Flash and X100T, Lessons Learned (so far)

Angel
X100T, 1/1000th at f2, Nissin Di866

 

Yeah, I know I said I’d give the angels down at the cemetery a rest, I know, I know!

But I learned from my previous attempt and I wanted to go back and see if the things I thought about this were indeed so. There being no shortage of cloudy days around here I headed back to Welford Road Cemetery and put my theories and “learning” to the test.

I had come to believe that although my flash was indeed firing when using my wireless flash trigger and I was certainly obtaining some flash light in my photos, I wasn’t “getting the full benefit”. I suspected that I was wrong about my wireless flash triggers being able to fire a flash in sync with my shutter at 1/1000th of a second. I was catching some light, but not the strongest burst. By trying again and comparing wireless triggers against the flash being attached to the hot shoe of the camera I think I can put that one to bed. The X100T will indeed sync with a flash right up to 1/4000th of a second but my el-cheapo wireless flash triggers aren’t able to cope with that.

Which is fair enough!

I continued to shoot with my flash on the hot shoe but naturally I missed the creative possibilities of being able to position the flash independently. I do have a PC Sync cable (that’s Prontor Compur” not Personal Computer!) and my Nissin Di866 flash unit has a PC Sync socket but the X100T doesn’t. The wireless triggers will still have their uses but not for when I’m trying to beat back sun light by shooting at a high shutter speed with the X100. I think I need to invest in a hot shoe extension cable and will need to do some research into my best option for the equipment I’m using (Fujifilm camera with a Canon compatible strobe…).

Next we come to a couple of the features of the X100T itself and how they relate to this quest for sun defying flash.

Firstly that leaf shutter. Yes, it will sync with my flash all the way up to 1/4000th of a second, but there are some limitations inherent to this shutter to consider. With or without flash there are limits to the fastest shutter speed which can be used according to the size of aperture selected.

At f2 it’s possible to shoot at shutter speeds of up to 1/1000th of a second.

At f4 it becomes possible to shoot at up to 1/2000th of a second.

At f8 it becomes possible to shoot at up to 1/4000th of a second.

Now remember I’m using the shutter speed to reduce ambient light whilst trying to keep my aperture as wide as possible in order to maximise the effect of my flash. So it becomes a balancing act – as is generally the case with photography. I can block out more ambient light by selecting a faster shutter speed of 1/4000th of a second, but in order to do so I would need to close down my shutter by four whole stops to f8. This makes the difference between my flash being blinding and just a barest glimmer of light.

Thus I find my “sweet-spot” for what I’m trying to achieve is to shoot at f2 and with a shutter speed of 1/1000th, using faster shutter speeds requires the aperture to be closed down too much to make the best of the power of my flash. I could shoot 1/2000th at f4 but that only reduces the ambient by one stop whilst reducing the flash sensitivity by two stops. Similarly going from 1/1000th at f2 to 1/4000th at f8 reduces the ambient by two stops whilst reducing the flash sensitivity by four stops. It could be done but I would need a flash four times more powerful than my Nissin.

Secondly the X100 series of cameras has a unique and very useful feature – a built in three stop neutral density filter. This is very useful when considering the aforementioned limitations of the leaf shutter. If you’re shooting in bright conditions but want to use f2 to blur the background then you can only shoot at up to 1/1000th of a second, you’ll probably be way over-exposed. No problem with the X100 series – push a button and the built in ND filter activates reducing the light hitting your sensor by three hole stops. And yes, it is a physical filter built into the body of the camera not an electronic work-around. This has made my X100T a favourite camera to use for long exposures. I have a Cokin 10 stop ND filter but by combining that with the ND filter of the X100T that can go up to a massive 13 stops at the touch of a button.

How is this of use in terms of sun conquering flash? Well I found that I could use the ND filter to reduce the ambient light quite a lot whilst not making such a huge reduction to the apparent power of the flash. Yes, the ND filter will be reducing all light coming through the lens but the flash is incredibly bright and only travels a short distance. So I can use the ND filter to make the sky look considerably darker whilst not appreciably diminishing the very much brighter light reflecting flash from my subject a few feet away. That is the best I can explain it. It seems counter-intuitive to use an ND filter to make my flash light more powerful but it’s “more powerful compared to ambient” that I’m after.

