Category Archives Photo Gear


So after I shot the Honda Superbike Races on Sunday in Birmingham, I hopped a flight (well, two flights), up to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to be a part of Moose Peterson’s DLWS (Digital Landscape Workshop Series) “Outer Banks” workshop, which kicked off Sunday night (I’m not teaching; I just came to shoot and hang out with my buddies Moose, Joe McNally, and Laurie Excell, and I had a blast (That’s right; I did this morning’s sunrise shoot then headed to the airport to head back home).

They’re still going to shoot sunset today and sunrise tomorrow, but I’ve got to head back home, see the kids, and then get ready for my Down & Dirty tour in DC (which was sold out last Friday with over 700 people for the day). Also with me was the ‘Bad Man’ himself, Brad Moore (who used to work as staff at these DLWS events, so this was old home week for him!).

I’ve got to tell you this about DLWS: they run an absolutely first-class, well organized, and most importantly downright fun workshop experience from beginning to end. Everybody here is having such a good time, and the crowd is so into it—they’re really hungry for the information, and they are getting it here by the armloads.

Yesterday we started the day with a dawn shoot out at a local lighthouse (this is lighthouse city out here on the Outer Banks of North Carolina), and while it wasn’t a spectacular sunrise by any means, we still had some fun (I’ve only taken a peek at a few shots so far, but here are a couple [above and below] from yesterday’s morning outing).


When the light got too high in the sky, Joe McNally did an awesome on-location small-flash portrait shoot with a local model, and I don’t care how many times you’ve seen Joe, every time is just amazing. Seeing how he sets up the shot, adjusts for problems with light, and explains how to walk away with a client-pleasing shot is just something to see, and everybody was eating it up (the shot below is Joe during that mini-session; taken with my iPhone’s built-in camera).


Then we were back in the classroom with Moose, Joe, Laurie, and Kevin Dobler (who was doing some of the Photoshop training—and did a great job by the way). After the classroom sessions, (and a late afternoon snack); we headed out to some sand dunes for a sunset shoot, but got totally socked in with rainy weather.


So, Joe pulls out some SB-900s and we did another portrait shoot, in the rain, with Photoshop TV’s own Stephanie Cross as the model, and it rocked. We’re all huddled (about 40 of us) under a shelter, and Joe has her standing just out in the rain, in a raincoat and hood, and came up with a great shot, despite the conditions (like Joe says; your photo editor doesn’t care about how harsh the conditions you encountered; you’re being paid to come back with a shot, and if you want to work for them again, you’d better come back with a shot; and he showed us what to do to get that done—-using High Speed sync).

This morning we headed out to a commercial fishing port, and the highlight was an area with old rusting hulls and salvage boats that were great for HDR stuff. We were all walking around and at one point Joe and I were walking over to these two big boats and I looked at Joe and said something really stupid. “Joe…you shoot much HDR?” He gave me the look you see below. I had to capture it.


So that became the running gag for the day. “Hey Joe, do you think this would make a good HDR shot?” Hey Joe, is this like that HDR shot that National Geographic asked you to do?” It ended up with an HDR breakfast shoot of pancakes joke about an hour later. Just the look on McNally’s face above said it all.

Anyway, after that, we had to head out, and I’m already on my way home. Had a great time, and I saw first-hand why every single DLWS workshop for the rest of the entire year is already sold out in advance. Moose Peterson and his staff have put something very special, and very unique together here. It’s an experience like no other, and I was as excited as everybody else there just to be learning from Moose, Joe, Kevin, and Laurie, and to be spending some time together doing something we all love. Plus, I never had to dive out of the way of an oncoming car or motorcycle moving at 140 MPH. That’s a bonus. Below are some chairs on the back of that house I shot above. Yes, I just took a few minutes, sat in them, and looked out at the beautiful shoreline. I know it’s a throwaway shot, but now those chairs will bring back fond memories of a morning shoot in May.


One last thing: I met so many people who came up to me and said, “Hey, I read your blog first thing every morning.” I was really tickled, and wound up meeting some really cool folks, including one sports photographer that I’m going to hook up with when I shoot the Indy 500 later this month. Small world.


I finally got around to covering a question that I get asked so often from readers here on the blog, and that is:

“What is the difference between off camera flash (like a Nikon SB-800 or SB-900, or a Canon 580 EXII), and a Studio Strobe?

