Friday

Pocket Wizards on the auction block


UPDATED 10/15/09 -- These auctions have ended. Congrats to those who now are enjoying reliable long-distance flash triggering!


Now that I've filled out my RadioPopper system with the JrX transmitters and receivers, I am finally putting my old Pocket Wizards up on eBay.

I've got a couple PW transmitters, one PW Plus II transceiver, and several receivers up there, as well as a bunch of cords that I've used as part of the system (you really need the cords, at least for the receivers. All this stuff is in very good working order, though there are some scuffs and scratches on some of the cases where they show a little wear. What matters is what's on the inside, as my mom would say.

Here's the link to my stuff, if you're interested.

Keep your Nikon Lens Extended Warranty Paperwork!

Just a few days ago my sparkly, shiny new Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens arrived from B&H Photo. I was lucky enough to check their website during one of the ten-minute periods when they have these in stock and placed my order right away. Half an hour later, they were sold out again.


Inside the box was a packet of papers, one of which was was the form you have to fill out and send in to get the extra four years of warranty coverage on the lens (one year is automatically included.) In the past I've found it very useful to have that extra coverage, because it's free and even normal wear and tear on a lens can necessitate a trip to the repair shop every few years. But there's a terribly important secret that I didn't learn about until just recently..

The form you mail in warns that you must send in the paperwork to register for the extended warranty within 10 days of the date of purchase of the lens. "FAILURE TO DO SO INVALIDATES YOUR ESC (Extended Service Coverage)" The capital letters are mine to make it sound more ominous.

But last November when I had some trouble with the mount being worn on my 70-200 f/2.8, which was well within it's five-year coverage period, I was mighty surprised to get an email from Nikon containing an estimate of around $500 to repair it.

Immediately I called them. "That sucker's under warranty!" I barked. "We don't have any indication of that," they calmly responded. Fortunately, I'm extremely anal-retentive and I saved my copy of the mail-in postcard for the warranty extension. "Send us that (or fax a copy) and if it's real your repair will be covered," they told me. So I did, and it turns out that I was spared the distress of having to cough up $516 to get the work done.

Bottom line: I still mailed in the postcard for the 24-70, because maybe somewhere in the filing system at Nikon where "Top Men" are studying it my paperwork might really have some meaningful purpose. But I will make sure to send along my copy (or a copy of my copy) if I ever need this new lens fixed because the folks down at repair central don't seem to have access to that secret warehouse where the warranties are kept.

One quick note:

The 24-70 is one helluva sweet lens. It is super-frickin' sharp, so much so that I have to wear extra thick glasses when I look at the photos on my computer to avoid cutting my eyes. And it's a great range. In the past I've carried around the 17-35mm f/2/8 and the 35-70mm f/2.8, both of which are great lenses but meant that I was sometimes fumbling around changing lenses when I wanted to be shooting. You know, that frustrating feeling when you start composing that perfect shot and find yourself thinking, "golly, I wish I was zoomed in just a LITTLE tighter on this." The 24-70 fills most of that range and when I used it at last weekend's wedding I didn't feel like I was missing the few extra millimeters on the wide end. Even better, I had to carry around less glass for the 8-9 hours I was shooting, which makes my knees and back happier. So I'm giving a big "thumbs up" to this new lens.

My choice: RadioPoppers or Pocket Wizards

I've had a couple people ask me what I would recommend they do about purchasing either the RadioPopper Px and JrX system or the new Pocket Wizard system, both of which will allow tremendous control of your flashes and studio systems right from your camera.

Short answer: I'm going to go with RadioPoppers. Long answer: it's hard to know from here which system is going to be better in the long run. I'm going with what I've found to be easy and reliable.

My first set of remotes was a getup called Hawk Remotes. They were, if I recall correctly, essentially garage door openers for your flash, only less graceful. When I used them, I was amazed that I didn't have to run a sync cord all the way across the room to my flashes. And they were much better than the optical slaves out at the time, because my flashes would fire only when I wanted them to: not when somebody else took a picture. True, they were about the size of a small shoe and had that fancy bronze finish on them, but I used the hell out of them. Frankly, I don't remember how long ago I got rid of them.

When Pocket Wizard came along with their system of transmitters and receivers, I was again thrilled. Over the years I have been very loyal to them, and they to me. Now I have four transmitters (one's a "transceiver," so it swings both ways) and five receivers, and about the only time they've ever failed me is when I let the batteries die or somehow mangled one of them, which is pretty hard to do.
But with the Wizards I wasn't able to do anything except know (and believe me, the knowledge alone was comforting) that my flashes would fire when I pressed the shutter. If it turned out they were too bright for the amount of ambient light — something that is very common when you're shooting in one place over several hours, like at a wedding reception — I had to stop shooting, go over and adjust the lights, meter it, take a few test shots, and then go back to actually working.