So now I really will give the angels a rest for a while, at least until I get myself a hot shoe extension cable.

Angel Angel
Angel Angel
Angel Angel

 

Flashy Angels

Angel 1.

The Easter weekend now feels like a distant memory but at least I was able to dedicate some of the free time to photography. I did make the decision not to take a camera to a gig I attended on Thursday evening which was probably just as well because it turned out I just wasn’t in the mood and went home early.

I did go for a short photo stroll in one of my usual rural locations but didn’t really “spark”. So the most successful photo activity of the weekend for me was taking a flash gun to a cemetery! Does it get any more fun that this? Actually, I enjoyed it so much the first time that I went back to do some more. During my first visit I was concentrating my efforts on one statue, for the second visit I was looking for more subjects.

It has been a long time since I’ve done anything at all with a flash gun. I always had one handy (a Nissin Di866), just in case, but it has always been something that comes out only when I have to. The most “into” flash photography I have ever been was during my Project 365 a few years back when using a strobe expanded my possibilities for getting a shot taken during the long winter nights.

At some point during that time I actually invested in a cheap second strobe – a Yongnuo YN460, some bargain basement radio flash triggers, a couple of umbrellas and some light stands. I even made a couple of DIY snoots, just out of folded paper, crude but they sort of did the job. However none of this became something I enjoyed – maybe because every time I used this kit I had to set it all up and take it down again. No space for a dedicated “studio” here. I have pretty much been “The Anti-Strobist” for all of my journey through photography (and that goes back right to primary school days).

So despite having owned first an X100 and then an X100T and loved shooting with both of them, I had never really taken advantage of their leaf shutters for flash work. For some the ability to sync a flash at 1/4000th of a second would have been the chief selling point of the X100. For me the appeal was the compact body with all manual controls, housing an APS-C sized sensor behind a great little versatile lens.

So right now, after 5 years of owning an X100 (or derivative model) I am just starting out in using flash with one. This has been one of the little projects which has helped to lift me out of my Photographer’s Block and I’m looking forward to learning more – which I most certainly need to do.

So why all the angels and moping around in cemeteries? Am I just morbid? I don’t think so although I will admit to a certain gravitation towards “The Dark”. I guess I’d much rather be taking photographs of models in interesting places but for that you need a willing model and these lumps of stone will stand in the same pose all day for me without having to pay them a penny. So, yes I know there has been a lot of this type of thing lately, time to give them a rest for a while now, but I have enjoyed it.

I took my Yongnuo YN460 along for this shoot and in hindsight I think I should have taken my Nissin as that is the more powerful flash. I didn’t even consider the output of the two flashes I owned, I just grabbed the most basic one which also has the advantage of a metal foot which seems to fit my cameras and triggers better than the plastic foot of the Nissin. It became evident that the Yongnuo was fine if I could get the flash gun quite close to the statue or if the statue was of a lighter, cleaner, more reflective stone. I think the Nissin would have done better but I can easily go back and try again with that. It’s not like we have a shortage of cloudy days here.

However, my main goal was to try and capture detail in the statues whilst at the same time retaining detail in the clouds and this I have done for the most part (although a couple of the shots don’t have much in the way of clouds and a couple of the angels are bit on the dark side).

Angel 2. The Angel

Angel 3.
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Floundering Around In The Dark

Leicester Guildhall.
Leicester Guildhall.

I’m feeling very frustrated with my photography at the moment. I think I’m going through the equivalent of “writer’s block” and I’ve been suffering from it for several weeks now, possibly months.

The weather doesn’t help. It seems that every time I get a chance to get out with a camera we’re covered in a heavy blanket of grey cloud which doesn’t shift. Photography is all about light, I need light to work with and everything is flat, grey and lifeless. The fact that I really like working with high contrast light just makes it feel worse.

