Typically I either write about the creative part of my photography, or I quote poems… so fair warning given up front: this is one of those rare technical posts.
For the last five years I have relied on ProFoto flash gear and digital SLR cameras to capture my images. I like using my lighting gear, I know how it works, and I’ve gotten pretty good at it. About a year ago I moved from shooting with the full-frame Canon sensors to the Phase One system. It’s a digital Medium Format SLR camera, and isn’t particularly different from my previous system except for the sensor size.
My struggle is usually depth of field. I shoot flash, so freezing action isn’t problem. Just to avoid any motion blur I tend to lock in at 1/200th of a second, unless I want to bleed in some ambient light as I did in my Hopper’s American series. I typically use a tripod, which helps me frame my shots. But when shooting a staged set I tend to be relatively close, and capturing a bigger scene means my focal depth is comparatively shallow. The Phase One is a bigger camera, and that means f/8 gives me barely 30cm (one foot) of decent focus when I’m three or four meters (15 feet) away. I’m always dismayed by how much light wattage I need to capture a sharp picture with sufficient depth of field.
One of the frustrations of using flash is that I don’t really see what I’ll be capturing. There’s modeling light of course, but it never struck me as proportional and correct. I end up shooting a few test frames. That’s what’s wonderful about digital photography… Real-time feedback but no wasted film and no need for Polaroids. I shoot tethered, meaning there’s a cable that runs from my camera into my laptop, where the screen is big enough to see the light balance. I make the necessary adjustments, and pretty soon I’m ready to shoot. I don’t use light meters, I don’t see the point. I have a histogram on the camera as well as in the software, so I have a pretty good idea of what part of my image needs more light.
The Sacred & Profane series is a long-term project that I’ve been shooting for over a year now. If you scroll through this blog you’ll see some teaser images. It’s very dark and baroque. In the near future I will be shooting some action moments within this series, and I’m concerned about nailing the perfect shot. It’s hard to capture the right frame when it is pretty dark. Also, the Phase One has a very large sensor, but can only shoot at one frame every 1.5 seconds… that’s an eternity when shooting a quick, highly time-sensitive moment. So I decided to test shoot high resolution video. The technology is growing quickly. In a nutshell, you shoot a few seconds of video, let’s say at 30 frames per second. Before you know it, you’ve shot several thousand frames, and then you simply pick the best one. No fear of losing the perfect moment.
That brings up two problems… Different lights, and a different camera. You see where this is going…
A photographer needs to know the gear intimately. Operating the camera or adjusting the lights needs to be completely second nature, or the technical issues begin affecting the creative process. If you’re fumbling for simple things like focus or f-stops, the creative flow stops dead. That’s why new gear needs to be tested and practiced with before a major shoot.
I opted for the Epic Red camera system. It’s being touted as the newest coolest thing. Highly modular, its being used to shoot big budget Hollywood movies, expensive advertisements, and fashion videos. I’ve also heard about some fashion shooters using the Red system to freeze frames for magazine still images… exactly what I was hoping to do. You can use different kinds of lenses on that system, so I took the Canon EF mount, because I still have all the good L-Series primes from my Canon days.
The problem with shooting video is that you need continuous light. You can’t flash thirty times a second… or maybe you can, but ten minutes later everyone is either on the studio floor in epileptic conniptions, or dancing to the B-52’s “Strobelight.” It’s not going to work.
So ProFoto provided me with their new HMI continuous light system called ProDaylight for a few days of tests. First I tested it with my existing system, shooting with Phase One and the new lights.
It didn’t work. It’s not even close to bright enough. And it’s very difficult to control and fine-tune. Few of the light shapers from my flash system worked, even though ProFoto promises in their advertising that everything is cross-platform. But it isn’t. The lights get so hot that they would melt or incinerate most of the gear. It requires a lot of special light shapers, especially softboxes. The light is hard outside of the boxes. ProFoto’s (really cool-looking) CineReflector comes with all kinds of lenses and scrims, but it’s still a small light source that makes a hard light. and it is incredibly hot. Our system actually came with a set of gloves in case you need to add a scrim or change out a lens… but be prepared to wait. This is a very different way of setting up your lights, not just simply asking your assistant to dial in another half a stop on the keylight via the little twistknob on the Pro8.
It was a lot of light… but not enough. The Phase One needs a lot of light, and the four 800-watt heads could not deliver. Even at ISO 400, 1/60th of a second and f/7.1 I was at least two stops underexposed. The image was dark!
I didn’t want to give up, I was determined to push on. I called my friend Philip who owns Germany’s biggest film light rental company. He set me up with a “tiny” system of 3x 1800 watt Arri lights, and one 4000 watt Arri to use with a big softbox for fill. The situation is the same as the ProFoto gear. It’s very difficult to adjust, requires all kinds of specialized scrims and boxes, a LOT of electricity, and hot gloves.
Well, there was enough light. Barely. But there’s no way that you can “see what you shoot” because everything is brightly lit! Light is bouncing around the entire space, and to the human eye it looks like the inside of an Emergency Room. So once again I’m forced to look at the tethered computer, and finding a relatively dark image… but now my crew is walking around the studio with sunglasses, and everyone feels like they’re getting a tan in the bright heat.
Next we deployed the Epic Red Mysterium-X camera. I know everyone gets weak-kneed at the thought of the Red, and there’s a gear-head lurking inside of every photographer… but I didn’t like it. Its unwieldy, counter-intuitive, and not very good. The sensor is actually quite small compared to my monster Phase One (APS-C vs almost double a Full-Frame). Holding the camera is almost impossible, it has no real handle and was really designed as a component video camera that sits in a rig. There are no knobs, so everything needs to be controlled through a touch-panel. There is no way to adjust aperture or time or ISO without stopping what you’re doing. It’s got a pretty high native ISO, so shooting at 800 is not a problem. But the images are very flat, with little contrast or saturation in the RAW file. That can be adjusted, obviously. But the biggest problem is motion blur. Even at 1/100th of second, there is a softness that isn’t acceptable to me. Of course, at f/8, I was shooting at 1/50th… Everything was blurred. Simply put, there is no way I can print a final file at 140 x 100 cm (60 x 40 inch).
So that’s it. I’ve returned all the gear, and am using what I know. I like my camera, I like my flash system, and I will rely on my abilities as a photographer, as someone who can read movement, and as an artist to direct my models. I have gotten the shot in the past, and I will use my tools. The new gear is not for me.