Thursday, 14 August 2014

The Last Boy Scout

And a Shot out of the Blue.......

It is often forgotten by our clients (and the general public) that most of the work of an event photographer ( or any pro photographer for that matter) takes place behind the scenes and before even a single trip of a shutter. For us good preparation is key to good photography.......

Last week,  out of the blue, I received a phone call from fellow events photographer, Lee Marshall. Lee runs a small but very successful events photography company called photoREVERIE, where he has over the last ten years built up a rather good reputation of taking pictures of sport cars, often going very quickly around the various motor racing circuits  now dotted throughout the UK.  He was looking for a photographer to cover a last minute job at Brands Hatch and I (like always) jumped at the chance to help out a mate and so set in motion a series of events which have inevitability brought me here, writing this blog...About what happened next!

Who, What, Why, When, Where and How?

There is one thing that press and events photography share, if you want to do either of them well, you had better make like a boy scout and come "prepared". Good, reliable and up to date intelligence is more important than anything else in an photographers arsenal. The better the information you have about an upcoming  assignment,  the better the outcomes for both meeting and exceeding your clients expectations and coming away with some great pictures. Alas, bitter experience has taught me that this is always best done and agreed in writing (and if I had my way, written in blood). My rule: assume nothing, record everything and always cover your back. This rule applies to ALL jobs, irrespective of their nature. I was taught from a pup to always ask questions and if people feel reluctant with supplying me with the relevant answers, for whatever reason, then I back off and back off quickly because there lies a world of pain in NOT knowing what you're getting yourself into. So that very afternoon, after a long telephone conversation with Lee, I get a e-mail detailing the precise nature of the job, along with an full itinerary of the days events or should I have said, next days event which left me the best part of a night to prepare for a early drive to Brands Hatch in the morning.....

The Best Laid Plans....

Sharon was way, way more than just a wife. She was my PA and she organised my professional life, so losing her has left a massive hole. Worse still, I've always hated  being organised ( it's not in my nature) and I had unorganised  kit lying all over the place. Inevitably this free spirit has gotten me into trouble, like the time I turned up at a Photo Booth gig, without the touchscreen! So in a small effort in getting my sh@t together, earlier this year, I decided to adopt the "grab and dash" technique of dividing my kit into separate job specific pods which I arranged to be self contained within their own kit bags. Currently, I have three "pods". One for "in-door events", a second for "sports & outdoor events" and a third for the Photo Booth. Sometimes a piece of kit will migrate from one kit bag to another, such as my Canon 50D, which I use both in my "events" bag and as backup to my two Canon 450D's in my Photo Booth. And there have been other times where I have had to make up an entire pod using elements from all three bags to meet the demands of a specific job. Anyway, at the end of the day, this means I no longer have to take everything to every job. It also often makes for lighter more manageable kit bags and less risk of back ache. 

So now I have a list of what I carry in each bag on my mobile and PDA which is a great help for when it comes to putting everything back together again. It was Ian Griffiths who first introduced me to a way of recording my outgoing equipment and attaching a print of it to the "brief". It's a handy way of reminding yourself of what you've got and what else you may need to complete "the brief" (which reminds me, I've got to make up my own word document instead of endlessly photocopying Ian's). So now, I try not to leave home without three important pieces of paper in my hand.....

1. The Brief: which provides general details of the nature of the job, including prime contact and contact numbers. This should also provide information of any deadlines and how the client wants final delivery of the finished product. CD, DVD, FTP or dropbox, it's all part and parcel of what the average event photographer does.

2. The Itinerary: which should provide the specific timings and locations of the event. It should also provide a comprehensive description of exactly what is happening during the course of the event.

3. The Equipment Itinerary: As regards the equipment I have chosen (based on the information harvested from both the brief and the itinerary) to take with me to cover the event.

In the case of Lee's last minute job and according to his brief, the grab n dash bag of choice was to be my "sports pod" which included my find of the century, the Tamron SP AF 17-50mm F2.8 " prize giving" short telephoto lens. but more about this lens later. The first thing on my "things to do list" was to power up and recharge all of my batteries, which included my Godox external power pack. (Note to self, must see if I can source one of those dual chargers that Canon used to supply with their 10D and 20D camera's so many moons ago). 

