Return of the King

Return of the King

A few years back I wrote about the then-new PocketWizard Plus III, a high-end radio flash trigger that was more affordable than its predecessor. At the time I speculated that I would soon be buying some, which turned out not to be the case; I couldn’t justify the purchase so I continued to use Nikon CLS or physical sync cords to deal with off-camera strobe.

Three years later, I barely succeeded in making my oldest son’s birthday portrait because I could not get reliable flash triggering for the setup I had envisioned. In the meantime, PocketWizard had released a simpler and even more affordable trigger, the PlusX, and 2-packs of them were on sale at my retailer of choice. I decided it was time to pony up for the good stuff.

The image above is a little test with one of my kids’ Lego figures. I hooked a LumiQuest SoftBox III onto the end of my flash and brought it in real close, which kept the background dark and indistinct, and sealed off the edges with a little vignette in post. Worked like a charm. Now I just have to see if I can realize that 1600′ range they promise on the box…. 😀

The 21st-Century Geographer

The 21st-Century Geographer

My son John is into maps these days. Really into maps. As in, he’ll spend all day wandering around the world on Apple Maps if I let him. Not that I object, mind you; I have loved playing with maps ever since I can remember, and I have benefited greatly from it. John even got an atlas and a globe for his birthday this year, and a co-worker gave me a couple maps of central Germany that the boys have enjoyed trying to unfold and re-fold. When I needed an idea for John’s birthday portrait, all this mappery got me thinking about Jan Vermeer’s masterpiece from 1669, The Geographer. Let’s look at it, shall we?

The Geographer, by Jan Vermeer

If I’m doing a homage to Vermeer, I need to start with broad window light, and the window must at least be indicated in the frame. Vermeer has more shadow control than I do; he can selectively dodge or burn shadows by choosing where he paints detail. I want my shadows reasonably legible, so I’m going to put a fill light opposite the window, with a gel for a bit of warmth, as if an incandescent lamp were on somewhere across the room.

I decided to go McNally for the key light and tape a queen-size sheet to the outside of the window. Given the size of the light source, I wanted to use two strobes for even illumination, which failed when I found that I didn’t have the right kind of cords to connect all the synchronization terminals together. Some PocketWizards would have been real handy at this juncture, but alas, I didn’t have them.

My next solution was to put my SB-800 in SU-4 mode, which turns the IR receiver into a simple optical slave. I then set up my 60″ Photek Softlighter outside the window, umbrella only (no front scrim), and set the SB-800 to fire into the umbrella, which would then reflect through the window. It provided lovely quality at the expense of quantity; I had to put the SB-800 on full power and bump my camera’s ISO up.

The SB-800 would be triggered by my fill light, an SB-600 attached via sync cords to my camera, shooting at the window through an umbrella. I was working through the noon hour, and everything was fine until about 12:10, when the angle of the sun was just right to interfere with the SB-800’s IR receivers. About 20 minutes later, clouds covered the sun for 30 seconds or so, during which I shot madly and got my photograph. I then shot a second frame with more exposure for the iPad screen and composited the two in post.

Vermeer’s composition emphasizes the face of the central figure, whose expression suggests a sudden flash of insight, something so astounding that he has to grab the book in his left hand to steady himself. I suppose my composition is commentary on all the different ways we can now represent our world: the light-up globe, the iPad, the mass-produced student atlas. John holds a pair of dividers he can use on the map spread out in front of him, but the little smirk on his face asks: with all these other tools, does he really need them?

I wouldn’t say this was a fun picture to take, with all the technical glitches, but it was rewarding.

Portra 400 – Things

The conventional wisdom has it that Portra, like other color negative films with neutral characteristics, shouldn’t be used for nature. I try not to be a slave to conventional wisdom, and in fact, Portra is great with natural subjects, including fall color:



For comparison I went back to the second tree with Ektar; we’ll see that shot in a couple of posts. I don’t see a problem with the color in either of these frames, and if I want more saturation, well, both Portra and Ektar were designed to scan easily as part of a hybrid film/digital workflow. Lightroom makes it dead easy to tweak color.

My two attempts at street photography had lovely tones but were horrible photographs; I mention them only because, had I used my brain, Portra would not have stood in my way. 🙂 Architecture in progress looks good too, as Green Street’s urban canyon gets longer:


So does some Crab Rangoon from a farewell luncheon for a co-worker:

Crabby Opening

After one roll I’m hooked. Portra 400 is fast, has fine grain, great color, great skin tones, good sharpness (any unsharpness is my fault and not the film’s), and responds well when rated a little bit slower than the box says. It’s a great all-purpose color film whose only drawback is that it’s more expensive than some of the alternatives. I look forward to shooting more of it as time and money permit.

Portra 400 – People

I chose Portra 400 for the first roll through my new-to-me F100. I wanted to start with something that has a bit of latitude, and I had read good reports about rating it at 320, or even 200, for more density in the shadows.

Since the literature claims “spectacular skin tones,” I thought I’d test that first off, with my son John in window light:

Johnny Lisa

Those look like pretty darn good skin tones to me, as well as lovely rendering of light and shadow from that window. I should have had John turn his head more towards his right, but he didn’t want to stand still very long. Portra also did a great job with Joey in a relatively dark vehicle interior:

Chorus Boy

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the patience to save a few frames for flash portraits; that’s something I’m going to have to try with the next roll, using my digital body to proof. (Just like peeling a Polaroid, except entirely different.)

Of course, Portra isn’t only good for pictures of people, but that’s a topic for our next post.

