Shooting "Old School." Ancient tricks of the trade....

An event at the Four Seasons Hotel, Austin.  November 3rd.

It all started with a film camera called the Nikon N-90S.  That camera, and Nikon's  top-of-the-line flash at the time, changed the way I shot events.  It was the first camera I owned that, in conjunction with the flash assist beam on the flash, could reliably lock focus in a dark, dark room (but not a darkroom) and return consistently well exposed images every time.  Nostalgic memory is a dangerous thing and now that I sit here and think about it so much of what we shot back then was on color negative film and that might have had a lot to do with my perception of the combination's lack of fallibility....but on with my story.

By the days of the Nikon F5 and the SB-25 and SB-26 we pretty much had the technique of event flash well dialed in.  We'd load the 160 or 400 ISO color negative film of our choice, set the camera and flash to TTL put the camera in program where it would generally default to f4 @ 1/60th of a second and we'd blast away.  A few days later we'd be looking through 4x6 inch proof prints that were remarkably uniform and, well, perfect.  I remember well shooting a show in Scottsdale, AZ. were we needed to shoot 250 people walking up on stage and being handed an award.  One by one.  We'd use a Quantum Turbo pack, an SB flash and a moderate zoom.  I took two images of each person (in case they blinked)  with the president or vice president of the company and our only limitation on throughput was how quickly we could unload and reload film.  Good days for flash.

Before that we'd use our flashes pretty much in the "guide number" mode.  You turn the flash down to 1/4 power, figure out what the exposure is at 7 feet and then at 5 feet and then at 10 feet.  For most event work, depending on your framing, you'd work around maybe three f-stops and you'd know the approximate distances and working numbers by heart at the end of a long evening.  If you added a bounce board to your portable flash you'd work out those numbers as well.  The name of the game was consistency and "no surprises."

Well, surprise!!!  Early digital from all the major companies supremely sucked at delivering automatic flash and in my opinion it still does.  I wrote an entire book about using small flashes in the digital age and if you read it carefully you'll notice that, most of the time, I'm using them in their manual modes.  I like repeatability.

Both Nikon iTTL and Canon eTTL have gotten better and better over the years but it's still easy to fool them or hard work to compensate for the times you know they'll mess up.  I'm learning to trust the big Canon flash these days but I still have reservations.  Especially when shooting people in very light or very dark clothes and trying to maintain a different exposure for the background.  I've read Syl Arena's book, Speedliter, and I've been working on it.  But.........

Bear with me because this is my introduction to my decision making process of yesterday....

The other flash nemesis I have, and I can't blame this on either the cameras or the flashes, is the difficulty of DSLR's to lock focus in most formal candid situations.  People wear black.  The lighting is subdued. The way the process is supposed to work is something like this:  I walk up to a couple or a small group and playfully coerce them into a tightly compacted grouping and then I pull the camera up to my eye and push halfway down on the shutter button and wait for the annoying, red patterned light to play over my victims while the camera desperately tries to find an edge to focus on.  Usually it finds a sea of black fabric or, worse, a sea of white fabric and the lens begins to hunt.  I move the lens to a different part of the scene until I find success and then I lock the reading, re-compose and take the image.  By the time the flash finally goes off one or two of the people in the group are checking their Phillipe Patek watches while someone else is looking back over their shoulder, trying to find someone hot in the crowd.

Very annoying for everyone. And yet, when each new system comes onto the market one of the selling points is the incredible performance of the flash.  Liars.

Yesterday, from 5pm until 9:30pm I shot an event for a non-profit that I've worked with for over ten years now.  There's a VIP reception at 5:30, a general reception at 6:15 and then dinner mixed with the program.  I enjoy shooting at the Four Seasons because the food is always good and the staff is superb. (Thanks again to the in-house AV team for last year's double A batteries....the one thing I forgot to pack...).

The event is a fund-raiser is attended mostly by well to do lawyers and judges, and their spouses, so I'm always assured that the wines served will be superb.  We started dinner last night with an interesting salad and a really nice, un-oaked chardonnay and moved on to a really nice Cabernet.  But I digress.

My job is to shoot couples and small groups of influential guests (meaning everyone) during all of the receptions and then cover the speakers and award winners during the presentations.  I rarely get to finish an entire course at dinner because our table is near the back and we tend to get served last..... 

