Monday, January 3, 2011

Jeeze, do I really need to spend over $18,000?

The Story:

In a recent post on the strobist club, someone posted a video made by Dave Black making some outstanding shots of surfers. HERE is a link to that strobist article, complete with the matching youtube video.

The list of equipment that Mr Black used to create those shots was:

- $5200 for one Nikon D3s camera
- $5800 for the 200-400 F/4 Nikkor lens
- $4500 for eight SB-900s
- $800 for Radio Popper receivers (2) and transmitter (1)
- $800 for 2 Radio Popper channel splitters from Michael Bass
- $706 for the 2 Four-Square brackets for the flash
- $250 for an SU-800
- $500 for monopod and custom handle

Total of $18,556

Not included in the above price are:
38 batteries to power all those flashes and triggers
Battery chargers to charge all those batteries
All shipping costs
All local taxes

The very first thing that hit me like a baseball bat was that it seemed like a terribly costly amount to spend to get those pics, and in my mind, I immediately found myself making calculations, figuring the inverse square law distances, light, exposure and possibilities. I've also shot my Photogenic 2500DR studio head out in the open before and had a pretty good idea of it's capabilities and how much light that thing puts out.

Well, I spent the next couple of days enjoying the conversation in that thread, and during this time received my Pocket Wizard FlexTT5 units, so naturally one of the things I did with it was the Nikon high-speed FP hack trick, and I found that it was just nowhere near as powerful as when I did the same thing with the PW Plus II's, to the point of causing me to lose a good 2.5 stops of light.

Now, I don't know why, but that combo of a Photogenic 2500DR, D200 or D700 and a pair of Pocket Wizard Plus II's were a lot stronger (likely because the timing was just that much more precise with the Plus II's, perhaps?).

I found out exactly how strong when just after testing the FlexTT5 units, redid the test with the same camera/studio flash settings and just changed the triggers. Here is what I saw:

FlexTT5 trigger EXIF info:
D700, F/5.6, 1/2000th, ISO 800.

Plus II trigger EXIF info:
D700, F/5.6, 1/2000th, ISO 800.

Same camera and flash settings... but *way* different results between the two triggers as evidenced by the mostly blown out 2nd photo. I had to drop the exposure 2.6 stops in LightRoom before they would compare to about the same visual levels of exposure.

Well "1+1" kinda clicked in my head and I started to wonder that if this was the results others were seeing when they did this trick, no wonder they may stick to speedlights, as it was not all that much stronger thanks to that huge amount of light lost, but I was not getting those results, and I was sure as heck not going to give up without doing some kind of test. So today, in -10C Canadian January winter temps, I took a fast 10 minutes, froze my hands holding camera and moving lightstands outside and me and my father tried the tests.

The Test:

My equipment was certainly not cheap, but all together was likely less than a third of the price of the Dave Black setup:

- Nikon D700
- Nikkor 70-200 F/2.8 VR lens
- 2X Pocket Wizard Plus II's
- SB-600 on camera flash
- Vagabond II battery pack
- Photogenic PL2500DR head, standard reflector it came with
- Light stand for the studio head

Thats it... thats all.

So what were my results? Well, before I show you the results, let's quantify a little something... the **only** thing that I am discussing is exposure, not composition, not colours, not surfers (because the chances of me finding one tonight on our iced roads was a tad slim), just ugly brute power while in high-speed sync mode (in this case shutter speeds over 1/250th).

Ok, that said, here are the results (I can almost hear all of you groaning "FINALLY!!" ha-ha!)

Lets look at the setup:

Camera settings:
Shutter was 1/2000th
Aperture was F/5.6
Focal Length was 82mm
ISO was 1600 (1/3rd of a stop less than Dave's ISO 2000)

The Photogenic 2500DR flash was measured out to a distance of 50 feet away from the subject and I stood beside the flash. Flash strength was an indicated 500 W/s or 1/2 power.

Base photo without flash:

I wanted to be sure that I had a bit of ambient sky and the subject in a clear silhouette, just like Dave Black demonstrated in his shots. As you can see, this was clearly accomplished.

