Monday, November 18, 2013

Off-Camera Flash Radio Triggers - the Phottix Odin System

In order to overcome the line of sight limitation that Canon's wireless infrared flash systems have, I have tried almost every radio trigger that exists on the market for off-camera flash control.  Each one that I've tried has had their ups and downs, and in my opinion, no one company ever really "got it right". That is until I heard about these - the Phottix Odin system.

Before I get into these, here's a brief overview of what I've used in the past.

RadioPoppers were the first ones to come out on the market with their solution, which took the electromagnetic signal that the Canon flashes made and converted it to radio waves. It was ingenious at the time.  I went through the first version of those, where you literally had to take a fiber optic cable from the RadioPopper receiver and tape it over the IR receiver of the slave flash.

The next version (pictured above) eliminated the fiber optic and allowed you to mount the receiver directly to the flash.  First with velcro applied directly to the flash, then they later came out with plastic brackets which could hold both the receiver and the flash.

One problem I encountered with the RadioPoppers was that the plastic bracket was so fragile near the hotshoe mount, that you literally had to treat it like glass.  I understand that it's intentionally made that way so that the bracket breaks instead of your more expensive flash.  But I broke several of the plastic mounts within a single year of normal use.

In the above photo you'll notice the pieces of foam rubber - that is the part of the bracket that presses up against the front of the flash unit.  The IR signal passes through that little donut shaped piece.  Being in Hawaii and shooting under the hot sun most of the time, I've run into issues with the glue melting and the rubber pieces sliding around and obscuring the IR signal.

It also took a while to find a way to conveniently store these things in my camera bag without damaging them.  Storing them attached to the flash was not an option because it added a lot of bulk to each flash (and that's also how I broke two of the brackets).  I ended up storing them separately in a small Pelican hardshell case, which was really bulky and took up a lot of space in my camera bag.

The second problem I had with that system was no fault of RadioPopper - it was due to Canon's way of controlling off camera flash - the icon-based lcd interface on the back of the flash just was not intuitive for me to use when I wanted to quickly adjust a remote flash on the fly.

I next decided to go all manual on my remote flashes and picked up a set of Cactus V transceivers.

I really liked using these.  Very simple to use, because all they do is fire the remote flashes.  No TTL, no HSS (High Speed Sync), just plain vanilla remote triggers.

You set each remote flash to manual and if you want to adjust the power levels on each flash, you have to do so on the flash itself.  No remote controlling power levels from the camera.

Very rugged too.  Metal foot and a 1/4-20 mount.

Each Cactus unit is a transceiver, so they can be set to either be a transmitter or receiver by sliding a small switch on the side.

A dial on the other side lets you easily select between 16 channels, although the numbers are so small it is hard for me to see them in low light sometimes (old eyes).

I then heard about the Pocket Wizard Flex system. At first it sounded like someone had created the perfect solution. Small transmitter that sits on the camera hotshoe, full ETTL/HSS, etc.  Does everything the RadioPoppers do, but without the hassle of plastic brackets.  Just mount the Flex TT1 onto your camera, put a flash into the hotshoe of the Flex TT1 as your controller and another flash onto the TT5 for your off camera flash and go to work. Simple, right?

So I bought them.  And then the headaches began.

At first it seemed ok.  The units have a metal hotshoe on top, but plastic on the bottom. On the very first shoot I tried it out on, the plastic foot on the TT1 transmitter broke and I had to order replacement feet for it.  Having a heavy flash like the 580EX II on top of the TT1 just would not hold up to the rigors of run and gun shooting like at a wedding or event.

Then there were issues with it not firing during a wedding shoot.  It would work fine when we were setting up everything and testing, but when it came time to use it, there would always be the random misfire where it would dump the full power of the flash and nuke everybody, or it would not fire at all.

When the Pocket Wizard Flex system first came out, there were also issues with radio interference from the 580EX and EXII flashes (the old 550ex flashes have no issues), so Pocket Wizard came out with RF shields. You could purchase a hard shell version (which in their brilliant design did not allow access to the external power port of the flash unit - if you wanted to plug in an external battery pack to your flash, you are SOL.) or you could use the soft version which they included in the box with each Flex TT5.

You had to mount a small riser into the hotshoe of the Flex TT5, then mount your flash onto the riser, then put the saggy condom RF Shield over the flash and make sure it covered the flash and the riser.

Pocket Wizard people ------ seriously?!??!? WTF

Even after doing all that, there would always be the occasional misfire during a shoot.

