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.


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.


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.


Make a cheap, crushable DIY flash diffuser

Ever since I first started playing with craft foam to make my DIY snoot for my SB-800 flashes, I've been mulling the possibilities of using this stuff for other kinds of light modifiers and gobos. Now, using a 12x18" sheet of white craft foam I've been able to make a couple of nice big diffusers for my speedlights that fold down to almost nothing and can be stuffed in to any spare space in my camera bag.

You can make one of these for your flash in less then ten minutes, and it they cost less than $2 apiece.

To make this handy little diffuser/redirector, I first cut the sheet of craft foam in half so that I had two 9" by 12" pieces. Turns out that 9" is just about the diameter of my SB-800 head with just enough overlap to tack on a piece of industrial Velcro to hold it together. At this point, I've basically got a large tube fitting over the unit — doesn't all this just sound so dirty??? — that is acting like a snoot. But a snoot is not what I want.

So about halfway up the length of the foam I fold it down, which causes the whole piece to buckle and form a big scoop. Of course, it doesn't hold this shape on its own, so I cut a vertical diagonal slit about 2 inches long on each side at the point where I make the fold, and then attached a small set of Velcro fasteners to the points where I want it to hold the foam in place once it's folded.

And to give me a bit more light spread, I cut away a section of the sides just above where the flash head fastens to the foam, about 2-3" up and maybe an inch or two in. You can see this in the diagram. This completes the "scoop" look of the diffuser and helps throw a little more light forward right from where it comes out of the flash head. Round off the corners for aesthetics, and you're done.

So you might be thinking to yourself, why is this any different from a plain old bounce card? With a bounce card you are primarily throwing light toward the ceiling to fill the room with most light falling, essentially, downward once it bounces of the ceiling, and your bouncecard is there to throw maybe 10-20% of it forward. Well, here my objective is not to bounce light off the ceiling, but to throw as much of it forward as possible in a way that is softer than just using direct flash. So I end up with a very directional variety of light that comes from a reasonably large source and is fairly soft. Think of it as being like a mini beauty dish.

It's also better than using the diffusion dome attachment that comes with the flash, because you're not throwing light around to the sides or behind the flash. Those of you with eagle eyes and a desire to nitpick will notice that I do get a little bit of light coming through the foam, so it's not reflecting as much light forward as it could and it also is lighting up some of the space behind the flash. But that's mostly because for this first attempt at fine artisanal craftmanship I used a fairly thin piece of foam. They (I'm talking "Big Foam" here, or FOPEC) make two or three different thicknesses of foam, and next time I'll probably go for the medium grade rather than the thinnest stuff. Hell, this only came about because my wife dragged me to Michaels for her needlepoint supplies and I found myself killing time in the kids crafts aisle.

(NOTE: Since making this first prototype I've gotten my hands on the thicker foam, which is 3mm thick according to the label, and it virtually eliminates any light loss out the back. )

This light looks great for tabletop shots, like my little Danish dude holding the star. But any flash attachment like this loses its benefits the further away you get it from your subject. So if I was shooting a portrait with this and had my flash, say, five feet away, it's not going to look too much different than if I was using a point-source (like direct flash.) But I often use several flashes on a shoot, and if I put two or three of these arrayed five feet or so from the subject, suddenly I've got me some nice lookin' light. And as I said in my DIY snoot post, the beauty of this material is that it's super--lightweight (I don't think this diffuser even weighs two ounces) and it folds up or wads up and can be tucked in to your pocket without any permanent harm. You might end up with it being a little bit wrinkly, but we all get that way as we get older.

This foam comes in several colors, so I guess if you wanted you could use orange or red or green or whatever to create some colorful effects. But it seems easier to just gel your flashes rather than carry around a bunch of foam, and you probably lose some reflectivity from the other colors. You can get this stuff at your local Joann or Michaels store, and you can probably find it at any sort of craft store and maybe even places that sell toys because it's designed mostly for kids. But it holds up nicely: it's easy to cut, holds its shape pretty well, you can easily attach fasteners like Velcro or snaps to it and I like it because I'm not allowed to have pointy scissors.

So far I've only made these for the SB-800. But a few days ago I finally bought an SB-900 and it's a much larger unit. But given how cheap the foam is, I'm willing to experiment on making a bigger diffuser. In fact I'm kinda wondering how big a piece I can get away with, so that I could end up having a huge diffuser with more than a square foot or so of surface area to spread the light around. Given how very lightweight this foam is, it just might be easy to do.

The photos in this post were all shot on a tabletop in my basement against a white paper seamless background using a Fuji S5 and SB-800 flashes set on manual triggered by RadioPopper PX units.


I sold all my film gear

I sold all my film cameras last weekend, and it felt good.

The Mamiya M645 system with four lenses, powerwinder and polaroid back? Sold.

The TWO Contax G2 bodies, six lenses (every one they made for it) and two flashes? Sold.

Two Nikon F100's. Sold. An N-90, too. Man, that was one beat-up dinosaur.

Also, about nine Nikon speedlights, leaving me with only eight now. Don't worry, I'll order more.

The camera you see in the picture is one of only three film cameras I saved. That chrome beauty is a Minolta Super A, circa 1951, and it was my first real camera. My dad had owned it for years and finally let me start using it (he still claims ownership, whereas I go by that whole "9/10ths of the law" bit) around 1973. When I finally got the 85mm lens for it, I felt like a real pro, because now I could switch between the 35 and that. I haven't shot a frame with this camera in 30 years, but I'm not getting rid of it.

