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!)