Playing with Strobes at Home

While Sam is at work, I’ve been spending my time using her chair as a model, experimenting with my Nikon SB-800 and SB-600. I’ve learned a few things I didn’t know before:

  • The Gorillapod makes a good flash holder, turning a chair, or the side of the sofa, into a light stand.
  • Switching the camera to manual, leaving the aperture as it was, and pushing the shutter up to 1/200th kills the ambient from a light bulb quite effectively, and CLS seems to handle the exposure ok still.
  • I can use two groups of strobes, and still control the built-in flash for some front fill.
  • Switching all strobes to manual is quite easy – I had no trouble guessing output levels, then correcting within a couple of shots. The fact that it can all be done from the camera in a single menu makes it quick.

More Light

When I got my new camera gear, I’d included a Nikon SB-600 flash. It worked well off-camera, and I really enjoyed using it. As soon as I did, though, I ran into situations where a second flash would be useful.

If the SB-600 worked out well, I’d always intended to add a second, bigger, light. The day came today. The SB-800 seems to be disappearing, replaced by the SB-900. The 900 is bigger, more expensive, and more powerful. A bit more than I need, though, I think. When Jessops in Taunton had an SB-800 at a reasonable price today, I grabbed it.

Even with the extra battery clipped on for faster charges, it fits into my camera bag nicely. Along with the SB-600, it makes a great kit. Stick the 600 where less work is needed, and both can recover quite quickly between shots.

Overall, a nice addition to the kit, and should make a certain assignment in January a bit easier.

Upgrading My Camera Kit

Once we sold our house, and had a bit of money to spare, I wanted to upgrade my camera kit.  I had a Nikon D40, with the kit 18-55 lens, along with a 55-200 VR lens.  Together, they could handle most things, but there were a few problems:

  • I often missed shots because I had the wrong lens on the camera.  Things that move often do so, or fly away, before you’ve had time to change lenses.  Also, if I had the wrong lens on the camera for a shot, I’d often just not take the shot rather than stop in the street swapping lenses around.
  • Although I was generally impressed with the D40 for the low price, it’s not especially speedy, especially with RAW files.
  • 6 megapixels.  Plenty for most things I want to do, but doesn’t leave a lot of spare for cropping.
  • Lighting is very limited with the built-in flash.  I could add an off-camera flash to the D40, but only by adding a controller, or an SB-800 to act as a controller alongside another flash.  Both options are expensive.

I also had a Canon G9, and had taken to carrying and using it more often than the D40, but it was far too slow to use for everything.

My solution was this kit:

  • Nikon D90
  • Nikon 18-200 VR lens
  • Nikon SB-600 flash

So far, it’s done everything I’d hoped and more.  I don’t carry the G9 now, but Sam uses it.  The old Ixus she was using has found a new home.

The Camera

The camera itself is much more of a step-up from the D40 than I’d expected.  It’s quite a bit faster in taking pictures, but seems to make a really big difference in focusing speed, too.  It’s the first camera I’ve used where I get the best results by just letting it look after the focusing all on its own, even letting it choose the focus points to use.  It just gets shots the D40 couldn’t get.

The image quality is great, as you’d expect.  The performance at higher ISO is much better.  RAW files that Aperture wouldn’t open were a problem, but Apple fixed that one in an update.  Handling is very good, and it feels nicely solid.  The metering seems accurate, so I just leave it to get on with it.

The Lens

No more losing shots because I have the wrong lens on the camera – now I only have one lens.  There are obviously image quality trade-offs to get so much zoom range in a single lens, but nothing that’s been too noticeable to me so far.  Being able to go from moderately wide to moderately telephoto in a second is very liberating.  I love being able to grab the camera and take a photo without having to worry about whether I have to take it apart and change lenses first.