RadioPoppers took away all that hassle. Well, most of it anyway. Now, if I had some SB-800's set up around the room I could change the power output right from the camera. It saved several minutes, and over the course of a 5-hour wedding reception it probably saved me maybe 20 minutes that I could be using to better advantage. But the first generation (P1) system didn't let me do anything about the Alien Bees I might have in place, and in fact I had to rig up a system where I had a Pocket Wizard on teh bottom of my camera going to my PC outlet and a flash with a RadioPopper on the top so I could fire both.


Now RadioPoppers will, they say, let you fire all these off-camera lights right from the one Px transmitter unit. When the JrX system comes out in another few days, I'll be able to hook up an inexpensive (they're saying well under $100) receiver up to my Bees and work everything right from the camera. If something's to bright or too dark, no more walking over to the lightstand, brigning it down from 13 feet, dialing down the power and hoisting it back up. Super frickin' sweet, if you ask me.

Pocket Wizard has a system out now that they claim will let you do the same thing, and that's great. But so far it only works with Canon cameras and flashes, and being a Nikon guy that's makes it useless to me for the moment. When they come out with the Nikon technology maybe that'll be great. By the way, many of the Canon flashes apparently generate their own radio interference field, so there is a condom you can put over it which looks just about as elegant and professional as I describe.

Because I already have money invested in the Poppers, I think it's likely that I'll stick with that system. (By the way, I'll be selling all those Pocket Wizards on ebay before long if everything works as described.) They've been extremely reliable, and the only instance where I've had any difficulties with my Px units has been MORE than made up for by the amazing customer service out in Arizona.

Now, it does appear that the Pocket Wizard units let you do some fancy fudging to get a little more power out of your flash, in part by subtly changing the timing sequence for when the flash fires. But to be honest, I've got enough on my plate. It took me forever to figure out how to make the pictures on this blog pop up when you click them, and I don't need another learning curve heaped on the pile of learning curves I already have.

One other concern I have about the Pocket Wizard transmitters is related to design. You see, the RadioPoppers fit snugly to the side of my flash. So when I'm carrying around a camera with a flash in the hotshoe, the Popper doesn't add a great deal to the profile of my gear such that it might catch on something or get in the way. The Pocket Wizard transmitter is designed to work with your hotshoe, as a kind of extension of it. That may give it more flexibility in terms of function, but it also raises the flash up another inch or so away from the camera.

Now, I already find my cameras a little top-heavy when I have a flash mounted on it, and the last thing I want is for the flash to stick up even higher away from the body, changing the center of gravity all that much more. If they made powerful, intelligent, versatile squatty little flashes that would only stick up a couple inches from the camera I'd use those in a heartbeat, but they don't.

Lastly, it appears that the foot of the Pocket Wizard transmitter is made of plastic, while the trend has been to make those feet of metal in most modern pro flashes. I have heard some colleagues argue that they like this in a flash (the plastic foot) because if the camera takes a hard shock they want the flash to be the thing that breaks away, instead of the prism being damanged. But I also have to say that I've never known anyone to whom that has happened, and these are folks that cover wars and other shoots that are hard on gear. I have, however, had the plastic foot on my older flashes crack from the stress of daily wear, so I'm glad that my Nikon's now have metal feet. I think a metal foot for the Pocket Wizard would have made sense here.

Whether one or the other system is right for you, I can't say. The Px transmitter and receiver are more expensive than the Pocket Wizard model, but I can tell you there's very little i have to worry about or configure when I set up my flashes using the Poppers. And they do offer an enormous amount of flexibility in how you control your light. Combined with Nikon's ittl "commander" capabilities, you can have six different sets of lights firing at different values, some ttl and some manual or all manual. Impressive. And the JrX models, if they really do come in at the price that's been hinted about, will be one helluva bargain for the money. Leap Devices has delayed the release of the JrX units a couple times, but I think that's because they really care about making sure these things are terrific as they head out the door. I think it will be worth the wait.

Tuesday

Customer Service is key

Most of the time when I have to deal with a product issue it's a frustrating experience where nothing gets resolved. Companies hide behind the FAQ pages and the "support" sections of their websites and if you're lucky you can send an email that may be answered by an autoresponder with a tracking number within 48 hours to which you should not reply. But that's not the case with Leap Devices, makers of RadioPopper Transmitters & Receivers.