Small, light and perfectly formed. The Tamron 17-50mm

Today's bag of tricks which included:
1.Canon 1DMk3 Body
2.Canon 7D Body
3. Canon 70-200 L F2.8
4. Tamron 17-50mm
5. Sigma 1.5 Lens Extender
6. Canon 560EX Flashgun
7. Godox External Powerpack
8. Various accessories including spare batteries.
9.  Six CF Cards of various sizes and speeds. 

Next on my list is checking that everything is where it's supposed to be and not migrated elsewhere, which sees the 1D being dug out of my "Events" kit bag and swopped with the 50D (along with it's spare LP-E4 Li-on battery pack). Then I track down a missing "Gary Fong" light dome and search high and low for one of two "Black Rapid" camera straps. No luck, can't find em. I reckon they will eventually turn up. Then my attention turns to the numerous memory cards of which I have a fair few evenly distributed across the three pods. I reformat all of the cards inside both the 1D and 7D dslr's  (forgetting about the Eye Fi card stuck in the SDHC slot of the 1D, big mistake) and repeat the process on the remaining CF cards in my Lowepro backpack. Last but not least I pack away my Macbook Pro along with a Lexar Dual CF/SD card reader and I'm ready to go. But try as I might, I just can't find the straps so when morning comes,  I'm forced to leave them behind and go without. Not so happy start to the day........

You will note from the above photo that I transport most of my gear within neoprene sleeves & pounches while in transit within the bag. They provide that little extra protection to my valuable gear without compromising ease of access. They also have the added benefit of looking great. All fun and games......And it all worked out in the end. Kind of!!!! DNP printers can be a bitch when they decide NOT to work with your mac.

Shooting motorsport is hard work and takes loads of practice to get right.

PS: I did eventually locate my "Black Rapids" along with a third "dual" camera harness, which were all stuffed in the back of my fishing jacket. Panic over but only after I'd gone through an entire day, hand holding my babies.....

Since doing this job for Lee and having had a good look at my overall equipment needs, I have purchased 2 third party LP-E4 Li-on battery packs to power both my Canon 7D & 5D mk3 dslr's and I'm just about to put in an order for 4 16gb 400x UDMA (6 or 7) Compact Flash memory cards from Delkin and Transcend. Recently it has come to my attention that not all memory cards are equal, some are MORE equal than others. This goes triple when it comes to shooting sport, when what you need to stop and freeze the action, is a camera and a card that can both read and write to memory, FAST! All my slower cards will soon be moved on to lighter duties inside my events kit bag. Now I'm off to brush up my skills on "back button" auto focussing, as doing everything (metering, focussing and tripping the shutter) from a singular shutter button just isn't doing it for me anymore.......Thank goodness for YouTube!

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Let there be Light! Part Two

The classic low tech optical slave and perfect backup when hi-tech Radio slaves goes wrong

Now the big problem with having so many strobes in your lighting kitbag and moving them away from the hotshoe (strobist style), is how do you trigger them?  Back in the day, sync cords and optical peanut slaves were the only viable option and as long as you had line of sight and watched where you stepped, these worked OK, alas with said limitations.

The ubiquitous PC flash sync cable
Now I still would NEVER leave home without a means of manually triggering my flash using either of these two methods. Why? Because they are a simple, reliable and cheap way of remotely triggering your flash when other more modern methods go belly up. For backup alone they have earned their place in my arsenal of lighting equipment and have saved me more than once. Ironically I use both methods in my new Photo Booth, as it just works, all the time, every time.  

If on the other hand ( you don't own a photobooth and) you want to bring your off camera flash photography up to a new level, then as good as sync cables and optical slaves are, these are not the way forward.  Sooner or later manual triggering with lengths of wire and optical slaves that can't see round corners (and trust me on this, it is pretty time consuming going back and forth, setting up flash #1 then flash #2 & #3) is just going to cramp your style and get in the way of those creative juices.  This brings us nicely to the freedom and the technical wonder of modern Radio Slaves and inevitably the industry standard in remote off camera triggering, The Pocket Wizard.