I had the crazy idea that I wanted to go "all in" and shoot the whole event with the new Nikon V1 but the photographic and charity gods intervened and denied my access the the wildly proprietary flash for the system.  At this point there are no substitutes.  I figured that, if I couldn't go "state-of-the-moment" and take a huge risk that I would go ultimately "old school."

I decided to shoot all the candid reception shots with my ancient Canon 1Ds Mk2 camera and all of the podium/award shots with my Canon 1d mk2N camera.  I put a Zeiss 35mm f2 ZE on the big sensor camera and the loyal and resolute 70-200mm f4 on the sport cam.  I charged up four of the enormous and dense-as-plutonium batteries for the two cameras and then shoved three sets of rechargeable Eneloop batteries into the bag.  I packed a 580EX2 with a 430EX2 in the side pocket as a back up.  

The one nod to modern strobe therapy was my inclusion and use of the Rogue brand flash reflector.  It's a soft reflector that attaches to your flash and has bendable metal rods inside to allow you to curve or bend the modifier as you please.  Fully unfurled it's about 10 by 12 inches and does a nice job both staying put and modifying the light source to make it softer.  About $30.  

The camera and lens for ALL of the flash candids was the 1DS mk2 and the 35mm Zeiss.  Flash mounted directly on the camera.  Head pointing to the sky.

So here's the weird part.  I'm using a manual focus lens.  On a camera that's clearly not designed for razor blade sharp focus with manual lenses.  So I set the lens at f8 and figured out where the hyperfocal distance was for my working methodology.  I didn't care about close ups and I didn't care about infinity but I did care about five feet to ten or twelve feet.  I calculated, set the lens there and locked the rear wheel on the camera.  No changes.  I never touched the focusing ring or the aperture control for the rest of the evening.  Honest.  It was so nice.

Why was it so nice?  Well, I could swing the camera around, frame and shoot and never worry about locking in focus, in getting the "green dot."  There was never any hunting or kinetic racking from minimum to maximum focus and back again.  It was, for all intents and purposes, the "one use" aunt Ethel point and shoot.  Albeit an $9,000 version of one.  And do you know what?  It really worked!!!!

I set the camera at ISO 800 (which it handles with dignity and aplomb) and put the camera in manual exposure mode (figuring that it was good symmetry with the focus mode) and I would modulate shutter speeds depending on what showed up in the background.  If the peoples' backs were to the windows I would set the shutter to 1/250th, if the background was one of the walls of the room I would drop the shutter speed to 1/60th or 1/30th of a second.

I tried flash two ways.  First I tried eTTL and got pretty good results about 75% of the time.  Then I put the flash on manual, at 1/8th power and I got good exposures nearly 100% of the time.  If you use the guide number approach your flash/camera is never fooled by black velvet or white silk.  You never have to lock and recompose.  And the recycle time is ridiculously short.

As I worked through about 400 files today in Lightroom I paused from time to time to fix the exposure on a person who, at the edge of the frame, might have been closer to the flash than my main subject.  Amazingly, the 1DS 2 can pull detail out of raw files even if they've been over exposed by 1.75 stops.  Almost like color negative film of the old.

The rear, LCD screens on both the cameras are about as accurate as a weatherman or an economist so, at some point, you have to start trusting in the infallibility of camera physics.  

Now, I'm not saying that this is the only way to shoot event candids.  You probably have a great method that works for you and I'd be the last person to tell you to change it.  But if you haven't tried the patented, Kirk Tuck Hyperfocal/Guide Number Paradigm-Shifting-Lumen Launcher-Method, you have my permission to try it for thirty days for free.  There's something purging about shooting photographs and not having to think.  Maybe it's a faux Zen thing.  Maybe it just incorrigible laziness but the proof is in the deliverables.  To think that old fashioned common sense would be as useful as hundreds of million of dollars (billions of Yen?) worth of R&D that have gone into focus and flash automation....

Now,  I have another conference for another clients that starts Sunday and runs for three days.  Will it be the Nikon V1 or will I have to fall back to some other technology?  Candids with the Hasselblad?  I did it years ago but I'm not crazy enough to do it now.  Or am I?  (Please, Nikon, ship the damn flash!)


Martin G said...

Well, if Nikon doesn't come through with the flash I've got an N90S and an SB-25 I could loan you. ;)

Omar Rodríguez said...