If I have time, I sometimes answer people back with a direct email, but I’ve gotten this question so many times, I haven’t been able to answer them all. So, I thought I’d put together an example to show you my typical response to the question, which is purely my own opinion on the subject.

What I usually say is something along the lines of:

“Whether you use a small off-camera flash, or a studio strobe, what you get is a bright flash of white light aiming toward your subject.”

I know that sounds pretty simplistic, but that’s what it is. For example, two of the shots below were taken with a Studio Strobe with a small softbox, and one was taken with a Nikon SB-800 with the same small softbox.


First, see if you can tell which one of the three photos above was taken with the SB-800 (by the way; I know the shots themselves, which are unretouched right out of the camera) are kinda lame, but try to get past that part and just focus on  the light). Now, choose which one you think it is in the poll listed below. If you get it wrong; don’t feel bad. Joe McNally was in my office the day I shot it, and I asked Joe to tell me which one he thought was which.

He studied them for a few moments, and said something very telling; he said “The fact that it’s taking me a minute to figure out which one is which, says something, doesn’t it?” That’s the whole point right there! If you have to think for a few moments, the difference isn’t that obvious. Anyway, not surprisingly, Joe did get it right first time, but he too commented on how slight the difference was, and I agreed. It’s not “night and day.” It’s a subtle difference.

So, if the quality of light is at least somewhat similar (as long as you do something to diffuse it, like adding a softbox or shooting through a diffuser), then what are the advantages and disadvantages to using one over the other? (By the way, the correct answer is “The One On The Right”).

Here’s my short list of pluses and minuses:

Studio Strobes: Advantages

  • These are generally much more powerful than off camera flashes like the SB-800, 900 or Canon 580 EX II), so they can throw a lot more light when you need it.
  • They were made to have softboxes attached, so you don’t have to have special adapters, specially made softboxes, etc.
  • They come with continuous modeling-lights built-in. These help you see your subject, they help your camera’s auto-focus lock on (try focusing in the dark), and they give you a preview of how the shadows are going to fall on your subject.
  • Since they plug into the wall, they recycle very quickly, and so you can fire off lots of consecutive shots (great for shooting fashion, or kids), without waiting for the flash to recycle, which is something you always have to do with off-camera flash.
  • They don’t use batteries, so you can fire the strobes without ever worrying about the batteries dying, or the power of the flash changing as the batteries wear down during your shoot.
  • They have a light stand mount built-in, so mounting them on a light stand doesn’t take any special adapters.
  • There are lots of accessories like reflectors, grid spots, barn doors, etc. that are made for use with strobes.

Studio Strobes: Disadvantages

  • You have to plug-them in (though for some you can have a separate battery pack for on-location shooting, but these packs are fairly expensive, and like any battery—they run out of juice)
  • You can’t just toss one in your camera bag—-they’re too big, so they usually need separate protective cases to go outside your studio.
  • Although most decent strobes are fairly rugged, at certain points in the process, the flash bulb is exposed (like when you’re changing a soft box), so you have to take a certain amount of care not to break the flash bulb, especially if you’re shipping it for a location shoot.
  • These require a wireless transmitter and receiver to fire them wirelessly.
  • Good strobes are fairly expensive (though I think the new Elinchrom BXRi 500s are a steal at their price of around $600 each, with built-in wireless receivers).
  • You’re not mounting one of these on your camera’s hot-shoe.

Off Camera Flash: Advantages

  • They are small, lightweight, and you can mount them right on your camera’s hotshoe
  • They are battery powered, so you don’t have to have access to an electrical plug to make them work, so they’re ideal for shooting outdoors, in a church for weddings, at the beach, or anywhere that “plugging-in” doesn’t make sense.
  • You can fit one easily in most regular camera bags, so your flash is always with you.
  • You can set them to be wireless, so there are no cables to deal with.
  • The transmitter and receiver to be wireless are already built in (in most cases) so you don’t have to buy them separately.
  • A really great off-camera flash is usually cheaper than a really great Studio Strobe.
  • You can carry a bunch of these in a very small travel case.
  • These were made for location shoots, and that’s where they really shine (though they work fine in the studio, because after all—like a studio strobe; they produce a bright flash of light aiming at your subject.
  • You can place these little suckers about anywhere—inside a car, inside a box, down on the ground, up in a tree, hanging from a handrail, etc., which gives you incredible flexibility about where you place your light.

