Fun with flash. Rube Goldberg would be so proud...

It's been a while since we chatted about commercial photography work so I thought I'd write about getting prepared to photograph the very first event I will have done since way back in January of 2020. We're getting near two years of event photography drought and my dirty little secret is that I love doing big events. Not weddings. Never weddings! But galas and fundraisers. They're more fun. So, when Texas Appleseed decided to go forward with their gala fundraising dinner at the Four Seasons this year I was thrilled. Since just about all 400 guests in the main ballroom will be semi-liberal, democrat-leaning (this is Texas, after all, leaning is better than nothing! ) older attorneys and spouses I feel pretty certain that the level of have been fully vaccinated attendees will be extremely high. I'm not worried. I've had three doses of Moderna and I've got a camera bag full of face masks...

But here's the deal...I've never done an event with one of the SL series Leicas. I've never so much as mounted a flash in the hot shoe. That being the case I decided today that I needed to get a handle on the situation and that means it's time to experiment. So, I sat on the floor surrounded by all kinds of flashes and accessories and started actively playing around. I've done this event every year for the past 21 years (excluding 2020) and one of the most important photography needs is to work hard at the pre-dinner happy hour to get as many little group photographs as I possibly can. We usually hold the happy hours in the foyer of the grand ballroom and it's nice for me since the ceilings are at a uniform height, are not too high, and are painted a soft white or slightly warm, off white. I blade through the crowd and gather groups together like a dance instructor. It's my event super-power.

In the past I've used every camera and flash combination you can imagine. The first year I used two Leica M6 cameras; one with a 50mm and the other with a 35mm lens. And some smaller, fully manual, Vivitar flashes. My biggest fear back then was probably that I'd run out of batteries before I ran out of people who needed to be photographed. But almost always, at least for the last decade, I've been happy to figure out the guide number of a flash at a certain power setting when bouncing off the ceiling. I've used all kinds of little bounce cards to push some of the light directly at the subjects to subdue "raccoon eyes" but most of the exposure comes from the flash bouncing off the ceiling. And with the advent of big, lithium batteries my fear of battery death is much diminished.

If you can get your guide number figured out and also work within a constrained and consistent distance from the camera to the small groups being photographed you've got a really good chance of actually being more consistent, exposure-wise, than if you have used a TTL flash. And if you have a quick review set for your EVF you'll be able to see if you are on the money after the very first shot. The best thing about manual, guide number flash technique is that you don't have to worry about the dreaded pre-flashes that make normal humans blink just at the wrong time. You get one big pop and that's all you need. Check exposure, check for blinks and then move on.

So, when looking around the studio I realized I don't have any dedicated, automatic flashes for any of my Leicas. I do have one for Panasonic cameras and I guess I could have just defaulted to using that and a Panasonic S5 but I'm thinking "how can I go wrong?" taking a couple of Leica  bodies instead. At least everyone in the room over 50, who is into cameras,  will come by and chat me up. If only to argue with me that I should be using (fill in the blank) instead.

I looked around and realized that I had one of the new Godox AD200 pro flash systems in stock and also the off-camera cable that would allow me to separate the flash head from the battery and control unit. So I started playing with that. 

I'm using a Godox X1T on the camera. I've dived into the function menu of the flash trigger and set it so only the center pin is live. The camera triggers the radio slave which triggers the flash system. The flash head sits in the cold shoe on top of the trigger.

First things first though. You have to go into the camera menu and disable the automatic preview of the manual exposure setting. If you leave it in the default you'll end up with a very dark finder image because the camera will be showing you exactly what the room light is showing the camera at the exposure setting that you need for flash. I'm using 1/60th of a second at f8, ISO 400. In a big hotel foyer that's a dark setting. But if you disable the automatic preview the camera defaults to a mode that's more like using an OVF. The camera just tries to give you a constantly bright finder image; one you can use to compose with.

Once you're in the room and you've decided where you'd like your aperture (what's going to be in focus) and your shutter speed (how slow can I go without have the slow shutter blur the subject too much) and your ISO (how much noise will I tolerate in each image) you are ready to begin your trial and error process and set up your median working default set-up. I try to find a nice group of people in a typical setting and let them know we're doing a test. I shoot a frame and check it in the review. Too hot? Turn down the power via the control on the radio trigger. Too dark? Turn up the power via the control on the radio trigger. In no time you'll get it all locked in and you can shoot with reckless abandon. At least that's the plan. 

I'm using the round head that Godox makes for the AD200 system. I'm also attaching a soft dome diffuser to deliver most of the light to the ceiling (my giant bounce card) and some of the light directly to the subjects. Set your WB to match the flash and get to work. I'll bring a more conventional back up flash but this is the basic thing I'm thinking about using.

The AD200 Pro has a monster big battery. At 1/4 power it will last for hours and hours.
I'm a Boy Scout at Heart. I'll have two more batteries in the bag. 

B. came out to the office today just to see what I was up to and I started walking her through my event flash combo. She stopped me early on and asked me if I intended to shoot everything with the system mounted on the tripod (as above) and gave me a very quizzical look. I explained that I rigged all the parts onto the tripod so I could work hands free while experimenting but assured her that the camera and flash would be handheld while the battery pack/brains of the unit would be sitting in a small, over the shoulder, Domke camera bag. She nodded, took one last perplexed look at the rig and exited quietly. 

