Anybody getting something outrageously fun and photographic for Christmas?

Ben Puts the Star up on the Tree. 

For about five minutes on Weds. I was enthralled by the idea of buying a Fuji GFX-50S camera and the 110mm f2.0 lens to go with it. As I have a world class capability to rationalize camera purchases my brain started in earnest to construct the argument I might use with my partner about what a great investment it would be to drop $8200 on a first generation camera along with a largely unproven lens. 

I had a daydream about walking into a client's conference room, setting up my lighting and then pulling the GFX-50s and the miraculous 110mm lens out of some sort of pretentious Billingham bag and listening to my client suck in their breath and marvel at the obviously impressive camera I would have in my hands. Surely they would intuit just how wondrous each photograph would be when taken by such a remarkable camera, backed by such superior technology. 

They would call in their associates from accounting and marketing to see the light sparkle off the enormous front element of the lens. Doris, in client services would swoon when I casually mentioned that the sensor was 50+ megapixels. Chet in I.T. would walk in to see what all the excitement was with his new Nikon D850 hanging down by his pants pocket on a Black Rapid strap. He'd be ready to make the argument that the D850 was so close in performance AND only half the price. But then we'd shoot a test frame and he'd look at it on the rear screen of the Fuji, recognize its awesome superiority, and then cast a crestfallen look at his Nikon and slink out of the room. 

Then I got an e-mail and the cloying beep from the computer brought me back to the present. It was one of my clients and they had a complaint. The files I'd delivered to them "were way too big." They were having trouble making them fit into their website. "Could I re-work them and send the files back over with the longest side being 1200 pixels?" They also wanted to know if they needed to do anything special to the files to use them in a PowerPoint presentation...

It all reminded me that most of our clients don't care about which camera we use to take our photographs with. We could do the job with a Nikon D3300 or a Rebel 7ti. We could use the kit lens. As long as the photo is well lit and the CEO has a pleasant look on his face the marketing guys would be happy as clams. 

I usually buy myself a cool camera for the holidays but this year the "new" has yet to wear off of my GH5 cameras. Maybe our relationship will have cooled by Valentine's Day. A box of candy and a bottle of Champagne for the spouse, perhaps a pleasant little Phase One camera for me....?

I am curious to hear if someone is actually going to go for it over this holiday season and buy something that will make me and the rest of the readers on VSL jealous. If you are I'm pretty sure we'd all like to hear about it, tell you why you screwed up and tell you want we would have done instead. But if you have a thick skin and a good rationale then share away in the comments.

We'd love to know what's trending under your tree...

It's been a fun year for lights and lighting. Let me introduce you to my new flash system...

If you've followed the Visual Science Lab blog for any period of time then you probably know that one of our recurring themes is the ongoing change, and pace of change, in the photographic industry. Every single year since 2007 there has been an accelerating shift in advertising from traditional media such as direct mail and print of all kinds to internet advertising and e-mail advertising. We are nearing the point where the vast majority of advertising from all industries is being sent to your phone, your iPad or your computer.

This has consequences for working photographers. More channels with more diversity among the channels means more total number of ads but generally driven by the same budget numbers. That means the time and money resources for each ad are reduced. We might be as busy as we ever were but the granular nature of what we're doing means we're moving faster to make the same payday.

I looked at the way we were handling projects like annual reports and one of the things I decided was that we were wasting too much time (and incurring to much liability) by plugging big moonlights into wall sockets and running extension cords across data centers, executive suites and through the farmland of cubicles. I decided to move to a cordless solution for lighting but I still wanted enough power in a single head to power a large soft box and grab good depth of field with lower ISO settings on my cameras.

I looked at some of the premium offerings from companies whose products I'd used extensively in the past. I looked at the battery powered Profoto mono-lights and also the newer, shoe mount lights from this Swedish powerhouse of flash and just laughed. With budgets dropping quarterly and the future moving to video I found the idea of dropping thousands of dollars per flash ludicrous. Laughable.

I was looking at a Godox battery powered mono-light (also available under other brand names) and I was ready to pull together three of them into a system when I found the lights I'm showing above. They are the Neewer (not a typo. I wish spell check would stop trying to correct me...) Vision 4 lithium battery powered electronic flash units.

When I first looked at them they were dirt cheap. About $279 per unit, which included a remote trigger and a Bowens-type, standard reflector+diffusion sock. I took a chance and ordered one.

When it arrived I sat down with the manual and my initial thought was the same one I have when I am confronted with massive feature overload in cameras, cars and on phones. That thought is: I wonder if most consumers would actually pay more for a simplified, easy-to-use, more elegant product? How about a flash with an on/off switch and a knob for power settings?

