Sunday, March 31, 2019

The Last Ship

Music And Lyrics By Sting: A  special press event was scheduled by SHN San Francisco to publicize the addition of "The Last Ship", with lyrics and music by Sting, into the February 2020 lineup. We were told there would be a surprise "guest" singing at the event, although there had been some speculation that Sting himself would be present. His starring role in the musical was not made public until the day of the press briefing.

Sting's easy, folksy style was a good match for songs lamenting the decline of the ship building industry in northeast England in the 1980's. During an interview for KGO television, he asserted that this was a story about the fracturing of the social contract, and the proper role of government in the lives of workers. The sincerity of his beliefs was clearly evident in the lyrics of the songs, warning of the social consequences of having the foundations of a working class lifestyle begin to crumble from beneath.

I was asked to submit two variations on the Sting photo. The first was for a future article that might need an appropriate head shot. My first/best choice was the image at the top of the post, with my second, third, and fourth choices in the three-paneled composite beneath it. The second shot, a "Page Two", would be a photo that could stand on its own with a three sentence caption. This shot shows singer Oliver Sevale performing a duet with Sting, which provides more visual context than my preferred head shot.

How Sausage Is Made: Sometimes these theatrical pre-events are much less glamorous than the performers we're sent to photograph. In the case of the Golden Gate Theater, located in the gritty Tenderloin neighborhood in San Francisco, it can be a little dicey, so I wanted to get my equipment and myself off the street as quickly as possible.

I arrived about 30 minutes before the event was officially scheduled to start. This was an advantage because the security staff immediately allowed me in when I said I was told to "check in" when I arrived, which  is true. This is the stairway leading from the street level Stage Entrance down to the stage level, as dark and drear as any place I've been asked to photograph.

Slowly but surely, additional media teams arrive, and the stairway started to get a little crowded. At the appointed time, the video crews were allowed to set up first in the designated area behind three rows of chairs reserved for print media and SHNSF's VIP guests. We filed in slowly, taking our seats or positions where we thought the viewing would be best.

The performance area was prepared on the stage, with the performers facing the background and the photographers facing the audience. There was barely enough room for the chairs and the video tripods behind them, but somehow we all managed to squeeze into the allotted space.

The allotted space consisted of the stage itself. The media were positioned with in front of the background, facing the audience. The three rows of seats in front of the media riser were soon filled, but I managed to work my way forward in an effort to grab a view of the audience, as my Editor wanted to include some "ambiance" photos in case they were needed. I didn't stay long because I didn't want to lose my spot in the media area.

This videographer makes some final adjustments on his camera. As I mentioned, video crews were allowed to set up before the rest of us were allowed to enter. I positioned myself at the leftmost edge of the video group since videographers invariably pick the best vantage points.

I caught an event photographer talking with audience members just before the show began. She may have been a member of Altizier's Army, judging from the ubiquitous Gary Fong Light Sphere mounted on a Canon DSLR.

The theater's ceiling fixtures could have made in interesting composition if I magically cleared the room, moved closer to the main subject, and adjusted the composition to best advantage. Alas, the tight quarters made that impossible to achieve a composition more creative than this one. Oh well, file this one away for future reference.

The cast consisted of the two major singer/actors, Sting himself, and a keyboardist. A variety of songs were performed, and the audience went away with a clear understanding of the message hiding just beneath the beautifully crafted songs. Normally, I am unaware of what is being said, or sung, choosing instead to concentrate on any facial tells that might warn me of a change of expression or a dramatic gesture. This time I heard and internalized every heart-felt word.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Huh? What Did You Say? Ear Plugs?

The city of Millbrae held a Lunar New Year Parade this year. So far as I can remember, this is the first time that a Chinese dragon made an appearance, courtesy of the Mills High School Dragon Team, an event far grander than the usual Lion Dances used to bring good luck to grand opening of a Chinese owned business. In many cases, martial arts clubs will offer to perform the Lion Dance, complete with drummers and firecrackers, in exchange for a donation to a local charity.

In spite of the exaggerated perspective introduced resulting from a wide angle lens, you can get an idea of how many people are required. I found a You Tube clip of the Mills High School Dragon Team performing during the 2019 San Francisco Chinese New Year's Parade here.

