Sunday, December 22, 2013

Just Add A Flash

Photo #1
My Nikon P7700 has become a very useful tool, so far as outdoor photography is concerned. While the big buzz is centered on the Fuji X100s, I'll stay with my Nikon until I can be shown a good reason to switch over.

I made a shot (Photo #1) at a local high school's food drive. Since my office is down the block, I decided to walk over and scout out the location before deciding how to make the photo. As a lark, I packed the P7700 in my jacket pocket, along with a SB-900 and a notebook. When I got there, the students were busy tabulating the weight of the food donations. When I found this pair of students, I saw my shot. I simply stood on a chair, attached the SB-900, swiveled the camera's view screen, and made the shot from a high angle. I pointed the flash head towards the ceiling, which was thankfully white. Shot made with bounce flash (there's a hint of light coming from the open doors in the background), no fuss, no bother. Front page the next day. Life is good.

Doggies! This pre-Christmas shot was made at a facility that trains service dogs for disabled veterans. I had my full SLR kit, all 22 pounds, with my P7700 going along for the ride. When I arrived, the dogs were playing in a "snowbank" made of shaved ice, seeming oblivious the chill on their pads. The snow was plopped in the shadow of a building, resulting in a huge brightness difference between the shade and the brightly lit singers in the background. In fact, you can see the juncture between sun and shade just behind the dog.
Photo #2
To make the shot (Photo #2), a number of actions were necessary. Since the singers in the background were of lesser interest, I concentrated on properly exposing the dog in the foreground.  First, a low camera angle would help to emphasize the dog's face and reduce the amount of shady snow I'd have to deal with. The rotating LCD of the P7700 made this easy. Next came the lighting. To minimize the brightness difference between the near and far foreground, it was necessary to elevate the light well above the camera axis. I could have used the built-in flash as a wireless iTTL trigger for my flash, but the pre-flashing sequence can add a full second to the shutter release delay. Instead, I used an SC-27 flash cable (the black one) which nearly eliminated the delay. I mentioned in an earlier post that the earlier SC-17 cable (the gray one) can also be used, although it can't be used to connect the camera to a flash serving as a Commander in the CLS configuration.

I held the cabled flash at arm's length high over the subject. I did my best to feather the lower edge of the light by tipping the flash up. I did miss the dog's paws slightly, as they are slightly underexposed. The snow required some slight burning in post production to even out the brightness, but overall, the result was a shot full of shadow detail. The exposure was 1/400 of a second at F 6.3, ISO 200. This exposure could have been duplicated in a D70, or approximated with a D7000. However, the P7700 gives iTTL synchronization up to 1/2000 of a second, giving much more latitude when trying to get acceptably exposed images "on the fly".
Photo #3
The Thorns: The P7700 isn't perfect. It has many of the shortcomings shared by nearly all non-SLR digital cameras. I can't speak for how the high end Point and Shoots (not meant in the pejorative) such as the aforementioned Fuji S100x or the Sony RX1, but the autofocusing can be painfully slow under tricky lighting conditions. This shutter lag makes "decisive moment" photography difficult and frankly, the iTTL delay just adds to the misery. Photo #3 doesn't look like much, but a few seconds before, the dogs were surely doing something really cute.
Photo #4
Depth Of Field: The P7700 has a small sensor, smaller than the APS sized sensor of the X100s or the full frame sensor of the RX1. Without getting technical, this translates into an unreal depth of field at any given aperture. This photobomb, courtesy of Ford, the Golden Retriever in Photo #4, shows his relatively sharp face in the foreground and some sharp trees in the distant background. This really surprised me.
Photo #5
Fine Tuning: When balancing a foreground subject in shade with a fully lit background, subject placement is extremely important. In Photo #5, you can see my subject is completely in the shadow of the building. This prevents "hot spots" that will be seriously overexposed when the additional lighting from your flash hits the subject.

If you look closely at the snow behind the subject, you can see the line where direct sunlight and the shadow meet. Just be sure that you subject stays completely in shade. Notice too that all of the shadows are pretty much pointing in the same direction, namely towards the shooter's right, helping to make the image more natural.

The P7700 is getting to be the outdoor go-to camera when flash is needed. This doesn't make my Sony R1 any less useful, but its inability to function in a TTL flash exposure mode makes it better suited for more deliberate shooting, while the P7700 is just easier to use. So long as I stay with low ISO settings, I can safely ignore the noise issues associated with small sensors. So while I consider it very useful tool, the P7700 won't replace the DSLRs in my kit any time soon.

December 18, 2013: A quick update. From my point of view, images with plenty of shadow detail reproduce better on newsprint. I don't make a claim that these photos are necessarily high art. They are successful in getting the point across and have lots of shadow detail. 

One other gripe: The Nikon lens hood retails for $50.00, and I'm a bit distracted because I can't remember where I left it. I later bought a Chinese knock-off, complete with a 58mm lens cap, for about $12.00, and I can't find it either.