Nov 072012

Big Light with Small Gear by Anders Hansén

Hey Steve,

I was thrilled to see Per Nicolaisen’s post on using strobes, since I’d been thinking about sending you a piece about using speedlights in conjunction with small cameras to get big light, but couldn’t really decide on how to include the basic knowledge needed. No need now!

If you are new to strobe lightning, Per did a wonderful job in summarizing the things you need to account for when setting your own light. I suggest you read it if you haven’t already.

For those of you that got inspired by Per’s post on using big a$$ expensive Profoto strobes, I’d like to show you that you really don’t need to sell your precious Noctilux (nor use a car to haul the gear on location) to make a first venture into that photographic style.

(Now to get that specific look, you know Profoto quality light and gorgeous sunstars from a Canon 16-35 stopped down to ƒ/16 with minimal diffraction – sadly, you probably will… but let’s stay happy here).

I enjoy shooting in full sun more than anything else. I love the look of a rich blue sky with white clouds, and the feeling it injects into my pictures. I love to be able to include as much sky in the picture as possible instead of cropping it out because it’s washed out and overexposed. And I absolutely adore the ‘pop’ in color, contrast and rendering I get with hard crosslight between the sun and a flash.

Good news is, this can be done both cheap and lightweight – and the results will still pack a serious punch when you get it right.

Eyes in the sky, Panasonic LX3, 24mm equivalent, handheld Nikon SB-900 and a Lumiquest Softbox III camera left, ambient underexposed by at least two steps, ƒ/3.5, 1/1000s, pull-ISO 80

I’m a long time Nikon SLR user. I started out in the 90′s using a Nikon FA, a Nikon SB-24 and a Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 AI-s prime (whose characteristic swirly out-of-focus rendering I still miss to this day, oh well…). For practical reasons I have since moved on to digital and mostly shoot with a D7000 today.

However, outdoors in harsh Sunny 16-conditions, I primarily shoot something completely different: an old beat-up Panasonic LX3 compact camera. Not because its smaller – but because it does one thing much better than the D7000. It syncs with flashes up to a 1/2000th of a second.

What does that mean? Well, it means that with a typical Sunny 16 exposure (1/100s, ƒ/16, ISO100) you will easily be able to shoot with battery-powered flashes at ƒ/5,6 and 1/800s with more than a full stop of shutter speed left to underexpose ambient.

You may or may not be familiar with power ratios of small flashes. For this piece I’ll keep it really simple: at ƒ/5,6 and close quarters – battery-powered speedlights pretty much are portable nukes. You can easily use modifiers like umbrellas or softboxes and will be able to shoot the flash at quarter power for speedy recycle times.

Run and gun, LX3, 24mm, handheld bare SB-600 camera left, roughly 2/3 stops underexposed ambient, ƒ/4, 1/500s

I mentioned this wouldn’t cost you an arm and a leg. In fact, you might already own the most expensive parts of the gear: the camera and speedlight.

If not, a speedlight with manual controls and an optical slave can be picked up for next to nothing compared to other photographic gear (like, say a major brand 24-70 ƒ/2.8 zoom). I recommend you find a flash that will do TTL with your camera. It’s always nice to have that option. Many off brand flashes do. With that said, I tend to stick to Nikon speedlights for my uses, since I know their color temperature and behavior well.

As for flash triggers – I strongly suggest getting a TTL cord. I’ve done a lot of optical slave syncing, and it’s simply not reliable enough outdoors in full sun. If you’re lusting for radio triggers, don’t cheap out. I did, and I’m not going to do it again. Lesson learned: if you don’t want to spend big money on Pocket Wizards – use a cheap, reliable TTL cable instead!

Baywatch Kid, LX3, hard crosslight using a small SB-600 at camera left, ƒ/7.1, 1/1000s

How do you get this look? Easy: set your camera to manual, underexpose for a rich blue sky, and then bring your main subject up to the correct exposure by dialing in the flash. That’s it.

I don’t use flash meters. The LCD and histogram are my real world flash meters, that also shows white balance, contrast and rendering with the current light. Just pop a test shot. Then adjust. Simple when you get the hang of it. You can even start out in full TTL using exposure compensation and flash value compensation to achieve this.

So, what cameras can actually do this? First off, pretty much any camera can – but with typical mirrorless sync speeds in the 1/180s region you would need to work with a ND-filter on camera and bare flashes at full power. Use of umbrellas and soft boxes in full sun is more or less out of the question. Unless working really close and/or with double speedlight brackets.

The best affordable camera in the market for quality high-speed sync shots right now would be a Fujifilm X100. APS-C size chip combined with fast sync speed in a package that can easily be found used at a decent price. After all it’s a camera many bought because of the hype, but found cumbersome to use and ditched it since it required you to think like a photographer instead of a machine gun shooter.

There are other cameras that will do this as well – and luckily, most of them can be found dirt cheap used.

When it comes to ‘larger’ chips, Nikon D40 (not D40x), D50, D70 and D70s are the most current DSLR:s using electronic shutters that will sync at any shutter speed (though they will artificially limit you to 1/500 when using TTL). The quality of light will largely compensate for the age of the chips. I’m predicting they will easily smoke my LX3 due to the larger chip size (I haven’t gone this direction since I don’t want to carry two DSLR’s, one is more than enough, thank you…).

But the most common high speed-culprits are actually compact cameras. Sadly, most of them miss that vital hot shoe (you can still slave an external flash optically, if you really try), but as you know by now the Panasonic LX3 and LX5 will do it. I still haven’t found out about the LX7 (since Panasonic decided to switched to a MOS type sensor, and the x-sync spec is missing everywhere, I don’t have any high hopes). Many Canon G cameras, like the G9 will do it as well.

Now, I know there are plenty more dark horses to be found, but these are the ones I have solid first hand information about. Do you own a fast sync camera? Let others know in the comments below!

(Oh yeah – there’s the major league as well: medium format beasts paired with leaf shutter lenses. Like Leica S, and Phase One 645 format if you’re using the right backs. But then the noct will have to go. And probably a kidney as well. Oh, and you never cared to much for your grandmother anyway, now did you?)

Sadly, for almost every new camera announced nowadays – especially mirrorless – I’m usually put down by its sync speed.

The one exemption is the Sony RX1, that will fry every other 35mm sensor camera in this regard, but since Sony knows this as well – it’s priced accordingly. I consider it out of my league. I’ll pick it up used in a couple of years if nothing else has happened by then.

For the future, I can’t help but put some faith in Fuji.

This is mainly because the X-mount lenses and cameras tick every box for me, except sync speed. And Fuji is an ambitious contender very much in control of their chips, and despite a great photographic tradition and legendary color – Fuji don’t have a current pro segment to protect (I believe many portrait pros would happily consider ditching their single digit D’s if the Canon 6D or Nikon D600 had at least 1/250s sync – and it’s pretty evident Canon and Nikon thinks that too, hampering them to slower speeds).

One day, maybe Fuji or some other company will heed my call for a fast syncing mirrorless with interchangeable lenses. Until then, we’ll have to make do with what we’ve got. Which – as I’ve hopefully shown you – isn’t that bad, really.

(So… anyone fancy a kidney?)

Anders Hansén works full-time for Swedish national broadcaster SVT Sport as technical coordinator, director, craft video editor and, occasionally, photographer. If you can read Scandinavian, you’ll find his (occasionally updated ;-) photography blog here.

Best regards, Steve, and my congrats on creating a killer photography site and community!

Anders Hansén

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