Thoughts after spending two days with a Nikon 750 in my hands.

This image has nothing to do with the content of this blog. 
I shot it with my friend, Noellia, for fun. 
It was done with the Nikon D750 and the Nikon 85mm f1.8G lens. 

I've spent the last two days shooting portraits for a company in Georgetown, Texas that does chemical engineering. We photographed 125 of their employees, one at a time, for use on a holiday card. It's an elaborate card that folds out and is used as a primary piece of marketing for the company. 

I set up a nine foot wide, soft blue seamless background and created a lighting design that would make people look good while minimizing skin texture. The background was lit by an Elinchrom 500 watt second moonlight that was suspended from the acoustic tile grid on the ceiling by a scissor clamp. We wrangled the cord over to the wall with a second scissor clamp made specifically for cable wrangling. We did this because the light needed to be exactly there and, as a side benefit, it kept a long cable run off the floor --- which makes for a safer set. 

I brought a flat, white three foot by four foot shiny masonry board for people to stand on. This contained the portrait subjects and kept them in the area that represented the "sweet spot" of my lighting design. It also made each engagement totally repeatable, as far as lighting and exposure were concerned. 

On either side of the subject I had black light absorbers parallel to them. These helped to put a darker edge on the white shirts everyone wore which should radically reduce the post processing work of making clipping paths. 

Finally, I had two 3 foot by 4 foot soft boxes set up as main light and fill light in front of and at 35 degree angles from the subject. These were both up high enough to cast shadows under the chins of my sitters which is a flattering way of defining the chin and neckline. Since the images would be clipped from the background we were highly uninterested in experimenting with shallow depth of field or experiencing the "bokeh" of our taking lens. We shot at f11 in the interest of keeping everything sharp and tidy.

The two front lights were Photogenic Powerlight PL1250 DR mono-lights in Photoflex soft boxes.

My assistant and I had some interesting times during
the shoot. We got everything set up on the first morning and were ready to shoot by 8:30 am. I had my assistant take a meter reading and the Sekonic L-508 meter gave me a reading of f8.0 on both the background and the foreground "target" area with everything set at 1/125th of second shutter speed at ISO 100. But my Nikon D750 showed in both the histogram and on the back screen monitor that I was overexposing by about a stop. We went with the camera's version because I've used the camera frequently and have always been happy with the correlation of its displays and the final look of the images on my monitor in the studio.  But, of course, I was very curious about the disconnect.

When we had time we experimented by changing cameras but still using the Nikon 70-210mm zoom lens I'd chosen to use for the project. The indications on the back monitor were the same on the D810 we'd brought along as a back-up. My assistant suggested that I try a different lens and that's when everything made sense. When I replaced the older zoom lens with a much newer 24-120mm f4G zoom the exposure at f8.0 was in perfect sync with the meter. Apparently the coatings aren't as good on the older, longer zoom lens which causes some residual flare, that, and the ai linkage may be enough to foil the camera's digital metering and cause some issues. Once resolved we continued to use the older lens because it's more flattering and less analytic than newer lenses. Making portraits of real people without a retinue of make-up artists is not an area of the craft where a Zeiss Otus lens is necessarily superior. Not everyone wants to look into every wrinkle and pore....

I chose the 70-210mm f4.5-5.6 AF lens because it's very sharp but in a non confrontational way. It's a flattering lens and the combination of focal lengths was perfect. It also weighs about 1/3 of what my 80-200mm f2.8 lens weighs. Both lenses are equally good at f8-11 so it just makes sense (if you will be holding one all through eight hour days) to choose the lighter version for your own comfort and safety.

Everything went well on the first day and we were able to leave all the lights and background set up when we broke for the evening. We came back this morning and flipped all of the mono-lights back on. We turned the radio trigger on the main flash on ( we were using the built in optical slaves to trigger the other two light...) and we started shooting test frames. We literally changed nothing from last night till this morning but there was a "gremlin" somewhere. When I shot the first test from the bottom half of the frame was totally black. I suspected a sync issue so I dropped the shutter speed to 1/60th of second. That worked perfectly. Then I started working my way back up the shutter speeds to see where the problem would arise. At 1/100th of a second you could see a black line in the bottom 20% of the frame. We changed lenses to see if that would help. Nope. The sync problem persisted. We changed camera bodies but it occurred with the D810 as well.

We finally narrowed in on the radio trigger receiver plugged into the main light. We pulled it down and changed the two triple "A" batteries and put everything back into place. Problem solved. The trigger had enough power to show the "on" indicator but not enough to fill the trigger circuit quickly enough to be effectively trigger the light in the right time frame. Our detour took five minutes but was the "sweaty" moment for me in what was otherwise a very nice and even tempered shoot.

I chose the D750 over the D810 for this particular shoot because of some practicalities. The final images would be used in small sizes and in black and white but like most nervous shooters I wanted to shoot in raw so I could correct small exposure errors and open up shadows without worrying about degrading the files. The D810 raw files are enormous and take too long to process when you have more than a thousand to wade through. The D750, when set to compressed, 12 bit raw has manageable file sizes. Lightroom also sets the color profiles correctly when the files import. As far as image quality goes the D750 is the equal of the D810 if you disregard the difference in resolution.

The image through the finder on the D750 is very good and the focus is fast and sure. Though it wasn't really an issue given that the Photogenic Powerlight PL 1250 DR lights have 250 watt tungsten halogen modeling lamps...

