About Me

Wells, BC, Canada
Richard is a working photographer and writer in B.C. His camera focuses on natural history. archeology, travel, and documentary photography. His photography blog may be found at: http://richardtwright.blogspot.com/

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Testing the Better Beamer Flash extender - a review


The Better Beamer Flash-X-tender - projecting your flash/strobe light

Using flash in nature photography offers several advantages, from adding that elusive catch light in an animal’s eye, adding a fill-light to a shadowed subject perhaps in the canopy of trees, adding light on a grey day, increasing your depth of field with a small f-stop to increasing your shutter speed to reduce camera shake or subject movement. Usually you will try to do this with your on-camera flash, and often, depending on the camera to subject distance and the power of your flash, this will work. An example is shown here from a visit to the Reifel Refuge near Vancouver, B.C.

Without flash.

With on-camera flash.

However, you may well find that a built-in flash does not have the power you need. Unless you are very close this will likely be the case, although I have found that many of the modern built-ins are surprisingly effective. So now you add a larger output flash, like the Nikon SB series or the Canon speedlights, to the hot shoe of your camera.
Pintail with on-camera flash, SB600.

Now you can reach out further, perhaps as far as 30 feet with a flash like the Nikon SB-600 if you have zoomed the flash head to say 85mm, or 60 feet with the SB-900 (a much heavier, larger, more versatile and more expensive unit).


Black squirrel. He/she was there for seconds so not sharp, but indicates red eye.

Now you can reach out with a short telephoto and light small animals and birds. You will now get that catch light and unfortunately maybe even the dreaded red eye. However, red eye is now easily removed or altered with most basic image handling software programs such as iPhoto for Mac, and certainly Aperture 3, Lightroom or Photoshop and even with some in-camera editing systems such as on the new iPhones.

However, if you crank on a 300mm or larger you will find that the flash no long has the power or intensity you need to reach your subject. So now, finally, we get to subject of this blog.  Beyond the range of a 300mm you will need either a very powerful flash or some way of focusing the light of the flash. This could be for wildlife or for shooting sports such as rugby on a dull day.

The way to focus the light is with a fresnel lens. A fresnel is a lens design with a thinner and larger aperture than a regular plano-convex lens.  Glass fresnels are used for lighthouses, traffic lights and theatre lights, while plastic versions are pressed into RV back-up lenses, cheap hand-held magnifying glasses, and, a flash accessory.  They degrade the image but not the quantity of light.

The fresnel lens of the Better Beamer.
So to extend your flash range you want to mount a fresnel lens at a specific distance in front of your flash. This narrows and focuses the beam of light from your flash. Sounds tricky but Walt Anderson came to photographer’s rescue some years ago when he came up with what is now known as the Better Beamer Flash-X-tender.  It is an inexpensive accessory that you mount on your flash.  They are easily found online with a quick Google search on Better Beamer or Flash Extender.  You should be able to get one in the neighbourhood of $35-$40 dollars. Most larger camera stores will have them. The Better Beamer comes in five sizes depending on your flash so be sure to get the right model. Test it in the store. Be careful. I did not pay attention when I bought one in a Vancouver camera store and paid $65. Ouch!

The Better Beamer on a Nikon SB600. This also shows a DIY lens support I built
for  the 300mm plus 2x extender, more on that later. Amy Newman photo.

Should you have a long lens such as the Nikon or Canon 600m you may want to move the flash and beamer forward onto the lens with an accessory mount. In this case you will need to attach the flash to your camera hot shoe with an extension cord.
The Beamer has the effect of increasing your flash by the equivalent of about 2 f-stops, but it also reduces the flash recycling time, thus saving batteries. With the fantastic Nikon TTL flash metering system you will not need to make any exposure adjustments, unless you want something outside the range of TTL.
            The Beamer is basically two, light, pressed metal arms that Velcro to the sides of your flash and hold a fresnel lens in front of the flash, again with a Velcro fastening. Another small tab of Velcro fastens to the flash head to give more stability.
It seems a little flimsy at first glance but I found I could walk around with it attached with no problem. It quickly folds in a small flat package. The lens should be protected in a supplied envelope. The whole thing comes in a ziploc bag but it would be better to find a sturdier perhaps more rigid case for it. Stick it in your camera bag and it’s there when you need it.