But it goes beyond this. I feel like I’m wandering directionless. I know I need projects to work on and the harder I think about possible projects the less inspiration comes to me. Everything just feels impossible.

Okay so to take photographs we have to go out and shoot. So get the hell out there and shoot! Dull, grey day? Doesn’t matter. There will be photos out there just waiting to be taken. So I go out and it feels like I’m trying too hard. I’m trying to make images out of nothing. And the harder I try the worse it gets.

And then I start to think, “Why the hell am I even bothering? What does any of this matter? Who even looks at any of this rubbish I keep shooting?”.

It matters to me because making photographs is such a key part of who I am. It’s my one form of self expression. I can’t draw, I can’t paint, I can’t sing, I can’t play a musical instrument. I suppose I could write… Yeah I could, but I do it badly.

When I have so little free time to dedicate to taking photos it feels like I have to make the very best use of every moment I get. And yet I struggle to even know where to go to shoot. I’ve lived in the same place all of my life. I feel like I know everything so well. Too well. Seeing a place for the first time seems to open up so many photographic avenues, trying to make images in a place you know like the back of your hand can feel like trying to breath life back into the dead.

St. Martins East.
St. Martins East, Leicester.

I took a walk around the cathedral area of Leicester for a couple of hours or so earlier today. It’s a part of town I like a lot, interesting old buildings and steeped in history. I ended up taking around 90 photos out of which one or two were “meh, sort of ok”. I’m using them in this post.

So what can I do to get my mojo back?

It feels like I’m stuck in a rut and I need to come up with “something new”, approach my photography in a different way. It might not be about going to new places. It certainly isn’t about buying more kit. I think I need to go back to looking at lots of good photography by other people. I need to spend more time reading other people’s photography blogs.I need to think of projects I can work on and I need to actually get out there and shoot the ones I’ve already got in my head.

How can it be that I’ve had an idea for one project in my head for several years now and I’ve never even attempted to go out and shoot a single photo for it? Would it put me too far out of my comfort zone? Yes, I think it probably would. Maybe that would be a good thing?

Video Columns
Video Columns. Highcross, Leicester.

Welford Road

Welford Road Cemetery
Using my Helios 44M. 1/10000 at f2.

I had a brief window of opportunity to get out with a camera on Saturday afternoon. Not having a huge amount of time before I needed to be back again I headed a couple of miles north of home to Leicester’s Welford Road Cemetery. This oasis of tranquillity is somewhere I find myself strolling around on a fairly regular basis. It was opened in 1849, is still in use and is (according to the leaflet produced by Leicester City Council) the third oldest municipal cemetery in the country.

I have been taking photos of some of the monuments here for quite a few years now. My favourite by a long way is the angel shown at the top of this post which stands over the grave of one Sarah Ann Palmer Cox (died 1912 aged 52) and her husband John Thomas Cox (died 1920 aged 77). She is sadly now missing her right index finger which was in place when I first started taking her photo but I still find her to be serene, sombre and a wonderful work of art.

I decided that I hadn’t been making much use of my Helios 44M lens so I shot with that for a while. I need to make sure I take it out with me more often, I do love the swirly quality of the bokeh using this lens. I’ve recently switched from using the “focus peak” function of my X-Pro2 to the “digital split image” method for assisting with manual focus. I think the digital split image is more like the focussing systems I grew up using and whether because of this or for some other reason I seem to be finding it’s the more accurate method for me.

I also wanted to try taking some long exposures. I had my Cokin Nuances 10 stop ND filter with me and set up my tripod for a couple of shots. It soon became clear that there wasn’t enough movement in the clouds to make anything particularly interesting but hey, if you don’t try…

Handy mobile app tip : Lee Filters, Stopper Exposure Guide available for free (at time of writing) for Android and IOS.

Welford Road Cemetery
A 30 second exposure at f11.