If you didn't want to go that route, Pocket Wizard had other suggestions, such as using an off-camera camera cord to separate the TT5 from the flash by a few feet so that there would be less interference. While that kind of worked, it still would misfire and defeated the idea of a simple, uncomplicated off-camera flash solution.  The more and more things you add to the chain - risers, RF shields, off-camera shoe cords, the more there is to troubleshoot when things go wrong. And troubleshooting gear is not something you want to be doing during a photoshoot.

The only saving grace that the Pocket Wizard Flex had, and the reason I didn't smash them to pieces out of frustration, is that they work fine with the Alien Bees strobes.

With the addition of the AC9 adapter and the AC3 controller, this system lets you remotely adjust the power of up to 3 groups of Alien Bee/White Lightning strobes.

Canon did finally upgrade their flashes recently to the new 600EX-RT series, which incorporates built in radio control. They also upgraded the ST transmitter to make it more intuitive to control your off camera flashes.  I will upgrade to those eventually, but for now to stay within budget, I needed to find a system to work with my existing 580EX and 580EXII flashes.

That's where the Phottix Odin system comes in:

This allowed me to take this whole Pocket Wizard Flex system mess in my camera bag:

And replace it with this:

I was literally able to take these right out of the box, put the batteries in, and put them to use immediately on a shoot.  No reading a manual & no updating the firmware (there is a usb port on these to allow for firmware updates but none were needed for the camera I was using).

The system is so intuitive and easy to use that I have been kicking myself for not getting this earlier.

The Phottix Odins are 100% compatible with the Canon flash system - this means ETTL, High Speed Sync, 2nd curtain, modeling lights, remote power control in Manual or TTL, and remote zoom control are all available to the user from the transmitter unit on the camera.

 I have had ZERO misfires with this system. ZERO interference issues. IT JUST FREAKIN WORKS.

Photographer Gary Fong goes more into depth on the Phottix Odin system in this video I came across on YouTube:

He has a lot of other video tutorials and reviews that are really worth checking out.

With all the money I spent on assorted radio triggers in the past, I know I could have just saved it and waited for Canon's 600ex series flash system [sigh].  But after having the Phottix Odins perform flawlessly on my last few photoshoots as well as my weddings this past summer, I'm pretty sure I'll be sticking with them for quite a while.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Glamour, Beauty & The Nude 2013 Maui Workshop Part IV - Private Shoots

Canon 5D mkII 85mm f1.8 iso800 1/160 @ f2.8

The fourth and final day of Rolando's workshop was dedicated to private shoots, where each photographer could book private one-on-one photo sessions with the model(s) of their choice in 1-hour time slots and work on their own individual ideas.

Canon 5D mkII 85mm f1.8 iso800 1/160 @ f2.8

This to me is really the most enjoyable part of the workshop since you can get as creative as you and the model want to be - the only limitation is time.

I wish that more of the workshop was made available for private shoots. We actually did get a day and a half of private shoot time (due to the way the rotation worked with 5 models and 3 teams of photographers, we started the private shoots on the second half of day 3),  but I had to leave for work in the middle of the fourth day which canceled out that extra half day for me.

Darn the luck. ;-)

Canon 5D mkII 85mm f1.8 iso500 1/320 @ f2.8

A one hour session may seem like a lot of time, but in reality it passes by QUICK. To make the most effective use of the time you have booked with the model, you really need to have all your ideas planned out and lighting setups ready to go immediately once the model is ready.

Since this was my second time attending one of Rolando's workshops, and because I could go home every evening, I was a little more prepared for the private shoots compared to last time. Not having to go back and forth to Hana meant that I could bring props and gear from home as needed for the day's shoots.

For example, I brought in a bunch of tulle fabric and just covered the living room floor with it for this shot with Devon below.

Canon 5D mkII 85mm f1.8 iso400 1/250 @ f2.8

To help save time, I also relied mostly on natural light for each shoot, adding a reflector to fill in shadows as needed.

Canon 5D mkII 85mm f1.8 iso800 1/125 @ f2.8

For the next workshop's private shoot day, I need to remember to try not to schedule a model immediately before or after another photographer's timeslot.  If one photographer books a model for a 3-4pm session and another photographer books her for 4-5pm, allowing for makeup/outfit changes and moving to different shooting locations, the amount of actual shooting time decreases.  In one case, one of my private shoot sessions ended up being only 40 minutes long. Perhaps it might help in the future if a 10-15 minute break were scheduled in between each timeslot.