A wood duck, lit with the Beamer. Not as tack sharp as I would like because I was following the
duck with the equivalent of an 850 mm lens (300mm x 2x ext on 1.5 sensor.) Richard Wright photo.


I did some rudimentary testing in Vancouver’s Lost Lagoon duck pond in Stanley Park on a cold and grey winter day and it worked well. It is good idea to try and point the fresnel lens or beamer so it focuses light where your lens is focused.  Usually this means pointing it down a little. Also, there is a slip inside the packaging warning you to set your flash head zoom (if your flash has a zoom) to the wide angle setting, and, that the beamer is only meant for lenses 300mm or longer. You can use it on shorter focal length lenses if you want an effect similar to a snoot, a cone of light that does not fill the frame.  If you use the Beamer too close, say within 20 feet, however, you may get some over exposure. And, while that 2-stop increase will get the flashes light out there further once it drops off it drops off quickly. Remember all those early lessons on light that you may have taken and the Inverse Square Law. “The intensity of illumination is proportional to the inverse square of the distance from the light source.”  Twice the distance equals ¼ the light, not ½ the light.
Goldeneye duck with Beamer. Same issues as the wood duck. Richard Wright photo

The only issue I had was that I was testing too many things at once, never a good idea. So when I had issues I was not sure if it was the tele-converter, the flash extender or something else.  However, from all I could see from my photos and the metadata files it worked well. For the price you can hardly go wrong. For the price of six coffees you can definitely get light out to the range of your 300-800mm lens. As for the tele-converter, that is another blog. Stay tuned.
CU of a Mute Swan, with all of the above equipment.
Note how the flash highlights the water drops. Richard Wright photo

"Like water off a 'swan's' back." Richard Wright photo.



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Monday, January 23, 2012

Hot Buttered Rum




Hot Buttered Rum

It’s a favorite drink of mine. So much so that when Amy and I were traveling in Scotland a few years back I asked a bar tender in a small pub for such a libation. She had no idea how to make one, so I taught her.
Dark rum, hot water, a teaspoon of butter, a teaspoon of brown sugar and a cinnamon stick.  A great winter drink. It brings inner warmth.

Equally I could say “Hot Buttered Rum” is one of my favorite songs, a love song, a gentle song about one who keeps you warm like sweet maple sugar, like hot buttered rum. It was written and performed by Tommy Thompson of the Red Clay Ramblers. The North Carolina Group began in 1972. The song was on their “Chuckin’ The Frizz” album on the Flying Fish label. Thompson was the founder. He suffered from Alzheimers, retired in 1993 and died on Jan 24, 2003. The band continues to record and perform. Hearing them live is on my bucket list. (Liam Clancy, Archie Fisher and Eric Bogle having recently been ticked off my list; Liam just before he passed away.)

A few weeks ago I decided to make a slide show for posting to YouTube and being winter I chose “Hot Buttered Rum”. It took some time.
The idea was easy. Bringing it to fruition was harder.  First I had to learn the Aperture 3 version of making a slide show. While intuitive, it is different than iPhoto, iMovie, or Final Cut Express, all of which I am familiar with. However, importing slides and attaching the song track was certainly much easier that using transparencies on a light table, two Kodak projectors, a dissolve unit and a reel-to-reel tape recorder, which is what I had to contend with for my frequent slide show presentation a few decades ago. True, a couple of times I lost all the timing cues and had to start over, but each time it seemed better.

 The real effort was finding the photos I wanted. Searching through thousands of images and trying to match the songs lines and feelings was the problem.  Christmas came and went, New Years passed and Chinese New Years loomed. Then I remembered - the images did not have to match line for line.  I was creating a feeling. So I opened up the images.  But still there were a few I thought were missing, so I kept shooting.  The final image was the “silent snow birds”. 

