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I recently made a presentation on H(d)SLRs  to a group of photographers in New York, and two of the concerns the audience had included the amount of money needed to get your H(d)SLR video ready and the size of the equipment.  It got me thinking about a reasonably-priced, handheld stabilizing solution that would allow for growth and expansion as needed.  If your curiosity is peaked, click here to read on….

The Thought of the Week:

Photography and the Olympics

The 2010 Winter Olympics are well on their way:  Hopefully, the photographic community will celebrate the accomplishment of the athletes as captured, as opposed to getting caught up with which brand of camera was used to take the picture.  

we're off to see the wizard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When LPA Design announced the new Pocket Wizard MiniTT1 transmitter and FlexTT5 transceiver earlier this year, there was a tremendous amount of buzz and excitement.  The makers of the best known and probably most widely used flash triggering devices, was coming to market with products capable of communicating Canon’s E-TTL-II and Nikon’s I-TTL protocols wirelessly via radio signals.  While Leap Devices with their Radio Poppers line and Quantum Industries with their Trio line brought radio TTL products to market before LPA, neither of these brands have the user base that PocketWizards has.  The good news was and is that users of Canon and Nikon flash systems now have 3 wireless radio system alternatives, all of which work differently, to the Nikon and Canon “line of sight” wireless solutions.

 

As reports surfaced over range limitations with respect to several Canon Speedlites including the flagship, 580EX II, and some initial operational incompatibility with the very popular 5D Mark II camera, some of the excitement gave way to disappointment.  Add to that product shortages at release, and the new generation of PocketWizard products was off to a less that auspicious start here in the USA.

 

To its credit, LPA Design was quick to acknowledge and address issues.  While the radio interference issues with certain Canon flashes will be addressed by a soon to be announced “supplemental” product, many of the performance related issues and bugs have been addressed via firmware updates.  They have also demonstrated the ability to enhance performance via firmware.  I have been impressed with the firmware updates which LPA has made, as well as by the customer service and technical assistance which both the MAC Group (the U.S distributor of PocketWizards) and LPA Design have rendered.

 

My interest in the new generation of PocketWizard products was fueled by several factors:

  • I wanted to carry a light weight lighting kit that would afford me reliable wireless triggering without having to rely on line of sight.
  • I liked the idea of having a small transmitter atop the camera as opposed to a flash acting as transmitter, or the MultiMax.
  • I wanted one wireless triggering system that could be used with my studio strobes, light meter and Speedlites.
  • I wanted E-TTL II functionality

 

The new PocketWizard products appeared to address all of my desires.  I was less concerned about being able to trigger an E-TTL II controlled flash 800 to 900 feet away as my outdoor shooting on the streets of New York City would preclude that anyway.  When I thought about it further, I decided that I needed some context as to how long 900 feet really is.  Thanks to Google, I now know that 900 feet is the length of the USS Intrepid, three times the length of a football field and a tad under 2/3 the height of the Empire State Building.

 

Now I have to admit, that I did feel a bit like Dorothy, the Lion, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow on the way to “OZ” as the journey down this wireless road was fraught with obstacles:  For starters, only one of the two Flex units I ordered came in.  While waiting for the second Flex to arrive I discovered that with the 580EX II/Flex combination mounted on my 1DS Mark III  there were extreme fluctuations in  shutter speed.  At this point I was questioning my heart, my brain and my courage and wondering could the “Wizard” deliver!  There was a little voice screaming “send the Flex back!”  Had it not been for the excellent technical support and assurances that the issues were noted and would be addressed, coupled with my longstanding experience and satisfaction with PocketWizard products, I probably would have sent it back.   My decision was made, I would press on.  So what’s a guy to do with one FlexTT5?  In my case it was read and re-read the manual, as there is a lot there to digest, and then learn how to integrate using my one Flex into my existing PocketWizard/MultiMax workflow. 

 

The MiniTT1 and the additional FlexTT5 arrived between the two firmware updates.  The Wicked Witch of the West clearly had put a hex on the Mini! With the Mini mounted to either of my cameras, any button I touched on the camera resulted in the triggering of the remote mounted flashes. A call to tech support resulted in a preliminary diagnosis of a contact problem with the Mini.  The next morning I took the Mini back to Foto Care where they exchanged it for another unit. No random firing with the new Mini.  There were noticeable performance improvements with the first firmware update, but with the second update, the Mini and Flex became a joy to use:  No more erratic behavior, reliable triggering and perfect execution of E-TTL II.  

