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With the growing demand for still and motion capture from clients, interest in continuous lighting options grow as do the number of products available to meet this need.  I have wanted to explore the use of continuous lighting in a studio setting for a while, and thanks to K5600 Lighting and Calumet Photographic NYC, I recently got the chance to work with a Joker-Bug 800 watt HMI.  The experience is best summed up as “illuminating!”

To read and see more, click here.

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single-standing-revWhile I have several light stands of different heights, the stands I most commonly use when traveling and on location are eight-foot stands.  The promise of less bulk has tremendous appeal to me and most location photographers, so with that in mind I ordered a pair of Manfrotto 306B Stacker Stands from the Calumet Photographic store in New York.  When I picked the stands up, I  responded positively to the narrow rectangular boxes which affirm  how streamline these stands are.  In fact, my response was so positive that the fact that the three-section Stacker Stands were taller closed than my “generic” brand four-section, eight-foot stands went unnoticed.  In my defense, I had been using a 13-foot stand for testing for several weeks, so that impacted my frame of reference.

The 306Bs are well made; I did not, however, find them substantially better or worse in build to my other stands.    What struck me when I set the stands up was that they were occupying more floor space than I recall my “generic” brand 8 foot stands requiring.  The footprint diameter of the 306Bs is 42.5 inches versus 36 inches for my generic brand eight-foot stands.   Closed, my generic stands were a relatively “compact” 26 inches versus 34.3 inches for the closed 306Bs.  So the Stacker Stands require more floor space, and in terms of packing, a longer bag than my generic eight-foot stands.  This is not surprising given that the 306Bs have 3 sections  versus my “generic” stands which have 4 sections.  Additionally, each 306B weighs nearly a half pound more than each of my generic eight-foot stands.  Now, one might expect me to conclude that there is no real advantage to the Manfrotto 306B stands in terms of closed lenght, weight and footprint when compared to my generic eight-foot stands.  It is not quite that cut and dry.  

For the traveling photographer concerned with bulk and containment and/or the location shooter, the Manfrotto 306Bs offer tremendous advantages.  They can be clipped together and the irregularity in shape and cumbersomeness of transporting conventionally configured light stands is substantially reduced or eliminated.  A shoulder strap can be attached to the collapsed stands offering a great hands free carrying option.  If storage space in the studio, home or even in the car trunk is a premium, you will definitely see an advantage with or benefit from having multiple Manfrotto Stacker Stands.  According to Bogen Imaging, which distributes Manfrotto products here in the USA, seven Stacker Stands requires the same space as four traditional light stands. 

 If you are buying a single stand, you may not see or appreciate the utility of the Stacker system; but if you need or intend to buy multiple stands, the 306Bs or the other Manfrotto Stacker Stands may be worthy of consideration.  The 306Bs can be purchased individually or in three stand “kits.”  All in all, I found the 306Bs an elegant and efficient solution to a concern or problem that many photographers face. Thumbs up to Manfrotto! 

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I often look at equipment with an eye on whether it will allow me to accomplish a task more efficiently:  More efficiently for me usually translates to mean easier to carry and easier to set up, as most of my work is on location.  So it was with great interest, and I’ll admit a healthy dose of skepticism, that I went to the Calumet Photographic Store on West 22nd Street here in New York, to spend some quality time with their Portable On-Site Background System (PBS).  I say skepticism because I have tried collapsible 8′ muslin systems, as well as the more traditional crossbar type background support systems and have yet to find one that has impressed me enough for consistent use. In fact one of my more embarrassing photo shoot  related stories centers around the difficulty I had trying to get a collapsible background back in the bag.

 

When I arrived at Calumet, I was greeted by Ron Herard.  Ron handed me the bag which housed the Calumet system and we headed upstairs to their second floor gallery space.  While Calumet lists the kit as weighing 12 pounds, it did not feel that heavy.  When we got upstairs Ron asked me if I would time how long it takes him to get the system out of the bag and up for use.  One of his colleagues doubted it could be done in less than five minutes.  Well for the doubting Thomas, it took Ron a grand total of 2 minutes and 40 seconds.  I watched in absolute amazement:  An adjustable stand, a central cylinder in which you insert 4 flexible rods with round ends, 4 flexible extension rods, an 8×8 sheet of muslin which fits on the “arrow” tips of the extension rods, and you are good to go!  It is simple and intuitive.  It took me 3 minutes and 12 seconds to take the PBS out of the bag and erect it.  Not bad for a first timer!  I was able to dismantle the frame as quickly as I erected it.

