Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Phottix Ares Radio Flash Trigger

Transmitter flipped up to the "extended range" position
I've been playing with the Phottix Ares radio trigger and have been very pleased, so far. In an earlier post, I mentioned that I bought it because I wanted to experiment with a dedicated, radio controlled speedlight. The real reason was I broke the ribbon cable on my neutered Nikon SB-28DX speedlight, rendering the hotshoe circuitry unresponsive. It could only be triggered through the supplementary PC connector on the side.
  • Reliability: The Phottix has been a refreshing change from the other (cheaper!) Chinese radio triggers I own. Now you get what you pay for, and I've paid much more for radio triggers with very high reliability profiles. So far, it's been as simple as remembering to turn both the transmitter and the receiver units on, and you're basically good to go. The transmitter /receiver pair has been extremely reliable so, but I have yet to experiment with distances farther than fifteen feet. But after using the Photix for several weeks, I can share the things I like about the unit:
  • AA Batteries: Both the transmitter and the receiver use a pair of AA batteries, which add somewhat to the bulk. But the ease of replacement can be a godsend when you accidentally put one away in the "on" condition.
  • Mini-Microphone Connections: The receivers have a convenient hotshoe for quick setup, and will accept Mini-Microphone cables when necessary. I connected said SB-28DX with a cable that had a mini-mike connector on one end, and a (Nikon style) locking PC connector on the other. This gives the user the reliability of  the mini-mike connector and access to a variety of cables to properly connect the flash you are using. In all the units that I've personally used, the lesser radio receivers with a PC connector don't have the clearance to accept the more secure locking Nikon-style connectors.
Warranty Card packed with the Ares transmitter
  • 2 Year Warranty: This is important. If nothing else, it's an indication that the manufacture takes customer satisfaction seriously by selling a serious product. 2 years is twice what you'd expect from most of the older, established manufacturers.
  • Serial Numbers: This was a surprise when I saw it. Each transmitter/receiver pair is laser engraved with a serial number, a reassuring indicator that Phottix is actually trying to keep track of their products, and even if the numbers only represented a specific production run, it sure looks to me like the company cares about its products.
Transmitter flipped down for portability
  • "Patents Pending": A Chinese company taking steps to protect its intellectual property? Perhaps the engineers at Phottix actually created something unique and want to keep the technology in the family. I am willing to believe this, as I have faith in the two year warranty, which I hope never to use.
Latency: Latency, as I heard it called, is the delay introduced while the trigger sends the radio impulses that will fire the flash. As a rule of thumb, I increase the shutter speed (exposure duration) the equivalent of one-third of a stop for standard speedlights used with the focal plane shutters found on nearly all DSLR cameras. There are some exceptions, most notably the Nikon D70 and the D70s, which can potentially synchronize a speedlight at any shutter speed when connected using a neutered flash cable, provided the duration of the flash's light burst is briefer than the exposure duration you opted to use.

For the record, I tested the Phottix with my older Sony R1, a Nikon D70, and the Nikon CoolPix A, to determine the shortest exposure time that would allow me to use my Nikon SB-900 at Full, Half, and Quarter Power. Here's what I found:

Sony R1
Nikon D70
Nikon CoolPix A

The figure for the CoolPix A are surprising - I could potentially control a speedlight with the Phottix at full power with exposure times of 1/2000 of a second. It doesn't make sense, but I'm anxious to find if this has a practical application. Missing from the text is my Fuji X100S. I'll get to that another time.

So far, the trigger has worked VERY well. I'd buy another, if I didn't already own so many radio triggers...

Sunday, April 23, 2017

On-Camera Flash Modification Options-The LIght Sphere

Photo #1: 1/125, F 5.0, ISO 1600. Gary Fong Light Sphere on SB-800 with CTO Gel. In camera WB set to Incandescent.
I'm grateful that photographing for the Community Page isn't the same as being an Event Photographer. My current obligation is limited to submitting a single photograph that:
  • is reasonably composed,
  • is properly exposed, and
  • provides context clues about the nature of the event.
This grab-shot met the three criteria with the the "trophy" clearly visible, surrounded by hands in the act of making the presentation (Photo #1). The three subjects are, from left to right, the honoree, the presenter, and the President of the organization, so all the necessary groups are represented. You can infer from the photo's odd composition that it was a shot "grabbed" while the audience was giving a standing ovation.Given that it was made in just a few seconds with no coaching of the subjects, I'm much pleased.