At any rate I soldiered through the manual amazed that people might actually need a "stroboscopic" mode in a workaday flash unit. Or that they might need to program in a delay for use with red-eye reduction modes on flashes attached to cameras. At a certain point I figured out how to turn off all the extras and master the feature I bought the unit for originally; to flash at a certain power level every time I fire the shutter in my camera.

The unit delivers 300 watt seconds of flash power to a circular flash tube. It uses an almost universally standard Bowens S mount for speed rings and reflectors. The modeling light is an LED located in the center of the flash tube's circle. The unit recycles in about 2.5 seconds when used at full power and in less than a second at half power. In my testing (well over two months) I've found that the unit is very consistent with color and output in even the longest series of flashes. Remember to let the flash fully recycle and you'll be rewarded with exemplary consistency.

The specifications say that we can expect around 700 full power flashes before we run down the battery. I tend to use the unit at half power in order to get faster recycling times and I've never been able to drain a battery over the course of even the longest shooting day. Once you do run down the battery it takes about five hours to recharge. Since the battery has to be removed from the flash to attach the charger there is no capability to run the flash from A/C power while charging. You either buy back up batteries or you remember to fully charge your units before you head out for the day.

The last time I bought replacement, lead acid batteries for my battery powered Profoto Acute 600B they were nearly $300 apiece and would deliver about 250 flashes. The lithium battery for the Vision 4 flash is about $69 and weighs less.

When I shoot corporate portraits I tend to shoot in bursts and I want to make sure my exposures are consistent (after all, I'll be the guy post processing the work....) so I turn on the beeper that signals a full recycle. Whether I actually pay attention to the beeper all the time is a different conversation.

The flash weighs in at just under four pounds, with the battery, and seems to be very well built. The unit comes with a very simple flash trigger and some traditionalist at Neewer even decided that the company should also toss in an old fashion, ten foot sync cord.

The menu is complex and allows you to fine tune the flash to your working methods. You can change the flash duration from 1/1,000th of second all the way up to 10,000th of a second. There is also an FP (focal plane shutter) mode which allows for higher shutter speed syncing with most modern digital cameras. Befuddling to me is the menu for various stroboscopic settings. I ventured into that menu once and couldn't get back out. It was terrifying. Now I bring the owners manual with me.

As I mentioned, I liked the way the unit worked so well that I went back to order another. I was delighted to see that the price had dropped, which made the unit less expensive than the Profoto beauty dish I bought for that system fifteen years ago....

A few weeks ago I glanced at the Amazon page for the Vision Four unit, trying to find little "spill kill" umbrella reflectors. I didn't find the reflectors but immediately noticed that the Vision 4's had dropped in price to $199. I rounded out my system with a third unit and promptly sold off every plug in the wall, flash unit I've accumulated over the decades.

All three units fit into the Manfrotto case I bought to transport things on a video assignment to Oklahoma City. I can fit the three units, reflectors and speed rings into the front side of the case and three light stands, three umbrellas and a small tripod in the other side of the case ---- with room to spare for clean socks and odds n ends.

I have now used the trio of elegant but inexpensive lights on all day portrait ("cattle call") assignments as well as on fast paced advertising assignments; including one assignment that called for freezing the actions of a person jumping on a mini-trampoline. In every regard the units have worked flawlessly. I am happy to have them.

The days of Euro-overkill flash units are over. Dead and buried. Unless you are operating a large and busy studio and are one of a handful of practitioners using medium format (and even large format) cameras; digital or film, the likelihood that a Broncolor system or Profoto system is better for anything other than massaging your ego is remote. There are certain jobs that might require more power than these units can must but once you go beyond 600 watts seconds or so (buy a Godox or similar) you are into specialist territory and probably shouldn't be taking advice from a generalist like me.

My goal is to "right size" my expenditures to match the realities of my clients' budgets. An equally important goal is to be more efficient by bypassing the need to haul extension cords and to find empty plugs in order to get power. I want stuff that works, is portable, easy to operate and is inexpensive to replace if an assistant accidentally drops it off the back of a truck. The Vision 4 does all these things nicely.

On really fast paced assignments; ones on which I am working solo, I still depend on a ThinkTank roller case with a collection of a half dozen camera mountable speed lights and a Ziploc baggie full of remote triggers. But when we are providing high quality images for law and medical practice and lots and lots of advertising agency projects the Vision 4 units are doing a good job filling the bill.

For anything bigger or more complex there's always rental.

Here are some additional images of the lights and the manfrotto case I am using:

Big Manfrotto Case. ( I need one more....).