After using my new RadioPopper Px Transmitter and multiple receivers for a few weeks, the darned thing began to act kinda hinky on me. Occasional misfires, flashes going off at the wrong power, and other little frustrations began to make me wonder about my setup. Frankly, I thought the problem likely lay in my SB-800's. They've been blown down to the ground by windgusts toppling my light stands so many times I figured their insides were all messed up. Eventually, though, I realized that the issue might be with the Px transmitter, so I sent an email to RadioPopper Customer Support. Then I went to a movie, because I didn't expect to get an answer for a coupla days.

Because my mom always taught me to be polite and courteous, I turn my phone off when I go to a movie (I'm looing at you, lady in row 3, seat 7.) And on this day, I wasn't going to let anything interupt me, because I was watching the new Star Trek movie. (Yes, I'm a Geek.)

When I got out in to the lobby after the thrill ride, though, I had a voicemail message waiting for me from Rachael at RadioPoppers. She had some ideas about why my transmitter wasn't working properly and asked that I call her back as soon as possible. I was impressed.

We did spend about 1/2 hour on the phone trying different tests, and concluded that I did have a firmware issue (I was an early buyer, so I had the oldest version) and if I sent the transmitter in they would turn it around the next day and get it back to me so I wouldn't lose shooting time.

I sent it in, and even ordered a second transmitter, and Racheal even upgraded the whole shipment to 2nd-day delivery at no charge, and this last weekend I was up and running again with perfect working units.

Frankly, this is the kind of service that keeps me coming back to a company. There are businesses from whom I've stopped buying products simply because I was so frustrated dealing with them, and it was great to deal with a firm that takes care of its customers.

Now, I guess because this is a "photo blog" I have to have a photo, so here's a picture of my cat.



Sunday

Lenses for making portraits

This was a sad weekend for me. My next-door neighbors, who were the first to greet us when we moved in 14 years ago, are moving away to a new home a few miles away. Because all their kids were home and I wouldn't have many chances to gather them like this again soon, I offered to make a family portrait as a going-away gift.


As I prepared to shoot them in our neighborhood, I realized that for most portrait situations I really like to use telephoto lenses rather than shooting wide.

Why? Two main reasons..

First, shooting with long lenses cleans up the background.

You are tightening your field of view to a much smaller area than you see with a wide-angle, taking away much of the feeling of clutter that can really distract from the subjects.


For my neighbors portrait I just walked them outside between our two houses and put them in the shade, throwing a little bit of fill light with and SB-800 and using the sunlit trees behind them as a background. You can see from the wide-angle photo that this isn't the prettiest place you might start with for a portrait, but their time was limited and it was not intended to be a fancy production. But I did want the picture to look nice, and frankly it wasn't gonna if I included my siding and utility hookups in the photos.

So my best option was to put on my 70-200 and use it pretty much fully zoomed in. Instead of parked cars, mailboxes and the brown patches in my yard I ended up with a set of photos that show off what good-looking neighbors I used to have.

Second, your depth of field is much more limited with telephoto lenses.

Even with a very small f-stop (I'm at f/4 below) you still get enough definition and just plain stuff in the scene that you can barely concentrate on that special H1N1 mask my anonymous assistant is wearing to keep away the swine flu.

"Can you get this narrow zone of focus with a moderate telephoto, or do you have to own one of those big lenses the pros and all those movie stars use?"

A number of "consumer level" cameras these days come with zoom lenses built in that go out to 135mm and more. But to really bring the effect to life you've got to go to 200mm or longer. The B&W photo below was made with a Nikon 35-70mm lens at just around the 50mm mark. I actually wanted to show them "in amongst the rushes," and it's a nice picture, but I don't think it's as graceful as the color photo of them that was shot in about the same place in the field but with a longer lens.



One way to "help" drop the focus on the background is to have your subject fairly close to the camera. The further you get out toward the infinity setting on your lens, the more stuff that's close to being in focus, proportionately. That is, if your subject is only six feet from you, the range of stuff that fits in your depth of field is pretty small — say, five to eight feet. So stuff thats further away in the back will be much blurrier. But if your subject is 25 feet from you, the range of your depth of field covers maybe from 20 feet to 40 feet, so most everything is going to look a little more defined. All of that depends on your f-stop, but perhaps you get the idea. If not, just experiment. Photography is about screwing up and learning from it.

"So, when would you want to shoot a portrait with a wide-angle lens?"

Well, there are times when you have to, usually because there just isn't enough space to step back away from your subjects in order to frame the various elements like you want to.