Indoors I have shot with the both the 580EX II and 430EX II flashes mounted to the Flex units behind me, in two different rooms lighting a hallway, in dimly lit rooms at relatively slow shutter speeds and in sun dappled bright environments with fast shutter speeds and the units have fired without any issues.  Outdoors with either a Flex or the Mini on camera, I have gotten the 580EX II mounted on a Flex to fire at a distance of 80 feet away from the camera.  I stopped testing at 80 feet simply because I realized that this distance is substantially in excess of where I would typically place my flashes.  To put some context to it, 80 feet is a tad under a 1/3 of the length of a North -South block in Manhattan.  I do not want to minimize the concern that some have over range.  Based on venue, subject matter and location, as well as focal length of lens, there are those shooters for whom greater range latitude is critical.  There is information and suggestions for increasing the range of affected flashes when used in combination with the FlexTT5 on the Pocket Wizard site which may prove helpful.  For some photographers however, the necessity of having to take some of these  extra steps in order to get the performance they need, significantly reduces the attractiveness of the system.

 

Given the feedback of people getting more or less range with the same model of flash, there may be some credence to the anecdotal accounts that the degree of radio interference attributable to the 580 II may vary by production run.  It is not uncommon during the lifecycle of a product for components to be substituted based on changes in availability for example.  In most instances these changes are not apparent to end users as the overall performance as the manufacturer originally specified remains the same.  While production changes could be a possibility which helps to explain some of the range differentials 580EX II users are reporting, there is no evidence that indicates this is the case.  For those who have criticized Canon with respect to the radio frequency and shielding issue, it should be remembered that few to none of us would be having this discussion about radio frequency interference if we were talking about using the wireless protocol as designed by Canon for use with Canon products.

 

If there is anything that I’m not wild about with the Mini and the Flex it is the fact that the with the latest firmware update, in order to enjoy the new 5D Mark II functionalities, one needs to specify the camera model in the PocketWizard Utility.  This can be a problem for people like me who shoot with multiple Canon models.  Prior to the update I had the model selection set to auto and used the units with either camera.

 

The other area of concern has to do with changing the Mini and Flex settings in the field:  If you have a PocketWizard product such as a Multi-Max or one of the Plus models, you can at least use the learn process to change the channels on the Mini and the Flex should it be necessary.  Without a MultiMax or Plus, or access to the PocketWizard Utility, the only option you have if you need to change settings is a reset to the defaults.  For me this is less of an issue as I rarely am shooting in an area with other photographers, but for those shooting in venues with other photographers or who discover while on location the need to adjust the offset, disable Control TL, change to a channel other than the defaults or make other changes, this may indeed be an issue.

 

Now, I have decided to take a slow and deliberate approach in unlocking the full power of the new PocketWizards.  The first steps included getting my arms around E-TTL functionality as well as getting the new units to function in a more “traditional” PocketWizard role in the studio.  There is a lot of capability packed in these units and a lot of complexity with regards to the settings, and performance.  There are things that can be done with one flash that cannot be done with another, so it is imperative that you read the manual very carefully.  The truth is that there is more capability in these new PocketWizard products than I will probably ever need or use. 

 

My benchmark for evaluating the Mini and Flex was how they stacked up against the “line of sight” Canon system as I have used and would use it.  For my shooting and lighting needs and desires, the Mini and Flex work extremely well.  In real world usage, I have not experienced the same reliability issues and frustrations that I have had from time to time with the camera mounted St-e2 controlling flash activity and I have certainly not gotten the range  and versatility from the St-e2 as master that I am seeing with the Mini or Flex. 

 

While one would hope for a seamless and smooth product launch, the Mini and Flex introduction for use with Canon products was not; it is unfortunate because a lot of the focus as to what these tool can do has taken a back seat to what they can’t do at this time.  It is clear from talking with the folks at LPA that they are committed to addressing both current issues as well as those that may surface, and refining and enhancing performance. 