Hello Kirk
A nice post. Candid post or confessional-kirk-mode-on.
I feel like "ok, I will use your trial for 15 years"

Have a nice weekend

Dean Silliman said...

Nice article. I hope to try a variation this weekend. Today I will receive from Amazon a version of the 160 LED "flash" you reviewed long ago. The idea is to get some flash capability on my Leica M3 which does not have hot shoe or meter. I am imagining a process similar to what you describe here - have three or so tested distances at given f stop and roll. Could be liberating or disastrous. Thanks so much for your inspiration. Dean

Scott said...

I thought it was just me!

I, too, remember banging out 250 perfectly exposed mug shots in an evening on color negative film, and I too have been unable to do the same with 4 different brands of DSLRs.

Now I use pretty much the same method as you described. Manual everything, and a fairly old "Auto" flash, set to f5.6. Mostly works.

I'm way past the free trial period. Where should I send my check?

mkb said...

After much trial and error, I finally discovered the manual-camera, auto-flash trick a couple of events ago. The technique works flawlessly with my 7D and 430EXII. Perhaps it's because I'm shooting people wearing jeans in an art gallery, rather than tuxes in a dark ballroom. Maybe Canon needs an eTTL "clothing" custom function?

Thanks for sharing. It's good to hear about and learn from the old ways. (And let me know where to send the check....)

Mister Ian said...

So true about inconsistent TTL flash metering for digital. Even with the fact of it doing the preflashes. Good idea for hyperfocal distance locking of the lens at the portrait distance, I'll have to try that but I'll need gaffer tape to lock focus on my Nikon lenses!

John said...

Interesting flash zen you've developed, there.

I was always addicted to Nikon's iTTL flash metering when bouncing the flash. Worked for me pretty flawlessly (barring occasionally super shadowed eyes if my angle was poor in relation to the subject). I'd written off direct flash as too harsh and hideously ugly and never to be used.

Then I had a wedding reception to shoot in which the ceiling was, in fact, a giant mirror.

I'm sure you know where that story goes... crap. :P

Low Budget Dave said...

This is exactly why I like your blog. It is a great tip... and I may actually remember it.

Steve Renwick said...

Mayhap you have rediscovered the method used by the photographers of yore, bearing the mighty Speed Graphic, when giants walked the earth. And lo, it was good.

It's nice to be reminded that all the automation has an off switch, and that sometimes one needs to employ it. Thanks.

alohadave said...

Kirk, great post. I like when you post about shooting events; it seems like there aren't many people talking about event photography.

I use an old Sunpak flash, but I usually use auto mode, and it's good, but not the best. I'll try the manual method next time for consistency.

Ken Norton - Image 66 Media said...

Welcome to my world of 1995, Kirk. It is rather amazing that the old styles of shooting worked at all.

I have two cameras that use distance from the AF to set flash exposure. That has worked extremely well. Brilliant, in fact.

My OM system uses the OTF flash control which also works well. But that requires me to use film. The horrors!!! :)


Bill Beebe said...

One more to try: Sunny 16 rule. Works even with digital, or at least with my E-1 and E-300.

Bill Beebe said...

And I forgot. I owned the earlier Nikon N-90. It survived all the years from 1989 to become daughter #2's second favorite college film camera in the mid-2000s after her dad's more ancient Minolta XE-7. I even had the Nikon flash that went with it. It was almost tough enough to survive a tubing trip down the Oconaluftee River near Cherokee N.C. until it got dunked in the river. A trip to the repair shop, and it was working again.

theaterculture said...

Amazing - I'm afraid I may have already started trialing your method without realizing it. Last month I did a couple of far less swanky events with an E1 and very old OM flash that has two manual gn settings. I dialed in the lower setting, tilted it to bounce off the lowish ceiling, figured my apertures for 5, 10, and 15 feet, parked the shutter at 1/180 and went mad.

It felt like cheating that it worked so well...all my tossers were blinks or awkward movement behind the main group. It's great to be able to concentrate on the people you're meant to be capturing, and maybe capturing the occasional crab puff or chicken satay, isn't it?

kirk tuck said...

Quite right, TheaterCulture.

Sam said...

Thank you for being the voice of one crying in the wilderness. More old school wisdom, please!

wjl (Wolfgang Lonien) said...