Photographing Kate & Rob for their engagement portrait in St. Michaels, Maryland recently, we started out on the dock behind the inn where they were staying. It was pretty, and I loved the sun reflecting off the water, but if I stepped by more than about five feet from them I would have gone in to the drink. So at this angle I didn't have much choice but to go wide. This photo was made with a Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8 set at around 20mm.

Also, there are times when you WANT to show off the background. As we walked around talking and taking pictures in a couple different spots in this quaint old watermans' village on the Chesapeake Bay, we came across a restored sailing ship. I wanted to show the masts and rigging behind them, and as we were getting close to sunset the sunlight really started to play nicely with the clouds and I wanted to show that too.



Again, below, with Joanne & Scott I shot some pictures wide because I wanted to show the docks and atmosphere of Baltimore's harbor as the sun went down, but very quickly at dusk that interesting texture goes away as you lose detail in the shadow areas. Switching to a long lens let me still work with the small area that was still reflecting the last glimmers of sunlight. The wide-angle was taken at 5:25 p.m. (this was still in winter) and the telephoto image just over four minutes later.


"Are there pitfalls to shooting portraits with wide-angle lenses?"

Yes. Aside from the clutter issue, you have to be very careful about the way in which wide-angle lenses distort objects close to the front of the lens. Particularly noticeable are hands and feet, or really anything that gets up near your filter. Think Dirty Harry pointing that .44 Magnum right at you. You want that effect, but most of your subjects won't want freakishly bloated hands. This becomes especially pronounced toward the edge of the frame, so I try to remember to have people pull their hands in toward the center a bit. If you do get bloated hands, you can correct a little bit of this in Photoshop, but usually not all of it, so I like to avoid it if I can.


In the photo above, because she's leaning back on him, the hands start to get just a little bit big. But they're not yet so exaggerated that they look weird, and the interaction between them is so nice that I'll just let it be.

Also, you have to watch your perspective when you shoot wide. I'm very careful to make sure that the camera is as level as can be when I'm shooting. I use grid screens to help me line up horizon lines and architectural features like doorways and building edges, which really helps control distortion. If you're going super-wide (say, wider than a 24mm lens on a 35mm camera) you can really get a lot of perspective distortion if you tip the camera even a little bit.

"Are there pitfalls to shooting portraits with telephoto lenses?"

If you're shooting a big group portrait, you need the depth of field to get the people in back as well as up front in focus, so you wouldn't make good use of a telephoto in that situation. And it's easy to end up with a fairly flat image — not in the sense of contrast, but remember that you're taking real-world three-dimensional objects and compressing them down in to two dimensions. So you have to use other elements like lighting and tonality to keep your subjects from looking like paper cutouts on a flat surface.


In this photo the dark forms of the trees, the highlights of the foliage and the fact the couple is backlit help to separate them out from their surroundings.

Probably, of all the photos I've shown you here in this post, the pictures of my neighbors are the ones with the least amount of "creative spark," but they mean a lot to me because we've been such good friends for so long and I hope they will be important to them for that same reason. Often, photography is more about relationships than it is about technique.

Friday

How to do good group photos

My posting about shooting group portraits has been one of the most-viewed on this blog, and this week's story about, um, "changes" to the new Israeli Cabinet gives me the chance to talk about one of the most important aspects of any group photo.

IT'S NICE TO BE ABLE TO SEE EVERYBODY.




Isn't that the whole purpose of getting everyone together and telling them to stand up straight? You want to see their faces.


So in this photo of the new cabinet, there are at least seven people who are blocked by other people standing in front of them. If this was done for a gaggle of photographers, then there isn't much that any individual shooter can do about that. But if this was, say, an official handout photo shot by one person (which is not unusual) then the photographer should have remembered to say nine very important words that should be shouted out before the shutter is pressed on any group shot..

"IF YOU CAN'T SEE ME, I CAN'T SEE YOU."



I say this every time I have a gathering of more than just a handful of people. In every crowd you've got somebody who is maybe a little shy, or isn't quite in to the whole participation thing, and I very commonly have to say "I can see you there in the blue dress hiding behind that tall bald guy! C'mon out!" or words to that effect. People also don't seem to understand that even though they can see you with just one eye, you can't make them out when they're covered up by that danged bald guy. So if you can, scan your group quickly with both of your eyes before you bring the camera up to your face, and adjust people as necessary.


Of course one way to get around this is to get up high, as I mentioned before. If you don't have a stepladder with you (and I ALWAYS have one with me) you can use the natural high and low spots of wherever you are to aide you. Stairways are great for this.


