Small. Light. Fast. Cute.
I went on location today. I was in a mid-sized conference room making portraits of four men in coats and ties. One after the other. The camera portion of a job like this is hardly a big mystery and really, any camera that allows you to change the lens and use a focal length that is somewhere near the equivalent of 85-90mm (on a full frame, 35mm camera) will probably suit you just fine. The predominant use for the images will be on a website and, really, just about any camera made since 2004 should do a decent job delivering a sharp, mostly happy file. It's always the lighting that's more interesting.
Last year I might have taken my case with three of the Elinchrom monolights and used them for the project but it seemed like so much overkill to haul the big case up the stairs, plug multiple cords into wall sockets, piece together a softbox and a speed ring and decide where to put it all. Since last year the folks at Cactus sent me an RF60 flash unit and three of their V60 triggers and after I figured out how to use them they way I like to light stuff I've honestly been trying to shoe horn most of my interior shoots into minimalist lighting scenarios.
I've been throttling down the size of my modifiers in an attempt to make my light a little harder. Given the high dynamic range of the Nikon D610s and D810 I don't really need to worry about softening the highlight transitions as much. When I don't have to worry about burned highlights I can spend more time getting a harder, more dynamic feel to the light. After working with friend Frank and seeing a couple of the modifiers for small flash that he uses I decided to pick up a Westcott light modifier called a Rapid Box Duo. The model I got is basically a 32 inch octagonal softbox that sets up much like an umbrella and provides several levels of diffusion as well as a little metal dish one inserts into the softbox to help spread the light from a small, electronic flash evenly across the front diffusion of the modifier. The box takes a couple of minutes to set up and most of that time is putting together the two piece flash holder that couples the flash to the soft box and the whole set up to a light stand.
I use the Rapid Box about six feet from my portrait subjects and it gives me a harder light with more contrast than the much larger diameter umbrellas and soft boxes I have generally used. The Cactus RF60 flash is a perfect companion for the quick box because it uses an internal radio trigger and the power levels of the flash can be remotely controlled by the V60 trigger sitting on the camera. At a quarter power I get quick recycling and lots of flashes from a set of Eneloop batteries. Today I used a second flash in a 48 inch umbrella with the power dialed down low (1/32th) to add just a bit of fill to the shadow side of my subjects' faces. That flash was also triggered by a V60 transceiver.
I chose a shutter speed/f-stop/ISO combination that would give me a perfect exposure with the sun lit trees outside the windows of the office and then brought the flash exposure in line to match that level. Takes longer to write about it than to do it.
The benefit of two inexpensive, battery powered flashes and a portable, collapsible octabank? Mostly portability. I didn't need an assistant to help me haul the gear up to the second floor of the converted old house that houses my client's company. Everything came along either in my Think Tank rolling case of in a stand bag in my other hand. No muss, no fuss. But it isn't always like that....
And that brings up my shoot from yesterday.
I have a client who like to have portraits made of their board of directors and their senior executives outdoors with lots of out of focus green in the background. Last year we shot for them on a day with gusty wind and direct sun. Yesterday the Photo gods met me half way and just delivered the hot, direct sun....no wind to speak of. But trying to over power direct sun is different than matching the lively green on foliage outside a tinted window that also has solar screens. In a true, outdoor setting you generally need a flash with a lot of power and, if you are shooting more people than you can count on one hand you also need an electronic flash that has lots of electrical capacity.
Yesterday's lighting kit was the antithesis of this morning's light weight assemblage. Here's why. I wanted a 4 foot by 4 foot black flag to take the direct sun off the subject. This required an extra tall Century stand that can be raised as the sun climbs in the sky. A stand with a 4x4 floating up ten feet in the air can do a lot of damage if it comes down in an uncontrolled fashion so I also needed two twenty pound sand bags on the stand to keep my insurance agent happy.
That takes care of managing the direct light but I also have found it a very good practice to put another 4x4 foot, black flag directly behind the camera so that the subject's eyeline is aimed at something that won't promote squinting. I don't want to get hit by a falling stand any more than the next person so I want to make sure there are 20# sand bags on that Century Stand as well. The third Century stand held up an Elinchrom S head, fitted with a 30 by 40 inch softbox. The softbox can also do a good "sail" imitation so that stand needed its own collection of sand bags. Wow. That's about 120 pounds just in sand bags and another forty in Century stands.
I added a white reflector on a stout, Lowell light stand to the shadow side of my subjects to add a bit more detail to the shadows. Better bag that one as well...
