I just finished reading Joe McNally's book "The Hot Shoe Diaries" which was recently put out in paperback, well, more like trade paperback. For those of you who don't know, Joe is a big-dog. A monster photographer who shoots and has shot for just about everybody. He's also completely obsessed with speedlites.
Now a few notes about the book before I continue. If you're interested in expanding your knowledge of using speedlites to their fullest extent, and like to read about how other photographers think about tackling challenging shoots, then it's a great book to read. If you're a big speedlite guy already and have read everything on the wonderful Strobist website by David Hobby, then you probably know most of what Joe is going to say. Also, it's a little too brand crazy for me. I know he shoots Nikon and uses Lumadyne gear, but you don't have to talk about everything by it's model number. You don't have to say "I used a Lastolite Tri-fold to fill" every time. Honestly, just say 'gold reflector' please. Seriously, the book might as well say "Paid for by Nikon" in large friendly letters on the cover. That's not to take away from the content, which is great, but rather a style thing. Maybe it's because I'm a Canon guy.
Ok, now that that is out of the way. The one major thing I took away from the book is that Joe likes to get his pictures 'in the camera', and he does. If he's got to setup 47 speedlites inside and around an Air Force transport plane, well, that's what he's gonna do. On environmental portraits, he'll setup 2-3 speedlites on the subject, and then another in the tree to the left with a warming filter and then a 4th zoomed in to 200mm with a cooling filter coming from the window across the street to rim light the girl. Many times he mentions that this is so he doesn't have to sit in front of a computer all day. He's a 'now' guy, he want's to get it right at the shoot and not have to 'fix' it later in photoshop. Maybe it's because he used to shoot film where you HAD to get it right in the camera. Either way, it's certainly a valid way to go and his results are first-class, but it got me thinking that I couldn't be more different on the now-later scale.
When I'm at a shoot, mostly what I'm trying to get is good raw material. As you can see in the before/after photos of Phil from a couple days ago, It didn't really matter to me that Phil was a stop or two darker than the background. Or that the background was probably a stop hotter than I would have liked. As long as I could finagle with the RAW file to export one version with the background pulled back and another with Phil pulled up and then mask the two together, then I'm fine. Mixed light temperatures, no problem. As long as there is luminance data and nothing important blown out, I can work with it. Now that's not to say that I wouldn't like to have it be better right out of the camera, everyone would. But what I am saying is that I wouldn't take the 5 or 10 minutes of my time in the middle of the shoot to setup multiple lights with correction gels and stands and line of sight to make the TTL signals work and everything else, just to make it easier for me later after the shoot. I worry too much about losing Phil's attention and altering the flow of the shoot.
Maybe it's because I tend to take (I hope) really intimate portraits. I want my subjects to let their guard down so I can capture something special. In fact today I got an email from a reader asking how I do just that. I told him it takes time, sometimes a lot of it. It's talking and shooting and about the energy between the two of you. It's a dance, and it takes time to earn your partners trust. That 5 minutes, hell, even a 10 second lens change, is sometimes enough to set me back with the subject.
Plus he carries like 6 speedlights and a truck-full of diffusers andsilks and c-stands with him. To me that's kinda defeating the idea of a 3"x2"x7" battery powered speedlite. Having my assistant shoot a speedlite though a diffuser is fancy lighting for me on location most of the time.
It may also have to do with the fact that I don't mind sitting in front of the computer editing. I have much more control and none of the time pressure. I can go out, spend my time at the shoot interacting with the subject and then return home with the booty in the form of 3GB or so of RAW data that I then get to play with. Also I'm usually not handing my clients a whole slew of images. I select what I think are the best and those get the attention. Maybe 5 out of 200, and I may take 2 hours or more playing with that single image to mold it into what I wanted it to be. I also will try to do 3-4 different setups in the 20 minutes I've got with the subject. I'm not sure that would be possible with these fancy setups, unless you had 48 lights and had them all setup from the get-go. Damn, I think he actually DOES have 48 lights.
All of this said, I learned a lot in the book. It certainly makes me want to play with my speedlites more. I think some playtime is in order. Maybe just maybe, I'd be better off if I were a little more towards the center of the scale than I am now.
Just found this Canon/Nikon TTL system comparison. Might be handy for some people: http://www.planetneil.com/tangents/2009/03/25/ttl-flash-canon-and-nikon/