Along those lines, here's a useful tip:

USE THE ARCHITECTURE

Washington is, of course, great for this. So many cool and grand buildings. But almost any city or town has nice buildings with oodles of texture and style. Look for ways to enmesh your subjects in to that texture.


A natural tendency seems to be to want to line up against the wall as though your subjects are a group of rebels about to be eliminated by a firing squad, or maybe they've just got a lot of experience standing around in police line-ups. So pull them away from the wall, get them to sit or relax and have fun and you'll end up with a nicer portrait.

Speaking of relaxing,

HAVE THEM CLOSE THEIR EYES.

This is one my dad taught me. He's an enthusiastic amateur, and where he picked this up I don't know but it has saved me many times.

If you're making your subjects stand there and grin for more than a few seconds they're gonna get pretty tired. Very soon, smiles start to look artificial and strained. A great way around this is to have everyone close their eyes, relax their facial muscles, and then you can shoot them on the count of three right after they open them again.


One trick I do to get a nice burst of smiles and laughter from groups is to go ahead and shoot a photo while they have their eyes closed. People hear the camera and are usually pretty surprised and amused that I've done this, and the next frame is often filled with very fresh and upbeat expressions.

GIVE PEOPLE SOMETHING TO FOCUS ON BESIDES THE CAMERA.

It's darned awkward to stare in to a lens for your portrait. So, people look around and the intent of the group shot gets diluted. Very often, I try to make my subjects pay attention to me by clever banter (I think it's clever, anyway) or by physical gestures that get them to watch what I'm doing. This doesn't mean I make a buffoon of myself, but I merely rely on the fact that people watch objects that are moving and making noise. It's the reason people stare at the TV when you're trying to call them in to dinner. If I change my position a bit and try to keep the crowd entertained, they're focused on me and I can slip behind the lens very easily for the shot.


For this picture I was sprawled out, in a suit, on the wet pavement trying to get their reflection in the puddle. Most of the wedding party was so surprised that they paid attention and it made a fine photo.


ASK WHAT THEY WANT TO DO!

Journalists are taught (if they have good teachers) that they should always ask at the end of an interview, "Is there anything I haven't asked that you can tell me or that you want to tell me?" The same holds true with pictures. I ask people all the time, "How would YOU like to be photographed?" And very often this ends up producing the best photos of a session.



If your subjects are doing something they want to do, chances are they are going to put a lot more energy and emotion in to it than if I'm just giving them orders about how to behave or pose. So don't be afraid to encourage even the stuffiest of stuffed suits if they've always wanted to do something wild and crazy, because you never know if they'll say yes. When they do, you're gonna get a picture that you both love.


How NOT to do a group photo

The BBC's website has this story today that deals with the problems that can arise when you get a group of people together for a portrait.

Now that Benjamin Netanyahu has finally emerged as the next leader of Israel, he has formed his cabinet and introduced the group to the media. But two newspapers in Israel, described by the BBC as ultra-orthodox, were uncomfortable with the fact that there are two women in the group.

The newspaper "Shaa Tova" chose to black out the women in the photo it published. Their rationale, seemingly shared by the newspaper "Yated Neeman," is that publishing photos of women is a violation of their modesty. Some newspapers with this "philosophy" apparently never even mention the names of women in public life. Good thing Tzipi Livni didn't win. (Awkward!)

But Yated Neeman went one weird step further, replacing the women in the photo with images of men!



Having built my career on the carcasses of newspapers, this makes me cringe. I'm all for respecting cultural vagaries, but this falls off the cliff of accepted practice into the abyss of ridiculousness.

Here's an idea: instead of lying to your readers, why don't you just NOT RUN THE PICTURE? If it offends you to think of women having public lives, which according to an activist interviewed in The Independent, it does, then just don't mention it.

By the way, speaking of The Independent, I did find this juxtaposition interesting on their website.



But in all seriousity, the group photo did suffer from another serious problem, which can be solved if you read my next post.


Monday

Using RadioPopper PX system with Nikon

Let me start this review of the RadioPopper PX system by saying that, in general, I love RadioPoppers and they have made a dramatic difference in how easily I can work on assignment. They're great: reliable and with tremendous range, they make it much easier to shoot out there in the field.

That said, I'm gonna have to declare that I'm not crazy about how these were redesigned from a physical standpoint (their electronics have also undergone a major revision, it seems) and they way they interface with my Nikon gear.

There are some good aspects to the redesign. Both the transmitter and receiver are smaller than the RadioPopper P1 units. Any time I have to carry less stuff, and when it doesn't stick out as much on the gear I have around my neck, I'm happy. The PX receiver is considerably smaller than the P1, and you now have the choice of mounting it on top of your SU-800 or on the front of it (so you don't have as much height projecting upward from the hotshoe, which is important if you're carrying the camera over your shoulder rather than around your neck.)