The legendary Pocket Wizard

The Bowens Pulsar.

At the time that I was putting my original kit together (after I had left the employ of Trident Communications), money was tight and I had to make it stretch and as good as Pocket Wizards were amongst my peers (and special mention must go out to Neil Turner), I just couldn't justify the expense to either myself or my wife.  Pocket Wizards were and are an arm and leg to procure but they worked, straight out of the box, all the time, every time. Looking back now, Neil was right and I would have been better served saving my pennies a little longer and getting a basic set of PW's but even the cheapest PW options came with strings attached. For a two light setup, you would have needed  two receiver units, one for each flash and a transmitter unit for the camera. And god forbid if you lost the transmitter unit because that would  have landed you up in a boat on a very stinky creek without a paddle and without a means of sending a radio signal to the receiver units. If that wasn't bad enough, add to the equation that this option was at least four to five times more expensive than anything else on the market and you could see my dilemma. The Pocket Wizards were truly the Rolls Royce amongst radio triggers and an essential tool to any photographers kitbag but way too rich for the likes of me.  What I actually ended up with was a set of four Bowens Pulsar transceivers (the difference being that each unit were in theory, both capable of sending and receiving an encoded radio signal). Alas they were no Pockets Wizards, not even close. Apart from sitting flat in the hotshoe where the PW's would be poking out your eye, these Pulsars were more miss n miss than hit. It took many trips to Calumet's Euston store in central London and one very memorable trip to Bowens UK HQ and factory in Clacton on Sea for me to finally get the Pulsars to work (kind of) when they were attached to my studio strobes or my Lumedyne kit.  Even now, ironically I wouldn't recommend using them as a radio trigger solution as they were originally designed by Bowens. Rather I would purchase one of these: A Bowens Pulsar Transmitter unit. When you think of it, it's kind of a step backwards, along with all the limitations that implies but it does work and works well, just don't loose the transmitter!

The Bowens Pulsar Radio Transmitter. A step backwards?
Radio slaves were great when they worked (apart from PW's which always worked) and could be used anywhere within reason and working tolerances but both the early Pocket Wizards and the Pulsars along with other makes had two BIG disadvantages.

1. You couldn't adjust the output of each of your flashes remotely via these devices.
2. They were (and still) attract the attention of those more sticky fingered amongst us (especially in an Event Photography environment, where if they weren't nailed down, they would walk and I've known of many a PW to have taken that long walk into somebody else's kitbag). Sharon once caught some tea leaf red-handed trying to remove one of our Pulsars while we were shooting an event in Swiss Cottage. Said "leaf" wasn't so pretty after Shaz had finished with him.

My solution (to keeping one eye open) was to ditch the Pulsars altogether and consign them to strobist duties and purchase some very simple and cheap "in line" radio slaves from Photomart and ebay. As long as I had access to mains power, (which equated to 99.9% of the event photography jobs that I attended) these radio slaves were for me a no brainer. They were often known as ebay slaves, because they were dead cheap, even cheaper than the Pulsars (as in throw away cheap) and they only came in two flavours. They either worked or they didn't. Plain and simple. Better still, they were very hard to steal when working as part of an event photography studio because of the fact that they were mains powered and phyiscally attached to the strobe. Even if they did go walkies, they were easy and cheap to replace.

Mains Powered "In Line" Radio Slaves.
Alas these in-line radio slaves were only really usable with mains powered studio strobes and you still couldn't adjust the power output remotely but when they worked, oh mama! They took a licking but just kept on ticking. I keep several sets in my lighting kit bags and again I wouldn't leave home without them but like all things, technology moves on.........This time to a little known ebay entity called Yongnuo.

Yongnuo! Nothing short of a giant killer!

After the death of my wife and the start of my recovery in South Africa, I decided that I wanted to update my then elderly Vivitar 283 based strobist kit with something a little bit more modern. It didn't take too long for the Yongnuo YN 560 Mk2 to come to my attention because quite frankly it ticked all the right boxes. It was a manual only battery powered strobe just like my Vivitars (but unlike my Vivitars because of it's very low voltage output it wouldn't fry anything attached to it). It could be triggered any which way you liked, either via a simple dumb PC sync cable or at the other end of the extreme, a intelligent radio slave (more about this later). Last but not least it even came with a built in intelligent optical slave. Anyway you cared to look at the Yongnuo, it was quickly becoming a viable alternative to the Vivitar in a whole heap of ways, especially given it's rather contra dictionary excellent build quality and low low retail price. 

