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|| News Item: Posted 2008-07-29

Photographer's Toy Box: Pop Goes The (TTL) Flash
By David Bergman

Photo by David Bergman

Photo by David Bergman

The band innerpartysystem was photographed in Times Square utilizing RadioPoppers.
I recently added some new equipment to my camera bag: the RadioPoppers. I still use Pocket Wizards, but the 'poppers are quite handy in certain situations.

First, a little primer about wireless flash systems.

In addition to my work for Sports Illustrated, I shoot quite a few band portraits. I travel a lot so I'm always trying to find ways to reduce the amount of gear to carry. Since I've been shooting Nikon, I've become a big fan of the SB-800 strobes. They're small and lightweight, and I can pack six of them along with everything I need for a typical portrait shoot in two rolling bags.

Sure, they aren't as powerful as my big, heavy, studio strobes, but they pack enough punch for most portrait situations. The best part is that I can trigger them all without any wires or external power.

There are a couple of different ways to shoot wirelessly. I'll use Nikon in my examples, but it's basically the same concept with the Canon system.

Your first option is to set the strobes on manual. Everyone should know how to work with lighting in manual mode. You already know how to shoot with your camera on manual (no, the "P" mode does not stand for "Professional!"), so you should be able to do it with your strobes as well.

The best way to trigger manual flashes is with PocketWizards. PW's have been the gold standard for years. Reliable, durable, and yes, expensive. I own six and use them all the time. They've evolved a bit over the years and include many advanced features that you may or may not need.

Since the PW's are radio triggered, they do not need to be "line of sight" and the range is incredible -- hundreds of feet depending on the conditions you're in. You can place them just about anywhere, and they will fire consistently. On a job, you don't want to worry about a cheap trigger not firing your strobes. Of course the PW's have the additional benefit of being able to trigger remote cameras with the proper cable.

But the main thing you need to know about PW's is that they are not TTL. The info that our fancy cameras generate (telling the flash exactly how much light to put out based on distance to subject and other factors read TTL -- "Through The Lens") is not transmitted by the Pocket Wizards. So you have to use your strobes on manual or one of the other non-TTL modes.

The other main issue is convenience. If you have a strobe mounted up high or in some inconvenient location, and you realize it's putting out too much or too little light, you have to physically get to the strobe to change its power level.

Photo by David Bergman

Photo by David Bergman
The Nikon or Canon wireless systems are TTL. Very cool technology. When you put the Nikon SU-800 (or another SB-800) on your hot shoe, you can set it up as the "master," and it will communicate wirelessly with all of your other strobes. Not only will it help you get your exposures in the ballpark, but you can also dial in exposure compensation and ratios right from the camera. In the Nikon system, you have three "groups" so you can assign any number of strobes to A, B, or C. When you realize that your backlight is too bright (group C, for example), you can just dial it down at the camera. It took me a while to learn to "trust" the TTL strobes, but they are incredibly accurate if you know how to use them.

The downside of the system is that it's based on infrared technology and is "line of sight," so the sensor on every strobe must be able to "see" your triggering unit. That makes it difficult to put a light behind furniture or inside a softbox. Also, the range is pretty short, and it doesn't always work outside in direct sunlight.

I often shoot using both methods. I'll use the TTL technology on the lights I can see and put Pocket Wizards on the ones I can't.

Now, here is the where the RadioPoppers come in. This product has been "coming soon" for what seems like forever, but now they're here, and I think they will revolutionize the field.

The 'popper doesn't go on your hotshoe, and you still need an existing master triggering device. You simply attach the small transmitter to the Nikon SU-800. They even ship it with Velcro strips. The top of the SU-800 is curved, so it's not a super tight grip, but I haven't had it fall off yet. Then you take one of the receivers and attach it to a strobe (again, with Velcro). You can put it anywhere, but they suggest using the side of the strobe so you can point the swiveling antenna in the "up" position.

There's a bendable fiber optic cable that goes into the receiver. All you have to do is use a little black tape to put the other end of the fiber optic over the SB-800's infrared sensor.

Turn everything on, and you're ready to go. When you press the shutter, the RadioPopper transmitter "sees" the TTL data being emitted from the SU-800 and sends it using radio technology to the receiver, which then outputs a signal through the fiber optic right into the strobe. This happens in real time, so the strobe has no idea that the signal was changed into a radio wave and back into infrared. For all it knows, it's still "seeing" the infrared light directly from the SU-800.

The upshot of all this technology is that you can now shoot TTL without being line-of-sight! It doesn't matter if the strobe is behind you, around a corner, under furniture, or buried inside of a softbox. You can also use all of the advanced features of your strobe -- including high-speed sync -- as long as you are in radio range.

I recently put the RadioPoppers to the test during a shoot for the British rock magazine Kerrang. I was assigned to shoot portraits of the band innerpartysystem. They're an anti-establishment, electronica band so we decided to photograph them in Times Square with gaffer tape over their mouths. Hey, we thought it would be cool...

I wanted to shoot guerilla-style by simply walking around the area and shooting when it looked right. I put together my RadioPopper rig and gave it to my assistant, member Jenica Miller.

At one point we decided to shoot in a crosswalk in the middle of the street. We only had a few seconds for the guys to walk out, pose, and then get out of the street before the light changed and we were all mowed down by an angry cabbie.

I didn't use any light modifiers for this particular shot and simply gave Jenica directions on roughly where to stand in relation to the band. Since she was running out there with them between every green light (we did this about 15 times!), I couldn't be sure she was going to be exactly the same distance away from the band every single time. Shooting in manual with Pocket Wizards just would not have given me consistent results.

I'm happy to report that the RadioPoppers performed very well. They fired almost every time which is amazing considering we were in an area that is filled with radio interference and I was down the street with a 70-200 lens.

I was thrilled with the results. The intersection they were in was very dark -- about three stops darker than the background. All of the front light on them is from my strobe, giving me a balanced scene. It's exactly the look I wanted and the exposures were spot on.

The RadioPoppers have made a very nice addition to my photographic tool kit.

Jenica Miller:

(David Bergman is a New York City-based freelance photographer. He is a regular contributor for Sports Illustrated and spends the rest of his time on tour with bands or making their portraits. He's the official tour photographer for Barenaked Ladies and recently photographed the band on a cruise ship along with 1,000 of their fans -- all completely naked. Home Page: . Blog: member page: .)

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