As I posted a few days ago, I was asked to shoot some photos for a company event. Since I’m much more of a kids-and-landscape shooter, usually using available light with maybe a little of fill from the on-board flash of my D90, I was a little intimidated. Arming myself with a borrowed a SB-900 flash, I re-read a lot of Scott Kelby’s words of wisdom, surveyed Flash 101 from Dave Hobby at Strobist and even reached out to some pals in the BMW community in the photography subsection of the Off-Topic forum for some very useful practical advice and experience.
The good news was I had a chance to go see the venue the day before and test some things out. The bad news was it was a tough environment: a vaulted area of a high school library with a mix of fluorescent, incandescent and muddy, cloudy light from a window. I shot a number of test shots, trying to dial in the best combination I could come up with of exposure, reasonable shadows and an editable file to work with. I had a large, white vertical wall about 12 feet to the right of the podium I could use to bounce, which was useful. I entered the day stressed – I’d dreamed about flashes and focal length during a restless night.
So how did it go? Overall, I’d call it a success. The team got the photos they were asking for and I came away with a few shots I liked. One of my least-favorite (a group shot with a throng of other cameras around me a and a wilting SB-900), got picked up in the business wire story about the event. My favorite shot of the day was the one at the top of the page. I was shooting Manual, mainly at ISO 400, with a shutter speed of 100 (to get a reasonable freeze with the flash) and aperture of f/8 so the background was clear.
A few lessons learned:
- (with a nod to Scott Kelby) Charge everything the night before.
- Pack the night before with the idea of accessibility for whatever you’re likely to use or might need quickly (like spare batteries).
- Before you leave the house, check that everything successfully charged, and take one practice shot with your camera (another Kelby nod :)). Look at the settings information and make sure it agrees with what you intended. If you don’t have your camera set to lock unless there is a memory card in it, double-check that you have a card and an extra.
- Get there early. There is no substitute for having a chance to look around a bit beforehand, not to mention the value of staking out your spot 😉 – things got awfully crowded when the real press guys showed up with video cameras…
- Bring three sets of batteries, or maybe better said one set more set than you think you’ll need. This is especially true of the batteries for the flash. I brought only one extra set. It was enough, but I was sweating it…
- Shoot JPEG or JPEG+RAW if you need to give something to someone else quickly. Since there were multiple press offices involved, I was asked to hand over photos before I left. A real pro would probably be shooting JPEG only in this situation and be done with it, but I also shot RAW since a fair number of the photos I shot will become internal stock photos, and I wanted the change to make them look as good as possible. Plus, as an amateur, I wanted the defensive depth of a RAW file in case I missed something and had a quick chance to edit on the fly.
- Watch the flash carefully. I’d heard about the SB-900 thermal shutdown, and wondered if it was as bad as described. I’d have to say yes. I could have made things easier on the flash by shooting at higher ISO, but I was only shooting at 80-100 focal length – I didn’t think I was taxing it very hard. I was wrong. About halfway through, I’d shot enough pops to wear out the batteries (which I’d done some test-shots with the day before), and soon after swapping in the new ones, the thermal switch popped in. I moved to a slightly higher ISO, and shot with the on-board flash while the SB-900 cooled off – I removed it, turned it off and set it aside. I’m sure more than a little of this was due to the photographer – I don’t know flash well, I probably could have shot with different settings to ease the load on the flash and I was probably over-eager to get a lot of shots. Getting good facial expressions is a trick, so I compensated with more snaps. There is a reason pros shoot with a D3s in machine-gun mode :). The SB-900 cooled down fairly quickly, and I shot with a little more discretion once it was back in action.
Overall, I’m happy with the results and everyone else seems to be, too. I edited the photos I had and felt like the results were very reasonable, though even the shot at the top of the page could use a little white-balance adjustment. I wish I’d had a little more positioning flexibility so the logo of National Academy Foundation wasn’t partially blocked. I debated moving and decided to stay put. I have to say I’d avoid the SB-900. I’d opt for the Enthusiast-Photographer-level-and-price SB-700 or maybe the pro-quality and apparently more graceful SB-910 used or when the price comes down a bit. For now, the SB-900 goes back to my buddy Kevin with my sincere gratitude and I’ll go back to more more normal photography pursuits. For the future, I’ll add a flash to my “want-in-the-bag” list, and continue to learn about off-camera photography. Of course, if I can wangle a D3s from work to be an on-call photographer…
Any C&C, suggestions or tips on the photo above or the shoot in general are welcome!