Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Right Tool for the Right Job

As a working photographer, we have tons (yes metric tons) of gear. It partially explains why so many photographers are men, we like gear. The other explanation is that fashion means working with of female models. Together, they comprise 99.99% of the reason why there are so male photographers. Seriously.

This past weekend, I shot a lifestyle-oriented lookbook on location with the Nikon D3 and kept the Hasselblad H3DII-31 in the bag. Makes no sense, right? But given the strengths and weaknesses of each camera, it's exactly the right choice. I needed high frame-rates to capture action. Somewhat freezing motion (or at least minimizing motion blur) meant that I needed faster shutter speeds. The Nikon system has not only faster glass but also better ISO performance allowing me to push shutter speeds. I shot much of the shoot at ISO1600 since the designer didn't care about grain (and with the D3 really, what grain?). Faster shooting meant faster autofocus and fast write speeds. The only thing I was missing was the insanely detailed image quality (along with the uber large files). Didn't need either.

We're blessed that we live in the heyday of photography. Technologically we've never had so many options for capture. In fact, we have so many choices that they overlap. It used to be just the crop sensor, then they made full-frame sensors, then the APC sized sensors, and of course who could forget the mobile phone sensors that are pushing up against the APC sensors... and that's just digital, we have long had 35mm, medium, and large format films to choose from.

Selecting the right tool for the right job is paramount to achieving optimal success. Wrong tool could mean *kaboom*. Yes, your camera could spontaneously explode ;) This applies to selecting the right strobe as well...

Yesterday, a buddy of mine told me about this group shoot he attended and how all he had was his Speedlight. Inexplicably, I cringed at the thought of only having my SB-800's at any shoot. It wasn't until much later that I thought about it, that I figured out why...

The pocket flashes are great for saving space. But your options for modifiers, refresh rates, and power output are seriously nerfed. What this really means is the Speedlight is going to seriously cramp your style. Wanna kill sunlight at high noon at ISO100 and f/32? Not gonna happen. Wanna shoot continuously at full power without waiting 4+ seconds between flashes? No can do. Wanna shoot through a 22" gridded beauty dish? You'll need a converter mount or find a beauty dish built for the pocket flash. Then you'll struggle to put out enough power to light anything at reasonable apertures.

But the real problem with the Speedlights is it's nearly impossible to learn from a single burst of light.

Our eyes don't record flashes of light the same way cameras capture images. Our eyes work more like a video camera at 30Hz. Which means you'll be staring at and analyzing each frame on the back of your for a long time before you figure out what and how you want to change your lighting.

What I'm saying is, it's missing a modeling lamp. The modeling lamp is so critical in the learning how to light, that I wish that I had bought my first AlienBees B800 sooner. Learning how to light without a modeling lamp is equivalent to learning how to read without first learning the alphabet. It's doable, but you'll feel like a retard for a very long time.

Of course when we go out on location and power the monoblocs/pack lights with portable batteries, we don't have the luxury of turning on the modeling lamp without depleting the battery in 5 minutes. But for learning and for studio efficiency, the modeling lamp is a staple of getting the shot. What you see is what you get.

Do I regret David Hobby's method of learning how to light. A little. It was harder without the modeling lamp. And yes you do need that "
stinkin' modeling lamp". And of course the pocket strobes have their place/function but you have to choose the right tool for the right job.

By the way my SB-800 cost me $350 whereas my AlienBees B800 cost $280. You can alternatively purchase a B400 for $225 but I wouldn't go any lower than a B800 for power reasons.


  1. "Learning how to light without a modeling lamp is equivalent to learning how to read without first learning the alphabet. It's doable, but you'll feel like a retard for a very long time."


    Something like that is the reason for my self-imposed hiatus from portraiture until I buy my AlienBees. I'm done feeling like a retard.

  2. Barrington. You're not alone.

    Join the rest of us retards. ;P I'm still learning how to read with "Hooked on Phonics"

    ;P LOL!