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.