Heavy Overcast Days: Shooting outdoors just before it starts to rain can be the worst possible lighting environment. All of the colors lose their saturation. I could have achieved better results if I positioned my flash farther from the lens axis (it was shoe mounted), but sometimes, when working so close to subjects who are trying their best to ignore me, it just isn't possible. I had to be content with just adding some visual content to the shadows, even when it wasn't really necessary.

Ear Plugs? Huh? I was standing about three feet from the drummer in the lead photograph. This is not the first time that I placed myself close to an enthusiastic drummer or overly ambitious woofer or tweeter. And while I regularly suffer from the incessant whine of tinnitus, I need to take steps to prevent my hearing from getting any worse. So I'm adding some disposable earplugs to all of my carry camera bags, just in case my next photo puts me next to something really, really loud.

The little plastic container is a GI surplus case issued to the troops for carrying their own earplugs for use during marksmanship practice. The handy chain will allow me to attach it to any available strap where they will be seen, and used. It will easily hold two pairs, just in case Cissie needs some protection, too.

For those of you who don't have the need to have a dedicated plastic case, hardware stores often sell foam earplugs sealed in plastic and packed in pairs. This is a much better solution, so long as you can keep them from getting crushed at the bottom of your kit bag!

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Your First Flash - Using The Commander Mode

Vocabulary Is Funny: Adorama describes this product by what it is, whereas Nikon describes their products by what they do. This is the Adorama "transmitter". If it were made by Nikon, it would be called a "commander". Much more accurate and much less contentious than the "master' and "slave" terminology I used, without thinking, back in the '80s.

I stated in an earlier post that you might consider the AA Adorama AA-powered flash as your first primary flash, and later consider purchasing a second, Lithium-Ion unit as your new primary and your first flash as your backup. But having these two flashes offers another possibility: You can program one flash to serve as the Commander and the other as the Remote.

This posting will give some details for using one Adorama/Godox flash to control another one. Both flashes must have the same group and channel assignment.

When Radio Shines: I knew this would be a tricky shot to set up. In terms of exposure, I was attempting to balance the exposure provided by an off-camera flash with the spotlight directed at the creche visible near the right edge.  I also needed to get the flash (a Godox AD200) high off the ground to show the folds of the gown, while far enough away to minimize the relative distance between the foreground dancers and the heavenly host in the background. This resulted in my using a 8' light stand to support the flash and placing it about 20' away from my main subject.

While it would have been possible to use an optical TTL mode (Nikon's TLS system, for example), I chose to use a radio transmitter mode. Doing so freed me from having to worry about aiming a shoe-mounted flash directly at the remote unit, a task made difficult by my low shooting angle and constant re-positioning.

Channels And Groups: Let's get two definitions out of the way.
  • Channels allow you to select a "broadcast frequency". If two photographers are using identical settings, they will be triggering each others flashes. You can change the channel from 1 through 4, and hope your fellow photog didn't do the same! Just remember that all of your flashes must be configured to the channel you chose.
  • Groups allow you to designate a number of flashes to behave in identically. Raise the output on two flashes set to Group A, the both will respond identically. You might normally do this when you need to use several flashes to achieve the illumination level you need. I don't know if there is an actual limit to how many flashes you can put in one group.

Wireless (Mode) Selection Button: The flash has fire connectivity options which you can select by pressing the Wireless Selection Button and moving through the options. If you check the red arrow, you can locate it on the back of your flash.

In this flow chart, you can see the selection sequence, starting from the On-Camera iTTL Flash screen. This the basic on-camera flash mode, the one you'll be using when using the flash for bounce flash situations indoors, or for shadow fill outdoors. Notice too that the backgrounds change from green (commander mode) to orange (remote mode) as you make your selection.

Some Reminders:
When you have two Adorama/Godox flashes, one can serve as your commander and the other as your remote, depending on which option you choose.

When using the Nikon's pop-up flash as a commander, you would go straight to "Nikon iTTL Remote" and set the group and channel to match your existing pre-sets.

The commander and the remote must communicate using the same "language". An R2 Radio Controller can only communicate with an R2 Radio Remote. A Nikon iTTL Controller can only communicate with a Nikon iTTL Remote. If you took P.E. in a public school, think "shirts" and "skins". You're either one or the other.

