RadioPoppers in the field

I've had my RadioPopper transmitter and receivers for a few weeks now and have enjoyed playing with them. But most of the time that's happened in fairly predictable situations where I mostly had the chance to check the range and reliability of the units.

Now, though, I've had a couple of opportunities to use them in somewhat more demanding situations, where I didn't just have to get them to fire my flashes but also had to adjust them "on the fly."

One feature I offer as a part of my wedding photography is an engagement portrait session. This gives me a great chance to get to know the couple a little better and also lets us make some photos in a more relaxed (and fun) environment that we might have on the wedding day, when there's so much else going on.

Pez gets a treat at the start of our shoot at the Tidal Basin. As you can see, we're working in
fairly dark shade under that overhanging limb, but the Jefferson is in (almost) full sun.

Mary & Kevin live in the DC area and, like many couples, wanted an engagement portrait that placed them in the city with all it's rich history. And they wanted to include their dog, Pez, which is something I always encourage couples to do. Having their favorite pet along gives them something to focus on and can make for some nice interactions, especially if they would otherwise just be thinking about how they were out in public drawing so much attention to themselves.

Even though the famous cherry blossom trees were not in bloom, the Tidal Basin near the Jefferson Memorial offers some great places to shoot, and we ended up there. Because the trees were completely filled in with summer greenery, the spot where we started out had them completely in the shade, and pretty dark shade at that underneath the overhanging canopy of boughs.

I'm using a basic crosslighting setup on the couple. It's a little hard to see
the flashes in the trees, so I've helped you out here with extra obviousness.

Behind them, though, the Jefferson Memorial was mostly in bright sun, though the few passing clouds that afternoon caused my meter readings for it to swing back and forth by 2-3 stops. Because our space is limited (you can't interfere with other people's access and enjoyment of the park, and the walkways are fairly narrow) I put one SB-800 on a stand a little way in front of them and parked another behind them with a snoot on it to avoid any spillover in to my lens. The "front" flash just had the diffuser dome on the flash along with a 1/2-CTO warming gel, and the back flash was undiffused but had a 1/2-CTB (blue, cooling) gel on it.

Mainly what I wanted was to put Mary & Kevin in a situation where they were framed by the trees and I could juxtapose them with the monument in the picture at a reasonable size. This meant I had to shoot "long," or use a telephoto. I slapped on my trusty 70-200 f/2.8 zoom and ended up finding just the composition I wanted. This was achieved by laying on my stomach in the mud about 75 feet away shooting through the trees. I couldn't even see my flashes, but the RadioPopper P1 could and they fired reliably every time.

I always say that pictures like this are why God made washing machines, because
I was sprawled flat out on my stomach trying to get just the composition I wanted.

And because the sun kept going in and out of the clouds I kept having to adjust my exposures to match them to the monument, even changing it several times in just a few minutes. Fortunately the RadioPoppers let you take advantage of i-ttl's high shutter speed flash capabilities, and the image above was made at 1/1600th of a second at f/6.3. This enabled me to keep from blowing out the bright-white memorial while not having to use tons o' battery power lighting them.

I've been very impressed so far with the RadioPoppers. I'm sure I'll put them through much more in the months ahead, but so far they have lots going for them. When I shoot these kinds of portraits I'm often working on my own, so I try to keep the amount of gear I have to schlep down to a reasonable level. And the RadioPoppers keep me from having to do a lot of running back and forth to adjust my flash output.

Because we were shooting fairly late in the day (which is the right thing to do) we lost our light before too long. Walking back through the park toward our cars, the August heat and haze and the slight overcast created a really nice moody effect, and I asked Mary & Kevin to just walk along the path to the parking lot a couple of times so I could shoot some more photos. No lights, except that big sun that I always joke about carrying around in the trunk of my car. As it happens, those last photos ended up being my (and their) favorites, but if we hadn't lucked in to that scene I would have been thrilled with the results we already had. And I don't think I could have made those nearly so smoothly if it hadn't been for the RadioPoppers.

My motto is, "Always use natural light. And always use flash."
Here, I'm just using the one.

Aside from the RadioPoppers, these photos were made with a Nikon D3, a Fuji Finepix S5, and SB-800 flashes.


RadioPoppers makes possible a fun group photo

My neighbor came over the other night and asked if I could do a favor: her daughter just turned 16 and was having a bunch of her friends over for a night out to celebrate. Could I shoot a couple pictures? Sure.

What I envisioned was that I'd be shooting inside their house, just bouncing a flash as the crowd of teenagers acted like, well, teenagers. But when Brooke's mom came over to get me everybody was already outside waiting for the limo to show up. So I had just a couple minutes to figure out what to do.

Luckily, my wife (the lovely Edna, who assists me on most shoots) thought to grab a monopod and a RadioPopper, so I set my one SB-800 up with her and triggered the popper from my camera. This let me have a lot more freedom of movement and let me make better light than I ever could with on-camera flash.

Edna put the flash up about 10 feet in the air, shooting directly down at the crowd from about 15 feet away, while I went way up the street to shoot with a 70-200. The long lens let me clean up the cluttered background of our neighborhood (mostly, anyway.. it's pretty crowded once everyone comes home from work) and once I dragged all the girls out in the middle of the road I told them to just have fun posing.