Very clever, and very useful. I love old school ways. Thanks.

thequietphotographer said...

Thanks for informative article. I do not shoot official events but sometimes friend meeting at art galleries or exhibitions. I'll try your suggested technique nextime with my F100 and sb26...

John Taylor said...

Wonderful, you reminded me of the one and only time i ever got roped into such a gig, It was in 1977 i was a young lowly mail room clerk at a smallish insurance company's main office in Montreal (my dad was a mid level exec there, nepotism, what nepotism? ) I was known to be a photographer. I had my beloved Canon F-1 and 50mm ƒ 1.4 and a rented behemoth of a flash on a bracket with a gel cell, no Idea what it was beyond that. All manual, colour negs. Everyone seemed happy with the results and i even got paid, probably more that i made in my regular paycheck, or two, i can't recall. I suspect yours were better though :) Thanks for another great post

Marino Mannarini said...

I started doing wedding in mostly manual settings on my D700+SB800 system last year, sick of the unnerving inconsistence of eTTL. Pushing the ISO to collect more ambient light, and turning down flash power as needed. It works much much better! I will think over adding the manual focusing too..my samyaang 35/1,4 is there to help with this.
Kirk, this is why your blog in unvaluable (and not only for this): speaking your mind, and your facts, against the marketing-pushed "modern" -and deficient- techniques. or should i say just gear..

Mel said...

Right as usual - it's the final image that matters, not the technology used. In my experience at these sort of events people will give you 2 seconds to make that image, then they are off to more important things. Doing it manually (when done correctly) means you can use the whole 2 seconds composing the best image.

Thanks for sharing how it works for you.

Tord S Eriksson said...

Another great camera for shots like these is the Sony NEX-5N - been pretty amazed by the results so far, not least with manual lenses! Slightly better than my loved Pentax K-5, I'm sad to report! Using the very same lens on the Pentax and the Sony (with the help of a converter) the Sony comes out tops!

I do hate that focus-hunting you describe so well - tried phtographing raptors in the air a while back with my 'old' Pentax K-x (the K-5 was being away for service - got a new one back!). Not really a success, except occasionally, while the wife with her K-5 had a very high hit rate indeed!

The Nex-5N has been a revelation, and with kit lenses or Pentax's they sure does outperform the K-5, if not with a wide margin!

Wally Brooks said...

In a similar vain I was shooting the kids on Halloween and used my 35 prime (fifty was in the bag), hyperfocal focusing, auto focus turned off, off camera flash with pocket wizard and flash set for iTTL. Camera in Manual mode set at 1/60 and f5.6 or 8 if depth of field was needed. The only thing I had to worry about as pressing the shutter button half way down to get the flash exposure set and it worked pretty well. I completely agree on using the Rogue flash card and it rolls up in your bag or back pocket if you need to!
Everyone should shoot manual if for no other reason than to figure out how to use the gear to solve the problem at hand!

AlexG said...

I had a super duper dedicated flash for a Minolta D5/A1 I found it more difficult to use than an old manual flash or auto flash. The Minolta had that proprietary flash shoe and I thought at the time it would be a good idea. As soon as I went to a DSLR I went back to old style flash guns, I get consistent results with them. I have found some nice old Cobra branded ones that have adjustable levels down to 1/8th power, they are I think D600/650 and have bought them off the bay for £5 a pop. There is no way I will pop a few hundred on a super flash I will hardly use, the £70 or so for the Minolta was too much for how little use it was.

dd-b said...

I was posting somewhere just the other day that digital flash still hasn't caught up to the late film era. Good modern color negative film in an N90 with an SB28 (or in my case a Sunpak 555) produced amazingly reliable results, largely because of how well color negative film handles overexposure. Which is exactly the thing digital doesn't tolerate well.

I remember when I first learned bounce flash. I was in college, doing lots of photos for the Alumni publications office, and the editor there told me I needed to learn it. So I bought a Braun RL-515, which kept its 510 volt dry-cell battery in a shoulder bag, and was completely manual. But after a few months, with that thing I could bang out f/5.6 bounced off the ceiling onto PLUS-X film reliably (I did my own printing, so I had to do the work of correcting what I messed up in the camera). Highly educational!

Gingerbaker said...

Ok, I'm going to risk coming off like a pedant, but maybe my experience will be helpful for some in regard to focusing and using flash.