At the other end of the spectrum I was also making use of the electronic shutter of the X-Pro2 at times. I was shooting wide open with f2 lenses in bright light and the lowest native ISO setting of the X-Pro2 is 200. The physical shutter fires at up to 1/8000 but there were times I was shooting at 1/10000 or so. I was shooting in aperture priority so I was a little surprised the first time the electronic shutter activated. Totally silent shutter release. I’m more often shooting in very dark locations so I forgot all about having configured this feature.

I know that some people think I’m excessively morbid and can’t understand why I would want to wander around a cemetery with my camera. I’m not morbid, I find that there is an abundance of art on display in an old cemetery like this and history is all around.

(More photos I’ve taken at Welford Road Cemetery over the years can be found in this Flickr album).

Another making use of my Helios 44M.
Welford Road Cemetery
Using the 55-200mm to reach up to this rather eerie face on an obelisk.
Welford Road Cemetery
Shot using the Fujinon 90mm f2.

Pi Bar 27th January 2017

The Whiskey Rebellion
The Whiskey Rebellion performing at Pi Bar, Leicester. 27th January 2017 (Fujinon 90mm, 1/250 at f2, ISO 8000).

Friday evening found me heading out through the cold and wet of an English winter evening to the snug comfort of Pi Bar on Leicester’s Narborough Road. It had been a while since I’d last shot a gig and it was time once again to crank up the ISO, select my fastest lenses and see what developed on-stage.

Christopher Moody and the Underground Kings
Christopher Moody and the Underground Kings at Pi Bar, Leicester. 27th January 2017 (Fujinon 55-200mm, 1/60 at f4.8, ISO 6400).

I started shooting with the Fujinon 55-200mm which has the advantage of giving me image stabilisation in addition to a good long reach. However, image stablisation is only half the battle when the light is low, you also have movement of the subject to consider and musicians have a tendency not to have their feet nailed to the floor (excepting Steve Rothery). After a little while I decided it would be better to break out the 90mm f2, trading the OIS and longer reach for some extra stops of light.

Bellatones
Bellatones performing at Pi Bar, Leicester. 27th January 2017 (Fujinon 90mm 1/250 at f2, ISO 8000).

I did mention cranking up the ISO didn’t I? At many venues I’m often shooting around ISO 3200. Here at Pi Bar I started off at 6400 and soon decided that I needed to up it to ISO 8000. Dark? Hell yes, it was dark. So many of these small venues really could do with better lighting but I guess they’re not really too interested in making life easier and more interesting for photographers. A few well used spots make such a difference, giving me the kind of high contrast look I enjoy and making subject isolation easier.

ISO 8000 is maybe a notch higher than I would generally like to go and it does show in the graininess of these pictures. Having said that I do find the grain produced by my X-Pro2 to be more pleasing and reminiscent of film grain than that produced by my EOS  6D (or other previous Canon bodies). Usually I would much rather have a grainy photo than a blurry photo (unless the blur is intentional). Yet again I was very impressed at the low light performance of my X-Pro2’s APS-C sized sensor. If Fuji can make a sensor perform like this at APS-C then what is the new Fujifilm GFX 50S medium format camera going to be capable of? (Sadly I won’t be getting the chance to shoot with one of those unless I win the lottery).

Bellatones
Bellatones performing at Pi Bar, Leicester. 27th January 2017. (Fujinon 90mm, 1/250 at f2, ISO 8000).

I have to say that in these murky conditions the 90mm f2 did seem to provide a superior auto-focus experience than the 55-200. This is probably only to be expected as the 90mm is the more recent lens by a good couple of years and it’s also a prime. What I lost in reach I gained in consistent results.

During the evening I enjoyed music from three different bands : Christopher Moody and the Underground Kings, Bellatones and finally The Whiskey Rebellion – all of them excellent. More photos from the evening can be found in this album on Flickr. I’ll be keeping an eye on future events at Pi Bar as it’s not far from home and I find it a welcoming, relaxing venue – even if the lights could do with turning up a bit on the stage.

X-Pro2 Meets “Status Trio”

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It’s not that many music venues where you have to cope with a standard lamp on stage.

I’ve written before about my enjoyment of shooting at local music venues (see Shooting Musicians on my previous blog). It’s something which combines two of my loves (music and photography) and often provides a meet up with some friends as I’ve come to know quite a few people in the Leicester music scene over the years.