I kept my old point-and-shoot, mostly because I forgot to bring it, and also I've taken two photos on it that have won awards, so there is some sentimental value. On the flip side, it probably isn't worth $10 bucks on the market these days so I don't really lose much by keeping it in my kitchen drawer.

For my purposes, film has been dead for years now. Believe me, I was a very reluctant convert to digital. I saw the first few generations of even the most expensive digital cameras, bodies that would set you back $15-Grand that you had to carry a backpack full of support gear to use, and they were crap. So I never thought I'd switch.

Finally, though, my clients started "advising" me that it would be in my interest to go digital, or they would perhaps find themselves less interested in hiring me, so I hunkered down and bought my first "work" digital camera in late 2004. Even then I tested it for a couple months before trying it out at a wedding (the bulk of my work) and even THEN only as a backup for the first few times.

But I tell ya, I loved it.

First and foremost was the little window on the back that let me see what I just shot. Man, that option opened up my creative mind ten-fold. See, when I shot a wedding or an event or an assignemnt on film, I'd work an idea and then I'd have to wait hours or days before I saw the negatives to find out if it worked. But now I could see it INSTANTLY. And I could adapt on the fly.

Even better, if I had some sort of problem, like a light not firing, I knew it right away. Not like that weekend where I went out on a boat in the Florida Keys with a bunch of people at night to watch Halley's Comet and then drove from there the next day to a friends wedding where I shot the photo of the brides family that had not been all together in years..

..only to find out two days later that my flash hadn't worked for either shoot and all those irreplaceable, unrepeatable scenes had not been captured on film after all.

Another fact of digital photography that I LOVE: I never get stuck having the wrong kind of film in my camera for a given situation. I can't tell you how many times I would be photographing, say, a wedding in a dark chapel, using TMAX 3200 that I planned on pushing a little past that rating, and just when the bride and groom finish up and run outside in to the bright sunlight I'd find myself with half a roll unshot and desparately stopping down 18 stops while running my shutter speeds up in to the high-thousands. (For those who don't know, TMAX 3200 really is an 800 speed film and you're just pushing it chemically in development when you take it higher than that. It pushed pretty well, especially compared to Tri-X, but it generally looked awfully rough in the finished product. In the newspaper business it was a godsend because when you're printing on toilet paper you don't preserve a lot of detail, but I don't think I produced too many images at that speed that I want to keep up on my wall.)

But I never have that filmspeed problem with digital. Heading in to a dark cavern? Dial that ISO up to 3200 or higher and keep shooting seamlessly. Come back outside on to the beach? Dial it back down while you're walking out. If you know your gear, it takes less than 2 seconds. As good as I got rewinding rolls, popping open the back and threading in a new canister and then firing of the 2-3 frames to clear the leader, I don't think I ever did it that fast. Digital lets me work seamlessly and discreetly (no motor drive rewind motor whining, for instance.)

My digital cameras have made me a better photographer.

I can shoot something, know right away if my exposures and composition are working, try something new, or move on the the next thing if I've got it "in the can" (an old film term, oddly.) You know: chimp it, check it, change it if you need to.

For instance, when I was shooting the photo of the film canisters that closes this essay, I made a discovery about how those little LED lights look if you point them straight in to the lens. So I played around with those for a bit until I got something kinda fun. For a picture shot with two flashlights and two little lights I keep on my carkeys, it works. And it's a picture I never would have gotten to with film, because I wouldn't have seen it until a day or two later, or longer, when I didn't have anything set up anymore on my tabletop.

Throughout this posting, Ken Rockwell has probably been grinding his teeth. He's been on an anti-digital, pro-film rant lately, and that's fine. And I'll cede to him the fact that there are situations where low-speed films do a beautiful job that rivals or beats what the best digital cameras can do. But I can also say confidently there are a lot of situations where digital now leaves film in the dust. Especially in low-light, the professional digital cameras I've used have produced better pictures with less noise than any high-speed film I've ever dunked in developer.

And I will grant to Ken or anyone else that the techniques and the mindset for making successful digital images are a bit different than they are with film. Fortunately, I cut my teeth shooting slide film, so I was always very careful with exposures. That made it easier to understand and account for the potential for blown highlights and other dynamic range issues with digital. But, knowing those, I feel like I have much more flexibility than I did with film.

Did I mention instant gratification? I'm big on that, as all America seems to be. I'm not talking about the little window on the camera. That's great, but what I really mean is the fact that I can see and work with and deliver the images I've shot within just minutes of walking in my front door after an assignment. None of this business of driving to the lab, waiting around an hour, or a day, or 2-3 days, or a week (if it's a LOT of film I've shot.) Just yesterday I drove in to Washington to shoot an assignment. I started shooting a little after noon, was in my car an hour later, got home at 1:45 and had the final product -- toned, edited, captioned, cropped, ready for press -- at 3:45. And in the meantime I watched the Daily Show rerun and had some lunch.

When I sold my gear it was at a photo show, and there were a lot of people who came up and asked me questions about the equipment and about photography in general. As ubiquitous as I think digital is, there are still thousands of people for whom it is still a giant mystery. So I will do what I can in this forum to demystify some of this stuff. There are lots of different variables to keep in mind, and it can seem daunting. But remember how it was when you learned to drive. You have to monitor your speed, watch for other drivers, remember where your feet are, look out your mirrors and pay attention a hundred times a minute and at first it seems impossible. But after doing it for a short time your biggest worry is what song is playing on the radio and how cool you look behind the wheel. It can be that way with photography as well. And when you do it right and do it confidently, it makes you look WAAAY cooler than any old car can.