Photography Equipment: What I Pack, part 3

In the last post, I talked a lot about cameras, and why I use the Nikon D700 instead of some other (fancier) models.  I think my reasoning makes sense.

But the actual camera doesn’t really matter, does it?  What’s important is you pick a camera that fits your needs — your workflow — your other equipment — and not some predetermined set of rules. I touched on a few specs of the D700, particularly the ISO range from 200 to 6400. 
I didn’t mention the most obvious advantage: the full frame, FX sensor.  Part of why I didn’t mention it is because I view it as a luxury.  One of those items on my “can’t live without” list is an FX 28- 85 lens.  I love this lens, and use it all the time.  Yes the FX sensor means the resulting images are about 2/3 larger than a DX format — and that usually means I have to resize the photos if they are going through a social upload workflow — but I’ll live with that.  The format — what you see when you look through the lens — harkens back to the days of film, and I’m used to knowing what’s going to be in the frame just by looking at a scene.  The DX still trips me up a little.  It’s hard to explain.
But I’m not one of these who turns their nose up at the DX format.  That 18-300 superzoom is fantastic (though I do wish it was a hair sharper).  Do you know how great it is when shooting an awards presentation to go from zoomed in grip and grin to zoomed out group shot without changing lenses?  It’s brilliant.  If they made that lens as an FX format I’d buy it, even if it cost five grand — but they don’t.
Neither lens is particularly fast.  But ….
That’s why the camera gods developed high ISO speeds with low noise.  
And it is low noise!
Let’s go back in time, when the entry level DLSR was (for Nikon) a D70.  Top ISO? If memory serves, 1600.  And, whenever you have the top ISO, you might as well pitch it out the window — it’s so pixelated, the image is probably worthless except as a thumbnail on My Space.
After the D70 came the D300.  ISO jumped to 3200.  Suddenly 1600 was useable!  Even 3200, on this camera, was acceptable for many images.  The D700 followed a year or so later, with it’s top ISO of 6400.  That’s where it’s stuck, except at the very high end D models.  The way I shot began to change.  (By the way….if the camera manufacturers weren’t focused on increasing ISO, or on the ability to utilize built in wifi for social media upload, what were they zoomed in on?  VIDEO. Sigh.)
Before, in the days of film, when a high ASA (the film equivalent to ISO) was utilized, “grain” was annoying.  The solution?  Use lower grain, lower ASA film (remember Kodachrome 64?)  That meant the film wasn’t “sensitive” to low light, which, in turn, meant you had to let more light onto the negative to expose it.  But if more light didn’t exist, what then?  Use a “fast lens” (a lens of a lower F stop or aperture) to get more light onto the film, resulting in a proper exposure at lower light levels.
Or, use flash to artifically increase light.  Or, both.  More on that later.
But now?  Now you can get great, grainless (or pixeless) photos at 5000 ISO.  So…why do you need that $2,000 F2 lens that weighs eight pounds?  Please remind me?  Oh, and by the way — most of these lenses were a fixed focal point — meaning, of course, no zoom.  That meant you had a whole bunch of lenses to fit various shooting situations.  Ick. Try lugging those in your fancy, non-wheeled shoulder bag!  Can you say masochist? 
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for those lenses: its just there are alternative ways of shooting where you may not need them, where in the past those alternatives didn’t exist.  For me, who isn’t making 16 x 20 art gallery prints, shooting at high ISO, adding a little flash fill, and utilizing a super zoom or zoom wide angle for flexibility is a recipe for success.  
So, now I’ve explained why I’ve chosen the lenses I pack.  Why I’ve chosen the cameras I pack.  And, you guessed it:  those flashes are next.
I mentioned above selecting a high ISO, and adding a bit of flash fill to achieve great photos.  Here’s what I mean, and frankly, how I do it:
In most shooting situations, what you are trying to capture is the natural environment.  It makes no sense to over power the way things look, how they are lit within the environment, with a flash.  Still, if you think you can take photos using only available light, you’re going to be tripped up.
Let’s take an example.  I shoot a lot of cocktail parties.  These are often candle lit, beautiful food, maybe an ice sculpture with LED lights from below.  If you use flash to photograph this room, you’ll get a room like any other.  You’ll get an ugly space with airwalls and people.
If you only use natural light to shoot the room, you’ll get drinkers with dark shadows under their eyes, perhaps their faces under exposed (too dark), and a gloomy look to the images.
If you shoot using natural light, and add a bounce of flash fill, just a little, you’ll expose the people in the room so their skin tone looks natural, the shadows disappear under their eyes, but you won’t overpower the natural ambiance of the event.  It’s a balance.
I’ll talk about how to achieve that balance in another post: I want to focus on my flashes.
If you use only one flash, pointed up at the ceiling, and the flash is set to TTL (or automatic), you won’t get consistant results.  You might capture a blob of white light on the ceiling, or harsh light that doesn’t evenly distribute across the photo.
But if you use two flashes, fired at the same time, and set to manual, both perched on a bracket above the camera (or one on the hot shoe and one on the bracket) your photo will be lit evenly.  Magic!
The two flashes I carry are selected because 1) they are strong and 2) they are easy to put on manual and turn up and down.  That’s it.  I haven’t ever used them on TTL.  I’ve never set my camera to automatic…
Oh yeah, that’s the hitch.  In order for all this to work?  You have to shoot everything — camera, flashes — on manual.  That’s that big letter “M”.  You have to make the decisions about how your camera is to function, not the computer within your camera.  A computer fooled in tricky (most) situations. 
The two SB 900’s in my bag, and that sync cord that connects them, and that bracket, are all must haves for me to shoot.  So, since they are indespensible, you’d think you could go into a camera store and buy the system?
Nope.  The bracket I had to chop down with a hack saw because it was too long for one flash to fit on the hotshoe and the other on the bracket.  Since then, I have found a bracket that works — the two hot shoes are on a cross bar easily raised like a light pole, so they sit well above the top of the camera, which I like.  BUT, the plate that holds the camera to this bracket?  CHEAP.  So it’s really only good on a tripod.  Sigh.
The equipment I carry is in my bag because it works for me.  It serves a purpose.  It’s absolutely needed for a shoot.  It fits into my workflow and my process.  If it doesn’t, it joins the shelf.
The shelf where all that old equipment goes that just might find a second life down the road.  But it probablly won’t.  It probably will join my Windows Vista laptop in the closet of obscurity.  The same closet that once held my sexual identity.  But that’s a whole ‘nother story!
The rant will continue.
Tricky cocktail party.  Here, the flashes are a little under powered.  See the dark folks against the window and the orangish skin tones?
Better, with the two flashes turned up, but speakers skin tone a bit hot.  Still, instead of adjusting flash, one step backward would solve that problem
About perfect, though back row could have used another punch of flash.  But Mikey’s now happy.
Same room, same lens, zoomed in.  Two flashes are compensating for strong back light, and letting scene in window shine: the subjects and the outside view are the same exposure.
A similar shot, though background not quite balanced as nicely, it’s a bit blown out.  The background has more light on it than the subjects.  Still, do you care? Probably not unless outside building is important, like say the White House.

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