Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Fast flash

One of the challenges when using flash with action shots is coping with the slow recycle times. Hotshoe flashguns such as the Canon 580 or Nikon SB800 take 3 or 4 seconds to recharge after a full power flash, by which time your subject is long gone.

Even with high powered battery flash such as the Profoto 7b you are only going to get a shot every second or so. This essentially means you only get one chance to get a shot before you have to send your model back for another go.

There are normally only two ways around this problem. If you’ve got the budget, use HMI lights. These are continuous lights (i.e. they don’t flash, so you can shoot as fast as you like) and they are also daylight balanced (unlike much cheaper tungsten ‘redheads’), so they are good for use outdoors. They’re what the movie industry uses, and if they can shoot at 25fps then its good enough for us at 8fps. The only problem is that they’re big, heavy, expensive and need to be run off a generator.

The poor man’s answer is to use reflectors. The recycle time on a reflector is pretty fast (humour alert), but they’re only good for fill light. If you need controllable light as your main light then you’re out of luck.

So I found it pretty interesting when the guys over at Competitive Image recently posted about how they used regular Canon and Nikon hotshoe flashes to shoot fast action. They managed to grab runners crossing the finish line at the end of a 1 mile race while still sprinting at full tilt. By running 4 flashes powered down to 1/16th power they were able to shoot at 7fps and still have the flashes recycle in time.

While there are some limitations to this technique (e.g. 1/16th power means you have to have quite low levels of ambient light to allow the flash exposure to dominate), it’s something I’m looking forwards to trying myself. Read all about it, and the problems they had to solve, here.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Just how much is enough?

Last week the medium format world was buzzing with news of the new Hasselblad 50 megapixel digital back. Exclusive to the H3D camera, it took the megapixel wars to new heights. And just as we were getting our heads around 50 MP, Phase One have just announced their new full-frame 60 megapixel back. So with pixel counts rising into the stratosphere, just how much is enough?

For the last 3 years I have been shooting with the Canon 1Ds MkII. When it came out in late 2004 it’s 16.7MP were class leading in 35mm cameras, and even medium format backs were only offering 22MP, not a huge leap forward in resolution. At the time 16.7MP seemed more than enough for any editorial and most commercial applications. Able to print a DPS (double page spread) without upsizing, for most shooters there was little need for anything more.

Even now, nearly four years later, the only 35mm camera offering more resolution than the 1Ds MkII is it’s younger brother, the 21.1 megapixel 1Ds MkIII. While there are some additional improvements in the MkIII, the extra 4.4MP certainly wasn’t enough to make me shell out £5k on a new body.

But by now 35mm was nipping at the heals of the twice-as-expensive medium format backs, so in 2006 we saw the introduction of 39MP backs from Hasselblad and Phase One. Knocking on the door of 5”x4” film quality, there was no job too big for these cameras and they were rapidly adopted for even the most demanding commercial shoots.

So we might have expected the megapixel wars to slow down as camera companies began to focus on other aspects of image quality such as dynamic range or colour fidelity. Instead we have just had announced these new 50 and 60MP backs.

So just who are these incredibly high resolving backs for? For sure, the true full frame aspect of the Phase One will appeal to many with legacy lenses or those needing to shoot super wide. But I can’t help feeling the increase in resolution is largely pointless. There will always be a group of photographers for whom the price will be worth it to help differentiate themselves from the pack. And I suppose these are the target market for the new MF backs – the few hundred or so photographers who are at the very top of the commercial photography pile who need to show that they are one step ahead of everyone else, even though most of that additional resolution will never be needed.

As for me, I’ll continue to stick with my ‘paltry’ 16.7MP cameras for now. Maybe some future 1Ds Mk IV will be enough to entice me to upgrade. But it won’t be resolution that makes me jump for the new camera – I’ll need to see improvements in other aspects of image quality, ergonomics and other features before I put down my trusty MkIIs.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008


A recent comment on my sports shooter post asked why so many of my pictures are back-lit by late afternoon sun. So I thought I would explain why and how I shoot backlit photos.

The Why?
Look around you. Contemporary lifestyle photography makes use of backlighting extensively. It creates a warm and soft feel to a photo that coveys wellbeing and naturalness, and that’s something that a lot of people want to associate their brand with these days. Take a look at photos used in advertising or the latest stock photo additions to Getty and Corbis, and you’ll see this look popping up all over the place.

The How?