The best part was yet to come, in the shape of the Yongnuo 622c radio slave. I didn't know it at the time of purchase (I paid a little over a £100 for a set of four transcievers) but these slaves were set to become massive game changers in the field of  radio triggers and when I say 'massive" I mean Pocket Wizards. Why? Because Yongnuo had finally figured out a way of  bringing the concept of reliable radio triggering and putting it within the reach of mere mortals like myself. With the Yongnuo YN 622c the ordinary Joe no longer needed to burn a hole in his pocket in order to keep up with the pro's. You just plug n played and it works 99.99% of the time! I would hate to be the one to survive on the difference between a Yongnuo 622c and any Pocket Wizard in terms of outright performance and reliability but for the majority of jobs that I do,  it simply wouldn't be an issue. Where once I would think twice before bringing a Pulsar along on a professional paid for shoot, I would have no problems whatsoever with the 622c. You have to forget about the price and simply regard it as straight up bit of professional kit! But wait there! The 622c is a radio slave that just keeps on giving.

The Yongnuo 622C Radio Tranceivers or PW giant killers?

If you attach the 622c to Canon's later series of DSLR's (50D onwards) you are able to access a function which comes as part of it's drop down menu to remotely control any compatible externally mounted off camera flashguns (eg: the Canon 580EX mk2's). In short, you can now remotely control both light output and light ratio's of both compatible Canon and Yongnuo flashguns from the back screen of your DSLR. WOW! No more wasted shoe leather going back and forth, setting this and checking that. You need high speed sync. No problem! Not enough light and your camera can't focus. Yongnuo once again comes to the rescue with a nifty little focus assist LED so you can dig yourself out of that black hole.  Along with a couple of Canon 580 EX Mk2's and Yongnuo YN 560 Mk2's  you can now build yourself quite a kick ass off-camera flash system for very :little money. Chuck in a couple of sets of Sanyo Eneloop rechargeable AA batteries or a Godox external power packs and you're good to go but you don't have to take my word for it: (update: 25/09/2015, I no longer regularly use the Yongnuo 560mk1's or mk2's speedlights, even though I still own them because I had made a mistake in their original purchase. You see both the Mk1 and Mk2 versions of the Yongnuo 560's only came with a single pin hotshoe (as opposed to the multi pin hotshoes found on ETTL enabled speedlights), which meant I couldn't remotely control the 560's from a YN622c radio trigger.  Yongnuo was to later fix this with the introduction of their third generation YN560mk3.  I  now use a couple of these instead: The Shanny SN 600sc speedlites. Again more later on this recent development. The older 560's are now used with my Fuji X-system, so nothing was wasted.

The Shanny SN 600sc Speedlite (please note 'sc" and not "c")

I now wouldn't touch the Canon 600 EX RT with a barge pole but you can make up your own mind as well as do the maths. Just in case the prospect of digging into your camera's back screen menu isn't to your liking, Yongnuo have just introduced (at the time of writing this blog) a 622c TX which moves all the functions that you would have found in the drop down menu to a much more accessible LCD panel mounted in the hotshoe on top of your camera. I haven't tried it yet but from all the reports that are coming back to me, I am optimistic that I won't be disappointed. I cannot stress just how BIG the arrival of Yongnuo has been to the world of remote flash and camera radio triggering. In the space of a little over four years they have managed to totally change the name of the game forcing others such as Pocket Wizard, Pixel King and Bowens to respond and I for one think that this can be nothing but a good thing.........(Update: Recently I've found that the Yongnuo 622c-TX together with the Shanny SN600sc speedlight works a treat with my new baby, the Fuji X-Pro 1 but more about this later, but keep away from the Shanny SN600c as it's simply a piece of crap that will let you down sooner rather than later).

The Yongnuo YN-622c TX