The other day I was out shooting pixels and I heard a raven pass over.  All I heard was the sound of wind shifting through his primaries. This weekend while shooting a dog sled race at a balmy -6 Celcius two ravens circled me. The sky was washed out – white. The raven was the color of death – black. A 300 mm with auto-focus, on continuous shooting. Six frames and I had him. 

Then I did yet another edit – dropped a few frames and added fewer.  Some frames did not dissolve quite how I wanted so I softened the contrast or lengthened the dissolve. Finally I added titles, having solved that little problem with non-existent instructions in Aperture 3.

Finally here it is. All the photos were taken in the last two winters. Most were taken around Wells and in Barkerville. B.C.; except one in the Clinton cemetery and one at Van Dusen Gardens in Vancouver. All were shot on a Nikon D7000 with various lenses.
            
None of these would have been shot without the encouragement of my eldest son Richard, nor without the support of my partner Amy.  And thanks to my friend Griz for being Santa.

The slide show can be seen on the WinterQuartersPress YouTube channel at:

The song dedication is obvious. But I would also like to dedicate it to Tommy Thompson in thanks for a great song.

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Friday, January 20, 2012

The Triumph of Kodakery: The Camera Maker May Die, But the Culture It Created Survives - The Atlantic

The Triumph of Kodakery: The Camera Maker May Die, But the Culture It Created Survives - The Atlantic

The news over the last few days, for photographers, has centered around two things: Nikons new D4 and the likelihood of Kodak filing for a Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the next few weeks.
The article in the Atlantic explains better than most of us can what Kodak has meant to the world, and us as individuals.
Mother Kodak we used to call the company. It was THE film company.
And as the Atlantic article postulates, the beginning of the gadget era.


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

-40 and farming

"Flashback"

When chimney smoke hangs still and low
'Cross the stubble fields of snow ...

Tommy Thompson - Red Clay Ramblers

Chimney smoke in Wells. Richard Wright photo


-40 Celcius - just about where the two thermometer readings meet.
The propane furnace does not shut off.
The wood stove is sucking air and gobbling wood.
Logging trucks roar by, way above the speed limit, belching vapour and sucking up snow behind them. Neighbours call each other. "Are you okay."
It is getting to the point where it is not safe to start machinery, if it deems to start at all.
Roarin' to the mill. Richard Wright photo

Gloves and boots and down-filled parkas.
Spend too long outside and you will have frost-bit cheeks.
It takes ten minutes to get ready to step outside, but I ran out in just a T-shirt, I mean JUST a T-shirt, to grab some wood; if you move fast it is just brisk. But body parts quickly retreat.

Fifteen years ago at Pioneer Ranch near Williams Lake our thermometer crashed at -60. Now that is cold. Dangerous.

Ten years ago, twenty years ago, I was out feeding cows and lambing at -40. It was brutal, for all of us.
Yet I remember the sweet smell of hay being fed; hay that we had put up ourselves in +30 the summer past.
Remember the cows running for the sleigh as I tossed off bales while the mules plodded forward guided by a "walk on - whoa - walk on."
The bleating and murmur of ewes about to drop a lamb, or two or three.
The warmth as we tried to help a lamb enter the world of cold, the shake as they struggled to stand, dry off, reach for that first teat.
In those years I took few photos - it was different life I led.
The best thing about farming, my friend Dave says, is that it makes you do things you might not want to - no choice.  And you find out you can do it and it's not that bad.
And you know what? This morning, at -40.
I miss it.

Window frost - Richard Wright photo

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Joe McNally Vancouver lighting workshop


Joe McNally took my photo!


Joe McNally is one of the top photographers in the world, likely in the top ten. He has been a National Geographic and Life staffer and a contract photographer for Sports Illustrated, basically the top three magazines in North America.
McNally is known for many classic photos, from his shot atop the Empire State building for NG to his life-sized portraits of 9/11 survivors on the world’s largest Polaroid. But if McNally is know for one thing beyond stunning, evocative, remarkable photos, it is his use of small flash or strobes.  He is a master. His courses are much sought after by amateur and professional photographers alike.