With the flash on:
There is no fudging with the exposures in post, this is how it looked on the LCD of my camera with the settings as indicated! The face is perfectly exposed, and we have a FINE exposure. In my humble opinion, right now, at this moment, in my mind, there is **no** doubt, we can duplicate the shots without needing to sell a kidney... yay!!!

I took a few steps back, feathered the DR2500 a little to the right, zoomed the lens to 70mm turned to portrait orientation and nothing more, and this was the result:

Here I just zoomed in to 200mm.
If I was going to nit pick, I would say that I could drop the exposure a third or a half a stop, thanks to the slightly hot specular highlights on the face.

But we're not quite done... let's move that light back to a true 100 feet, take that "no flash" test shot, and do a few more fast tests... my bare hands are starting to get darned cold by now!

Ok, we are at 99 feet 11 inches, but the lightstand is just behind the Lufkin, so I am not cheating... lol

As you can tell, ambient was falling fast, but I moved the lightstand 100 feet back and zoomed to 200mm, the one and only settings change that I made was to raise the power to 1,000 W/s or full power on the studio head... and... BOOM! (hey, like my Dave Black impersonation? ha-ha!)

I was loosing the ambient, and I could have dropped shutter speed, but instead I chose to raise the aperture up a stop and went to F/4, and these were the results:
Well, thats about it. I had a great time and now know a few more things.

1 - I know I could recreate his exposure levels easily using my current equipment and save tens of thousands of dollars over buying/using his equipment (not that I would mind having his setup, mind you... lol).

2 - If I wanted to improve on the quality (not the amount of the light), I would want a narrower beam. That standard reflector at 100 feet away will light the entire width of my street (both lanes a good 24 feet wide!), if I did not feather it over to one side, which also is pretty obvious by looking at the photos, that I am loosing about a stop of light on my dad's face on top of it all..

3 - If I wanted to increase that lit distance from 100 feet to 130 feet without changing camera settings, all it would take is one more 2500DR, or I could go up to ISO 3200 or change aperture to F/2.8, all of which is very workable.

4 - A BIG THANKS to my dad for braving the cold out there with me, he was a real trooper!

So, in my mind, I've proven that I don't need over $18 G's worth of hardware to duplicate his exposure levels, however, just like Dave Black's setup, to be able to duplicate these results, my setup was also very specific in terms of equipment.

Now please, don't think that this info and my tests results are meant to take away anything from Dave Black's accomplishments or abilities The man is a wealth of info, experience and talent and I give all respect to him. I did this all for my own personal pleasure and had no ulterior motives other than answering to my own curiosity.

Another point... from the small tests I saw someone else do via their post online, other camera/light/trigger combinations may not put out the same amount of light and therefore, likely not be able to do the same, just like in the example of me changing triggers to the FlexTT5 units and getting *much* poorer results. YMMV (your mileage may vary) depending on your setup, so "try before you buy".

February 15, 2011 - Addendum:
There is some preliminary testing being done by me, but I am seeing some very interesting results with the Flex units and high shutter speeds (like 1/1000th and up).  Seems that the Flex units are maybe going to be able to outperform even the impressive performance of the Plus II units, if you can believe that... as already the Plus II units on Nikon cameras were way outperforming Canon cameras under the same conditions by a good 1.5 stops or more.  It looks like that small 3/4 to 1 stop of light lost using the PW Plus II units and the Nikon High Speed Hack trick, by moving from max sync speed to higher, may, in the future, be completely regained... and on top of it, you may not even need that on camera flash!

Can you imagine a scenario where there is basically little to no light lost by moving from maximum sync speed to super-sync speeds?  Meaning, that if you had a manual flash at a fixed power and went from 1/125th to 1/250th, you lost one stop, but as you went from 1/250th to 1/500th, you lost approximately 2 stops (with Nikon units and specific flashes using the hack... Canon cameras seem to be loosing about 3-4 stops under these conditions!).

In the future, you *may* only see a normal 1 stop drop for every 1 stop increase in shutter speed... now, to me that is just some amazing efficiency I never dreamed even possible!  I'll have more tests and photos to do once things warm up and the snow goes away.  For now, I am just excited to contemplate having access to this very advanced but valuable tool.

Anyway, this is my story, and I am sticking to it.

Enjoy!! :-))