This group literally stopped traffic.

If Edna hadn't brought out the RadioPopper receiver (I keep the transmitter in my bag, with an SU-800) I couldn't have made this photo, because I was probably too far out of range for the regular i-ttl to work. I don't remember my exact settings on the flash, but it's pretty likely that I had it set on manual to about 1/4-power, and the zoom (on the flash) set to about 50mm to just barely cover the area where the girls were standing. There's a little bit more light spill on the street than I'd like, but hey: it's hard to aim the flash when you're also hoisting it up in the air on top of a monopod with cars honking at you.

That night I made a 20x24 print off that big proud Epson printer in my basement and taped it to the front door of her house, which really made a nice birthday present for Brooke when the limo brought everyone back home from their escapade.


How I feel about Lightroom 2

This has been roughly the facial expression I've had ever since I installed Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 2, which has been out in release form for about a week now.

I'll try to have a more complete review in the coming days, but some facets I like are:

The Adjustment Brush gives you more control than you had in the Beta version, and given that you had nothing at all to work with in Lightroom 1 it's a Brave New World that has such tools in it. One nice improvement over the Beta is that you can see the mask WHILE you're painting on an area, so it's a lot more like painting in Photoshop's QuickMask mode, and thus much more accurate.

There is MUCH better control for applying vignettes after you crop an image. In the Beta it kinda looked like you had placed a coffee can over your image and then burned the hell out of the corners, but now you can be much more subtle. That's the key to making a vignette look good: subtlety. This was true of good burning when you made a print in the darkroom. Are you listening, Stan Grossfeld?

You can apply "negative Clarity" to images, which can give them a bit of a dreamy look, and for some images that can be kinda cool. You can do this with the Adjustment Brush as well, if you just want it in specific areas.

There is a new Gradient tool that allows you to create a gradient mask over an area, like a sky you might want to darken or saturate. So far I'm kinda struggling with this, but it does have potential.

Adobe also released a new DNG Profiler tool that works with Lightroom 2 and the latest version of Adobe Camera Raw. I've only begun to play with this, but it appears to have potential to be mucho cool.

There are lots of other improvements too, many more than I can mention here.

One concern I had was that the Adjustment Brush data and other tweaks that I had applied in my Beta libraries wouldn't translate to the release version. But it turns out they all came over just fine, and even though Adobe warns you that they may not look the same, in my case they seemed to be identical. It appears that every setting that I applied either in my Lightroom 1 libraries or in the Beta for Lightroom 2 was preserved in the upgrade process.

If you're a NAPP member, you get 15% off the upgrade price, which is only $99 anyway. If you don't own Lightroom 1, it's worth the $299 full price. Lightroom is just about all I use in managing and manipulating my photos, and with this new version it looks like I'll be having to take far fewer trips to Photoshop for those little tweaks and corrections that make a picture picture-perfect.


Lovin' the D3, but still loving the S5

I've had a Nikon D3 for a few weeks now, and just submitted my review to B&H about my experiences with it. Watch for that on their website.

As much as I love the D3, I do find that there are plenty of times when I really am glad I have my Fuji S5 along, because the sensor in the S5 does amazing things. To elaborate on this, I have to make a confession:

I screw up sometimes.

Once in a while I blow an exposure. Occasionally this is due to the gear itself (like when i-ttl reaches its limits) and sometimes it's because I just have the camera set on the wrong damned settings.

At a wedding a couple weeks back, I had my assistant off to one side with an SB-800 while the couple did their first dance. This was one of those situations where lots of stuff happened in a quick sequence, and I didn't have a lot of time to set up and be sure I was ready. So the first frame that I fired off as the couple started to dance was waaaaaay overblown.

The highlights are so hot I am surprised the bride and groom didn't just burst in to flames right there on the parquet floor. Good thing I put a copyright stamp on there, or that prized image would end up getting used by photographers everywhere as their own work. Fortunately I caught this mistake quickly and the rest of my dance exposures were fine. I'm proud to be accused of chimping!

Rather than just deleting this, though, as I looked through everything after the wedding, I decided to just see if there was anything that could be done to bring it closer to a usable image. It didn't take long to get it mighty close.

This is dialed down FOUR stops in Lightroom, with a bit of fill light dialed back in to keep the people in the back from falling in to a black hole. And while it may not be a contest winner, it's one image that I'm not ashamed to tuck in to the big pile of proofs that the couple will get from me.

I'm quite confident that I never could have saved this photo if I had shot it with the D3, or with the D200. How do I know? Ummmmm, I've screwed up with those cameras plenty of times. And when I came across something like this, I just had to send it to the trash.

For Lightroom users, by the way, I've found that the way to really take advantage of the "bright light gatherers" (sounds like a movie that should have, oh, Farrah Fawcett in it) on the Super CCD sensor is to NOT use the Highlight Recovery slider. If you've got an image where the highlights are too bright, dial back the Exposure slider instead, and then use the Fill Light slider to add back in to the lower tonal range. Same principle works with Adobe Camera Raw, and I presume other apps for handling raw files.