I teach small classes on photography at a local photo shop. When I realized that any respectable set of courses must include a class on using flash, I knew I had my work cut out for me. It meant I was going to have to really learn flash for the first time, and I was going to have to be able to explain it in a way that folks new to photography would be able to understand, ie, it would have to be simple. Which meant I was really going to have to have a pretty good grasp on things if I was going to be able to make it sound simple. I was terrified.

I shoot with a Canon 5D and I have a 580 Mark I flash, which I was certain had real problems with it, because I could not get consistent results with it. Well, I thought, I could always borrow a new, properly-functioning flash from the shop owner for the flash class if need be. Then I dug into the subject, reading all I could on the subject from articles I found on the internet.

Well, what I discovered was that, in fact, I did not have an occasionally malfunctioning flash, but rather I had misconceptions about how flash systems really work on digital cameras. I don't know how flash systems worked on film cameras, but I can tell you that on modern DSLR's they work very differently indeed depending on what camera shooting mode you are using. Each shooting mode has a completely different algorithm re flash, and really, the only camera shooting mode that allows consistent exposures for all situations is manual mode. That is manual camera mode, not the flash mode.

ETTL will do some funny things in aperture (or program or auto) mode depending on ambient light levels, and its algorithm will switch from fill flash intentions to feeling it needs to provide full ambient lighting as well - hence wildly varying exposures.

By shooting ETTL with full manual camera shooting mode, I discovered that my flash actually worked perfectly. Control your background exposure by first metering your camera on the background, adjust the background exposure any way you want using aperture, shutter or ISO, and adjust your flash (subject) exposure with your FEL setting. It works. Consistently. Use your FEL setting like you might use your exposure compensation - if you have a lot of dark fabric, assume you may need to turn your FEL down a notch, in case your flash decides to turn blacks into middle grays.

Using manual flash mode according to your distance to your subjects, and controlling the background exposure with your shutter speed setting, as you spoke about above, should work out pretty well, too, so long as you have time and opportunity to control that distance. :)

Re focusing:

Kirk, I was surprised to read that you are using a camera mode or focusing mode where you are seeing various focusing points playing over your subjects. I think a much better approach would be to use a single focus point of your choosing. Now, I may well be biased on this, because Canon has deigned to give the 5D (Mark I and II) only one cross-point sensor on a $2000+ camera (grrr), and you are using cameras with better focusing systems, that have multiple cross-type, ie, high accuracy points, that can lock onto both vertical and horizontal elements. However, by not using a single focus point, you are losing the opportunity to get a cross-type focusing point where you want it, as opposed to where the camera may or not find it randomly all by itself. I focus on the eye of the person in the front-middle of the DOF range I have at any particular aperture, and even my 5D will focus quickly on the iris-cornea interface - it has enough contrast even in low light to get the job done almost all the time quite quickly.

Ok, I just gave pointers to a professional and published photographer, who has likely forgotten more about photography than I (think I) know. Apologies in advance. :)

Paul Glover said...

In my last job I was tasked with creating product shots for the website I maintained.

At first I was incredibly frustrated. Nikon's much admired TTL system couldn't deliver a consistent exposure at all.

So I decided to go manual (flash and camera exposure settings). I had no clue about guide numbers at the time so I picked some plausible looking settings to start and spent an afternoon fine tuning until I had something which looked good and was completely repeatable.

Sometimes the camera really doesn't know best!

Todd Quinn said...

"Old School" rocks. Sometimes there is a thing as "too much technology." I've always had great luck with manual mode on everything. Thanks for sharing!

S said...

So true... I find few people talk about the failings of modern camera technology when it comes to event photography. This is why i find it so incredulous that everyone is so obsessed about image sensor noise, lines of resolution, and small differences in lens sharpness, vignetting, etc. How about testing cameras to see how much they struggle to acquire AF lock in a typical low-light event situation? Or how consistent their flash metering is in those situations?

Wally Brooks said...

More and more it seems that the only automatic function function I seem to be useing is the autofocus! I reserve my iTTL for the pockletwizzards when grandkids are running to fast! Next stop is to get rreally comfortable using manual flash and revisit guide numbers for the occasions that merit them.

Wil said...

When I decided to switch to fully manual flash use, people told me it would be difficult. What? It's 10x easier than fiddling with eTTL to compensate for the inconsistencies.