I used the Nikon D810 at ISO 64 to squeeze out the most extreme image quality I could manage and also because the lower ISO allows me to get ambient exposures like 1/250th, f5.6, in broad daylight. This makes syncing up the flash easy and mostly problem free. The Elinchrom Ranger AS flash is rated at up to 1100 watt seconds of output power but I like being able to use it at half power because it recycles very quickly and I can generally get about 400 to 500 flashes out of one battery charge. I do drag along another heavy, lead acid battery as a back up but it's rare I need to depend upon it.
I might have been able to make the smaller flashes work but not at ISO 64... No unless I pull a "Joe McNally" and gang a bunch of the smaller flashes together in tandem and add a radio trigger to each one. The way I figured it I knew I would have to cart and man handle the Century stands and the squadron of sand bags anyway, I might as well have all the power I needed at my fingertips.
It worked well. And the gear went from the cart to a stout cart to the set up and back again. No carrying all this stuff up the steps solo. Not by a long shot. I know most people buy one type of lighting product and then get all dogmatic about their choices. They insist on shoehorning their paid inventory into every working circumstance. I come from a different age. It was a time when we customized our kits for the task at hand. It still works.
The Elinchrom Brute Force Lighting Solution.
The Ranger RX AS Two Head System.
1100 ws. Two heads with modeling lights. Short duration flash heads.
Big, stout, speed rings. The works.
the filled case weighs in at a little over 40 pounds.
Not the extremely portable solution for everything.
Ben, mid Dive.
I learned long ago, on cold, dark mornings, that the hardest part of any project --- every project, is that first part where you are standing on the deck in the bitter, cold wind considering diving into the pool; the dread of embracing that first uncomfortable, wet chill, and the act of getting started.
That's what makes Summer swims more fun. It's already hot, the water is warmer, the chances of hypothermia remote. Even if you go to the early practice you're still pretty certain to start soaking up some solar-quality vitamin D before the workout is over.
I just got off the phone with a friend who is an exemplary photographer. He does it for money and he's a self-starter when commerce is involved. But he's been talking about his "art" project for so long that no one believes that he'll ever wrap his toes around the tile at the edge of the pool and launch himself. The cameras will never taste the rich nectar of something done for the challenge and not for the pay check.
There's always a reason for him to delay. He waited until full frame cameras hit the market, he waited until 20+ megapixel cameras hit the market, he didn't want to start his personal project when he was busy because he just couldn't stand to step away from the cash flow addiction. He didn't dive in when the markets and the economy tanked because he was too nervous to stray too long from his phone and his physical connection to the client space --- he feared he'd miss one of the few, stringy jobs to come through at the time.
Now he's waiting till he makes his first million. Next he'll be waiting till he makes his second million. ..
But his project is arduous. The one he talks about. It's a globe trotting trip that seemed so do-able when he was in his forties and even his early fifties. But the project keeps being put off. Now his left shoulder bothers him after a day of working. He's walking with a little bit of a hitch because his right knee gets a wee stiff when he sits too long. He's waiting for the situation in Greece to get straightened out. He's thinking he needs to hold onto the money his project will cost in case an emergency comes up.
Part of the trip is a walk across a couple hundred miles to go from one sea to one ocean. It's a trek that one does through the mountains, on foot. But work and family have kept him busy and the few days a month he does get out to walk he realizes that the heat bothers him much more than it did ten years ago. He's tired now. And he gets tired more easily. The idea of camping out and not having a coffee shop nearby in the mornings seems like a much bigger impediment than it every did before.
Psychologists might call this a middle aged failure to launch but I'm calling it the sneakiness of progressive entropy. And I'm pretty sure it's sneaking up on a fairly large number of my friends and will overwhelm them before they realize it.
At times such as this, when I have had yet another coffee with my friend and heard another series of plaintiff excuses for delaying his adventure yet again, I come back to my office and pluck one little book off my shelf and sit down for a quiet and short read.
The book is: Andrew Marvell. A Selection of His Finest Poems.
The poem I read is called: To His Coy Mistress. It is one of the first of a genre of poems referred to as Carpe Diem poetry. Translated: Seize the Day! I advise everyone who has a wonderful project in mind, but is consistently failing to launch, to stop and read the poem I've mentioned. I hope it's enough of an antidote to defeat that series of sensible spreadsheets one's mind is constantly constructing to put off anything risky, dangerous or imbued with the promise of too much fun.
The time to plunge in is while you still can. And the "sell by" date on that package is largely unknowable and unpredictable.
I have, once again, advised my friend to "Take the Plunge." Whether he will is solely up to him but each time I hear about the plans they are subtly diminished. Practicality is okay for some things. For art practicality is early death. Quit your job. Do your adventure. Write your book. Take your trip.
Let's not bury you before you've had a chance to launch yourself.