Wednesday, May 22, 2013

No Substitute For Hands On Practice

2007 Hummer H2, from yesterday's practice photo shoot
There's no getting around the fact that when you take the plunge into a new aspect of photography there is going to be a steep learning curve. Watching instructional videos, reading books, and taking advantage of other such sources are a good way to gain basic knowledge as to techniques. But, there's no substitute for hands on experience, especially when it comes to becoming intimately familiar with your gear.

When I first decided to try my hand at studio photography a few years ago, I amassed the equipment that I felt I would need after learning the basics from sources such as the ones mentioned above. I then bought a mannequin and tried a variety of lighting setups to see for myself what each light modifier would do, by itself and in conjunction with others, at various angles and positions. I experimented, tested, and played around until I had a good idea of how to use the equipment. The hands on knowledge I gained was invaluable as I moved on to shooting living, breathing subjects.

When I recently decided to venture into the world of hot shoe lighting, I saw no reason to do anything but follow the same road map I used for learning how to use studio lighting. I have been putting together an assortment of gear that will allow me to shoot just about anything on location, away from the studio. With that process almost complete, the time finally came to take the next step - actually using the equipment to become familiar with its nuances. With two practice shoots under my belt now, I've made some huge strides on the learning front. I also discovered an unexpected problem that I have been able to solve thanks to having taken the time to familiarize myself with the gear in a practice setting.

Nikon's SB-800 is a great strobe and for a long time it was my go-to strobe. Nikon gave users the option of using 4 AA batteries to power the unit, but by replacing the standard battery door cover with a "Quick Recycling Battery Pack" (shown installed, above, on the left side of the strobe), an additional AA battery gave the strobe quicker recycling time and some additional flashes before the batteries required replacement. From the moment I unboxed my first SB-800, I removed the standard door (shown above to the right of the strobe) and attached the extra battery pack. Until literally 5 minutes ago, I had no idea what I did with the standard door (it's been several years since I installed the battery pack, after all, and I never had a reason NOT to use the battery pack so the door was superfluous), but in a brief moment of lucidity, I remembered where I put the door and found it. The importance of this will be readily apparent in a minute.

Knowing that the SB-800 is a great strobe, I acquired two additional (used) units for use in my hot shoe lighting kit to go with an SB-600, an SB-900 and an older SB-28 that isn't compatible with certain aspects of Nikon's Creative Light System but will still be useful for certain things. Both SB-800 units arrived with the battery packs attached and no standard door. At the time I thought it was no biggie, and was actually happy that the used strobes cam with the extra battery capacity.

Here's the problem that I discovered. In order for Nikon's CLS-compatible strobes to fire wirelessly using the CLS system (as opposed to triggering the strobes in Manual Mode with, e.g. Pocket Wizards), an infrared light beam is emitted from a camera mounted transmitter (the Commander, in CLS jargon). A Commander can be an SU-800 Commander, an SB-800 strobe, an SB-900 strobe, or the newest Nikon strobe, the SB-910 (note: Nikon's SB-600 does not have Commander capability). Each CLS strobe is equipped with two light sensors - one that senses the Commander-transmitted infrared beam (the TTL Wireless sensor shown above), and another which triggers the flash when the strobe is used in non-TTL mode (basically, this is nothing more than an old school slave sensor which causes the flash to trigger when the sensor "sees" another flash's flash).

During my two "practice" car shoots earlier this week, when I used the SB-800's in the "remote" mode with the battery pack attached, the protruding battery pack blocked the TTL Wireless Sensor from "seeing" the infrared light beam transmitted by the Commander unit every time I positioned the strobe(s) behind my shooting position. No see-y, no-flash-y. No flash-y, huge aggravation. That forced me to always position the strobes ahead of my shooting position or risk that they would not fire. Whenever I unwittingly moved too far in front of the strobes (looking at the image above, anywhere forward of the right light stand's forward leg), no flash. Thus, I was unable to position the strobe(s) exactly where I wanted which yielded lighting that I had to settle for instead of lighting that I wanted to create. 

I have found replacement, standard battery doors on line (amazingly, none of my usual sources for new equipment - B&H and Adorama - stock them) for the two SB-800's that did not come with the standard battery door and they are on the way. Once they arrive, the problem will be solved but I am so very glad I had this issue come up while practicing with the equipment instead of discovering it when shooting something other than a practice/personal project.

So how did I do at my second attempt to learn the ins and outs of automobile photography despite the SB-800 issue? I'm still blown away by what you can accomplish with hot shoe strobes and fairly minimalistic lighting. Using one (but sometimes two) 9"X36" inexpensive strip softboxes, a couple of flash brackets, light stands and SB-800's triggered by am SU-800 Commander, you can see the results and judge for yourself.

After two trial runs, I know I still have much to learn in terms of light placement. After the shoot, as I was processing the images, I made mental notes as to where I had positioned the lights for any given shot. Going back to the instructional videos to see exactly how others positioned their lights for similar shots, I noticed that my lighting locations were off - for one thing, way too far away from the area I was trying to light. That's easily corrected, and hopefully next time out, my lighting will be much improved. Without having taken the time to practice, though, I would have made the mistake with a lot more than a personal practice project on the line.

I'm anxiously looking forward to the arrival of the two 12"X56" softboxes that I ordered for car photography opportunities as those are much better suited for the job. They should be here any day and as soon as they arrive I'll put them to the test and compare them to the 9"X36" baby brothers. I'm debating whether to wait for their arrival before taking things up a notch and shooting a couple of vehicles that I've been frothing at the mouth to shoot - a couple of original Batmobiles in impeccable condition - or throw caution to the wind and do what I can with the smaller softboxes. Only time will tell....

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