Silver Lining

I have long wanted to own a Nikon film body that would let me control my G (no aperture ring) lenses. The F6, lovely though it would be, is far too expensive for my budget, so I settled on a used F100. A example in good condition at the right price came along in time for my birthday.

New Toy

Shooting 35mm film is quite refreshing: no fancy software, no image preview, 36 exposures (at most) until you have to reload. Digital gives great control, but it can seduce the photographer into wasting time with irrelevant fiddling. Even in a digital workflow, film (especially color film) is almost fire-and-forget: you concentrate in the moment and the chemistry does the rest. Although some photographers object, I don’t have a problem with doing digital B&W conversions from color scans, especially because I don’t own the color filters I’d want for B&W film.

I’ve put five rolls through my F100 so far:

  • 1 Kodak Portra 400
  • 1 Kodak Ektar 100
  • 3 Fuji Superia X-tra 400

I bought the Portra and Ektar with my new camera, and processed them through North Coast in California. The Superia was an impulse buy for casual situations, and I’ve been processing it through the local Walgreens, just to see what kind of a job they do. There is great variability between individual locations. One local store has a Fuji Frontier minilab, and gave me low-res scans that cropped away about 10% of the frame:

Unguentum in Capite

Another has a Noritsu and gave me 6 MP scans of the whole frame:


Both of these images were rated at 200 and developed normally. The second also used my 35mm f/1.8 DX lens, which covers the 35mm frame with a pleasant little vignette in the corners. Superia has tons of latitude and looks better to my eye with overexposure, but I wouldn’t use it for work I care about.

The two Kodak films, on the other hand, are spectacular, and I’ll be devoting a separate post to each one.

Peeling the Film

I have a closet in my house which I call “Nick’s Home for Wawyard Cameras.” It’s a sort of rest home/photography museum for various old equipment. It holds three 35mm SLRs: my dad’s Pentax Spotmatic and Sears-Ricoh TLS (M42 mount, plus lenses), as well as a friend’s Nikon FG-20 (F mount, plus a 50mm f/1.8 Series E); also two 6×6 TLRs: my dad’s Zeiss Ikoflex and Rolleiflex, both with 75mm f/3.5 Zeiss lenses.

I occasionally take one down and run a roll of film through it, and I noticed a few weeks ago that I had accumulated 11 undeveloped rolls this way. It was long past time to develop them. I put them all in an envelope and sent it to North Coast Photographic Services in Carlsbad, CA, which has long been my lab of choice.


My wife gave me an afternoon off to shoot on the day before Valentine’s Day 2011. Of all the pictures I took that afternoon, this is the most important, as the restaurant depicted no longer exists. Ilford HP5 in the Sears-Ricoh with a 50mm f/1.4 Super-Takumar.

Harley Century

I’m hit-and-miss with selecting a correct exposure, it seems; better than I used to be, but not practiced and smooth. This is the best-exposed slide out of a whole roll of Provia 100F that I ran trough the Nikon, and it makes me want to buy a whole case and practice until I’m consistently on. The tones are to die for.


If you’re used to an SLR viewfinder, the reversed image of a TLR can be quite the challenge. As a longtime devotee of square format, it’s a challenge I enjoy, all the more because the larger film area yields better image quality. This was made in the Rollei with a very old roll of Kodak Plus-X that I found my parents’ basement. I wasn’t sure it would still be usable, having not been kept frozen, but it worked very well indeed.

I don’t shoot much film because of processing costs, but I hope to continue shooting the occasional roll, hopefully maintaining and even increasing my skills as time goes on.

Warm Winter

When I posted before Christmas I mentioned wanting some pictures of Christmas lights. I was able to get them and realize a long-unfulfilled desire to photograph something in my home town at the same time.


North School Park in Arlington Heights, IL was built when I was in my early teens, and ever since it has been home during December to an elaborate display of Christmas lights. From the day I first read David Hobby’s guide to shooting Christmas lights, I have wanted to photograph North School Park in its winter glory, but could never quite make the time on multiple trips to visit my parents. I finally got my pictures last week, when we visited for my younger son’s birthday. Mother Nature was kind to me and (literally) iced the cake with a foot of snow. The train shown above, of course, is my kids’ favorite.


Capturing the windmill above took some trial and error, as well as defying diffraction with an aperture of f/22. I’m long overdue to buy some ND filters to allow longer exposures at smaller apertures.


By the time I took this frame, the twilight had deepened enough to give me 20 s @ f/16. Still need those ND filters….

It was when I edited these pictures that I finally decided I like my new D7100 a lot. Not that the D90 couldn’t have done a good job, but there is a combination of smoothness, sharpness, and deep dynamic range in the D7100 files that the D90 just can’t match. I’m looking forward to the next time I go photographing at dusk.



I was given the gift of a new Nikon SLR body as an early Christmas present, which meant I had to decide whether to jump to FX or stick with DX for a while. I have two DX-only lenses which I use quite frequently, and one of the FX equivalents would cost much more than I can afford to pay; moreover, both body and lenses would, in general, be noticeably heavier. I decided to stay DX and went for a D7100. A tripod plate from Really Right Stuff soon followed, and tonight I locked it down on the tripod for a seasonal image.

The image above was assembled from three exposures, with the sharp candle in each hand-masked in. A little extra blur was applied to the bokeh to disguise prominent diffraction rings; I have seen them before but never as noticeable as here. So far I am pleased with the image quality and handling. My technique will have to be upgraded a bit to make the best use of those 24 megapixels, but that was only to be expected.

I’m itching to use my new toy for some landscape work and pictures of local Christmas lights. Hopefully I’ll get to do that soon and report back.