The Flash

I’ve never used anything but on-camera built-in flash before.  I’ve been reading Strobist for a while, though, and it starts to get to you.  The SB-600 seemed a better deal than the SB-800, especially as Jessops did it for £50 less when bought with the D90.  I’ve not done enough experimenting with it to give much opinion yet, but I’m impressed so far.

Once everything is set up in the first place, taking a shot with off-camera lighting is very easy:

  • Pull camera and flash from my bag.
  • Switch on the flash, and attach its little ‘foot’ if it needs to stand upright.
  • Point the flash where I want it.
  • Switch on the camera, and press the button to pop up the built-in flash (it uses this to talk to the SB-600).
  • Take pictures.

The camera and flash between them look after everything else.

The Kit

It’s a neat kit.  In total, about the same size as the D40 kit with two lenses, but can do much more.  It’s probably a bit heavier.  It all fits in a nice small Lowepro shoulder bag, so I carry it everywhere.  I’m tempted to add another flash – maybe an SB-800 next, so I can do two-flash setups – but I’m not in a great hurry for that.  Maybe in time for the trip to London that I seem to have been persuaded to go on.

First Steps with Nikon CLS

I recently upgraded my camera kit.  The D40 was great, but often felt like it was holding me up.  The combination of the kit 18-55 lens and the 55-200 VR lens worked well for almost everything I wanted to do, but I lost shots because I had the wrong lens on at the time – either the moment passed, or it just didn’t seem worth stopping and changing lenses for.  I went for a Nikon D90 with the 18-200 VR lens – same range, but no more changing lenses.

As part of my new kit, I also bought a Nikon SB-600 flash.  Coupled with the D90 camera, it’s everything you need for fully automatic off-camera lighting.  There are more powerful flashes, but it’s something I’ve never done before, so I’ve no idea if it will really prove useful to me very often, or will just be used occasionally.

It took a bit of fiddling to get it up and running – a few things may not be immediately obvious:

  • The on-camera flash needs to be up to control the external flash.

  • The SB-600 isn’t set to be a wireless slave by default.  You need to turn that option on.  ‘Zoom’ and ‘-‘ together get you into the menu.  ‘+’ and ‘-‘ select what you’re changing – the wireless remote mode is a squiggly arrow.  Use ‘Mode’ to change it to ‘On’, then briefly press the power button to set it.  The display should show the squiggly arrow.

  • The camera needs to be set to ‘commander mode’ using custom setting ‘e2’.  Set the built-in flash to ‘–‘, so it doesn’t fire, set both groups to ‘TTL’, and set your channel.  It doesn’t matter what channel you use, but the flash and camera must be the same.  The SB-600 will default to ‘3’, and the camera will default to ‘1’.

If you’ve done all that lot, and I haven’t missed anything out, you should be able to pop the flash pretty much anywhere, and the camera will control it.  By default, the flash will beep a couple of times when it fires, so you know it worked.

In theory, the flash needs a line-of-sight view of the camera, within 30 degrees of the front, and can only be a short distance away.  In practice, indoors, it seems to work in almost any position, and even outdoors, it’s nothing like as touchy as Nikon suggest.

My first attempt was in an underpass in Exmouth – a mural painted by the local school kids.  It was light enough to get a shot, but would have been quite flat with no definite light source.  I put the SB-600 on the ground, to the left of the shot, sitting on its little ‘foot’.  It’s pointing up at an angle towards the area I was photographing:

Mural in Exmouth Underpass

Later, when we were in the pub for lunch, I decided to recreate a shot from David Hobby of Strobist.  My dad and I are the models.  The SB-600 is sitting between us and the menu, pointing at the menu:

Bright Menu

Sam operated the camera, and it was her first time trying it – it focused on the bar instead of us, but the idea worked out ok.

I doubt that flash is something I’ll ever do a lot of, but Nikon CLS makes it easy to achieve some interesting effects, without spending too much time learning and experimenting.  If you want to learn and experiment, or just get lots of ideas, head over to Strobist.