Up until now my gig photography had been the one thing which seemed to require me to lug around my Canon EOS 6D and a big, heavy L series zoom. I prefer shooting with my Fuji X cameras but whilst my X100T is certainly up to the job in terms of low light performance – both in image quality and autofocus reliability, the focal length is probably not ideal for the job unless I can actually get up on stage (which doesn’t happen).

My X-Pro1 would be more suited to the task as I have the 55-200mm zoom but I found it frustrating to autofocus in the extremely challenging lighting which most small music venues offer. Yes there was the option of manual focus but that can also be tricky to get right when musicians are hopping around a stage.

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This was shot at ISO 3200 which was the lowest I got all night, shot at f1.4 on the 35mm. With the 55-200mm I was up at ISO 6400 and 8000.

When Fuji announced the X-Pro2 I knew that I just had to have one. I already have way too many cameras but the X-Pro1 is a camera I have enjoyed using so much that I knew I simply had to have its successor if I possibly could. Could I justify the not inconsiderable cost of the new camera? Yes, of course I could – photography is one of my main pleasures in life and a body like the X-Pro2 will give me several years of shooting fun. Life is short and if I had the money then I certainly should spend it on something which I will enjoy so much.

My X-Pro2 arrived on Sunday March 6th and I did a little local photo walk, despite the awful grey, flat light here that day. I then noticed that there was a local gig on Thursday which might be a good chance to get out to, take some photos and give the X-Pro2 a bit of a trial.

I ended up packing both my X-Pro2 and my EOS 6D and headed down to The Donkey on Leicester’s Welford Road to enjoy a night of mainly improvised music provided by “The Status Trio” and whoever wanted to get up on stage and join them. My plan was to start off shooting the X-Pro2 and if I got frustrated with autofocus issues I would have the 6D there to fall back on.

The 6D never left the bag all night!

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55-200mm reaching all the way to the back of the stage for this shot of Neil Segrott on bass. ISO 8000, 1/125 at f4.8.

The X-Pro2 exceeded my expectations in every way. Autofocus was just as quick as my DSLR and I think more accurate. All the more impressive as none of my Fuji X mount lenses are ones which are regarded as particularly snappy in the focussing department. I took most shots that night with the 55-200mm, it has the reach to get in close for a head and shoulders of a musician on the stage and the image stabilisation really helps, especially in low light situations. I also had my 35mm f1.4 with me for wider shots. I didn’t take my only other X mount lens, the 18mm and I kicked myself for that. I spent most of the night sat or stood right next to the stage and the 18mm would have been very handy to grab some overviews of the whole scene.

I did have to fall back to manual focussing at one point as I tried to get some shots of the drummer who was sat in such a gloomy spot I think the 6D would have struggled to autofocus too. But this is where the mirror-less camera wins out, it’s very easy to focus manually with a camera which provides focus peaking and digital split frame focussing.

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Some people just look like they were born to be a drummer. 1/125 f3.5 ISO 8000.

I didn’t try anything too fancy, I’m still familiarising myself with this camera so I didn’t play with the continuous focus tracking. One for another occasion.

I ended the evening feeling incredibly positive about the X-Pro2. It performed incredibly well under what are likely to be the most challenging lighting conditions I’m likely to throw at it. It feels solid, positive, reliable and seems to be everything I was hoping for in an update to the X-Pro1.

 

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We even got to enjoy a bit of French rap. My language skills were not up to translating much of it but it was a great improvised performance.

The X-Pro1 and X100/X100T have been my favourite cameras to shoot. There’s this thing as a photographer when your camera feels more like an extension of yourself than just something you’re holding in your hand and all of my Fuji cameras feel like that to me. Shooting with them becomes a more organic process. It feels simple, natural and flowing.

As I write this I’m really looking forward to trying the X-Pro2 in as many different shooting scenarios as I can. And when I do I’ll be sure to write about it here.

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I just can’t quite believe this was shot at ISO 8000.