 

The newest generation of PocketWizards for me is a reminder that much of the technology that we purchase and use today, are works in progress.  Our computer software, printers and digital media devices are routinely updated though patches and firmware which fix bugs, address problems and enhance operations.  And this is how I have come to regard the new PocketWizards-“Functional Works in Progress” that will evolve as we use them and just keep getting better.

 

And as far as this trip to “see the Wizard” is concerned, it looks like the USB cable gets the coveted role of the ruby red slippers!

 

Note:  I have been told that an official update on the availability of the Nikon compatible products will be released soon. Check the news on the PocketWizard Site.

Update –  July 13:  PocketWizard has released a firmware update for the Mini and Flex.  For details,  follow the link below:  http://www.pocketwizard.com/news_events/news/firmware_v4.300_press_release/

dollars-and-sense-1With the availability of full frame dslrs from Canon, Nikon and Sony, there has been a lot of discussion, both on Internet forum boards and in print about camera pricing and in particular, the pricing of “professional” dslrs.  John Rettie in an article called  “The Pricing Controversy on High-End DSLRS” which is in the current copy of Rangefinder Magazine commented that in his opinion, only the “top of the line” (in marketing speak – professional designated models) of Canon and Nikon cameras are overpriced and shares his take on where he believes these cameras should be priced. 

 

It seems that a fair amount of disappointment with respect to the announced $8,000 price of the 24mp D3X, Nikons flagship camera was the result of Internet speculation and guesses, as well as Sony’s pricing of the A900, as opposed to any real indication from Nikon as to what the price would be.  I have never regarded the professional designated cameras from Nikon or Canon, even though objects of desire in photo publications and on Internet forums, as the sales volume leaders for either company relative to their consumer-oriented entry and mid range products.

 

Rettie’s article got me thinking:  “How much longer can companies charge a premium for their professional designated camera products?”  It took a while but I had an epiphany:  The answer is “as long as there are photographers who feel that the product will add value to their work flow and have the level of business to justify the expenditure.”  There will also be a home for these expensive dslrs in many of the same rental houses that have $30,000 digital backs and $15,000 lighting systems available.  And like the high end lighting products, the cache and halo of marquee dslrs often spills onto the less expensive, more mass consumer-oriented product lines.

 

As I consider the number of working photographers I know and/or am acquainted with, their specialties, clients, and billings vary tremendously.  I wondered whether their decision making practices as it relates to equipment varies in the same manner.

Dave Black is a world class sports photographer, and Nikon shooter.  Dave recently shared his rationale for buying the Nikon flagship in an article entitled “The Nikon D3x…Part 1” on his site.   Dave’s analysis led him to conclude, that the addition of the D3X will open up new opportunities for him.  Whether you agree with him or not, isn’t the point or an issue:  Dave has made his decision based on the analysis of his business and market evaluation.  This is a vastly different decision making process from the enthusiast who bases his or her purchase decision on the availability of discretionary income; or the person who lust for it but finds the price is too big a stretch for him or her, and expresses discontent.

 

Photographers who use the Canon 1DS series cameras have been making similar analyses for longer, as Canon has been offering a full frame professional designated model since 2002.  John Pinderhughes, a premier commercial and fine arts photographer,  and Canon Explorer of Light, shoots with a Canon 1DS Mark II and a 5D Mark II.  When I asked John why he is still shooting with the 1DS Mark II and not the more current 1DS Mark III, he said that he felt “no need to rush” to change bodies sixteen months ago when the Mark III was introduced.   He felt that he was still getting so much “amazing output” from the 1DS Mark II.  His stance runs counter to the prevailing but unsubstantiated belief that every time a new body is released the working photographer automatically upgrades.  As for his reason for shooting with a 5D Mark II:  John cites the size, weight and output as major factors.  When asked is the camera good enough for professional use, John’s response was “absolutely.”  He did however say that under some circumstances and shooting conditions, he would opt to use the more robust 1 series camera.  Additionally, he is considering adding a new 1 series camera to the fold “sometime in the not too distant future.”

 

Today, the high mp count is no longer limited to the top of the line.  Both Sony and Canon have twenty-something mp cameras for under $3,000.  So do they have all the bells and whistles of the Canon and Nikon flagships?  No, but for many shooters who need and/or want the resolution advantages, all the bells and whistles of the flagships may not be necessary. 

