Sunday, November 15, 2009

Strobist inspiration

Recently, I found a very interesting site on the web. The title is Strobist (, and generally, it is all about using light to enhance photos. I must admit the site and presented thinking are very close to my thinking, only that I have not got so much knowledge as the author(s). As I understand, there is quite a crowd of followers, large enough to alter market prices on e-bay, and to make some Chinese manufacturers to start making flashes which, according to common wisdom, should have long belonged to the past.

The philosophy of strobists is very appealing to me. The strobist believe you should always think about light, and ways to enhance it in your photos. The pocket size flashes are the best way to achieve it, because of their flexibility and portability.

Right now I am working through their Lighting 101 section. This is very nicely written tutorials, with many examples. I find some problems with them, I will come to it later.

The strobists seem to favor working with flashes in the manual mode. I can say only embrace that. As an aquarium photographer, I already invented my portable aquarium studio as a set of four simple manual flashes, which I would trigger via those radio triggers. In aquarium the usefulness of highly advanced metering and focusing is problematic anyway. The smaller the objects, the more useful is manual mode. So I thought I would set my flashes as close to te glass as possible, fire them by radio, and check the result. After it is OK, I would go on taking the real photos.

So, when I stumbled upon the Strobist blog I was really ready to take over their philosophy and apply it in my shooting. Unfortunately, I do not have my aquariums at hand, which is really pity. And the public aquariums are out of question anyway.

So I am looking for fish models in the Hague, Netherlands. If anyone would like to risk their fish as photographic guinea pigs, let me know.

The problem is it is not always possible to use flash. One such example is sports competitions. I find the examples of sport photos with flash a little disconcerting. At the sports events in my disciplines, kendo and iaido, it is strictly prohibited, at least in my country.

The other situation involves the public aquariums. The aquarium photographs are the only ones which I have ever published in a printed magazine, so this type of photography is special to me.

Most public aquariums prohibit to use flash. It is understandable. A single photographer with a flash is not a problem for the fish and does no harm (usually). However, thousands of them, every day, it is a completely different thing. No wonder the prohibition holds. The occasions I could use a flash in the aquarium were the exceptions.

It is a pity, because using a flash can really make a wonderful photos, especially in such dark environment, like in the aquarium. I was taking nice photographs in the Wilhelma Aquarium in Stuttgart, with flash. This was in the era of film cameras. I could not imagine how it would be possible without a flash at all.

I mentioned already that aquarium photography with a flash is exceptionally hard because of the possible reflections from glass and the water, and that is why the strobist thinking of flash off the camera agrees very well with aquarium photographers.

In the times I was more serious about it, the main problem was to fire the flash off camera. I had Minolta Dynax 5, which could do it, but I could not afford those flashes anyway. Well, I could just afford one Sunpak flash, which I later changed for the more powerful Minolta 5400xi. Using the camera build in flash as a commander usually ruined the photo anyway. The currently popular e-bay triggers were not available. The e-bay was not available in my country at all. In spite of the fact, I learned quite a lot about reflections, angles, and I did some pretty nice pictures.

In aquarium photography the more powerful the flash, the better. The photos I took with Sunpak with guide number 40 were underexposed at 100 ISO, and barely acceptable at 400. Those taken with Minolta 5400xi were acceptable at ISO 100 and very nice at ISO 400. But good ISO 400 slides were very expensive.

I was carrying that flash anywhere I was taking picture. Of course, I was bouncing from the ceiling or walls, but I did not think of using flash off camera – at least until I have some means to use it wirelessly.

When I upgraded to digital camera in the year 2005, it changed a lot. I tried to use some flash light, but at public aquariums I could not. I took pictures at ISO 800, and sometimes at ISO 1600. At really desperate time I could use ISO 3200 - but the results were almost useless. And then using the same settings at other opportunities was very tempting.

Changing the camera to Sony A700 was nice. I got very nice results at ISO 800. I gradually I started to use flash less and less outside of public aquariums as well. It was to easy to get high ISO on the camera, and not to carry a flash – especially, that my most portable bag did not have place for it. To have a flash was becoming a bother. Of course, I never went to use the internal flash – the quality of the pictures are so horrible. I had one experience of photos taken with the help of the internal flash, and that is enough.

When I switched to Nikon, flash was actually the last thing I thought of buying. After all, the main reason for this swich was the exceptional low light abilities of the D700.

But this thinking belongs to the past now. This site convinced me to embrace flashes again.

And, additionally, it inspired me not to sell my Minolta 5600 HSD lamp – but to buy an ISO hot shoe adapter, and use it in manual mode as part of my portable aquarium studio. Actually, It saves me many problems (although, if someone offers me two of those LumoPro 120 lamps in exchange I won't say no - it is always better to have two than one).

A few words on the batteries

I admit I have had no idea when the world was going recently. One such thing was the rechargeable batteries. I started to use them when I bought a battery pack for my Minolta 5 in ancient times, and also for power up flashes.

When I went digital, those cameras had their own format of lithium batteries, and recently I rarely used flashes, so I gradually ceased using the reachargeable accus. So I overlooked the introduction of such thing as Sanyo eneloops, which I am buying for my flash.

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