You can now get to the batteries without having to unscrew the whole unit! This is a fantastic change. The P1 units that I mailed back for my refund (that's coming, right? Soon?) were pretty much held together with duct tape by the time I was through with them, and hardest on them was having to change the AA's inside. But I'm willing to put $5 on the notion that in a few months the new battery doors on at least one of my units will break or fall off. Because it is only a flimsy piece of plastic that detaches completely, it's inevitable that as the clips weaken with repeated use the door will go missing at some point. I would have been willing, frankly, to sacrifice a little bit of compactness for better construction here.

So far, none of this stuff is really Nikon-specific. But I think it's fairly clear that the receivers, at least, were designed primarily with Canon flashes in mind and that your SB-800's were a bit of an afterthought. In fact the default system setting on the transmitter and receiver is for Canon, so you need to change that first thing if you're a Nikon user. On Canon flashes, the receiver fits snugly on the front of the flash with very little, if any, overhanging area where you could accidently yank the receiver away from the strobe. On the SB-800 and SB-900, the receiver hangs precariously on the side of the flash and creates a conglomeration that is inelegant at best.

To be fair, the argument could be made that this is really a result of the Canon flashes having a better design to start with. I can only respond there that I don't shoot with Canon gear, and as a result it must be inferior. (Okay, okay, I'm kidding.. hold yer hate mail.) But with either flash you suffer some tradeoffs by having to put the PX receiver right over the sensor area. I suspect a lot of people complained about the fiber-optic tubes in the P1 units, but those did have the advantage that you could put the receiver in a number of different places on the flash and then run the tube over to that little Mouser clip. If you had to stick your flash in to a tight space, which isn't all that uncommon, you weren't constrained by having the receiver in a fixed spot.

Having done away with the tube, the exchange of information for i-TTL involves having the receiver unit placed right on top of the sensor on your flash. Another factor here is that because of some subtle timing changes, your flash could get "confused" if it sees the actual pre-flash from your commander flash AND the pulse from the PX receiver, resulting in the unit not firing when you want it. So, not only does it have to be right on top, it has to seal out the ambient light that might hit the sensor, which is accomplished by a little piece of foam that fits over the connection. So far I've had trouble with that foam (it compresses too easily, meaning that if you accidentally don't center it properly you risk squishing it over to the point where it covers the connection. Result: no flash.) I'm thinking of trying to apply some of my leftover craft foam to replace the sponge provided with the system.

With the revised electronics comes new flexibility: you can choose from a wider array of channels in case you're shooting alongside several other photographers using the units. Smart. You get an instant read-out of the battery level. Very, very useful. On the transmitter you can choose three different groups of flashes to fire at different manual power (this is above and beyond what you can do wiht i-TTL): that's gonna be super once the JrX units come out. (Soon, right?)

And you can adjust the brightness of the LED's, which so far I have found to be a hindrance more than a help. When I first got them, I took the light level down to 2 (where 1 is dimmest, 5 is brightest) and it wasn't any problem indoors. But when I got outdoors, I couldn't see the lights at all. Even cranking them up to 5 didn't really gain me a lot. Conclusion: I'm gonna just leave them as bright as they come, and I never really considered this a problem in the past with the P1's.

Speaking of the P1's, the new PX transmitter is backwards-compatible with the P1 receivers, but I was a bit let down here. In order to make this happen, you have to set not only your PX transmitter to P1 mode, which cuts down on your options a lot, but you also have to set ALL your other PX receivers to P1 mode. Originally I had thought I might keep my one remaining unbroken P1 receiver and use it in tandem with the PX system, but having to change all the units every time I wanted to add it in to the mix seemed a bit onerous.

Why all this griping about the design? Because that's really all that's wrong with them. When they work, and if you're the least bit careful and attentive they will work very well every time, they are amazing. But for all the super-brilliant behind-the-scenes stuff that happens, they don't yet interface as smoothly as they need to for working professionals or even enthusiastic amateurs who are going to abuse these puppies. I could put up with that for the P1 units, because you know there are a lot of bugs to be worked out with a first-generation product, but I expected a little more from the second generation. In truth, these folks are trying to put a piece of hardware on top of a system that isn't supposed to have any extra hardware on it, but I'm just hoping the next generation ends up being a better solution.



The photos of Jessica & Matt were shot with a Nikon D700, using SB-800 & SB-900 flashes triggered by the new RadioPopper PX transmitter and receivers.