But the event isn't till the 10th of next month so, par for the course here  at VSL, everything is subject to change at any time. I do know that I'm keenly looking forward to shooting the entire event with the Leica 24-90mm Vario Elmarit. It's the perfect combination of focal lengths for the job. And, if I shoot it on the SL2 I can switch to APS-C mode for the speakers at the podium and still have ample resolution for final images. Imagine....no lens changes. Sounds good to me. 

the 20-60mm lens is getting a warm-up for later in the week.
It's the lens I'm most tempted to use first on the Leica CL. 
Just the right combination of focal lengths and the right size and weight. 

Yeah. Don't worry. I've got a back up gear for every single part. 
Even a second flash trigger. It's the linch pin here. If I loose that
then the AD200 Pro won't get triggered. 
Now, where did those double "A" batteries get off to?

Seems like Austin is coming out of the Delta lockdown. I had to turn down a job this afternoon for a date nearly a month from now. I was already booked. That didn't happen much in 2020. Well, maybe not at all. 

Off to shine some shoes.  


A Personal Counterpoint to Yesterday's Essay about Sunk Cost Traps and the value of blogging. For me. And yes, we will continue on.

I'm feeling a bit brittle this week. I think "brittle" is the best word for my rapid onset but hopefully temporary malaise... You see, I'm turning 66 and have all the usual fears and trepidation that most mortals confront when they realize how much time they've already squandered. How many opportunities they blindly passed over. But, and here's the real point, there is only one path. It's the path you actually took. The other paths never existed precisely because you didn't take them. And the future? You build that day by day. It can be scary but there it is, stretching out in front of you. 

All those thoughts were banging around in my head yesterday when I wrote my essay about which camera I decided to buy myself to mark my new adventures in entropy. I didn't write the essay as a plea for help in deciding what camera to buy. But nevertheless multiple people rushed in to question my choice or to repudiate it completely. I guess I took it all a bit too seriously. I was a little shocked that people might question my ability to differentiate between cameras and decide which one might be right for me in the moment. Several of the comments felt patronizing and glib. Others came from a more neutral intent but nevertheless made me ask myself: How could I have written nearly 5200 essays about cameras, lenses and photography and still left my own audience with the presumption that I was in desperate need of their help to make what should have been a fun and simple decision? 

Not wanting to rush into any badly thought through decisions I dived into a re-reading of the basic psychology of Sunk Cost Traps. I was exploring my thoughts about what kind of value the blog actually brings to me before breaking all the crockery and stomping off like a three year old. 

I wrote about that yesterday. 

Today I went for a walk with the kindest and smartest person I know. As an added bonus she's been around me for the last 40+ years and knows me better than just about anyone on the planet. We walked quietly for a while and then I broached the subject I wanted to discuss. The Blog. 

We discussed the Sunk Cost thing, the brain-dead reader thing, the amazing amount to time I've sunk into building whatever community exists here and my "in the moment" frustration. After I vented she tacked in the opposite direction and made a surprisingly convincing argument that the net benefit of writing the blog and posting images was far greater for me than for my audience. She described it as a cultivated forum on which to express my opinions to people who have far more interest in the blog's content (mostly the photography and about gear) than my closest friends or my family. She made the point that being able to express thoughts and philosophies about why we take photographs is actually a very beneficial feedback loop for myself. 

She reminded me that the blog's functions change with cultural context. As an example, in 2020 when we were all in lockdown it was the potential to share images and experiences via the blog that inspired and motivated me to go out for long solitary walks. To document the times. To share more experiments with new cameras and gear. The blog became the prime motivator to stay active,  get out the door, practice my art, share my photographs and talk about my day-to-day journey through the pandemic confusion and fears. It was both an outlet and a source of solace. And knowing that this was shared across geography, cultures and distance made it more real and more important to me.

She asked what would happen to my ability to post images if I gave up the blog. Would I still be motivated to get out and see new things without the support of a potential audience for the work? Would I have something to drive me to practice not just the process of taking the images but also the process of getting them ready to share. Would that atrophy? Would my free gallery to the world dissolve?

Then she reminded me of all the real, not just "virtual" friends I've made from writing the blog. Friends who visited from Canada, opened their homes to me in my travels and friends who met me for coffees or lunches when I came to their cities for work. Real people. Not just random commenters. I remember sitting at Central Market having coffee with a friend named Gordon who was funny and smart and equally interested in the things about photography that I am. I still smile when I remember our conversation. My friend Fred who helped shepherd my son through college. And treats me like family.

And Eric who came to Austin with his photographer wife, Irna, so we could hang out and do a photo walk and have lunch, dinner, coffee and even a trip to Precision Camera together. He's the kind of friend you can disagree with and still know that you can't really piss each other off. 

And there was the time in Montreal when stranger approached B and I in a small park, on a gray and chilly day, and asked, "Excuse me. Are you Kirk Tuck? I read your blog every day." I was so amazed that someone would recognize me thousands of miles from home. He made my trip in 2019 even more special.

B reminded me that the blog was never about money but always about expression and the company of people with whom I share a central interest. She suggested that I continue to write not for an audience but for myself and to keep inviting people to read along. She suggested that the 24,000 images I've posted are a wonderful substitute for me to replace traditional galleries with something that has a much wider reach; and much more convenient hours. Finally, she reminded me that the writing on the blog is a method to become more self aware, more conscious. 

So....was there ever any question that I would keep the blog active? No. Was I pissed off in the moment? Yes. Do you ever get upset or frustrated by things? I thought so. 

We've got so much more to talk about. Just for fun, pretend I know as much about cameras as you do and we'll be fine.....