Tactics: The shot was made in a period of less than a minute, starting the moment my subject stepped to the podium and ending when she began her acceptance speech. I actually walked across the hardwood dance area and stood up, something I only do when it won't distract the audience too much, and when a few "in your face" flash would have been a tolerable, and temporary, inconvenience. I could have given them instructions to improve the photo, but my voice would not have been heard over the applause. The shot was a gift, and I accepted it. I'll manage the photo a little more next time.
Photo #2: 1/125, F 5.0, ISO 1600. Gary Fong Cloud Dome on SB-800 with CTO Gel. In camera WB set to Incandescent.
White Balance Adjustments: In another post, I made some indoor event photos with the flash and camera set to their native Daylight white balance settings. I found that the backgrounds were a bit warm (no big surprise), but found that my subjects, lit by by both the flash and some (incandescent) ambient, suffered from this odd combination of warm and cold tones.

For this event, I used a cut CTO filter taped over the flash tube of a shoe-mounted SB-800 with a supplementary SD-8a battery pack for quicker recycling. I'm using the most current Gary Fong Collapsible Light Sphere and have found the improved speed mounting system to be the most secure to date. I do not use the Gary Fong Gel Filter Sets because the orange gel, supposedly the equivalent of a full CTO, doesn't accurately match the Incandescent preset of my Nikons, and I have no use for the other colors.

In Photo #2, you can see that the underexposed chandelier in the ceiling is rendered as white, a good sign that the ambient light was close the the Incandescent preset. As you can guess from these first two photos, this room is really dark from a photographer's perspective.

It's appropriate to remind you shooters that making multiple flash images can become something of a bother to the subject. After all, some portion of the on-camera flash is aimed directly into the subject's eyes, light modifier notwithstanding. If you're trying to capture that perfect expression, a ceiling bounce is much less distracting for your subject, although care must be taken to avoid blinding anybody unlucky enough to be standing next to, or behind you.

Photo #3: 1/80, F 5.0, ISO 1600. Gary Fong Cloud Dome on SB-800 with CTO Gel. In camera WB set to Incandescent.
Big Group: Once again, the Cloud Dome gave a surprisingly good photo without any of the drama. The exposure time (shutter speed) was increased slightly to bring out the details in the background. The paintings are still underexposed slightly, but the highlighted areas created by the accent lights provide some visual variety. If memory serves, the walls in the hallway are not white at all, but actually a pale lime green, and are actually rendered correctly. The wide screen monitor at camera right is rendered blue because it's probably a daylight-equivalent light source, and the difference in Kelvin temperature (3200 degrees vs. 5500 degrees) accounts for the cooling effect.

The Takeaway: Consider this when using the Cloud Dome:
  • The dome does not rely on bounced light from above, but does benefit from white ceilings and walls.
  • The size of the dome provides a softer edge to the facial shadows.
  • Exposure is best used when all the subjects are the same distance from the camera.
  • When appropriate, a CTO gel on the speedlight plus an Incandescent white balance preset in the camera can help blend the two light sources.
  • Closer is better, but keep all of your subjects away from corners of the frame to prevent  "stretch face".
  • Watch your background. The light will fall off drastically when the distance between the flash and the subject is significantly less than that of the flash to the back wall.
Keep a Cloud Dome nearby when working indoors. It can be a lifesaver.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

You Buy The Best Only Once (Unless The Best Gets Better)

The process of bringing new technology to the marketplace has undergone significant changes, coincidentally parallel to the development of digital imaging technology. Having watched the evolution, first as a spectator and later as a consumer, I saw the important role economics played in a product’s life cycle, starting at the point when the technology is first developed, when it became affordable, and eventually ending when the product ultimately became outdated or relegated to a lower tier. The introduction of wireless radio flash synchronization is typical of this product cycle.

Early transmitter/receiver combinations were expensive, due in part to initial manufacturer’s attempts to recover the costs related to research and development, manufacturing costs, and the creation of a suitable dealer-based distribution network. But today, for better or for worse, on-line sales through eBay completely reshaped the distribution and sales model once so important in the brick and mortar era.

Nimble manufacturers, most notably ones with roots in China, went about reverse engineering the product, and proceeded to manufacture functionally similar products with an eye on cutting manufacturing costs to a bare minimum. Instead of a marketing network, manufacturers sold them on-line directly to the consumer, eliminating the need for a distributor-dealer network. These savings translated into out-of-pocket costs so low that purchasers viewed the equipment as disposable, since the manufacturer seldom bothered to provide a warrantee of any kind in the first place.

Buy Cheap, Pay Twice: Several years ago, I purchased a number of these cheap eBay  triggering systems for my students to use in a flash class that would eventually morph into a Nikon iTTL class when I had acquired enough SB-800s to equip a class of ten. While my students never used them, I occasionally used them with my high-voltage Vivitar units, resigning myself to the disposal of any units that were subsequently fried in the process. But even when used infrequently, they started to fail on their own, primarily because they were designed not for durability but for ease in manufacture. But they did work, sometimes reliably. But the cut corners necessary to bring them to market at the desired price point would have consequences, particularly when their batteries inevitably died. Changing a battery shouldn't be a cause for alarm, but in this case, it did have consequences.