Wednesday

Spotlight on the SB-900

How's that for a lame headline? But it kinda works with the picture. Now let's get serious..

I got the SB-900 a couple weeks ago and have mostly stared at it trying to figure out the buttons (yes, I have read the manual cover-to-cover.) This flash has been out for a few months but I didn't really need to add a flash to my collection of speedlights until recently.

This thing's a monster. Huge flash. Almost too big, really. Most of you young kids probably don't remember the Honeywell "Strobonar" flash that was commonly called the "Potato Masher" among working press. Many an angry mob was subdued at the sight of that mighty sledgehammer. Nikon is trying really hard with this flash to take us back to those good old days, only it's more awkward to hold in one hand than the potato masher was.

One of the nice things about shooting Nikon over the past, say, 30 years, has been that all the parts were interchangeable. I can put my 40+ year old Nikon lenses on a D3, and use it if I want to. If I lost the diffuser dome from an SB-800, I could grab one from an SB-80 and it fit, no problem. Can't do that with this flash. The SB-900 is a different size, from top to bottom, than previous flashes.

The foot is bigger, so you have to use the mount that is made just for that flash if you want to stand it up on its own. So even though I have five other mounts for my SB 800's, they don't do me any good if I want to stand up my new flash.

This monster sits nearly two inches taller in my camera bag, so that it doesn't close as neatly. If I'm on the run (and there's an awful lot of running in my work — seriously, it's like being David Tennant's sidekick) I like to have everything battened down, and this bigger flash makes it a little more awkward.

None of these is really a deal breaker. I mean, I bought the damned thing, I 'm gonna use it.

On the plus side, I do really like that I can switch it very quickly from Remote mode to Master mode. There really are plenty of times when I might need to switch quickly from using the flash in TTL mode to propping it up somewhere (on its own, dedicated holder, unfortunately) as a remote flash so I could get some light off to the side. Not having to press-and-hold-the-center-button-for-two-seconds-and-then-navigate-to-the-CLS-settings-and-then-press-that-and-then-navigate-to-the-right-choice-and-then-press-"okay"-and-then-press-"exit" is an actual time saver. Today I was only using one flash, and in previous uses I've only had to use it as a remote flash off on a stand, but I really can imagine where I'd need to suddenly use it as a master one minute and a remote the next.

And, on its face, the little turny-wheel that you use to navigate through the settings looks and feels like a good idea. But in practice, I found that I ended up overshooting the settings I wanted, and sometimes accidentally moving waaaaay off the mark when I was in a certain setting (like, when I wanted to underexpose a little when shooting TTL, I'd dial it back to maybe 4 stops under in the blink of an eye when I only wanted to take it down 1/3rd of a stop.)

Nikon did add a cool feature where it's possible to adjust the bulb & interior lenses so that you get an "even" spread of light from the burst, rather than a lot of light in the middle and then a fair amount of falloff. Having played with this just a little bit, I'm not sure why I would want to ever take it off the "even" setting, just because it's kinda nice to have that sort of light spread. You can see how that spread works in these three photos, where I've started with the Even illumination option, then moved on to Standard spread, and finally have it at Center-Weighted. I've got the zoom set on 50mm here, and I'm firing straight in to the backdrop from 35 inches away.



Note that because you're spreading out the light more evenly, you get a little less in the brightest areas compared to the center-weighted option. There may be situations where this matters to you, such as if you're zoomed way out and want to get as much light concentrated in the center as possible.

When I shoot an assignment I try to travel light. I wear a belt-pack with just the stuff I might need on a shoot. Usually that's a small pouch for accessories, another for my 70-200 lens, and a pouch for a flash. That way I can shoot with one or two cameras and quickly switch the various parts around to suit my needs.

With the SB-900, there are, frankly, too many extra parts to make that style of shooting convenient. Particularly annoying is the extra plastic attachment that holds colored gels in place. It fits under the diffuser dome, yes, but beyond that it's a nuisance. On the go, it's not that easy to gently fit the gel film in to the holder and take it out again. So today, as I went in and out of offices lit by fluorescent light in to daylight and then in to a tungsten-bulb room I found myself sticking the plastic attachment in to my shirt pocket pretty often, and at the end of the day I was more annoyed by it than thrilled. I pretty much need an extra pouch on my belt for just the various parts of the SB-900.

The gels provided by Nikon, by the way, have a thickness that's measured in angstroms. (All you physicists out there are laughing your heads off.) Most gels are thin, but these babies seem extra waif-ish. With my other gels I've used one sheet of laminating plastic to thicken and toughen them, and I'll have to see if that works for these. Nikon has added a small, um, square of something (not sure if this is a chip or just a benign piece of material that passively acts on the flash) that tells the flash what kind of gel you've got on. If you're shooting on-camera with a D3 or one of the newest models, the flash is supposed to automatically set your white balance (if you're in Auto White Balance mode on the camera) so that everything matches.