Off Camera Flash: Disadvantages

  • They’re not generally nearly as powerful as a studio strobe (though you can buy some high-powered off-camera flashes, like a Quantum Q-Flash).
  • There is no modeling light in most cases, so they don’t help with seeing your subject, auto focus, or getting a preview of how your lighting will look.
  • They need fresh batteries a lot.
  • There aren’t nearly as many softboxes or accessories available for off camera flash (although new stuff is showing up much more frequently now than ever).
  • You can’t fire the strobe as rapidly because they recycle slower than most studio strobes.
  • You need a special adapter to put one of these on a lightstand.
  • You need to have an accessory of some sort to soften and diffuse the light.

So which one should you use?
Well, here’s the thing; It depends on what you’re shooting, and what your budget is. If you primarily shoot on-location, then you’ll probably want an off-camera wireless flash. You can use these in the studio, too, and they’re not crazy expensive.

If you want to do just studio work, get a studio strobe called a Monoblock (or a monolight), which means it plugs right into the wall. You can buy some really inexpensive ones these days, but with stuff out like the Elinchrom BXRI’s, you can now get a really good strobe for near the cost of an off-camera flash.

If you need to do both: lots of studio work but occasionally some location work, you have two choices:

  1. Just use all off-camera flash. They work in the studio and out in the field (but know the limitations I mentioned above).
  2. Buy a studio strobe that uses a battery pack. That way you have the advantage of studio lighting on location. However, this is a fairly expensive way to go.

OK, so how does the pricing compare? Let’s take a look at two set-ups that I use myself:

Off Camera Flash (for Nikon Users):

Two (2) Nikon SB-900s off-camera flashes ($450 each)
Two (2) Bogen light stands ($56.50 each)
Two (2) Lastolite EZ-Boxes with light stand adapters ($164 each)
One (1) Smith-Victor carrying case for lightstands ($37.50)

TOTAL: $1,411.50 (B&H Price)

NOTE: If you have a Nikon D3, D3X, the new D-5000, or any lower-end model without a built-in commander unit, you will need an SU-800 Commander Unit to control your wireless flashes, which would be an additional $249, or you could buy another SB-900 flash, but a commander is much cheaper.

UPDATED TOTAL: $1,660.50 (with Commander unit)

Off Camera Flash (for Canon Users):

Two (2) Canon 580 EX II off-camera flashes ($420 each)
Two (2) Bogen light stands ($56.50 each)
Two (2) Lastolite EZ-Boxes with light stand adapters ($164 each)
One (1) Smith Vector carrying case for lightstands ($37.50)


TOTAL: $1,315.50

NOTE: To fire your wireless Canon flash you need either another Canon Flash unit, but it’s cheaper to buy their ST-ET Transmitter, which adds an additional $220.


UPDATED TOTAL: $1535.50* (with transmitter)

(Note: you could save some money on either system by buying a cheaper light stand, a cheaper softbox—or maybe even a shoot-thru umbrella to cut the cost more significantly, but what I broke down here is pretty much the rig I use myself).

Studio Strobes
Two (2) Elinchrom BXRI 500s studio strobes
Two (2) Bogen Lightstands
Two 26″x26″ Softboxes
Two Carrying Cases (one for strobes, one for light stands)
Wireless Transmitter (the wireless receivers are built into the strobes in these models).
TOTAL: $1,550 (B&H Kit Price for everything above)

(Note: you can buy cheaper strobe kits than this, but this is what I would recommend to a friend. A good quality strobe is like a great lens. It makes a difference).

I think the most surprising thing here is that the price difference between off-camera flash and the studio flash is not all that big. So, it really comes down to what kind of stuff will you be shooting; where you’ll be shooting it, and which type of system suits your (wait for it….wait for it….) personal preference. At the end of the day, that’s what it eventually come down to. Which set-up appeals the most to you.

I’m sure we’ll have people arguing back and forth to make the case that their way is “better,” but the bottom line is; they both will do the job. They both create bright flashes of light that aim at your subject. You just have to decide, for your type of work, which one works best, because the quality of light isn’t so much going to be determined by the flash or strobe itself; it will be determined by what you use to diffuse it, and where you choose to position it once diffused.