For one particular unit, the receivers used AAA batteries which could be easily replaced through a sliding door. The transmitter (the trigger that sits in the camera’s hot shoe) was a different story. Battery replacement required disassembly of the unit, which exposed the fragile internal wiring to possible damage. With all due care, I removed the single screw that held the top and bottom halves together, removed the dead battery, and replaced it with a fresh one. At some point in the process, a wire broke away from its soldered contact on the tiny motherboard, rendering the transmitter unusable. In a sense, the life span of the transmitter was limited by the life expectancy of the battery, since its replacement became a risky proposition with the internal circuitry exposed to damage. In short, I initially purchased cut-rate pirated technology, and must now pay a second time to replace it, all because of a design that made simple battery replacement difficult and risky.

The Original Premise: To paraphrase one of my favorite sayings, “There is hardly anything that can’t be made a little worse, and sold a little cheaper” is especially apt. Sure,  buying these cheap starter transmitter / receiver units can give you a chance to experiment, but must be considered an expense, and not an investment. And as your experience increases, the amount of effort you will bring to each photograph will increase, putting a higher premium on the reliability of your equipment. The peace of mind, knowing that your equipment will always work, is a gift you can give yourself that will “keep on giving” for years to come.

Investing in reliability is always the wisest move.

Poster’s Note: My big flash photo is the annual Graduation Photograph of the Adult School’s GED/Diploma Program. In the past, I made the shot by triggering two Norman 200B flashes with some now-discontinued Eilenchrome Skyports, and while reliable and extremely compact I disliked the integral rechargeable battery in the receivers. This year, I’ll be using a trio of Pocket Wizard Plus II Transceivers who use AA batteries instead. Wein Safe Syncs are installed between the flash head and the Pocket Wizard to protect them from the high triggering voltages associated with these legacy Norman flashes.

Update April 17, 2017: A Texas importer calling itself Studio Hut sells a compatible unit. I won't call it identical, but as the Duke would say, "I'd hate to have to live on the difference". Click here for specific details. I bought mine through eBay, primarily so I could use Pay Pal.

I did notice a wide variety of equipment that would appeal to the budding studio (read 'indoor' photographer), and it would be tempting to try a few items out. However, most of these items are Chinese-manufactured knock-offs of products introduced by well established firms, so my "made a little worse" homily still holds.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Speedlight Manslaughter - I Kill An SB-28DX

Photo #1
If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It: Well, I broke an SB-28 DX speedlight, one that I had neutered for use on my D70s and my current crop of Fuji mirrorless cameras. Of course, I was filled with a sense of adventure in the minutes before the dastardly deed, and wasn't exercising due caution when I started removing the screws.

The crime started innocently enough. It began with the purchase of my fourth SB-28. It was a very clean specimen at a good price, since it was sold without a box, bag, or instructions It would not function in the TTL mode with my D100, a contemporary Nikon DSLR.  Having remembered something about the DX suffix being an indicator of digital compatibility, I wanted to test a fully-functional SB-28 DX, so I decided to replace the contact pins  I removed from another SB-28 a while back. If you check that earlier post, you can see that the similar SB-24 I dissected had a more robust wiring scheme, complete with connectors to facilitate disassembly.

(Quaint Factoid: The SB-28 worked on my Fuji S2, and I concluded that Fuji got it right, echoing what other writers claimed when the S2 first appeared in 2002).

Familiarity Breeds Contempt: Truer words were never spoken. This being my fifth time disassembling a Nikon speedlight, I was confident that I knew what I was doing. I remember getting a little careless about the  fragile ribbon cable that connected the hot shoe circuitry with the rest of the flash. Apparently, I accidentally tore it. The two arrows show the severed ends (Photo #1). Oh well, one flash in, one flash out.

Click here to view original
Lightbulb! The SB-28 has a PC connector on the side to facilitate off-camera use, just like the SB-24. And even though I no longer had a working connection in the foot, I could still trigger the flash with this secondary plug (I refuse to call it an interface). Certainly, I could use the Wein Peanut slave arrangement I described in this post, but after some thought, decided that it might be more interesting to have a dedicated radio triggered speedlight for use when optical slaves become problematic. I went ahead a tested it using an Eilenchrome Skyport, and found that it worked, although the trigger itself was a bit fussy. I tried it with an older Calumet Wireless (radio) Trigger, which was functional, convenient and compact, but no longer available. Of course, I could always use Pocket Wizards, but they are nearly as large as the speedlight itself. Smaller is better, and more convenient.