OK, we’re going to shoot a lot of pictures. The key to making backlighting generate that lovely soft glow is to keep the sun either in the frame or just outside it. So here we go:

1. Wait for the light. The sun is one hell of a strong light source, so you need to wait for it to drop close to the horizon. All that haze on the horizon is your friend, and as the sun drops down the contrast will drop towards something that your camera has a chance of handling. Not only that, but with the sun low down you get more natural framing options for your subject while still keeping the sun in, or just out, of the frame.

2. Switch your camera to manual. If you shoot on Aperture Priority, your exposures will vary wildly depending on exactly where the sun ends up in the frame.

3. Get your exposure right. This is where digital offers such an advantage over film. Choose the aperture you need for whatever depth of field you require. Then shoot a bunch of frames at different shutter speeds until you get the exposure you want. It can be hard to judge highlights from the picture on the back, so be sure to be looking at the histogram. It’s OK if the sun blows out – it’s going to be so much brighter than anything else. Don’t believe that you have to hold ALL the highlights in the image, or else the shadows will be so dark you’ll either lose them completely or create too much noise when you have to lift them in Photoshop. You’re looking for a nice glow or lens flare, but nothing too nuclear.

4. Use fill light to control the contrast. Shooting into the sun can mean that your shadows have gone to black by the time you’ve controlled the exposure in the sky. Fill flash usually causes you to lose that natural look, so you’re best off getting an assistant or two to bounce fill light back into the scene using white reflectors. Plus the recycle time on a reflector is hard to beat.

5. Get your model to go through their actions – see my ‘Looking natural’ post. Find a framing that catches your model as they pass across the sun, or where the glow falls on them in a particular way. Stick the camera on motor drive and just repeat and repeat until you get a natural looking moment with the glow or flare that you’re looking for. Chimp that screen on the back to be sure you caught the moment. In fact, I find it hard to tell whether I got the shot using the back screen sometimes, so I usually keep going until I think I’ve got 2 keepers. By the time I check them on the computer I’ll usually find that one of them has some flaws that I didn’t spot at the time. 6. You now need to get the look you want in Lightroom. Usually this just means controlling the highlights and pumping a bit of light into the shadows, and you’re done.

As it happens, the nice guys over at PhotoShelter published a guide to stock photography a couple of weeks ago, and one of the pages was all about creating backlit lifestyle images. Start reading half way down. Then get out there and shoot.

Thoughts on the new Nikon D700

In case you’ve been on Mars for the last 24 hours, Nikon have just announced their 2nd full frame (or FX in Nikon-speak) camera, the D700. As with all things Nikon, Thom Hogan has already posted some interesting thoughts.

It’s basically a D3 sensor packed into a D300 body, so it loses the built in battery grip, 100% viewfinder and 9fps of the D3 but gains the compact dimensions (for a pro camera) and built in flash of the D300.

That Nikon would use the highly regarded 12MP D3 sensor in a lower end body was widely expected, and I’m sure the new model will sell like hot cakes to pros and high-end amateurs alike. In fact, I'm also sure there are many people who have bought a D3 for whom a D700 is actually preferable.

Since inventing the category in 2005 years Canon has had the only offering in the ‘affordable’ full frame market with the 5D, so it is good to see some competition at last. In fact, at over 2.5 years old the 5D is now the oldest camera in Canon’s line-up (with no competition until now it's eay to see why!), and a replacement is expected to be announced soon – August has been a preferred month for their previous camera launches, so we may not have long to wait. As a Canon shooter I’m looking forwards to this one. I’d like to see something along the lines of the leaked German Canon website I posted a couple of months ago – 16MP, 5fps, weather sealed body. I’d happily trade in my 1Ds IIs for a couple of these, as I don’t really need the 21MP of the 1Ds III and would gladly pocket the savings in weight and bulk.

But if the new body isn’t weather sealed then at least one 1Ds II will remain in my arsenal – too much of my shooting takes place in conditions that are hostile to electronics, be it snow, rain, cold, heat or humidity, and while the 1Ds just shrugs it off I wouldn’t trust a non-sealed body to last long with that sort of punishment.

And most of us are expecting at two more full frame cameras, if not at Photokina in October then before. The new Sony A900 with its 24MP full frame chip has already been announced but we have yet to see a production model, and the hotly anticipated Nikon D3x which it is assumed will use the same chip.

It’s all good news for us photographers – more high end cameras from more manufacturers means more competition, delivering better products for us to chose from. Bring it on…