Another thing I need to work on is keeping focused during a shoot because I tend to have a really short attention span.  During one of the private sessions, Rolando suggested a creative idea for a shot.  It sounded like a really cool idea so I stopped what I was doing and attempted to setup for that shot. Unfortunately, I did not have the right gear with me to properly recreate the shot he was describing and I ended up wasting a lot of the model's shooting time doing that. Had to save that idea for another time.

In the future I really need to work on making a set shot list, keep focused on it during a video shoot and try not to get easily distracted. (Easier said than done) ;-).

I had originally planned during the first 3 days of the workshop to shoot enough video footage of each model in order to create a short montage piece for each of them.  Due to time contraints, that didn't pan out as well as I had hoped, so I decided instead to just work on creating a single montage which featured all five models. This meant focusing mainly on shooting video and not stills during the private shoots.

I was able to schedule a 1 hour private session in turn with each model over the course of the 3rd and 4th days to get the footage that was needed. Shot all the footage with a Canon 60D, alternating between a 50mm f1.4 and the 85mm 1.8.  For camera support I alternated between a Manfrotto tripod and monopod, and added some slider shots with an Edelkrone Slider.  Also used a longer Konova slider as a makeshift jib arm for a couple of shots.

I licensed music from for the final video.  After editing everything together, I started playing around with the footage to a different piece of music and found that I was able to fit a montage of each model into different section of the song.  So in addition to completing the main video, in the end I was able to create individualized "teaser videos" for each model after all.

All editing was done in Final Cut Pro X on a MacBook Air.

The full length version which also has behind the scenes footage of our location shoots I am making available to Rolando for his website.  Don't know when it will be posted though.

So overall, this was a pretty good workshop and I'm really glad Rolando was finally able to bring it back to Maui after all these years. I've already signed up for next year's one and am already starting to plan on ideas for the next bunch of private shoots.

To sign up for the next Maui workshop, visit Rolando's web site.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Glamour, Beauty & The Nude 2013 Maui Workshop Pt III - Morning shoot on the beach

Day 3 - Beach shooting with Candice

Another Starbucks run at 5am, then meeting with everyone in the room.  For our morning session we shot around the hotel property and beach, taking advantage of the early morning light.

While waiting for our 5th model Candice to finish makeup, Art and I got the chance to briefly work with Amy again to shoot a few additional images.

As we were getting ready to go down towards the ocean where everyone else was shooting, we noticed a spot just in front of the resort where the sun was just starting to peek between the buildings.  It was some really beautiful light which looked amazing on Amy.

Canon 5D mkII 70-200mm f2.8L IS II iso 400 1/400 @ f2.8

Down by the water taking advantage of the early morning light shooting out towards the ocean.

Canon 5D mkII 70-200mm f2.8L IS II iso 400 1/6400 @ f2.8

Amy threw on a blue kimono-style robe for a few final shots.  I've used this robe for a few studio shots in the past.  Never thought about getting it wet before, but that helped to keep the robe strategically positioned over Amy's chest to keep from accidentally exposing her to onlookers. :-)

Canon 5D mkII 70-200mm f2.8L IS II iso 400 1/1250 @ f2.8

After our final shots with Amy, Art and I started shooting with Candice. Andrew was there again to help us with a California Sunbounce mini for fill.

Canon 5D mkII 70-200mm f2.8L IS II iso 400 1/2000 @ f3.2

Canon 5D mkII 70-200mm f2.8L IS II iso 400 1/2000 @ f3.2

We finished up shooting by the water and moved up to the barbecue area in front of the hotel to do some headshots against some hibiscus flowers.  

In the shot above, you can see that Art made the smart choice and stood on the stone wall to get the shot he wanted.  Being shorter than Art, I got the bright idea to climb up onto the grilling area in the middle in order to get a higher shooting angle on Candice.

Big. Mistake.

In the middle of leaping from the rock wall to the top of the grilling area I heard a loud ripping sound and suddenly felt a draft. I reached behind me to check and yup, it happened...

Wardrobe Malfunction.

There I was, standing up on top of this grill, mid-morning on one of the most populated beaches on Maui and I had torn the back of my shorts wide open.

Sigh.......  Third day of the workshop and I think I'm 0 for 3 at this point. ;-)

Of course when you have a limited amount of time with an amazing model like Candice in front of your camera, you don't want to waste time worrying about things like ripping your own clothes to shreds.  So we kept on shooting until we nailed the shot.