Also surprising to me was the fact that the system does not require any additional clearance beyond 8 feet to erect.  Unlike the traditional cross bar support systems which require additional space on each side to accommodate the footprint of each stand, the Calumet PBS does not.  This is one elegant and efficient solution.  The muslin sheets have pockets on each corner which fit securely on the rod arrow heads.  The pockets are well reinforced.  Additionally the tautness of the fabric and frame interface, acts to stretch the fabric:  This resulted in a substantial number of wrinkles and creases in the folded sheet that was used either being reduced significantly or eliminated.  If you are getting a sense that I like this system, it is because I do. 

 

One of the downsides to this system is that you may not want to use this system against a window or with a light source  directly behind it as the stretched muslin is thin enough that the x frame may be seen.  Others may find the lack of availability of a floor apron as a drawback.  But all in all I found the system superior to the other alternatives I have tried and yet competitively priced.

I thanked Ron and Store Manager John Dessereau as I left, but not before placing an order for my very own.

For more information on the Calumet PBS, click on the blue highlighted text in this entry.

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.

If you want to seriously stabilize your Canon 5d Mark II or Nikon D90 (referred to as “hslrs,”) a tripod and/or monopod along with a fluid head are, at a  bare minimum, essentials. They are available in different configurations and at various price points.  A critical consideration is making sure the tripod/monopod and the head can support the camera and lenses that you are going to mount.  Be sure to check the load capacity of the equipment you are considering.  While tripods and monopods address relatively stationary shooting where you may primarily be interested in panning and tilting movements and you have the space to use them, they do not address dynamic shooting conditions or shooting in tight spaces.  And that’s when you need to look at the portable stabilizing solutions.

 

Just like with tripods/monopods and fluids heads, there are portable stabilizing options to fit every budget.  Personally, I did not want to wear a belt, vest or any contraption which made me look like I was in traction while trying to stabilize my hslr.  In addition to keeping the camera steady, I also wanted to keep my wallet steady.  After giving the matter serious consideration, I arbitrarily set my budget for a portable stabilizing solution at $300 maximum:  Too much over that amount and I felt that the solution would be overkill since my primary usage for both cameras is  still work.  The solution had to be easy to transport; easy to set up and break down; and just as importantly, easy to use.  The stabilizer also had to be able to support the camera body and substantial telephoto lenses.  I was aware that this last consideration might knock out some of the support products aimed at the palm sized camcorders.  My last requirement was that I had to be able to physically handle the product before purchase.  The “video virgin” in me was driving this requirement.

 

After doing a lot of research, I found two products that piqued my interest, and were readily available here in New York for purchase.  The Manfrotto Fig Rig which I found at Calumet Photographic and the BushHawk 320D camera support which I picked up the next day at Adorama.  These are two very different solutions, but two products with impressive lineage:  The Fig Rig being the brainchild of writer/director Mike Figgis in conjunction with Manfrotto, and  BushHawk offering stabilization products for many  nature and wildlife photographers.

 

The Fig Rig

 

fig-rig1What do you get when you mount a camera inside a steering wheel?  You get a Fig Rig!! I keep hearing the Joni Mitchell song “Big Yellow Taxi” every time I think about the Fig Rig!  People may find the concept of walking around holding a “steering wheel” in front of you, strange but I have to tell you it works.  The Fig Rig offers incredible freedom of movement.  The two handed navigation if you will, results in tremendous stability and smooth shooting.  The body acts as the shock absorber and does not transfer the jarring movement to the Fig Rig.  The wheel itself can accommodate add on’s such as video lights or a microphone using the optional Fig Rig clamp.

 

The Fig Rig is made of aluminum with padded hand grips.  You attach the supplied quick release mounting assembly to the frame and plate to the camera and you are essentially ready to roll.  Also supplied are 4 cable clips which allow you to manage any wires for accessories you might attach to the frame.  You are looking at somewhere in the vicinity of 2 pounds before you add the camera.

 

The biggest drawback with the Fig Rig is the fact that it is impossible to place the camera down in a stable position when it is mounted.  I find myself removing the camera from the cross bar when it is not in use (perhaps some sort of surface brace or stand can address this.)  The other possible drawback is that you do look a bit weird walking down the street with one.  But to those worried about how they look, I say get over it!  The price of admission:  $299.

 

The BushHawk 320D

bushhawk1The other product that I found myself very excited about is the BushHawk 320D Shoulder Support System.  If you think steering wheel with the Fig Rig, think shotgun with the BushHawk!  This shoulder based stabilizing system is what is called gun mount with a trigger which with the appropriate cable release will “fire” the shutter.  Now one of my big concerns about taking this thing out and using it on the streets of New York is that someone is going shout “gun” (as Clint Eastwood in “In the Line of Fire” does in a crowd) and wrestle me to the ground!! 