The only time you would choose the Nikon iTTL Controller mode is when you are including some Nikon compatible speedlights in the mix. The advantages of radio control make this mode a poor second unless you have a good reason to do so.

Phil Steele has a wonderful explanation on how to configure a R2 transmitter. Even though he uses a Canon camera, the setting of channels and groups applies. Click here to view his instructional video.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Your First Flash - Applications

Order yours here
In my last posting I offered an opinion the there was an affordable  flash that would be an excellent first purchase for the event photographer who wants to up his or her game. It is the Adorama Lithium Zoom TTL R2, aka the Godox V860. I added this powerful flash to my collection because it utilized an 11.1 volt rechargeable lithium-ion battery that provides very fast recycling time. I have one for Nikon and one for Fuji, and the latter has already earned a permanent place in my bag. I suspect the Nikon version will soon replace my speedlight plus SD-8a battery pack for "running and gunning" where the quick recycle time is a welcomed plus.

If you read my previous post, I suggested the AA version of the flash, the Flashpoint Zoom TTL R2, as a starter unit. I actually jumped directly to the Lithium Ion version because I already had six batteries I used with the earlier R1 flashes, so I had no additional expenses beyond the initial purchase. If money is an issue, this less expensive AA version will serve you well in the beginning.

The best thing about this Godox flash is its ability to properly interface with the (optical) Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS) which gives you control over multiple remote flashes using the commander function available through the pop-up flash on the mid-priced DSLR bodies. If your body doesn't have this feature, you could purchase a Nikon SU-800 to serve as a controller, program a suitable Nikon speedlight, or purchase and configure a less expensive Adorama R2 flash, which is actually the least expensive alternative.

There are limitations to this handy feature: The Nikon CLS system relies on Pulse Modulated Light communication between the on-board commander and the remote speedlight. As such, the user must consider:
  • The pulses (short light bursts generated by the controller) must be in the "line of sight" between commander and remote. 
  • The working distance is somewhat limited, and can vary depending on which commander you choose, the SU-800 and the built in popup flash being less effective than an actual CLS compatible speedlight like the SB-900. 
  • Ambient light affects the maximum usable distance between the commander and the remote. The system is most effective indoors in subdued light, and least effective outdoors under bright sunlight. Shielding the remote sensor and "aiming" the controller's head directly at the remote will definitely help. As a quick estimate, assume the commander to remote distance at 10' outdoors, 30' indoors, conservatively.
So What Can I Do Now? For the moment, let's assume that your camera body has the commander function, and that you purchased either of the two recommended Adorama/Godox flashes. How can flash up your game at no cost, or with a modest investment in equipment?

Outdoor Fill Flash: By simply mounting the flash in the hotshoe and aiming it directly at your subject, you can add detail back into the shadows. If you look at the underexposed people in the background, you can see that the exposure was set manually to enhance the sky and clouds.  The flash was set to fully expose the foreground subject, and because she is brighter than the background, the viewer's attention is drawn directly to her. No cost.

Outdoor Bounced Main Lighting: I am standing with my back to the wall beneath the second floor walkway. The walls are off-white in color, so any color contamination is minimal. The walkway above me helps concentrate the light on my subjects, who are only 6 feet away from me. The flash is still mounted on the camera, but aimed above and behind me. No cost.

Indoor Backward Ceiling Bounce: With the help of a piece of soft plastic and a rubber band, you can re-direct bounced flash at the ceiling behind you, which gives the light a more pleasing appearance with full illumination in the eyes. Typical ceiling bounce gives "raccoon eye" shadows, but re-directing the light in this manner will eliminate the problem. Check out the Black Foamie Thing. Cost is $3.00 or so.

Ceiling Bounce With The Flash's Built In Bounce Card: Nearly every modern accessory flash has a built-in bounce card hiding inside the flash head. If it didn't, you could do what photographers did in the last century: use a rubber band to attach a 3" x 5" index card. Easily withdrawn, the bounce card provides a tiny bit of light to illuminate the raccoon shadows that result from "straight up" ceiling bounce. There is a "Goldilocks Zone" (not to hot, not too cold, but just right) from four to eight feet where the card is most effective. Too close and the results are too "hot", too far and the improvement will be negligible. No cost.