Canon 5D mkII 70-200mm f2.8L IS II iso 400 1/400 @ f2.8

Once we got it, I climbed back down and we looked around for other places to shoot, with me trying to hide the gaping hole in the back of my shorts from public view as best I could.  It's a bit difficult to scout locations when you are constantly trying to keep your backside away from people.

Since the sun was pretty high up in the sky by this time and it was getting rather hot, we moved to the indoors to continue shooting.

Thankfully, our makeup artist Stephanie had an emergency sewing kit, which she brought up to the suite right away so I could quickly make repairs to my shorts.

Thank you Stephanie for saving my ass - literally!

Canon 5D mkII 70-200mm f2.8L IS II iso 400 1/200 @ f2.8

Started our next set shooting through the curtains, intentionally blowing out the background for a high key look. We bounced a 580EX off the wall for fill.

Being that we were shooting on the top floor of the hotel, the wind was pretty strong and it kept whipping around the kimono and Candice's hair.  Seeing how the wind whipped Candice's hair around her face gave me an idea.  I found a couple of knives in the kitchen and very carefully handed them to Candice.

It's always a good idea to check and make sure your model is in a good mood before handing her edged weapons.

We changed up the position of the fill light by spreading out the Sunbounce fabric on the floor in front of Candice and bouncing the 580EX into that.  This lit Candice from underneath for a slightly edgy look.

Took a bunch of shots, trying different angles and positions.  The most effective shot came when the wind whipped Candice's hair around so that you could just see her eyes. To me it came across as a sexier take on Japanese horror films like Ju-On and Ringu, so in post production that's the direction I went in.

Canon 5D mkII 70-200mm f2.8L IS II iso 400 1/160 @ f4

Stay tuned for Part IV - Private shoots.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Glamour, Beauty & The Nude 2013 Maui Workshop Part II - to Hana and back

Canon 5D mkII 70-200mm f2.8L IS II iso 200 1/1600 @ f2.8

Day 2 - Got up at 4:00 am.  Being the only workshop attendee that was from Maui, I chose to go home each night instead of getting a hotel room in Kaanapali.  It saved money, but because I live in Central Maui, that meant an hour drive to get to West Maui in the morning, and another hour drive at night to get home everyday after the workshop.

Shoot, who needs sleep? ;-)

Made the Starbucks coffee run for the models and makeup artist and met up with everyone in the main suite at 6am.

We started off on our trip to Hana, making a brief stop in Kahului for breakfast and bio-breaks at McDonalds and Jamba Juice.

Even though I live on Maui, I can count on one hand the number of times I've been to Hana. The last time I was there was at Rolando's workshop many years ago. So I was still relatively unfamiliar as to exactly where everything was. ;-)

We stopped briefly at the Halfway to Hana point for a bio-break and to pick up snacks.

Finally arrived at Waianapanapa State Park to shoot at the Black Sand Beach.  As we got our gear set up, Stephanie went right to work putting the finishing touches on the model's makeup.

We started down a trail to the left of the parking lot intending to get down to the beach, but ended up by the caves instead (oops, sorry Art). So we had to follow the trail as it looped around back uphill to the parking lot.  As we got back to the parking lot, our model noticed a small sign next to the trail we had just gone down on - "Loop Trail"


Like I said, I haven't been to Hana in a while...

Returning to the parking lot, we then headed down the correct trail to get to the beach.

Finally down on the Black Sand Beach, we started shooting with our model. At this point, it was about 10:30 am, and the sun was pretty high up in the sky.  Plus the sun kept going in and out of the clouds which made getting a deep blue sky behind the model quite challenging.

Canon 5D mkII 85mm f1.8 iso 200 1/2000 @ f2.0

Canon 5D mkII 85mm f1.8 iso 200 1/4000 @ f1.8

Andrew helped us out by holding a mini California Sunbounce reflector.

I really like the quality of light you get from the California Sunbounce reflectors.  Rolando mentioned that you can think of the different sizes of Sunbounces as equivalent softbox sizes -  a Micro Sunbounce would be a medium softbox, a Mini would be a large, and the Pro would be your extra large, full length softbox.

Canon 5D mkII 70-200mm f2.8L IS II iso 200 1/1600 @ f2.8

On the right hand side of this behind the scenes shot, there is a small cave that you can go into.  

We mainly used this as a changing room for the models, but it would make a nice shooting location as well. Need to think of something interesting to shoot in there for next time.

Canon 5D mkII 70-200mm f2.8L IS II iso 200 1/1600 @ f2.8

During our shoot, the model pointed out a spot with some waves crashing on some rocks further down the coast that she thought would make for a nice shot with a custom made dress that she had brought.