Joe McNally teaching in Vancouver. Photo by Amy Newman on P7100.

So, when I heard he was offering a couple of courses at Vancouver Photo Workshops just after the New Year, when I was already at the coast, I jumped at the opportunity, and on Jan 8th Amy and I attended his “Location Lighting for Photographers”, a one-day seminar.
“What will his presentation be like?” was Amy’s first question, and within five minutes we knew – fantastic, inspiring, practical.  He is a great presenter, humorous and engaging while presenting a metric tonne of information. 
“This is Sunday,” Joe observed, “We should all be in church.”
“This IS church,” said a voice from the back. Such is the esteem for McNally's work.
“We will talk about light as language," he said. “I have taken far more bad pictures than good. But this photography is a day-to-day mystery unfolding before us and I am so fortunate to be involved in it. We are going to talk about enhancing light, rather than just recording light,” he said. And so we did.

 He started with the usual one flash, on camera and moved to multiple flashes in a studio setting, always building on the basic one light; adding reflectors, more flashes, another reflector, managing the flash output and the camera aperture and shutter speed.  In the course of the day he also presented two slide shows and many examples of how he works. And along the way he told a few stories of his life as a photographer and his philosophy of shooting.
As he shot, his photos came up on two large screens. His Nikon cameras were tethered to his Mac Pro with Nikon Camera Control Pro 2. For those who are not familiar with tethering it is a means of connecting a camera to a computer via an HDMI cable. With Camera Control 2 you can then see your cameras image on the laptop screen, and operate all the camera controls from your laptop. New models such as the Nikon D4 are moving this tethering into the ethernet and wireless realm. The laptop was then further tethered to two digital projectors

Now it has been said by folks like Ken Rockwell that Nikon Software is buggy. I don't always agree with Rockwell, but certainly when I use Camera Control 2 for my mast or remote photography I often find that the viewer program crashes and is difficult to get back up.  It was somewhat comforting to see that McNally had similar problems. At least three times the Nikon rep had to run up and get the program rebooted. If only we could take him with us.
I had a quick opportunity to talk to Joe, greeting him where men often meet at seminars, in the room of tile and porcelain fixtures. Amy and I were sitting in the front row of the auditorium, determined not to miss a word. So for one of those reasons when Joe was looking for a “model” to illustrate an academic researcher he chose the “man with the goatee.” All I had to do was stare at a computer screen with two others. “Look skeptical. Look evil.” I failed. 
Three "researchers" taking direction from McNally. Amy Newman photo on Nikon P7100.

Shot after shot. I was sure he was going to replace me, and my career as a model would be over. Then he said, “Look surprised!” I gave it everything I had and because I was so much better than bad I got a round of applause from the audience as the resulting photo came up on the big screen.  As Amy noted, “Joe, you chose the theatre producer not the actor.”  I was excused with a smile.


Success at last!. We are lit with a flash bounced off the computer screen,
a snoot on the Apple logo and a couple of side lights with a flash with a green gel against
a white backdrop.  Richard Wright photo of a Joe McNally photo.


During these photo shoots it was clear that McNally is a great director, working seamlessly with his assistants and the models to gradually paint the photo he had in mind, or one he discovers along the way.And that, he said, is the photographers job, to manage the shoot for the client or to manage to get the photo that is in your mind.
In the end he reminded us that a great photographer once said that “a camera is like a toothbrush – it gets the job done.” It is up to the photographer to get the photo.

At the end of the day we were both exhausted from brain overload, but anxious to continue using flash in more creative ways, helped on our journey by Joe McNally.

If you have the opportunity to take one of McNally's seminars, or better yet a weekend long workshop, jump in. You won't be sorry. Check out his website for other inspiring photos.

Joe McNally’s blog is linked on the side bar.
Other photo courses can be found at:
http://www.vancouverphotoworkshops.com

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