A Photo Shoot Goes Laughably Awry — Sometimes it Is about the Equipment

© 2013 Peter Free


04 March 2013



Two points


This short vignette illustrates:


(a) why duplicate photographic equipment is good to have on professional site




(b) why mirrorless cameras may not be ready for wide-ranging professional prime time.



Yesterday’s photo shoot began innocently enough


My Air Force wife — Chief of Medical Education at the base where we live — asked me to volunteer to shoot some photographs for a medical training exercise.


My impression that this would be a “low key” process began, when she asked her me to make a couple of giant “syringe needle” props.  She and her boss would pose with them to make a point about medical safety.


She told me that she hoped we could do the handful of photographs at her office, which is in a different building than the medical clinic.


Planning ahead, I recalled that her office is moderately large and has a west-facing window.  Given that the shoot was to take place at 10:00 AM, I anticipated having soft light come in the window to illuminate the room.  All I would have to add would be some on-camera “fill” and, possibly, a second remotely triggered and side-positioned unit on a light stand.


Since I knew my wife’s boss was a low key person, I assumed — recall the phrase, “ass of you and me” — that I would have time to calibrate this lighting, without inconveniencing anyone on a tight schedule.


Big mistake.



Don’t send a boy’s equipment to do a professional’s job


Perhaps pertinent here, my long ago background includes a brief stint as a medium format professional photographer.


I’ve used professionally intended medium format film equipment — Pentax, Mamiya, Hasselblad, Rolleiflex, and Bronica.  Supplemented by view cameras from 4x5 through 8x10.   In small format I started with Nikkormats and FTbs and, over the decades, graduated to the Canon 1n and 1v, as well as Nikon’s F4s and 5.


When I entered digital as a hobbyist, I avoided buying Nikon or Canon gear, so as to give their little guy competitors an infinitesimal boost.  The quest for non-Canikon adequacy took me on an extended trek beginning with Olympus, through Pentax, and onto Sony DSLRs — with forays into Olympus and Sony mirrorless cameras.


Yesterday, given my assumption about the low key nature of the mini-shoot, I figured that my crappy digital equipment would be up to the task.  A good photographer can usually work around a low end camera’s limitations, given enough time and the subject’s willingness to participate in the process.


On the other hand, I also know that when time and scene constraints dominate, low end equipment can quickly turn an easy job difficult.


Related to this is something that “Big Ga” — a professional photographer and frequent dpreview.com contributer — said recently.  He was comparing a top end, mirrorless Olympus E-M5 with mid-range Nikon DSLR equipment:



I actually don't 'enjoy' my Nikon gear in many ways. For some strange reason, I don't have any 'love' for it as such.


I actually have 'loved' my Olympus cameras a lot more. There is something very 'lovely' about much of the look and feel of the kit.


However if I'm shooting professionally, then 'love' of a camera doesn't come into it, I just want the stuff to work, and in this respect I've found the Nikon stuff to be generally vastly superior, especially when the going gets tough.


It’s typical Olympus. Some things are great. Others not so. And some things are just dreadful.


© 2013 Big Ga, E-5 vs OMD vs D800 — Part 2, Digital Photography Review – dpreview.com (January 2013) (at Olympus SLR Talk forum) (paragraph split and typos corrected)



“So, Idiot Pete, what did you bring to the photo shoot?”


Not a big selection to choose from:


(a) an Olympus E-P3 — which is very much inferior to the E-M5 that Big Ga was addressing


(b) a frequently malfunctioning Sony A500 DSLR


(c) a Sony NEX-3


(d) a handful of professional quality light stands


(e) 2 umbrellas


(f) 2 comparatively ancient, non-dedicated hot shoe flash units


(g) 2 Paul Buff CyberSyncs™ with which to trigger the ancient flashes


What more could I need for this (low key, informal, among friends) job?


I took one stand and everything but the NEX.



Once on site — I reacquainted myself with the “ass” in assume


On the way to the medical clinic the next morning, my wife told me that there would be five people involved (not just two) and four would be working, in uniform, on their day off.


Out the window went my low key/no pressure thinking.  None of these folks was going to want to fritter time away, while an incompetent photo schmuck fooled with his questionable gear.


Next out the “ass-ume” door went the location that I had envisaged.  No empty building and nicely lit wife’s office for us.


My wife’s boss wanted to shoot some of the photographs:


(i) in a windowless, dimly lighted medical exam room




(ii) others in a narrow hallway with (thank goodness) a windowed exterior door at end.