So we hiked along a trail to the left of the bay until we reached the location which was far away from the Black Sand Beach.  Didn't realize how far we had walked until I turned around.

At this point, the little voice in my head was going "You do realize - when we are done, we have to hike all the way BACK there....."

Oh boy.

Once we had our model balanced safely on the rocks, Andrew climbed out to the edge of the water to hold our fill light - 2 Canon 580ex flashes on a lightstand triggered with Phottix Odins.

In retrospect, using a more powerful studio strobe like the Hensels would have made it easier to overpower the sun, but because Andrew was balancing himself on some rocks to hold the light high enough for the angle we needed, it was better (and safer) to go with the 580s instead.  Not a good idea to risk dropping thousands of dollars of lighting gear into the ocean - especially when it's not your own.

An additional benefit of using the relatively lightweight light stand with two 580 flash units on it was that it also made it easier to position Andrew out of the frame to the right and hold the lightstand horizontally over his head to push the light in closer to the model. This made it much easier in post production as I just had to Photoshop out a light stand agains the sky as opposed to a whole person against the sky, water and rocks.

Used the High Speed Sync function of the 580s to allow shooting at 1/500 to help lower the exposure of the sky. While it wasn't enough to overpower the sun completely, it did give us enough color in the sky that could be enhanced later in post.

Canon 5D mkII 24-70mm f2.8L iso 200 1/500 @ f8

Just as we had completed this one shot, it was already time to rejoin the group at the parking lot.

By the time we hiked back to the parking lot, we were totally exhausted (the uphill climb to get to the parking lot was the worst, especially carrying a backpack full of photo gear) - another reason for using the small Canon 580s instead of the heavier power pack and studio flash.

We had lunch at Hana Ranch Restaurant, then drove to Oheo Gulch (what the tourists call "Seven Sacred Pools).

Our assigned model for the afternoon session was Devon. At first we tried hiking up the trail to get up to Waimoku Falls, but due to the time constraints (it is a 4 mile round trip hike after all) we decided to go down to the lower pools and coastline instead.

Stopped for a bit along the trail as the light was pretty nice for shooting.  Natural light with the sun backlighting her hair - used a flash on-camera at the lowest eTTL setting to add just a bit of sparkle to her eyes.

Canon 5D mkII 85mm f1.8 iso 400 1/200 @ f1.8

The lower pools were pretty crowded with tourists, so we picked out a spot overlooking the ocean and worked on some shots with the sarong flying in the wind.

Canon 5D mkII 70-200mm f2.8L IS II  iso 400 1/1000 @ f4.0

Because it was very windy at this spot, didn't want to chance using a Sunbounce reflector and have it flying off into the ocean (and possibly taking one of us along with it).  Instead for our fill light we again used 2 Canon 580ex flashes triggered with Phottix Odins.

Always great to have a VAL (Voice Activated Lightstand) on location shoots.  Still trying to think of a good caption for this one, Art. ;-)

Canon 5D mkII 70-200mm f2.8L IS II  iso 400 1/6400 @ f2.8

Really liked the color of the sarong against the blue sky and greenery.

Canon 5D mkII 70-200mm f2.8L IS II  iso 400 1/1000 @ f8

Once everyone gathered in the parking lot again, it was time to head back. Rolando and Heather were a little delayed since they were brave enough to make it all the way up to Waimoku Falls to get their shot.   Maybe next time I'll attempt it. ;-)

Now whenever I've gone to Hana, I've always returned home via the same road I came in on.  You can return to Central Maui that way, or you can continue along on the road through Hana, which continues around the southeastern part of Maui until you end up in Kula, on the slopes of Haleakala. From there you can follow the highway back down to Central Maui, then back to Lahaina.

Going in this direction meant not having to deal with all the twists and turns that you face driving in on the road to Hana.  However, it also meant driving over miles and miles of unpaved road.  I drive a Toyota Prius, which is NOT the best car to be driving on those roads (everyone else had 4 wheel drive) especially when having 3 other passengers in the car.  Got pretty dicey at some points, but thankfully we made it.  We even had time to stop for a group shot.

Back on paved road again - whew!

We got back to Kahului, stopped at Burger King to pick up a quick bite, and made the trip back to Kaanapali.  Everyone was pretty fried at this point and by the time I got back home, I realized I'd probably only be able to have about 2-3 hours of sleep until the start of Day 3.

Might have to rethink getting a hotel room in Kaanapali next year....

Stay tuned for Day 3 - The Wardrobe Malfunction.