I think the cool thing is; we have some really great choices. We have great gear available today, that’s becoming more affordable, with great accessories that make our job easier, that are powerful, flexible, rugged, and a lot of fun to use. . :)


The rumor mill was right on the money—-today (as expected) Nikon did introduce a new entry-level DSLR—the Nikon D-5000 (shown above; photos courtesy of Nikon), which includes the ability to shoot HD video (like the D90), but it also includes a new swivel Vari-angle screen on the back, along with “Subject Tracking autofocus which automatically locks onto a moving subject.” Plus, according to Nikon, “The D5000’s D-Movie Mode allows users the exciting ability to record HD movie clips (1280 x 720) at a cinematic 24 frames per second with sound.”


Although the big buzz will be about the video features (your video writes to an SD card), the camera itself is no slouch, at 12.3 megapixel CMOS sensor, 11-point auto focus, 19-scene modes, built-in self cleaning function, ISO up to 6400 (no word yet on noise levels), 4 fps continous shooting, blah, blah, blah—-you can read all tech nuts and bolts over at Nikon’s site (here’s the link). By the way, it lists for just $729 (body only), and it’s expected to ship in late April. Sweet!


At the same time, Nikon also intro’d a new DX format lens: The Nikon 10-24mm f/3.5 – f/4.5 zoom lens. It’s pricey. More than the D-5000 camera itself. $899. Expected sometime in May, 2009. Here’s the link for more info.


I know a lot of people have been after me to test the Jobo photoGPS unit, so when I did the shoot of Tiger Woods at Tavistock a couple of weeks ago, I took the photoGPS along to give it a real world in-field test. After testing it for a while, I called my assistant Brad Moore, who was back at the office, and I said, “Brad, you can’t imagine how much I hate this thing.”

Three Strikes is Not Enough!
Usually, if a product has three strikes against it, that’s enough for me, but this one already had two strike against it before I even left my office so I thought I’d go ahead and give it extra room for a few more strikes just in case it turned out to be worth it in the end. I really wanted to have an open mind give it a fair shake, but here’s how it played out:

Strike One: The GPS unit doesn’t draw it’s power from the camera—instead you have to charge it separately before you use it. It takes two-hours for a full charge.

Strike Two: It doesn’t come with a power adapter to charge it. Instead, you connect it to the USB port on your computer to charge it. What this means is that at some point, when your battery runs down (though it supposedly has a crazy-long battery life), you’d better have your computer nearby or your GPS accessory is done until you can get back to your computer. I didn’t have my laptop with me at the golf tournament, but I didn’t use the GPS long enough for it to run out of battery (you’ll see why soon). Note: there are third-party USB chargers, like Griffin’s which let you charge USB devices right from your car, but of course, you’d have to buy this separately.

Strike Three: The Jobo photoGPS fits sits atop your camera by sliding into your camera’s flash hot shoe mount. I slid mine into the slot, then started to head out to the course. After a few minutes I heard the sound of my photoGPS hitting the concrete sidewalk. I looked down and it was in pieces. I snapped it back together, and to its credit, it still worked. A few minutes later, it fell off again. And again. And again. And then I put it in my camera bag for the rest of the day.

Strike Four: The Jobo photoGPS requires a separate software package for it to do it’s thing (this isn’t that uncommon when geotagging). When you’re finished with your shoot, you have to connect the Jobo photoGPS to the computer where you downloaded the files, using the same included USB cable that you use to charge the unit.

Strike Five: Now, you launch the software and it tries to match the photos with the GPS information that is now downloaded from the GPS unit itself, but you also need a live Internet connection while you’re doing this, so it can ping the main photoGPS server. The software is pretty easy to use—it’s just that you shouldn’t need a software application for something as simple as this. Note: There is another software app for GPS/File matching that’s pretty popular called “HoudaGeo” but it’s an extra $30.

Strike Six: The GPS information is not embedded into the Raw file. Instead it appears in a separate sidecar file, and if the sidecar file and the image file get separated—the GPS information will no longer be with the file. Also, if you’re shooting Raw, and you already have an XMP sidecar file, it won’t write into that XMP file—it has to make it’s own XMP file. (If you shoot JPEG, once it matches everything up, it overwrites your JPEG with a new file that has the GPS info inside it). Worse yet; if you don’t have an Internet connection, don’t even consider working on your raw files (keywording, adding metadata, etc.), because once you match up the GPS info, it will overwrite your XMP files and all your keywords and metadata are gone.