Photo #2
Ta Dah! Here's what the combination looks like (Photo #2). I used a mini-microphone jack / locking male PC tip cable to connect the the speedlight to the receiver (friction-fit PC cables were causing some misfires). Free from the limitations of "line of sight" triggering, the possibilities of placing the speedlight in an interesting location have increased significantly. Using the flash setup  makes photography a two- handed affair because the transmitter must now live in the hot-shoe, so I'm now forced to think about exactly where I want to position my light source. At this point I don't know how much I'll miss TTL flash exposure metering, but can probably adopt a standardized flash-to-subject distance/ flash output/ ISO/ aperture combination when working in the field, as I did here. Of course, there's the built-in distance scale readout that could be very useful once I get it calibrated to my taste.

All in all, this has been a "lemons to lemonade" morphing from an initial disaster to a new way to use a flash. Let's see if I'll need to add any sugar.

P.S. I have just ordered a Phottix Ares to try, based on David Hobby's Strobist Post. We'll see how it compares to my older Calumet unit.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Women In History - World War II

1/15 second, F 5.0, ISO 800, Incandescent White Balance, CTO on Key Speedlight
I was a little nervous about making this shot. Last year, the photo was a little easier to make because I only had three subjects and was working in the historic courthouse in Redwood City, and the venue was much less cluttered. However, I chose to make the photo in the actual exhibit area because of the relationship between the actors and the exhibit, which focused on the lives of these women during the turbulent years of World War II.

I decided to "do as I say" and work from the background forward. I wanted as much background as possible, so my initials shots were with a 17-35mm 2.8 Nikkor on a D600 full frame. I also had my 24-70mm F 2.8, which I would have preferred to use if it was wide enough at the short end.
1/8 second, F 6.3, ISO 800, Cloudy White Balance
Base Exposure: This test shot told me that I could potentially hand-hold the shot with a wide angle lens. For now, I decided to leave the ISO alone, and make exposure adjustments as needed. The composition was a little rough, but I cold refine that later.

Controlling The Ambient: Next, I asked about the lights. If I could eliminate the light on the foreground, I could control the foreground with a softbox. Luckily for me, the lights in display area behind me could be turned off, while leaving the background lights on.

You can see that Cissie has very little light from the front, exactly what I wanted. Lighting would be controlled by the output of the flashes inside my softbox.
1/8, F 6.3, ISO 800
Ambient White Balance: By simply changing the White Balance setting to Incandescent, I rendered the background much more accurately. This meant that I would have to gel my flash to match the camera's White Balance Setting. I taped a CTO gel over the speedlight and made another test.

Camera Ready! With the foreground and background balanced, I was pretty much finished at this point. However, the accent lights, seen floating in darkness, bothered me. I had some extra speedlights that could be fitted with grid spots and aimed at the ceiling to give some additional detail in the ceiling.
Here's the final lighting setup. Notice that the two gridded speedlights appear to be gelled in blue, giving the ceiling a blue tint. This is because the camera's white balance was set to Incandescent, making the daylight-balanced speedlights appear colder in comparison (5000 degrees Kelvin, as opposed to the camera's incandescent setting of 3000 degrees).

At this point in time, I didn't know exactly how many actors would be showing up. I backup up a bit to study the background if I had five or more players. Lighting look pretty even, but I noticed that the mannequin in the background and the display from an interactive display would be a bit distracting if they were included in the photo.

In the event I had only two or three players, I could easily move the closer to me, and cover the intrusive soldier to boot. I also added a kicker light to provide some separation from the background. You can see it near the left edge of the photo.

Shots Evolve: When I found out that I'd be working with a group of five, I quickly arranged them as best I could. For this first shot, I wanted to include the ceiling lights I worked so hard to arrange. As a consequence, my subjects were "cut off at the legs".
In this alternate composition, I cropped the legs out in an effort to keep the ceiling lights. I had two distractions I needed to address: The video display in the background, and the wayward feather connection the heads of my fourth and fifth subjects. I didn't like the placement of the Japanese evacuation poster at the left edge. I wanted to move it closer to the center of the composition, due to its historical significance.    

The Final Compromise: With all of the competing visual features in this photo, I recomposed the image to include the legs and eliminate the ceiling. Those "blue" lights were really neat, but the longer skirts of the 1940's added to the suggestion of the time. My fourth subject tipped her hat to the side and eliminated the distracting placement of the feather, but I lost the smile from my fifth subject.

San Mateo Daily Journal, March 20, 2017
About this time, the public was starting wander in, and my actors wanted to leave so they could put in a few more minutes of practice. I was pretty satisfied with the results, having learned something about mixing unfiltered (blue) flash in an incandescent environment, even though I finally framed the image to remove all evidence of my efforts. It would have been much easier if everybody had arrived at the same time, but this sort of thing is what makes location work so interesting. But when the image was finally published, I found that all of my fretting about the ceiling and the waistlines was all for naught. In a way, it combined the two cropping alternatives (no ceiling, no legs), but I never expected to see both crops applied in this manner.