In my August 30 post, "The Value of Experience," I said I'd tell interested parties how to make a low-cost diffuser for portable flash units. If you're interested, what follows are detailed instructions and photos showing how I do it.
I'm currently struggling with whether it's worth upgrading my Epson R800 ink jet printer for something that:
Prints larger than 8.5 x 11"
Makes excellent black and white prints
Uses larger, more economical ink cartridges
All three are important, but if push came to shove I could live without number one. The R800 falls short on items two and three, which is why I want to replace it. The question is, with what? Anything that meets my criteria would cost at least $600 and possible as much as twice that amount. For some this is pocket change. For me it's an expense that needs a clear economic justification. I'm finding it hard to come up with one. Seems to me I'd have to make an awful lot of large prints before a new ink jet printer would effectively pay for itself. It would help if I were selling prints, but I'm not. The only compelling reason I can up with at the moment is the sheer fun of making big prints at home. Am I missing something here? If there's anything I've overlooked, please tell me.
These are the sorts of images I live for: bright, angular light, high contrast, open shadows and strong geometric shapes. They're a lot easier to find (and a lot more comfortable to shoot) in the summer.
Up until about five years ago, I lived in Los Angeles, where a street photographer like myself can shoot year-round. Things are different here in Philadelphia. The type of bright, directional light I love is only available during the summer. (The light can be bright and directional during winter too, but the angles are extreme and so are the temperatures. It's hard to operate a camera when you've lost all feeling in your fingers.)
The result is that I've had to take a more seasonal approach to my photography. I shoot a lot during the summer and early fall. I review, edit and print a lot during the winter and early spring. Whatever the season, it gives me something to look forward to.
Once ubiquitous, the Vivitar 283 and its ilk are now on the endangered species list. There are plenty of "digital" alternatives, of course; as long as you're willing to pay the price.
Lately I've noticed that the decline in sales of film-based cameras has been accompanied by the disappearance of low-tech photo equipment, such as non-dedicated, non-TTL metering auto-flash units. The Vivitar 283 was discontinued three years ago. (I have a particular fondness for the 283 because I used to work for Vivitar, but that's another story.) The oh-so-similar Sunpak 383 Super is hard to find in stock anywhere and may have suffered a similar fate. The Vivitar 285 is still around, but just barely.
Some of you may never have used these types of flash units and therefore won't miss them. Some of you who have used them won't necessarily mourn their loss. Regardless, what's taking their place are much more sophisticated, auto-everything flash units that cost five to seven times as much. The new units are arguably more capable and flexible, especially if you know something about lighting to begin with, but before you drop $400 on a portable flash unit so you can join the Strobist club, ask yourself if you might not be better off with a $225.00 Alien Bees monolight. Yeah, it's bigger and it requires AC or external battery power, but it provides a modeling light, a built-in optical slave, more output, interchangeable reflectors, and a built-in mounting block. It's not automatic--but then again, that could be a good thing.
It's a beauty, isn't it? But check out the maximum aperture at 24mm; a pokey F/5.9. And if you like shooting Raw, you might want to look elsewhere.
There's a controversy brewing over Nikon's recent announcement of their Coolpix P6000 advanced point & shoot camera. Potential users are debating over why Nikon chose to design the P6000 with a proprietary Raw format that, for the time being, is only readable on Windows PCs. It seems a silly move on Nikon's part. They're behaving a lot like the kid who shows up with a brand new ball but won't let you play unless it's by his rules. Unless there's a severe ball shortage, most kids would tell mister "My Rules" exactly where he can shove his new ball. Nikon will have to learn the hard way that the trend these days is toward more openess and sharing, not less. Ironically, the one thing that might save this camera is the thing that Nikon seems most opposed to: Adobe will devise a Raw converter that works with Photoshop and Lightroom and that's compatible with Macs and PCs. Nikon should hope and pray that anyone still cares by then. What do you think? Is this a "serious issue" or just much ado about nothing?
I've recently come to the conclusion that to be really good at something, you have to become what other people might consider obsessed about it. The best athletes, musicians, writers, programmers, and photographers all spend countless hours mastering their craft. They all refuse to settle for "good enough." For photographers it can mean taking photographs of the same subject or idea hundreds of times until you've exhausted everything it has to offer. It can mean making 20 prints to get one keeper when most people would stop at four.
There's no shame in this. With all the people obsessed with fame, status and money, why not have a few people obsessed with the perfect black and white print or how to light the human form? Anybody else out there got any obsessions to share? How far have you gone in the pursuit of excellence?
It's quite possible to use electronic flash in a dark room without creating harsh shadows, black backgrounds, and overexposed foregrounds--if you know what you're doing.
There are a lot of drawbacks to growing older, but one of the benefits, at least if you've been paying attention along the way, is experience. It came in handy a few days ago when my wife asked me to photograph an event she was participating in. I wouldn't get paid, but I still intended to deliver professional results. I knew from experience that crappy work is bad for one's reputation, regardless of how little the client paid for it.
I also knew to check on the venue. In this case it was a bar above a popular restaurant. Bars tend to be dark and this one was no exception. I would need not only a portable flash unit, but also a diffuser; one that would spread light in all directions. Even though the walls, ceilings and furniture were dark, they still reflected some light, so the more light bouncing around the room, the less it would look as if I was using a spotlight in a coal mine. If I were doing this sort of thing regularly I'd have bought something like a Gary Fong Lightsphere. Since a Lightsphere costs $49.95 and I wasn't getting paid, I made something similar out of a frosted plastic report binder. (I'll show you what it looks like and how to make one in my next post.)
In addition to a portable flash and my Canon EOS 30D, I brought my 30mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.4, and a tripod. They all came in handy. Because of the fast maximum apertures, I could set the camera to ISO 400, shoot at f/4, and still get razor-sharp images. (Ever try focusing an f/4.5 zoom in low light? It ain't easy, my friend.)
Experience told me that there would be a "money shot"--the one that would matter most to the people sponsoring the event. In this case it would be at the end of the evening, when the sponsor would hand an oversized check to one of the attendees. I found out where the shot would be staged and who would be in it. These were details that the sponsor had, up until that point, overlooked.
As the evening progressed I basically just documented the activities, stayed friendly, polite and sober, and kept out of people's way. By the time I left, three different people had asked for my business card and whether I was available for future work. So you see, age and experience can pay off--though I suspect youth and experience pay off even more.