In the same way that part of my lens selection process had to do with overall weight the D750 is quite a bit lighter than the D810 as well. It may not make a difference to you if you shoot casually or keep your cameras in a shoulder bag, pulling them out from time to time to shot a random photograph. Our shoot was scheduled in five minute intervals which meant that the camera and lens combination was only out of my hands for lunch and bathroom breaks from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm. Any extra weight makes a difference.

I reviewed the images this evening on my computer. Every frame has sharply nailed focus and perfect exposure. We ended the shoot after two days and 1400 images using the same battery we started out on. All in all it was a comfortable performance from the camera which is great because it means no camera induced drama in the workday.

I like stuff that just works and works well all the time. That would include my two Nikon cameras. I do shoot with other cameras and have come to prefer the Olympus EM5.2 for video. When I'm shooting in situations that call for fast, continuous focus, very high resolution and lots of controlled dynamic range I find myself always reaching for one of the Nikon cameras. They are wonderful work tools --- with the right lenses.

Tomorrow is my day off. I'll need it. We hit the ground running on Monday with a  joint video/photo job for a different client, back up in Georgetown. Monday evening I'll be speaking to a photo business class at Austin Community College that evening and Tues. we head to downtown Austin to shoot executive portraits in an environmental style for a large law firm. It's a tight schedule but that's fun for me. We get a lot done in a short amount of time. And then we get to bill. 


Max Rottersman said...

What focal length did you end up shooting? 70? 200? Any thoughts there? Do you shoot most corporate group shots at f11? Hope this doesn't sound critical, but why use is Nikon's great focus system (shoot at f4 and line up the red dot on their eye) if you're not using it to get some blur in the face? Even the D750 seems overkill for that setup. Doesn't f11 risk showing wrinkles on your backdrop? Thanks!

Jon Neff said...

I've been a regular reader for a while. Last year I switched from Samsung NX gear to a Nikon D600 Yes, I had some shutter issues. I got it cheap and sent it to Nikon for repair for free. It has been working great since.

I appreciate reading about a professional photographer using good practical gear. Many photography blogs, news, and reviews would have me believe that I need the latest high MP monster camera and razor sharp lenses. I love reading about making good photos of real people with reasonably priced gear.

I picked up a nice copy of the 70-210 AF-D recently and have been pleasantly surprised. You are correct that not everyone will be pleased with their rendering by an Otus. It's not as sharp as the 70-200 f/2.8 but as an amateur hobbyist I'm not going to buy that lens (too expensive) much less carry it around (way to big for me.) If I ever have to photograph fast moving subjects indoors maybe I will rent one.

I often see headlines touting a new cameras or new firmware features and think, gee...Nikon has had that for a while (weather sealing, built-in intervalometer, remote flash control, compressed and uncompressed raw, etc.) That helps me deal with G.A.S.

I'm not a blind supporter of any particular camera brand though. If I didn't have a voice of reason in my household I would probably have a closet full of cameras. I chose a Nikon for features, ease of handling and their large lens catalog. They have some very nice affordable older lenses and great "G" primes as demonstrated by the photos in this blog.

In this day of photo gear blogs and internet camera forums it can be hard to remember that what matters is the picture. Thanks for the inspiration. Keep up the good work!

Kirk Tuck said...

Max, as the people came in all different sizes and shapes we used a range of focal lengths. Mostly from about 100 to 135mm. Thoughts? As I stated in the article the images will have the backgrounds clipped out and will be used on a holiday card so I comped each shot to include different slzed props but to always fill the frame without the prop or person overlapping the edge of the frame. You next question doesn't sound critical, just a bit uninformed. If our use is to drop out each person's photo a clipping path must be made. While unsharpness is fine in the context of an individual photo against its native background clipped photos demand crisp edges. Depth of focus is critical to make a "cut out" work. Soft edges would look wrong in a montage. You might be thinking of a stylized individual photos with and out of focus background. The Nikon has a great focusing system but we are able to even focus in manual as our modeling lights are strong and the quick focus ramp of the longer lenses shows in and out of focus quickly. "Even the D750 seems overkill for that setup." Since the images will run small and in black and white we could have done this with any digital camera we've owned since 2000. But why would we run out and buy a lesser camera just to shoot this assignment? The D750 files can be down sampled as easily as any other camera's files. Finally, IF we are DROPPING out the background does it really matter at all if it shows a few wrinkles? But even at f11, if your background is twenty feet or so behind the subject and is a flat expanse of blue Jay blue background, evenly lit, the "wrinkes" never appear. Each assignment is different. Not all can be wonderfully stylized portraits with dreamy backgrounds. You chose the techniques for the job at hand. That's the business.

Max Rottersman said...

Yes, I was "uninformed". went back and re-read the article. I didn't understand that you are cutting out the images and creating a montage a card. When I read "clipping" my brain thinks "clipped highlights", so didn't quite understand. Now I do. Thanks! I assume then, that "clipping path" is a photoshop term, or again, yes, something I haven't heard before. Makes sense to me now. Thanks for explaining the "techniques for the job at hand". IS VERY appreciated!

Kirk Tuck said...

Hi Max, yeah, clipping paths are widely used in graphic design production and in PhotoShop production. You have several tools available to you to cut out around the edge of a subject. You can do interlinked points with a pen tool for maximum control (and minimum efficiency) but the edges become a really big issue when you are compositing. I forget that not all of my readers have spent the last thirty five years in advertising and related fields. ;-)