Stofen Type Dome: Whenever a flash or speedlight goes into my bag, it wears a diffusion dome of some sort. I find it much faster to remove the dome for bounce shooting than to fumble about finding and installing it when needed. The dome improves your lighting in two ways. First, by elevating the head to a 45 degree angle, you raise the position of the light and additional 2-3 inches higher, which re-distributes the placement of the highlights on your subject's face. Second, it doubles the size of your light source, which softens the edges of your shadows especially when photographing at relatively short subject-to-camera distances. Cost about  $10.00 to $15.00, depending on the brand.

Gary Fong Light Sphere: If I were to choose one light modifier for your on-camera flash, it would be the Gary Fong Light Sphere. I was a relatively early adopter, and own almost every iteration made over the last 10 years. The light is placed well above the lens axis, and the relatively large lighting surface decreases the chances of burned out highlights. It is the absolute go-to modifier when you don't have walls or ceilings to bounce from, as when I found myself in the middle of a dance floor. When you follow the simple exposure guidelines (high ISO setting, underexposed background and slightly under-exposed flash-lit foreground), you really can't go wrong.  The Adorama's flash head is big, and it Light Sphere's current "universal" mounting system will just fit the Adorama's large head.They cost about $50.00.

Off Camera Flash: One of the best known proponents of off camera flash photography is David Hobby, a former Baltimore Sun photographer turned full time blogger. I started reading his blog some time after I began building my CLS collection of commander and remote flashes, but after studying his postings, have come to rely less on TTL flash automation, and more on  his manual approach to flash exposure. If your camera has the flash commander function in the pop-up flash, you can immediately explore the possibilities of creative light positioning and enjoy the resulting uptick in the quality of your photographs.

Pop-Up Commander: To configure the pop-up flash to perform as the controller, click here. It's kinda corny, but it works. You may need to view it a few times before it makes sense.

Off Camera Flash With Side Lighting: If you look at the  shadow cast behind my subject's ear, you can tell the the flash was placed to my left. The highlights on his edges of his nose and cheek come from a spot light located just across the street. This photo is not how you expect flash photographs to look. The flash was held aloft about 7 feet from my subject. Cost would be nothing if you have a tall friend with long arms, but  if you need to buy a monopod, you can buy one new for $30.00. (new), or you can look for one at a garage sale or camera store junk bin for much less. Don't try to use a selfie stick because they just aren't strong enough.  Attach a cold shoe on the threaded end (about $10.00) and you have it made. Of course, you could get an old broomstick and attach the flash to one end using duct tape, but you'll earn no style points!

Off Camera Flash With A Shoot Through Umbrella: A shoot-through umbrella was positioned just outside of the field of view at camera right. The "elbow" is underexposed by about a stop, and the flash output decreased by about one-half. It's a trial and error proposition, but with a little practice, you be producing images that are very acceptable on the first shot. It's all in the settings. The cost for all of the necessary bits may be more than you care to invest, but the results will be worth it. Some details on how I carry it can be found here.

The next post will talk about transitioning from Nikon's native optical triggering (CLS) to the Adorama R2 Radio triggering system.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Your First Flash

Click here for details
The Adorama Zoom TTL Flash: At one time I would have suggested that you hold out until you could afford a clean, used Nikon SB-800, which in my opinion is the greatest flash (“Speedlight” in the Nikon parlance) ever made. They are getting harder to find in good working condition, since they have been out of production since 2008 and Nikon is no longer repairing them.

Nowadays, there is a flash that offers high value for the price: the Flashpoint Zoom TTL R2 (AA version) by Adorama (aka Godox 685). I’ve been playing with both the AA battery and the lithium ion battery pack versions and have some opinions about their usefulness.*

Zoom TTL: Priced at $139.00, this flash is probably the deal of the century, especially if the flash is discounted to less than $100.00. I’ve been using this particular version for a few months now, and will say it’s a good entry level flash, with some reservations. When starting out, it will do fine for light duty event photography. But if you advance to a more rapid-fire environment, that recycling time starts to get very, very long. Weight is 18.7 oz. w/ 4 AA batteries.

