I fought the sun and the sun lost

 
Update:  This blog post from 2013 was originally about the Radiopopper PX system on Canon 580-EX flashes. I loved the RP's and still use the Jr2's for controlling my studio strobes in Manual mode without high speed sync, but as time and tech march on, I now use Canon 600EX-RT radio flashes and an ST-ET-R3 transmitter on my 5Ds. 

I pride myself in restraint. I don't just fawn over every shiny new thing that comes my way. And the obvious breakthroughs, the Canon 5D, the iPhone, the iPad, well, there's plenty of fawning about those incredible items going around. But, me, I'm not really much for bandwagons.

the tech

But while having a fight with the California sun, I happened upon an amazing tool. RadioPoppers. Let the fawning commence:

of the greatest drawbacks of flash photography is the shutter speed limit or max X-sync. It's amazing that our incredibly advanced Canon systems can only synchronize with flash at a max of anywhere from 1/125 to 1/300 of a second!  This is all because of focal plane shutters, which travel across the frame like a curtain. They give the camera extremely fast shutter speeds because a tiny slit is crossing the frame during exposure time. But a flash, which can have a duration of only 1/50,000 of a second, would only show up as a slit of light at higher shutter speeds. 


But I want to shoot in sunlight and the Sunny 16 Rule says I have to shoot at f/11 at my max shutter speed of 1/200 of a second at ISO 100. (You hip to the Sunny 16?) And I want to UNDER expose the sunlight. That means that I would need a flash with enormous power. Or do I? If I could shoot at a high shutter speed, then I can open up my aperture, and use less strobe power.

Luckily ther's a workaround. Hot shoe flashes (I'm talking about Canon speedflashes, but other systems apply) have a high-speed sync setting that allows sync up to 1/8000 of a second! It's a trick, done by firing the flash many times rapidly during the exposure. This enables you to underexpose the sun, for example, and actually USE it as a beautiful back light and get deep dark skies. 

But in my experience, there are only three ways to RELIABLY use the high-speed setting. 1) Mount the flash on the hot shoe, which is just lame. 2) Use an off-camera TTL Extension cord like this one and hold the flash off camera chimp style or 3) Rock up with a set of RadioPoppers . 

There are also two very UN-reliable ways - The Pocket Wizard TT system and Canon's built in infra-red system. If you want to look like a total tool on your shoot, with sweat dripping from your forehead down into your viewfinder because your flashes are firing with all the predictability of where your next shoot is coming from, then by all means, go that route. Seriously, when we tested the Pocket Wizards, oh my god, what a joke it was. Misfires galore and a setup nightmare. Don't manufacturers realize that photo-shoot reliability standards fall somewhere between cardiac surgery and air traffic control? We make checklists, and backups, and backup checklists. We double check everything. Photographers are OCD; Overly Careful Dammit!  So why the hell are equipment manufacturers releasing gear that works no better than AT&T 's 3G signal?

the shoot

My assignment was to shoot Mark Salling (Puck from Glee) for his solo recording effort. The plan was to shoot in studio, with Profoto lights, and then take him around the exterior of the location for a variety of shots of him. I also wanted to shoot him to match a background plate of a road that I had previously shot that week in Tujunga Canyon, so I could drop him in, Koudis style

The Pre-Shoot

So, in true OCD fashion - before I was going to use any equipment as risky as a set of flash transmitters firing at 1/8000 of a second on a celebrity shoot, I needed to test these suckers. So I packed four 580EX II's and a set of three RadioPopper PX receivers and one PX transmitter into our MINI, and headed out with the stunning, pink-casted Amy Bell. 

(Unfortunately, you'll also have to "waste" a 580EX II as a non-firing transmitting flash if you want to shoot in manual mode. You can use a Canon ST-E2 trigger for ETTL. Each transmitter and receiver is roughly $250 US - total cost for a three light RadioPopper PX setup $1000 not including the three lights.) 

What happened next surprised the daylights out of me. We pulled up to a nice spot, I unpacked three lights and camera, set up a three point ( +sun makes four ) shoot, and packed everything back up in less than 30 minutes, I swear on my metadata!  Have a look:

The RadioPoppers not only allowed me to shoot at 1/8000, but I could control each unit's power from camera! No pre-flashes were necessary, and best of all, I could shoot in MANUAL mode. Genius. Another plus - there are no sync cords to fail. RadioPoppers make NO electrical contact with your flash at all. They simply (in the most complex way you can imagine) read a magnetic signal from the master flash and convert it to a radio signal then back to light and back to radio again. I lost myself there. 

 

The final shot of Amy, beautifully cast. 1/8000 sec, f/4, ISO 400 - click for big.

After my amazing first date with the RadioPoppers, I was ready to make the commitment. I put my strobes on tiny travel stands, and chased the talent while he walked around the studio lot. I was giggling about how easy this was. In this shot, I used the sun as a main, and kicked in a back light. Simple. I shot this with the intent of extracting him and his shadow into the background road shot from Tujunga Canyon. But, just my luck, the record company used this shot AS IS - WITH the light and tiny little stand in the shot:

Mark_Salling_rooftop_MG_5893.jpg

And how about a little behind the scenes video from the photo shoot:


the wrap

They're simple, they're reliable, and they get the job done.  With RadioPoppers, every hour is magic hour. - I wrote that. :)
End of fawning.