 

New York based photographer and studio owner Rod Goodman recently made the decision to replace his cropped sensor Canon camera with the 5D Mark II.  Goodman felt that a 21mp camera at under $2,700 was a business expense he could justify; the $8000 1DS Mark III was not.  As for Goodman’s reasons for shooting with the mid-level Canon consumer/prosumer cropped sensor models until recently; the driving factor in that decision was economics:  1) because he had opened a studio which was a major investment, 2) he primarily shoots head shots where the margins are smaller; and 3) the fact that his clients rarely need prints larger than 8×10.  Goodman is quick to admit that he drooled over full frame dslrs for some time, but points out that running a business is about knowing how to allocate resources.  His decision to stick with mid-level cameras and the “non-professional” designated 5D Mark II has not been a stumbling block in building his business.

 

Three working photographers, three different specialties and clients, and yet, all have made their camera equipment choices around their business needs, sometimes opting for the top of the line, sometimes not; sometimes opting for the new, and sometimes holding the line.

 

From a photographer’s vantage point and even that of product reviewers, it is dangerous to get into the camera company’s business model and workings.  While it might be interesting, I know that personally, I am better off not ruminating on what their production costs and the like should be as there are too many unknowns and it sets a dangerous precedent:  How long will it be before my customers or yours start telling us what the cost our product/services should be and how much profit we should be able to make? Or how long before readers tell publishing entities how much their magazines should sell for based on their analysis of ad sales, ink and printing costs and circulation?   As photographers, we are consumers of camera company products, not Wall Street analysts, not investors or shareholders. We run our business and the camera companies run theirs.  We should be making our decisions to spend our dollars based on good business sense.

 

I’d like to thank Dave Black, John Pinderhughes, and Rod Goodman for their willingness to be resources for this entry.

To learn more about Dave, John and Rod or view their work, or view referenced articles, scroll over or click on the blue highlighted text in the entry.

One of the most significant products that I have come across in my examination of stabilizers for hslrs is the U-Boat Commander.  The Commander, as I will refer to it, is an innovative product developed by photographer/director Bruce Dorn, a Canon Explorer of Light, writer, and gadgeteer extraordinaire.  I call him a gadgeteer because Bruce has a wonderful ability to craft solutions to meet his shooting needs.  A visit to his site www.idcphotography.com/blog/  is extremely enlightening.

 

I consider the Commander significant because it is, to my knowledge, the first stabilizing rig developed from scratch to accommodate the Canon 5D Mark II for video capture.  The other rigs which I looked at were existing products.  I have had use of the Commander for the last five days, and I will admit that as I boxed it up this morning to send it back to Arizona, there was a bit of mist in my eyes.  Nikon D90 users do not feel slighted:  I encourage you to read on.

Canon 5D Mark II mounted on the U-Boat Commander

Canon 5D Mark II mounted on the U-Boat Commander

 

The Commander offers something for lots of people due to its modular nature:  In its most basic form it is a two-handled platform; the intermediate configuration adds a plate on top (bridge) as well as a handle and cold shoes, which allows you to mount a microphone and/or lights, as well as facilitating low angle shooting; and in its most complete form it adds a shoulder stabilizer, which can also aid in table top stabilization and or panning and tilting movements.)  The anodized aluminum plates and bars are beautifully finished.  I do want to note that the knurled handle grips come without handle pads:  They will take standard bike handle grips (I used weightlifting grips.)

 

In many respects, the Commander reminded me of shooting with the Fig Rig, in that the unit is held out in front of you and the body acts as a shock absorber when moving. I also found that there was tremendous mobility although the Fig Rig does enjoy an edge here due to the circular frame.  Unlike the Fig Rig, since the bottom plate of the Commander is flat, the camera can be safely placed on a flat surface when not in use.  The 5D Mark II can be mounted directly to the commander base or attachment can be achieved via an optional quick release assembly.  Either way, you have access to the 5D Mark II battery door.  u-d90For those shooting with the Nikon D90, the battery door of the camera is also fully accessible when it is mounted to the Commander base.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The modular nature of the Commander brings together the best aspects of many of the other products I own/have used and/or considered, both less expensive and more expensive.  It offers good range of motion, and shoulder stabilization on demand, the ability to mount accessories such as lights, microphones and monitors.  The low angle shooting ability is a functionality that can be very costly with other systems.