 

 

The 320D Pro Kit (one of two Canon versions and there is a Nikon version as well) I purchased included:

 The 320D double handle stabilizer with trigger and shoulder pad; Canon shutter release cord; Quick   release assembly and wrenches; Window Pod;  Strap; Release cord case; and Storage bag.

 

bushhawk2The 320D is a modular thermoplastic frame which is extremely light and strong.  An adjustable arm, which has a shoulder pad at the end slides into the main frame, and is locked into place by tightening a knob.  While BushHawk advertises the product with both hand grips in the same plane, I  loosened the front hand grip and rotated it 90 degrees (as pictured to the left,) which gave me   better balance and  greater stability while shooting video. 

 

 

 

 

One of the biggest plusses for the BushHawk 320D is that with the cable release cord attached, you can effortlessly capture stills while shooting video with the 5D MarkII via the trigger button. I also found the BushHawk worked well for normal viewfinder shooting, live view shooting or video.  If there is a negative associated with the 320D, for some people it will undoubtedly be  having the shoulder pad braced against them.  It does take a little getting use to. The price for all this at Adorama was $212.

 

Whether you go with either of these systems, or with another, the stabilizer is only part of the equation.  The other part of the success of any of these systems depends on you and your ability to hold and move with  the product of your choice.  For me, a heel toe combination seems to work best for removing variability from my stride under most circumstances when moving with either of these stabilizers.  I urge anyone buying a stabilizer to practice moving and finding their own “right” stride.  And don’t forget about picking up a light set of weights to get your shoulders and arms into shape.  You will thank me for this advice!

 

In Part 3 of this series, I will be looking at  the Bruce Dorn U Boat Commander.  I have elected to talk about this system independently because unlike the Fig Rig and the BushHawk, both of which I purchased, the U-Boat commander is on loan for evaluation purposes. Also unlike many of the available solutions, the U Boad commander was developed specifically for use with the 5D Mark II.

 

 

the mighty light!!Ask most people about on-camera lighting options for their dslr, and the default response is usually a dedicated flash unit.  And certainly the ttl capabilities of these units make them a natural.  But over the last six months I have been exploring alternative on camera lighting options and have found myself genuinely excited over the new generation of LED continuous lighting options.  They are small, don’t give off much heat, and what you see, is what you get.  They also don’t give that obvious “flash” look image that can result with speedlights .

 

With the arrival of the Nikon d90 and the Canon 5d Mark II, both of which have hi def video capability, continuous supplemental light sources are going to grow in popularity as they can be used for both still and video capture. While there are several manufacturers who have led lighting available.  I have been using the Litepanels Micro units.  I found my units at the Calumet Photographic Store, here in NYC, but they are available at other major photo retailers as well.

 

What I like about the Litepanels Micro specifically, are the following:

  • They are daylight balanced( about 5600k)
  • They can be mounted in the hot shoe or off camera. They are a little over 3”x3”x1.5” in size and weigh about a quarter of a pound.
  • No power tap compatibility issues.
  • They are fully dimmable and flicker free!  You can dial in your desired fill easily.
  • There is an integrated filter holder and you get a tungsten conversion gel, as well as warming and diffusion gels in the kit.
  • The run time using lithium batteries is about 7 hours.
  • They can be run off ac with an optional adapter.
  • They allow for quick location shooting without drawing the kind of attention that flash use often does.

While Litepanels doesn’t indicate the power rating, I suspect that at full power the micro is equivalent to about 25-30 watts. The 3”x3” panel configuration results in a pretty wide beam coverage area, and can impact scene illumination up to 10 to 12 or so, feet away.

 

If you are interested in continuous lighting options, such as LEDs for your still or hybrid (still and video capable) camera, make sure the unit is fully dimmable.  You definitely want this level of control.  Some products offer it while others do not.  Try to buy a unit that has gels/filters available.  If you do not buy one with gels, you should fashion them on your own.

For still and video work, the latest LED products are definitely worth exploring.  As LEDS go, I have been extremely pleased with the performance of the Litepanels Micros.

Here are a few samples of images taken where one or two Litepanels Micro units:

Outdoors:

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Two Litepanels Micros were mounted on a dual light head cross bar and oriented vertically to the right of the camera. A silver reflector was used camera left for additional fill.

Indoors:

Micro placed above camera and angled down towards model

A single Micro was placed above the camera and angled down towards model. The balance of the illumination in the scene is provided by one shaded lamp, camera left.