Nor did she want to spend significant time on the picture-taking process.


So much for my lighting plan.  And my wish to avoid having to deal with three different color temperatures all at the same time.


The stand and umbrella wouldn’t fit into the narrow hallway, without casting me as a shadow in the picture.  And I would not have time to calibrate the supplementary flash units’ output in the exam room.


Pop-up flash it was going to have to be.


Ordinarily, I could have made even this humble approach work.



“Welcome to DSLR malfunction city, dear boy”


But, as I’ve mentioned, the Sony dSLR that I was using has its quirks.  It shorted out a couple of years ago, two days after the warranty expired.  Since that audible sizzle, the camera has had occasional difficulty reliably performing virtually every function that it is supposed to possess.


I am accustomed to working around these issues.  For example:


When the camera rejects proper autofocus as one of its design aims, I manually focus, using the camera’s live view assist.


When the body decides that automatic exposure isn’t on the menu, I switch to manual.


When the pop-up flash no longer properly exposes at the settings which usually work, I select others in their place.


Perversely, on this clinic shoot, the A500 decided to mess with me on each of these elements — mostly all at the same time.  I spent a lot of time changing settings to foil the Sony’s plot to sink the project.


The A500, incidentally, does not make these work-arounds easy to achieve.   Its “Fn” menu — which is used to access most of the necessary camera settings — turns off, whenever you adjust even one thing.  I am always having to punch it back on again.  Consequently, menu diving takes time.



Then, the “beat this” fiasco — the Tokina 17mm and the camera flash suddenly didn’t get along


The Sony decided to pull a new stunt.  The pop-up flash would not expose correctly with the Tokina 17mm lens, which I needed to capture most of the width of the examination room.  No matter how many different flash, exposure, and ISO settings that I set, every picture came out a few stops overexposed.


A quick test demonstrated that, without the flash, the lens diaphragm was stopping down properly.  But with the flash, maybe not.


Curious.  Especially so, because the lens and camera had worked together flawlessly not so long ago.



As fate would have it, this flash exposure failure took place —


When the most important subject in the picture was trying to hold a painful gymnast’s split.


Literally a case of an equipment breakdown causing someone physical pain.



Then, the Olympus E-P3 fell on its face


Hoping to stay wide, I substituted the Olympus and its 14-42mm zoom for the 17mm.


But, you guessed it — the Olympus pop up flash, at full power, wasn’t even adequate to light the exam table.  Much less the other three people that I needed to include in the picture.


I had to return to the original Minolta lens and tighten the pictorial tableau in a way that still worked aesthetically, just not as pleasingly.



Retrospectively bitten — by the “lazy photographer” impulse


The E-P3 fiasco made me regret not taking the NEX-3 with me.  The NEX would have lighted enough of the scene for me to post-process it to adequacy afterward.


But I had impulsively left the NEX behind.  There was not room for it in either the camera or lighting bags.


And I had (correctly) anticipated that I was already going to have to carry two moderately sized camera bags, the light stand, umbrella, and the props.  All this through both the large parking lot and maze-like clinic — with no place to secure anything, if I had to make a return trip for a third camera bag.


My laziness and fear of theft had bitten me in the butt.



There’s a lesson here somewhere


The malfunctioning Sony DSLR whipped the mirrorless Olympus camera.  Using both cameras side by side, under identical circumstances, I noticed how much easier it was to change the recalcitrant Sony’s settings than the E-P3’s.


In fairness, had I put a dedicated hot shoe flash on the Olympus, all would have been fine.  Although I would have had to fiddle with the Olympus flash just as much as with the Sony’s.  Neither manufacturer has nailed reliable flash auto-exposure.



The moral? — Semi-pro and professional camera equipment exists for a reason — and Canon and Nikon still own those markets


I run into work-around problems every time I use an “also ran” manufacturer’s camera body to do something that parallels mildly demanding professional digital photo work.  The challenges to low end (or poorly thought out) gear are low light, subject movement, time pressure, and sheer pace.


That’s why Big Ga is probably correct in implying that the Big Two are the manufacturers that ultimately attract professional photographers who work outside easy to cope with niches.  When somebody else is depending on us to capture what needs to be caught, we gravitate toward equipment that will reliably do it — and without a great deal of fuss.


My holdout on buying digital Canon and Nikon equipment is over.