Click here for details
Lithium Zoom TTL R2 (aka Godox 860):  List price is $179.00 with one 11.5 volt (proprietary and rechargeable) battery and charger. Now spare batteries are $40.00 each, and it would be foolish to not carry a fully charged spare. Out the door, the combination will cost you $219.00. But you get eye-blink recycling time, which will significantly up your game if you ever work a large crowd, or need light-squandering modifiers to up your lighting game. Weight is 19.1 oz. w/battery.

The take-away is in the weight. The Lithium-Ion version weighs a fraction of an ounce more than the AA version, so there isn't a weight disadvantage in going with the faster, more expensive version. It's true that you can add a dedicated power pack to the Zoom TTL, but then you'd have to deal with the inconvenience of power cable and the additional weight. Alas, convenience costs.

Now nothing is perfect, so let me dispense with the minor shortcomings shared by the two Zoom TTL flashes.

Buy your Stofen Dome here
No OEM Diffusion Dome. The diffusion dome, first introduced by Stofen, can improve the quality of your on-camera flash photos. As it turns out, these flashes use the same dome as the Canon 580 EX. Caution: I checked the Adorama website and they are going to discontinue their house-brand dome for this unit. Other makes (Promaster, Yongnuo), have little "ears" on the sides while the original Stofen and Vello do not, so check for them before you order or buy. I find they make the domes easier to remove when I'm  in a hurry.

No OEM Gel Kit. Both Canon and Nikon now provide gel kits for their top end flashes. It would have been convenient if Adorama had some pre-cut gels as Nikon did with its SB-800 speedlight. I must admit that gelling ones on-camera flash may not be a concern for photographers purchasing this unit, and I could understand that such a kit would be a slow seller. Since I started cutting my gels and taping them to the flash head, I haven't missed the OEM gel kits I always purchased for my Nikon speedlights.

Head Tilting and Rotation: The head on the Adorama unit has detents for specific orientations. These require a fair amount of torque to adjust, and this twisting could damage the camera's hot shoe. The Nikons use a lock to return the head position to "zero", and less aggressive detents, resulting in less stress on the shoe during rotation.

Buy your Adorama transmitter  here
The Biggest Reason To Own This Flash: Now here's the big surprise: The iTTL system can communicate with the Nikon Creative Lighting System flash commander. If you own a Nikon body with the built-in flash with the iTTL commander function, it can communicate with these Adorama/Godox units. This means that you can play with dedicated, off-camera flash photography for a fraction of the cost of a genuine Nikon speedlight. Considering how expensive it was for me to learn the ins and outs of multiple flash lighting solutions, this is HUGE. And as you master off-camera flash, you can upgrade your hardware to a radio commander that gives you full TTL and manual control over greater distances. Without getting too technical, there's a lot of growth potential with these Adorama units. Also, the radio "transmitter", as Adorama describes it, only works with R2 compatible Adorama/Godox units, but the flash itself can respond to either the R2 radio commands or the Nikon CLS line of sight optical controller.

Final Word: Get the less expensive, AA battery Zoom TTL unit and start playing with it. As your assignments start to get more challenging, consider getting the Zoom Li-Ion TTL unit, complete with spare battery, and keep your AA version as a backup, or as as second flash.

Addendum March 8, 2019:  In my opening paragraph I mentioned Nikon continued to support the SB-800 for about ten years after its production run from 2003 to 2008. Like many legacy companies, Nikon continued to support (repair) the flash about until 2018. When I checked the Adorama web site, I found that the AA version of the R2 TTL will be discontinued when current supplies run out. This could mean that the Lithium Ion Battery version is more popular, or that a new technology is waiting on the horizon. I am suggesting that you consider the purchase of this flash as an expense, rather than an investment, in part from its low cost and relatively short production life. As reliable as the unit might be, when it dies, it dies. I'll be watching how this all unwinds.

* April 18, 2019: I tried out several battery packs with two variants of the  Godox 685 (one Nikon, one Fuji) and NEITHER one would function. I can't imagine that I could have gotten two bad samples, but power notwithstanding, the flash is still a good buy, but one with limitations.