Monday, May 7, 2012

The Calumet Wireless Transmitter In The Field

The location was the Filoli estate, and I was photographing a possible cover for Parenting On The Peninsula, a monthly journal on parenting and parenting resources on the San Francisco peninsula. When these photos were taken, the cover candidate was already "in the can" and approved by the editor. Since I was just "off the set", I was looking for some fun photos for my subject's personal use.

Since the cover photo was to be taken outdoors, I opted for a much bigger flash than my preferred Nikon speedlights. In this case, it was a Quantum QX2 flash head powered by a Norman 200B battery pack. The Quantum was mounted on a paintpole held by Cissie, my assistant, and shot through a Ziser Zumbrella.

I decided to use a Calumet Wireless Flash Triggering set to fire the flash instead of an Eilenchrome Sky Port. But how was the Calumet unit going to give me an advantage over the conventional Eilenchrome? In an earlier post, I mentioned that the Calumet unit had adopted one important feature that made it really special: You could mount a Nikon iTTL speedlight in the transmitter's built in hotshoe and maintain full access to all of the iTTL controls. Think of it this way:

  • If I used an Eilenchrome Skyport transmitter, I could control an off-camera main flash only in the manual mode. It would have to be adjusted manually. If I added a fill light, it could be triggered optically or with another Eilenchrome receiver. 
  • If I used the iTTL commander/remote configuration with several Nikon speedlights, I would have wireless flash control and could regulate the flash output of both the key and the fill lights from the camera position. But I would have to deal with the lower outputs and longer re-cycling times associated with the small speedlights.
  • If I used the Calumet unit, I could have the best of both worlds. I could wireless trigger my main light, which would be manually adjusted anyway, and use the TTL speedlight in the the transmitter's hotshoe to provide the fill light.
 Since the light to subject distance would constant, I was free to move in and out and vary the perspective and the composition while the TTL metered out a proper exposure to fill the shadows. This would give me the freedom to experiment with different distances and compositions and not worry about variations in the fill light. In this case, I dialed in minus 2 2/3 stops underexposure so it would not compete with the main light.
The key light was a single, full power blast from the Quantum/Norman set at full power at a distance of 8 feet. My exposure settings were F 13 @ 1/200 of a second, ISO 200, in a Nikon D300. I found out the while the D300 should have allowed for a maximum synchronization speed of 1/250 of a second, I was getting less than full light output due to the long flash duration of the Quantum QX unit. Essentially, the flash was still "burning" when the second shutter curtain started to close, clipping the light at the back end. This is not the fault of the Calumet unit, simply a limitation imposed by the Quantum flash. Incidentally, the new Pocket Wizard Flex unit has an adjustable offset that allow for a slight pre-trigger of the flash, something like "M Synchronization" on the leaf shutters of yesteryear. But I digress.

The lead photo turned out well. If you look closely, you can see the shadow of the nose on the subject's upper lip. The on-camera TTL flash filled the shot nicely. If you want to see what the shot would look like without any additional flashes, look under baby Nolan's hand. You'll see a dark, not black, shadow with very little detail. But the position of the on-camera speedlight was relatively close to the lens axis, so this shadow was minimal. There is one tiny drawback. If you look at this unretouched portion of Nolan's eye, you'll see two catchlights: one from the main light, and one from the on-camera fill. My father had always told me to avoid twin catchlights, and I suspect that he himself used Spotone to remove catchlights from more than a few images in his day. I did remove the secondary catchlight, just as I'm sure my father would have done.

The assignment was finished just as more and more visitors started to arrive. From our arrival at 8:45, we spent 45 minutes establishing the primary location and one hour for the cover shot and some additional supplimentary images.  Cissie and I managed to get a sandwich before the cafe got crowded, and left at 11:30.

Judging from the lead photo, everybody seemed to be comfortable with the shoot, including Dad. The outline of his nose shadow is easily seen because in this shot the light was coming from a relatively high position. And you can see the effects of the on-camera TTL fill had on evening out the exposure.

While I could have easily used 3 speedlights to achieve roughly the same light output, the faster recycle of the Quantum/Norman combination proved very useful when capturing this delightfully wiggly 6-month old baby. 

Update: October 3, 2016. For all intents and purposes, Calumet is no longer in sales. An equivalent radio trigger with on-camera  iTTL capabilities can be found here