Thursday, March 4, 2010

A Flash Lesson That Needs To Be Exposed!

First, let me share with you still yet another example of personal ignorance, and hopefully, after careful thought on your part, I can save you some money! I am the proud, (or shall I say 'stupid') owner of 5 Nikon SB-900 Electronic Flashes. Yes, you read that right-FIVE! And as I have learned, I have on average, 3 too many! I initially bought 5 of these darn things because I had visions of not just lighting a single subject on a darkened street, but rather I wanted to light up entire city blocks! Trouble with lighting up entire city blocks is that they looked exactly like a city block would look like when lit by 5 electronic strobes-ALL LIT UP! Trust me on this: a city block ALL LIT UP by 5 electronic strobes is anything but sexy or moody or ominous. It is nothing more than a city block in daylight, but lit up at night!

Furthermore, in the first few months of working with the SB-900's, I soon discovered that MANUAL EXPOSURE MODE was my only option when attaching them to a Pocket Wizard. I have nothing against MANUAL FLASH EXPOSURE MODE as I often prefer it, but considering the EXORBITANT cost of the SB-900 Electronic Flash, (over $400.00!), one would think that TTL Flash Exposure would be a constant, with or without a Pocket Wizard . It was on this momentous day that I first whispered these words to myself, "What the heck was I thinking? I could have saved a bundle, if I had bought the Vivitar Series 1 285. It's only $89.95!"

Over the course of next six months, this would become my refrain and finally, after a great deal of careful thought I have concluded the following, some of which you may already have guessed, but here goes. My total investment in 5 Nikon SB-900's came to a little over $2,000.00. Combine that with 6 Pocket Wizards Plus II's at a cost of $169.00 each for a total cost of $1,014.00 and my portable electronic flash system has now cost over $3,000.00 and we haven't even added in the Flashpoint portable light stands or umbrellas, and small softboxes nor the Justin Clamps, colored gels and grids OR the roller case from Lowepro that carries it all-YIKES!

Sure, I look impressive - very professional in fact - but truth be told, 95% of what I do with an electronic flash involves the use of ONE or TWO Electronic Flashes, (the other 5% of the time, has found me using no more than THREE flashes). In addition I am often using the flash(es) with the Pocket Wizards which of course means NOT using TTL! So, let's do the math one more time, only this time let's substitute the SB-900 with a Vivitar Series One 285 . Better still, let's just cut to the chase: for the price of ONE Nikon SB-900, (remember it's over $400.00!), you can buy two Vivitar Series 1 285 Electronic Flashes and two Pocket Wizards Plus II and at that point you will be a wee bit over $500.00. And as far as I am concerned you are now fully ready to set the explosive charges to that reservoir of electronic flash creativity that lies inside you! (Someday you will probably realize that having three Pocket Wizard Plus II's is t he ultimate way to go, one for each strobe and one for the camera, but even then you are still well under $1,000.00!)

Forgive me for a moment as I am being distracted by the Nikon purists out there who insist that the SB-900 offers up wireless remote TTL via Nikon's Commander Mode. Right you are, but for the most part, it only works within a short distance AND on the "line of site" principle, which of course means, you too will resort to the use of Pocket Wizards and at least at this writing, that means you will be operating in Manual Flash Exposure Mode! Yes, I also know, that the Vivitar Series 1 285 is a will only operate in Manual Flash Exposure Mode when attached to the Pocket Wizards too, but at least it never purported to be a $400.00+ flash that then acts like a $89.00 flash when attached to a Pocket Wizard!

And, finally, I might add, TTL is not in my humble opinion the "end all to be all!" As many of you have learned from reading my book Understanding Exposure, setting a manual daylight exposure is not only easy, but it affords you a great deal of creative latitude and the same is true of manual flash exposure. Manual flash exposure is not only easy to learn, but incredibly reliable; unlike the few happy 'accidents' that were achieved when I shot in TTL.

Here are several examples of One Light Set-Up.

An overcast day at a park in New Zealand finds me greeting a juggler. Overcast? You bet it was, as the first image clearly shows, but that didn't stop me from shooting him again, with the 'sun' going down beh ind him! Nikon D300, Nikkor 70-300mm at 250mm, Nikon SB-900 and Pocket Wizard on light stand behind him about five feet with Amber gel attached. Flash set to f/5.6, but actual ambient reading of face was used, f/11 @ 1/125 second, resulting in flash exposure being two stops over-exposed. That explains the 'over-exposed' backlit hair-just like the actual sun would do!
Nikon D300, Nikkor 14mm full frame fish eye, f/8 @ a 1/250 second.

As far as the Karate Kid seen here, he came flying out of nowhere! Fortunately, on a light stand, off to my right, my Nikon SB-900 and Pocket Wizard were ready for his surprise visit! The all-encompassing forest was shot with the Nikkor 14mm Full Frame DX Fisheye. (actually a special note of thanks to Ann Worthy who provided the talent and the idea!)

So you say you have a leaky faucet? Well heck while you are waiting for the Plumber, get out your flash and Nikkor 200mm Macro lens and start shooting the steady drip, as it leaves the faucet head! But before you do, grab a colorful piece of fabric, (those Hawaiian shirts work well!) and place it in the background-a 6-8 inches behind the drip and voila, you end up with a composition of water that when FLIPPED looks like a work of art that was produced by the Glass Blowers of Murano Italy!

Below we have examples of a Two Light setup:

In front of me is a large bowl of cream on the kitchen counter and a large bowl of strawberries sits off to the side. One by one, I drop a single strawberry into the bowl of cream with my left hand, while my right hand is hooked up to Nikon's Electronic Cable release firing, hopefully, at the exact moment the strawberry 'splashes' into the cream. Eighteen shots later, I was successful. As you can see, on each side of this bowl, my Nikon SB-900 's with their attached diffuser's, got creamed-LOL! This is one of the few times I used Nikon's Commander Mode, because the strobes were well within "range". (Pocket Wizards would of course do the same thing). As usual, I am in Manual Flash Exposure. Nikon D300S, Micro-Nikkor 105mm, f/13 @ a 1/250 second.

Nikon D300S, Nikkor 35-70mm f/2.8 at f/8, ISO 200, 1/125 second.

For years I would haul out the two large 3X4 foot softboxes, attach the powerful 1600 WS White Lightning Ultra's and place one on the floor facing up and the other on a light stand pointing straight down towards the one on the ground. Atop the one on the ground I would place a large piece of frosted white plexi-glass and over the course of hours if not days, I would place subject matter such as flowers and sliced fruits and vegetables atop the plexi-glass and fire away. The top light and the bottom light were set for the same exposure value, (the same amount of flash output) and I would end up with 'floating' objects', backlit and front lit, thus getting a glowing front lit subject. I don't have to do that anymore. The power of the SB-900, just like the VIvitar 285, is sufficient to achieve the same effect.

No need for a softbox either-an ordinary cardboard box lined with white poster board is sufficient and atop the box you place the white frosted plexi-glass. Inside the cardboard box is one strobe and outside the box, pointed down towards the plexi-glass is the other strobe-both at the same distance from the plexi-glass and in this case an aperture of f/8 was indicated for that distance. With a set-up like this you can let your imagination run with the plethora of subject matter that is available.

All My Best,

Bryan F Peterson

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