit worry, citizen: there are two ways around that. One, you can press any other button (the shutter button comes to mind) and the display will go off. Or you can go in to SETUP > SYSTEM > AUTO POWER SAVE and then set the camera to sleep after a period anywhere from 15 seconds to 10 minutes. I have mine set at 15 seconds, and if I leave the camera alone the display goes off about 20 seconds after it comes on (this may have something to do with other functions, like writing the file to the CF card.) If you set it for 30 seconds, it goes off in about 33 seconds. Set it for a minute, and you get about 62 seconds of display. You get the picture. Now, enjoy looking at it!

Tim & Sheila get married in Arlington

One day in late summer while I was buying hardware at Lowes I got a call Tim, who was eager to talk to me about photographing his wedding at Hendry House in Arlington in just a few short weeks. So, trying to block out the background music and the sounds of forklifts moving palettes around, we had a great conversation about his plans to marry Sheila in a daytime ceremony. We hit it off right away.

The weather really worked in their favor on this crisp and beautiful fall day, and it was a lot of fun watching Tim & Sheila spend the afternoon with their friends and dance in to the night.

You can view a larger selection of photos from Tim & Sheila's wedding here.

Carey & Nick in Baltimore

Carey & Nick asked me to do the photography for their wedding in Roland Park's St. David's Church in Baltimore. This is a lovely and intimate sanctuary in the northern part of Baltimore. The priest there, Father Scott, was performing his first marriage service since transferring from another parish, and I was a little worried that he was going to be quite strict about my working in his church. But he turned out to be a super-nice guy, very relaxed about the whole thing, and that made the ceremony go very smoothly even with the relatively-large bridal party.

When Carey and her mom came to visit me in January of 2008 about the wedding, I discovered that my furnace had broken, but only after I blew cold air on both of them for about two hours! Fortunately their wedding day was much nicer. They held their reception at the Maryland Club in Baltimore, which is a very ritzy place with mucho wood paneling and lots of big game peering down at the guests. It made for a very interesting evening.

Particularly enjoyable was the singalong of Steve Miller Band's "Space Cowboy," backed up by one of the best bands I've heard play at a wedding in a long time, the Sultans of Swing. All in all, a very fine reception.

You can see more photos from Carey & Nick's wedding on my website here.


Anthony & Barbie tie the knot in DC

After I first met with Anthony & Barbie, I was exhausted. The two of them radiate so much energy and joy that I felt like I needed a nap after talking with them about their wedding at St. Mathew's Cathedral in Washington. Anthony is an incredibly gregarious gent, and Barbie is bubbly and lively, and after their ceremony they had a really nice reception at Meridian House. Decorative tealights were hung around the gardens, and the warm October weather made it inviting to enjoy the atmosphere whether in the mansion or on the grounds.

Of the many beautiful churches in D.C., St. Mathew's is possibly the most ornate. It was where John F. Kennedy lay in state, and with Anthony's Boston roots this was pretty special.

You can see a larger edit of photos from Anthony & Barbie's wedding on my website here.