Again, on its face, that seems cool. But if you're the kind of shooter who walks in to a room and thinks "gee, I better put on the appropriate gel" you're gonna already know to set the white balance on your camera to match or complement the ambient source and your flash temp. I say "match or complement" because sometimes you don't want it to match. A lot of photographers, including me, use a little bit of warming gel on their flashes while the camera is set for daylight balance, resulting in those nice warm flesh tones everyone loves. If the camera were being adjusted automatically, thanks to the chip, then I think I wouldn't like the result very much at all. You get a small indicator blip on the flash display telling you what kind of gel you've got in, but you have to look pretty hard to pick up on it.

So far I've also had a bit of trouble using it with a RadioPopper PX receiver, but I'm thinking that may be as much of a problem with the receiver as it is with the flash.

After all this ranting I guess I'm as happy to have this flash as not. As David said when he looked at this flash a while back it's probably useful to have it as my "carry" flash because I switch back and forth between Master and Remote modes. But for my next flash I'm probably going to look on eBay for another SB-800.

Thursday

Mounting RadioPopper PX receivers on an SB-800

With the new design of RadioPopper PX receivers, a number of improvements have been made as far as performance is concerned. I'll be providing a fuller review on that quite soon. But while they seem to interface nicely with Canon flashes (unless you need help with autofocus) they seem to be a poor match for Nikon flashes. But it doesn't have to be this way.

Seen from above, this setup looks mighty precarious..

The makers of the PX receivers — and don't get me wrong, I love what these folks are trying to do — have managed to devise what I think is a very awkward way to attach the unit to your SB-800, SB-600 or SB-900. In each case the receiver is held on by only a very small surface area, and there's a pretty good risk that you could easily knock it off your flash even if you use the double-sided tape rather than the Velcro. And maybe I'm an exception, but I like to be able to put my flashes away in a camera bag (or in one of my Think Tank pouches on a belt) when I'm done, which is not so easy the way they want you to attach the receiver. These three photos show where they recommend attaching the Velcro (in red) on both the receiver and your flash, and the resulting overhang.




From what I can tell, the only reason they have decided to position them this way is so that you will have quick access to the battery door on your flash. That's nice to have, but you might have to change batteries, what? Maybe once in an 8 hour shoot? I shoot weddings and often come home with the same batteries in my SB-800's that were there when I walked out the door.

So I don't think battery access is a problem. Instability and fragility are problems, though. If I'm constantly handling a flash, pulling it out of my bag and picking it up or having my assistant work it on a monopod off to the side, I want everything to be wrapped up as tightly to the flash as possible so I can hold it as one unit and I won't have to worry about someone brushing by and knocking something off.

They might have been worried about the slight curve in the body design of the flash, but once you get Velcro on the increase in surface "grabbing" area more than compensates for the arc.

To remedy this, I simply turned the receiver on its side. Putting the rough portion of Velcro on a much larger area of the receiver, and matching it to a nice big area on the side of my SB-800's, lets me gain a secure hold without compromising the "seal" that is supposed to be formed by the foam circle over the light pulse transmitter. I even opted to put a small patch of Velcro on the battery door itself, and for a while I worried that this would mean I could rip open the door when I didn't want to. But then I realized that I naturally have to grasp that side of the flash anyway when I want to remove the receiver and there's plenty of room to keep a finger over the battery door to prevent it from opening. These three photos show how I ended up configuring the attachment.





On the RadioPopper blog there is an announcement of a new plastic shoe that will hold the receiver against your Nikon or Canon flash without having to use Velcro at all, but for me this doesn't solve the issue of the receiver hanging out over the side (on a Nikon flash) and making the whole unit bigger and less manageable. The beauty of these units is that they made them smaller than the P1 transmitter and receiver, so why then would you want to go back and add more bulk to the thing? Also, if you use an external battery that plugs in to the three-hole outlet on the front of the flash, it appears you can't use the new plastic attachment.



They've also announced that JrX units are undergoing a design change and won't be ready for a bit longer yet. Much as I hate to say it, I wonder if the PX units couldn't use one more trip to the design drawing board to make them work better for Nikon flashes. It might even be practical to make separate models for Nikon and Canon flashes. This is what PocketWizard is doing with their new units, and I don't think there are too many shooters who use both, or who would have to switch back and forth in any one shooting situation.