Low angle shooting with the Commander

Low angle shooting with the Commander

 I found setting up the Commander pretty intuitive.  There is, however, an excellent video demonstration on Bruce’s site for those who want an understanding of how all the pieces fit and work together.  While I spent most of the time with the Commander in the intermediate configuration (Kit 2) with the bridge and handle attached, there is a lot to be said for attaching the shoulder stabilizer.  I found it much easier to access camera controls while moving around with the shoulder stabilizer than without it.  I liked the option of being able to use the stabilizer either over my shoulder or pressed into my shoulder.  I also “pimped” the Commander and discovered that with the addition of small furniture gliders on the bottom of the base plate that I could achieve similar action to a dolly and track system on flat surfaces.

 

As I was mulling over my thoughts, I realized that most equipment reviews/commentary are written by men.  I asked my sister to try the stabilizers out and share her reactions.  Of the three pieces of equipment, her hands down favorite was the Commander.  For her use, the Commander offered the best balance, was lighter than it looked and than she thought it would be, and she liked the over the shoulder stabilization option as opposed to the into the shoulder bracing.

 

The Commander kits are not inexpensive:  While the intermediate configuration (Kit 2) exceeded the $300 budget I set by $69, the basic configuration (Kit 1) at $239 would have been within the parameters.  The Works (Kit 3) would have been way out of range.  The good news is that very soon there will be upgrade modules available for purchasers of Kits 1 and 2 so that you can add on as you need to and/or grow.

 

In looking at the options for products, I always suggest to the extent possible that consumers not only look at how they think they are going to use a product, but to try to look at the versatility and the range of applications for which a particular product can be adapted or used.  I think that this is the most appropriate way to consider a tool like the U-Boat Commander.  When I look at its functionality, and modular nature relative to the universe of available tools and add ons, the U-Boat Commander looks very, very good. 

 

Don’t be surprised if you see one of my cameras mounted to my own Commander in the near future!

Early last August, I had an opportunity to shoot wedding pictures for a couple in New York’s Central Park.  As my assistant and I were walking a few hundred feet behind the happy couple, and I looked at them leaning into each other as we moved to another location, I remarked how we were witnessing a video moment!  The problem was that I had no video camera:  Just two dslrs, one a Nikon and the other a Canon.  Just a few short weeks later,  Nikon and Canon announced the D90 and the 5D Mark ll respectively, both of which would have high definition video capability, and in many respects will alter the feature set of still cameras going forward.

 

Now the reaction to video in dslrs has been mixed to say the least.  Some people both professional and enthusiast, embrace it, and others call it a gimmick.  Funny, I think back to only a few short years ago when Olympus put a dust shake system, and live view in their cameras.  Features which many marginalized then have become the expected norm today.

 

After experiencing that “Ah Ha” moment in Central Park last August, I am happy that I now have the option to shoot a little video and stills in a single package.  We do live in a multimedia age.  With the rise of YouTube, Vimeo, social networking and image sharing sites such as My Space and Flicker, as well as commercial product advertisement and news sites, the importance of video capture capability in any imaging device, should not be lost or minimized.

 

These hybrid cameras, as I refer to them, are not meant to replace dedicated hi def video cameras nor are they intended to shoot a box office blockbuster; but for clips and  even shorts, they are indeed valuable and intriguing tools.  I can tell you in shooting with both available options, that there are things I like about both and things which I don’t care for!  Each manufacturer could learn a thing or two from how the other has incorporated the video feature for future refinement.  The most important thing for those of us who are embracing the feature is to learn how the system of our choice operates and to exploit it to the fullest. What is clear is that the technology will develop and develop rapidly. A year or two from now the amount of control and flexibility in shooting speed will make today’s groundbreakers seem crude.  But for now I encourage all who have purchased them to enjoy the feature.

Coming next week – Part 2:  Mounting the Hybrid Camera for Movement

 

Resources for learning more on shooting video with dslrs:

http://www.usa.canon.com/dlc/controller?act=GetArticleAct&articleID=2186
 
http://cpn.canon-europe.com/content/masterclass/eos_5d_mark_II_masterclass.do
 

 

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