Strike Seven: Since you can only use this on your camera’s Hot Shot flash mount—-you can’t use a flash (pop-up or otherwise).

Up to this point, the only GPS I’ve really spent much time with is the di-GPS mini from Dawn Technology (now for Nikons and Canons), which I love (more than ever, now) because:

(a) it draws it’s power from the camera itself [no charging beforehand].

(b) It stays in the hotshoe (and if it did fall off the hotshoe, the cable connected to your camera’s 10-pin shot would keep it from falling to the ground and breaking,

(c) it doesn’t require any software to work

(d) it embeds the GPS info directly info the file

(e) It doesn’t have to sit in your flash hot shoe, so you can actually use your flash. Instead, you can connect it your camera strap, leaving your flash (and/or hot shoe) still usable.

(f) Unlike the Jobo photoGPS, the di-GPS is nearly invisible to the user. You connect it and it does its thing without any input from you whatsoever.

Pros: The only “Pro” I can come up with is that it will work with digital cameras (including point and shoots) that don’t have a 10-pin connector.

Cons: Seven Strikes! If I had to go through all this to get GPS data into my files, I simply wouldn’t do it (unless it was absolutely required by my line of work).

The Bottomline
In some ways, the idea is great, and offers those who don’t have the necessary 10-pin port (the same one where you’d plug-in a cable release on your camera) required by GPS units like di-GPS a way to have access to GPS data for their images. However, in my opinion, the Jobo photoGPS is a poor choice for anyone that can use just about anything else. It’s a hassle to use, it falls off easily (which makes it prone to break), and has too many disadvantages to make it a viable choice, especially for working pros.

I just got Nikon’s new GP-1 GPS in-house, and I’m curious to see how this compares to the di-GPS, because sadly the Jobo photoGPS won’t even be in contention. The unit sells for around $170.


After I posted my video review of the Elinchrom BXRI-500 strobes earlier this week, I was contacted by the folks at Bogen Imaging (who distribute Elinchrom gear here in the US), and who watched my review and saw that one of my few minor “dings” about them was the fact that you needed to keep the instruction manual around for assigning groups.

They let me know that they had created a downloadable quick chart (in PDF format) that BXRI users can now download, which has all the programmable controls laid out in a very simple and easy-to-use format (plus, the chart includes more than just how to assign groups). You can download their free quick chart right here.

My hat’s off to Bogen for making this available so quickly (I’m going to print and laminate two of them, then attach them to the lightstands so they’re right there when I need them).

NOTE: If you’re new to studio lighting, and you go to Bogen’s Web site, these will be listed under the heading “Monoblocks.” All that means is that strobes don’t require a separate power pack to power them—they plug directly into a regular wall-socket like any other electronic device.

This quote comes from Terry White from a review on his Tech Blog of the new Nikon P6000 point and shoot compact digital camera (here’s the link). Terry at some point in his review was going to mention that this camera from Nikon was probably positioned as an answer to Canon’s popular G9 and G10 compacts, and just mentioning that can bring some harsh comments, so so he wisely included a disclaimer right up front that basically said he didn’t want to turn this into a “Nikon vs. Canon” thing. Then came his short and sweet “quote of the week,” which was:

“…does anyone ever win those anyway?”

He’s absolutely right! Have you ever read a forum with people arguing back and forth on Nikon vs. Canon (or Mac vs. PC, or Ford vs. Chevy), where one person or the other finally says, “Ya know, you’ve got a point there—-I’m selling all my gear and switching to your brand!”? It’s probably happened once, but only because everything’s happened once.

Anyway, Terry had a great theory on why this silly “my brand is better stuff” goes on so frequently.  He said, “It’s because nobody wants to feel like they made a mistake and bought the wrong one, and they get very defensive about their choice, because they don’t want to be the goober who’s not using the right, or better, stuff.” Makes sense. His theory—-not the whole “arguing the brand” idea.  ;-)

Just remember this; whichever brand of camera you do shoot, keep this in mind; you could take a $199 point-and-shoot camera that we wouldn’t even consider to shoot our neighbor’s kids birthday party at Chuck e-Cheese’s, and hand it to my Guest Blogger tomorrow; send him out the door for an hour, and he’d come back with a better photo than most any of us have taken in our entire lifetime. Which, (as you’ve heard for the millionth time) just proves once again (say it with me now) “It’s not about the camera!”

Have a great Tuesday everybody!